‘The School for Husbands’ by Molière – Molière and Richard Wilbur, A Match Made in Literary Heaven


‘The School for Husbands’ by Molière     (1661)  76 pages        Translated from the French by Richard Wilbur


Among the great pleasures of literature (at least for me) are the translations of the plays of 17th century French playwright Molière by the poet Richard Wilbur. With Wilbur’s light touch with the verses, these plays sparkle and shine. Moliere’s playful and lusty wit are on full display.

‘The School for Husbands’ is typical Molière. A young woman outfoxes the old stern wretch who intends to be her husband and instead she finds true young love. Molière gives the plot away early in the play. It doesn’t matter. it is still great fun.

I’m one of those who think there is still a much-needed place in writing for verse, especially light verse. The verse here has the studied carelessness that makes it a delight. Here we have simple rhythmic verses that advance the story.

Here is the old wretch Sganarelle describing his treatment of his young ward Isabelle:

But my charge, be it known,

Shall live by my desires, and not her own;

She’ll dress in serge, in simple browns and grays,

And not wear black except on holidays;

Like any prudent girl, she’ll stay indoors

And occupy herself with household chores;”

His brother Ariste has a very different view of how he will treat his young ward Lèonor:

As you like, but still I say

That we should school the young in a pleasant way,

And chide them very gently when they’ve erred,

Lest virtue come to seem a hateful word,

I’ve raised Leonor by maxims such as these;

To all her young desires I’ve given consent –

of which, thank Heaven, I’ve no cause to repent.”

Ariste has some advice for Sganarelle which is of course not followed:

Farewell. Do change your views and realize

That locking up one’s wife can be unwise.”

When the man is mean and tyrannical, a woman’s main tool is deception. In Molière, it’s great fun to watch the woman and her chosen mate, Valère , outwit and deceive her overbearing fool of a husband or guardian.

For the young suitor Valère :

A woman closely watched is halfway won,

And a harsh husband or a crabbed sire

Is just what any lover should desire.”

In short, if you have hopes of Isabelle,

Her guardian’s cranky ways may serve you well.”

That Richard Wilbur takes such liberties with translating the rhymes is part of the fun.

The final lines of the play are by Lisette who is a maid to one of the young women in an aside to the audience:

D’you know any churlish husbands? If you do,

Send them to us, we’ll teach them a thing or two.”

I have read several of the ten Molière plays which Richard Wilbur has translated, and each has been a delight.


Grade:    A



2 responses to this post.

  1. Three cheers for Moliere!

    Liked by 1 person


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