Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Célimène’s salon. Parisian apartment in which the wealthy widow Célimène holds receptions to which she invites distinguished guests, in the custom of wealthy Parisian women of the seventeenth century. At first, audiences assume that Célimène is merely another frivolous rich woman who passes her time hosting fancy parties and engaging in vapid conversations. However, she invites not merely superficial people, such as Philinte and Oronte, but also the rigidly outspoken young Alceste (the “misanthrope” of the play’s title), who is in love with her.
In the formal setting of the salon, Alceste discusses serious moral questions, such as honesty and ethics, while at the same time courting Célimène in a manner surprising for such a rich suitor. Instead of paying her traditional compliments, Alceste criticizes her for the types of guests whom she invites to her home and suggests that she should banish from her apartment men whose behavior is not becoming a woman as serious as herself. Célimène appreciates his unexpected frankness but is surprised when he insists that she leave her Paris to follow him to his country estate. She is unwilling to make such a sudden decision to leave her Parisian apartment. Alceste’s inflexibility causes this comedy to end in an unhappy ending for both characters. Alceste does not understand that he should be more sensitive to Célimène’s emotional needs and not simply...
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The Reign of Louis XIV
The maturing of Moliere's theatrical career took place during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, which lasted from 1643 to his death in 1715. The social, cultural, and political atmosphere that characterized the reign of Louis XIV was so distinct that it lent itself to the name of an era in French history. Louis XIV, the son of King Louis XIII, was born in 1638, officially ascending the throne at less than five years of age in 1643. As an adult, however, Louis XIV worked hard to consolidate his power and eventually became one of the most powerful monarchs in history. His policies were a combination of aggressive international warfare and a fostering of cultural arts such as architecture, theater, and dance at the domestic level. The "Louis XIV style" designated characteristic elements in the visual and decorative arts that developed during his reign, making Paris the European center of fashion, interior design, and architecture.
Seventeenth-Century French Theater
The reign of Louis XIV fostered the development of the theatrical arts, and Moliere's career was largely dependent on the direct patronage of the king. During the seventeenth century, Paris held three main theaters. The first permanent theater to be built in Paris was the Theatre de l'Hotel de Bourgogne, which, after 1610, housed the theater company known as The King's Players. In 1634, the Theatre du Marais was created on the site of a tennis...
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Comedy of Manners
The term comedy of manners refers to a play that focuses on satirizing social customs and rules of etiquette among an elite class of the time period and society in which it is written. The comedy of manners is characterized by witty dialogue and a farcical plot revolving around scandalous love affairs with a cast of characters who are generally hypocritical and insincere and concerned with trivial matters of social conduct. Moliere brought the comedy of manners to new heights of sophistication, which inspired playwrights of the English Restoration, such as William Wycherley and William Congreve. Walker asserts that The Misanthrope is "probably the world's greatest 'comedy of manners.'"
The dialogue of The Misanthrope is written in the form of alexandrine verse, which became the standard verse form in French poetry. The alexandrine line of verse has twelve syllables, the major stresses falling on the sixth and last syllables, and is a versatile form suitable for a variety of poetic expressions. Originally used in a classic French collection of romantic verses in the twelfth century, the alexandrine was revitalized in the sixteenth century and, by the seventeenth century of Moliere's time, was a predominant verse form for drama and narrative poetry. Although it has primarily been used in French literature, the alexandrine line is referred to in English verse as "iambic hexameter."...
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Compare and Contrast
1645-1715: The reign of King Louis XIV is characterized by the exercise of near absolute sovereign authority.
1715-1789: The reigns of King Louis XV and King Louis XVI witness the waning power of the French monarchy, which culminates in the French Revolution.
1789-1799: The French Revolution of 1789, partly inspired by the American Revolution of 1776, initiates the end of the French monarchy. The former King Louis XVI is executed in 1793. The new government becomes known as the First Republic.
1799-1815: Napoleon Bonaparte rules France, naming himself emperor in 1804.
1815-1848: France returns to monarchical rule with the reigns of King Louis XVIII (1815-1824), King Charles X (1824-1830), and King Louis-Phillip (1830-1848).
1848-1852: The Revolution of 1848 results in the formation of the Second Republic and in the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (the nephew of the original Napoleon) to the presidency.
1852-1870: After staging a coup, Louis-Napoleon takes the title of emperor of France. In the Revolution of 1870, Louis-Napoleon is deposed, and citizens demand the formation of a Third Republic.
1940-1945: France agrees to occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the Vichy government. The French Resistance movement, Free France, works to undermine German rule and the Vichy cooperation.
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Topics for Further Study
Moliere was a key figure in seventeenth-century French drama. Learn more about other areas of French literature in the seventeenth-century, such as poetry, fiction, or nonfiction prose. Who are the key figures of the genre, and what are some of their major works? What general concerns and literary values characterize French literature of this period?
