Comedy in the light and dark
To appreciate Molière's comic genius you should probably see the plays performed. Reading them, you can get the idea they're lightweight, not much above the average episode of Three's Company, but with fewer jokes.
You've got to see actors taking full advantage of the satiric nuance in the lines, which you might otherwise read over too quickly. You've got to get the full satirical impact of his plots that can be summarized too easily in modern high-concept style: "a crass merchant looks ridiculous as he takes on airs of being a gentleman", or "a religious hypocrite schemes to take advantage of a deluded friend", and so on.
His first short play to draw attention, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659, translated into English variously as Such Foolish Affected Ladies, The Affected Damsels, The Precious Maidens Ridiculed and The Pretentious Ladies) might further this impression if you happen to read it first in a Molière collection, as it is rather superficial. But the central idea of the drama, the puncturing of social pretension, would flower to great effect in the works to come.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in Paris but adopted the name of Molière as a young man when he left the French capital to tour the provinces as an actor and director in The Illustrious Theater, a company he had founded with his lover and her brother. He also began writing during these years. Eventually they returned to Paris where they bombed for another two years but in they won royal favour with one of the early light plays Molière wrote and performed in: The Doctor in Love (1658, but now lost). This established him as a popular playwright.
"Established" is perhaps the wrong word, as over the next thirteen years he was constantly at odds with the religious and aristocratic establishment who repeatedly shut down his irreverent plays, and even the theatres they played in. He suffered great personal and professional ups and downs during this time also, yet he maintained a fierce work schedule as actor, director and playwright. He also kept his popularity with the public and—fortunately for his survival—with the ruling monarch, Louis XIV, the revered Sun King.
Over the last thirteen years of his life he wrote and directed twenty-nine plays, including numerous works that have become classics and have influenced playwrights ever since—a pace of achievement equalled perhaps only by Shakespeare's two productive decades.
To accomplish this amid his political and personal hardships, Molière often recycled his jokes and the elements of his plots. Similar characters seem to pop up repeatedly in different guises—you'll notice the characters in Tartuffe even have identical names and roles to those in The Miser four years later. Nonetheless each play presents the characters with subtle differences and each is a masterly entertainment and satire in its own way.
Among the first plays to show Molière as a more serious satirist are The School for Husbands (1661) and The School for Wives (1662). They still rely greatly on farce for their entertaining effects, but may be seen as intermediate steps between Les Précieuses ridicules and what have become known as the "high comedies" to come.
Such as Tartuffe (1664), the classic Molière satire on hypocrisy in which a character uses the cover of religion for material gain. It was banned for five years in Paris.
At the highest level is The Misanthrope (1666). It has become known as Molière's most sophisticated play but at the time it was one of his least popular productions. In it he abandons broad comedy and romantic intrigue to present a more subtly witty and disturbing drama. More than a century after its debut, the play became recognized as revolutionary and today it's one of Molière's most popular dramas, a masterpiece combining tragedy and comedy, comparable to Shakespeare's "dark comedies", such as The Merchant of Venice or The Tempest.
The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1666) is a throwback to the farces and may have been a pastiche of some much earlier dramatic pieces by Molière. It might have been produced at this time to win back an audience for the more difficult Misanthrope. But it stands on its own as straight-ahead comedy, including some hilarious satire on the practice of medicine.
The Miser (1968) is the last of Molière's plays to mock the father of beleaguered and marriageable children, this time for his avarice.
If you've studied French, you probably know Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, (1670) as it's the one that schools like to teach to Anglophones. It's often translated as The Would-Be Gentleman, The Middle-Class Gentleman or The Tradesman as Gentleman (as if the more pointed The Bourgeois Gentleman might sound too political). It's a wickedly funny take on social ambitions in the French bourgeoisie...I mean, French middle class.
The Imaginary Invalid (1673), also known as The Hypochondriac, is another and sharper attack on the medical profession, as a hypochondriac schemes to get himself free doctoring by marrying his unwilling daughter to a medical student but ends up being admitted to the profession himself amid ridiculous pomp and Latin-sounding gibberish.
Coincidentally Molière himself was suffering a genuine lung ailment at this time. There's a great story that his wife and friends urged him to cancel his performance of the title role in The Imaginary Invalid, but he answered, "There are fifty poor workers who have only their daily wage to live on. What will become of them if the performance does not take place?"
During the play he had a hemorrhage and later that night he died.