L’ÉCOLE DES FEMMES (“SCHOOL OF WIVES”), 1662
L’école des Femmes is Arnolphe’s set of strict maximes du mariage for his ward Agnès whom he intends to marry. Those are intended to keep the girl a complete idiot so she would know no better than obey him. If this play was not a comedy, its plot, the story of an older man who pretty much “buys” a poor female child to raise her according to his ideal code of marital behavior with the intention to marry her later would be rather tragic. That kind of sordid story was not uncommon in the seventeenth century when families traded girls as if they were a commodity. By exposing that practice, the play raised a fierce controversy when it opened in December of 1662, but thanks to the protection of the young King, the play went on.
In the world of comedy though, Arnolphe is just a very ridiculous character, ruled by the fear of being cuckold, but whose evil plan is about to be derailed by a little accident at the balcony. Ignorant to the point that she thinks babies are conceived through the ear, Agnès relies on her instinct to react to situations. When one occurs that puts her in the presence of handsome Horace, of course she finds it “pleasant”! Indeed she is so pleased that she enthusiastically tells all about her encounter with the young beau to Arnolphe, who suffers like a devil at the narration… to our delight! In the end, after Arnolphe’s obsessive fear is ridiculed, the natural order of comedy is restored, and the ingénue marries the young man she fell in love with.