Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1742
First produced: 1666
First published: 1666
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Farce
Time of work: Seventeenth century
Sganarelle, a woodcutter
Martine, his wife
Geronte, a gentleman of means
Lucinde, his daughter
Valere, his attendant
Leandre, Lucinde's lover
This drama, ordinarily considered one of Molière's less important works, nevertheless demonstrates his ability to ridicule the fads of his day, in this case the vogue, not wholly extinct three centuries later, of showing obsequious deference to men of science no matter what their real qualifications may be. Exposing the fact that ignorance often hides behind a smattering of superficial learning, he levels his barbs against the doctors of his time. The comedy was an immediate success and has always been popular. Sixty-five years after its first presentation, Henry Fielding, English novelist and dramatist, adapted the basic plot in a play presented at the Drury Lane Theatre under the title of THE MOCK DOCTOR; OR, THE DUMB LADY CUR'D.
Sganarelle, a faggot gatherer, was driven to extremes because Martine, his nagging wife, accused him of always being drunk instead of working, and finally he took a stick and beat her soundly. When their neighbor M. Robert sought to interfere, Martine boxed his ears and declared she liked to have her husband beat her. But as Sganarelle went off to the woods after promising to bring back a hundred faggots that day, Martine itched for wifely revenge.
Geronte's daughter Lucinde had feigned illness and loss of speech in order to escape marriage to a wealthy suitor her father had chosen for her; she herself was in love with Leandre, who returned her love. Her father had summoned many physicians to treat her, but all had failed to find a cure. At last Geronte sent his attendants, Valere and Lucas, in search of a specialist.
When they encountered the offended Martine and confided in her the reason for their journey, she saw in their search an opportunity to get even with her husband. She told them that he was a marvelous curer of any illness, a doctor who pretended to be a woodcutter who dressed absurdly and pretended complete ignorance of his art, so that it might actually be necessary to thrash him violently to gain from him admission of his real talents. Her boasts of the wonderful cures he had performed so impressed her listeners that they set off in immediate search of this medical prodigy. They found Sganarelle in the wood, relaxing with his bottle, and, being rebuffed by him after their first ceremonious introduction, they thrashed him severely and finally forced him to say he was a doctor and to follow them to see Lucinde.
The attendants persuaded Geronte that Sganarelle, though he loved a joke and seemed to be off his head, was really the greatest doctor in the world. When Sganarelle was introduced to Geronte, he inquired, as he himself had been asked, if the other man were a doctor. Geronte replied that he was not, whereupon Sganarelle, following the pattern applied to him, gave him a sound thrashing. The attendants thereupon explained to the bewildered Geronte that this was merely an example of the great doctor's eccentricity, a sure sign of his greatness.
When Geronte brought in his daughter, she replied to Sganarelle's questions by signs, gestures, and grunts. From these noises Sganarelle diagnosed Lucinde as dumb, a malady caused by loss of speech because of an impediment in the action of her tongue, on which subject Aristotle said—thus and so. Using some learned-sounding Latin words which meant nothing at all, he prescribed that the patient be put to bed and given plenty of bread soaked in wine; his explanation was that in this manner parrots were induced to speak.
Geronte, overwhelmed by the brilliance of Sganarelle's diagnosis and vast medical knowledge, felt absolute confidence in the ability of this eccentric to cure his daughter of her strange action. What pleased Sganarelle most was the generous fee Geronte gave him.
Leandre came to the fake physician to ask his help in carrying out a plan by which the young man hoped to see Lucinde; but Sganarelle pretended to be beyond influence in such matters, until the lover offered him a handsome fee. Leandre then told him that Lucinde's illness was put on and that its cause was not the brain, the spleen, or intestines, but love. Sganarelle and the young man plotted to disguise Leandre as an apothecary's assistant so that he could speak with Lucinde. Sganarelle also confided that he was not really a doctor but had been forced to appear one in spite of himself, for a reason he did not know. Once the error had spread, however, everyone had taken him for a man of great reputation, and so he had made up his mind to stick to his new calling, for it paid very well.
