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Molière, comedies, chance and risk


Molière’s 1668 comedy L’Avare, or The Miser, takes place during a significant shift in the way that early modern Europeans thought about chance and risk. Staged at the same historical moment that Pascal, Huygens, and Leibnitz were developing the first foundations of probability mathematics, L’Avare conjures up an atmosphere of uncertainty, setting in opposition risk-takers and the risk-averse. As the characters encounter and debate the concepts of usury, life expectancy, gambling, and the risks of maritime travel, they grapple palpably with the consequences of an uncertain world in which Divine Providence can no longer be assumed—a new world in which assurance (the French term for both certainty and insurance) is sometimes granted by faith, but is also sold as a policy. Situated between the notion of Providence and the emerging science of probability, Harpagon the miser’s treasure consequently becomes a re-imagined theatrical touchstone for changing notions of faith and doubt, certainty and risk.