Moliere's lifetime coincided with the Baroque period in the arts. Learn more about the Baroque period in art or architecture. What specific elements characterized Baroque? Who were some of the major artists and architects of the Baroque period, and what were some of their major works or buildings?
France in the seventeenth-century was involved in important international affairs throughout Europe. Learn more about the history of Europe during this period. What major conflicts occurred between France and other European nations during this era? What major events took place in international relations among European nations?
The era of seventeenth-century Restoration theater in England was directly influenced by the French theater of Moliere. Learn more about England during the Restoration and the historical events that led to the English Restoration. List the elements that you find as being a direct influence from Moliere.
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FACSEA video distributors offers the 1989 version of The Misanthrope, directed by Jacqueline Due, as part of its series collection Moliere: Plaisir du Theatre, which includes productions of five other Moliere plays.
The video entitled Moliere is a fictionalized dramatic production of the life of Moliere, based on the biographical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, which focuses on the social and political controversy surrounding Moliere's theatrical career.
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What Do I Read Next?
L'Ecole des Femmes (1662; The School for Women), by Moliere, was a popular success in its initial production but created controversy that lasted for over a year. The story concerns a man who, afraid of the power of mature women, opts to marry an inexperienced young woman only to find himself at her mercy.
Tartuffe (1667), by Moliere, was so controversial that it was cancelled shortly after its first run and not performed publicly again until years later. Tartuffe is now considered among Moliere's masterpieces and is the most popular choice of his plays for student productions.
Le Malade Imaginaire (1673; The Hypochondriac), by Moliere, starred, in its initial production, Moliere himself as the hypochondriac who is afraid of doctors. He had written the part to suit the cough from tuberculosis he suffered but collapsed on stage during the fourth performance and died several hours later.
The Plain Dealer (1676), by William Wycherley, is an English comedy of manners of the Restoration period, frequently compared to Moliere's The Misanthrope. It presents a crudely expressed, harsh satire of greed among the upper classes.
Phedre (1677), by Jean Racine, is the masterpiece of the great seventeenth-century tragic playwright. It concerns a woman who is hopelessly in love with her stepson.
The Importance of Being Ernest (1895), by Oscar Wilde, is an...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bolt, Ranjit, trans., Moliere, The Misanthrope, A New Version, Oberon Books, 1998.
Coward, David, "Introduction," in Moliere: The Miser and Other Plays, Penguin Books, 1959, pp. vnviii, xv, xx-xxii.
Dromgoole, Nicholas, "Introduction," in Moliere: The Misanthrope, A New Version, translated by Ranjit Bolt, Oberon Books, 1998, pp. 6, 8-9, 14.
Gaines, James F., and Michael S. Koppisch, eds, Approaches to Teaching Moliere's Tartuffe and Other Plays, Modern Language Association of America, 1995, p. ix.
Horowitz, Louise K., "Oh, Those Black Bile Blues: Teaching Le Misanthrope," in Approaches to Teaching Moliere's Tartuffe and Other Plays, edited by James F. Gaines and Michael S. Koppisch, Modern Language Association of America, 1995, p. 83.
Lalande, Roxanne Decker, Intruders in the Play World: The Dynamics of Gender in Moliere's Comedies, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996, p. 147.
Lewis, D. B. Wyndham, Moliere: The Comic Mask, Coward-McCann, Inc, 1959, p. 89.
Nurse, Peter Hampshire, Moliere and the Comic Spirit, Librarie Droz, 1991, pp. 108, 114.
Walker, Hallam, Moliere, Twayne, 1990, pp. 89, 98, 100-101, 147, 149, 153, 168-169.
Webster, Margaret, "Introduction," in Moliere, translated by Miles Malleson, Coward-McCann Publishers, 1950, p. v.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Gossman, Lionel. Men and Masks: A Study of Molière. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963. Divides Molière’s plays into two groups: those, like The Misanthrope, that reach a social stalemate and those, like Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671), that transcend that apparent dead end. Includes an entire chapter on The Misanthrope.
Guicharnaud, Jacques. Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Very useful collection that treats The Misanthrope in the context of Molière’s other plays, of other theatrical and comedic traditions (including Charlie Chaplin), and as a supremely experimental work.
Knutson, Harold C. The Triumph of Wit: Molière and Restoration Comedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988. Considers Molière’s influence on Restoration comedy in England and concludes that, rather than excessive English borrowing from Molière, both sorts of comedy sprang from similar social circumstances.
Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Molière: The Comic Mask. New York: Coward-McCann, 1959. A rich description of Molière’s life and works that immerses readers in the world of seventeenth century France. Sees The Misanthrope as the greatest of his works and the one closest to his heart....
(The entire section is 224 words.)