As if to substantiate his story, Thibaut and his son Perrin, country fellows who had heard of Sganarelle's powers, asked him to prescribe for Thibaut's ailing wife; but Sganarelle gave no ear to their troubles until they gave him gold crowns. As a cure, he prescribed a piece of cheese, which, he said, was made of mixed gold, coral, pearls, and other precious things, and must be used as directed. He also warned them that if the patient died they should bury her as decently as possible.
Geronte reported to Sganarelle that his patient had grown worse since taking his remedy. When the nurse brought in Lucinde, Sganarelle asked his disguised assistant to feel her pulse, meanwhile keeping Geronte occupied in conversation in order to keep him from overhearing the lovers' plans. But Geronte caught a few words spoken by Lucinde and exclaimed in surprise and in praise of the doctor. Lucinde approached her father and acknowledged that she had now recovered her speech, but only to tell him that she would marry no one except Leandre and that nothing would shake her resolution.
Geronte stubbornly insisted that she must marry Horace, the man of his choice, that very evening. When Lucinde declared she would rather die, Sganarelle stepped in and assured the father that her actions were merely a sign of additional madness and that the apothecary was the man who could effect a cure. Summoning Leandre, and, sprinkling his instructions with Latin polysyllables to mislead the others, he urged the lover to fly with Lucinde immediately. Sganarelle engaged Geronte in conversation while Lucinde and Leandre made their escape. When their flight was reported to the irate father, he threatened Sganarelle with hanging for aiding in his daughter's elopement.
In the midst of this predicament Martine overtook her husband. On being told he was about to hang for helping his master's daughter elope, she bewailed the fact but added she would have been somewhat comforted if only he had finished chopping their wood. Sganarelle told her to leave, but she said she preferred to stay and see him hanged.
At that critical moment Lucinde and Leandre returned to confront Geronte with the news that Leandre's uncle had just died and named the young man heir to a considerable fortune. Geronte, overjoyed at the turn of events which would bring him a rich son-in-law, gave the couple his blessing. Martine insisted that since Sganarelle was not to be hanged he could thank her for having achieved the honor of being a doctor; but Sganarelle pointed out that this distinction had gained him innumerable thwacks with a stick. He forgave the beatings, however, because of his new dignity as a doctor. But he took occasion to remind his shrewish wife that henceforth she must show greater respect for a man of his consequence, one whom the world now looked up to and honored—in spite of himself.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
Molière was France's greatest writer of comic drama, and his forte was farce. THE DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF (LE MEDECIN MALGRE LUI) is one of his best pure farces. In this play, he takes to task two issues with special contemporary relevance: medical venality and the medical mystique. It was as much a fact of life in Molière's time as it is now that doctors are more concerned about money than about the welfare of patients. Thus, when Sganarelle accedes to the role forced upon him, he does so out of greed, rather than for any other motive. Furthermore, he is able to pull off the charade because of the general cultural attitude toward physicians—a religious respect for the doctor's presumably arcane knowledge. Hence, Sganarelle can indulge his most outrageously eccentric fantasies in the course of deceiving—and bilking—Geronte while pretending (as an authentic doctor would) to cure Lucinde, all the while abetting the latter to elope with the mate of her choice.
In the course of these wildly hectic machinations, Molière manages to assail not only the medical profession but also its gullible clients, as well as social climbers, materialists, impractical lovers, faithless servants, and many other social types endemic to his times and persistent in ours. Such, after all, is the impetus and goal of satire, whether it be couched in Molière's farce, in irony, or in some other comedic form. The point of this kind of drama is to expose human folly and social foibles—a feat which Molière accomplishes with considerable finesse. He makes Sganarelle out to be as foolish as Geronte, and Leandre hardly lags far behind. Lucinde at first appears to have some reasoned craft behind her actions, but finally she is revealed to be as vulnerable, and as crafty, as the rest.
THE DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF is not usually included among Molière's masterpieces—TARTUFFE (1664), THE MISANTHROPE (1666), and THE MISER (1668); however, THE DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF shares many of the qualities of the presumably greater works. It is superbly crafted as drama; it demonstrates keen insight into character; it portrays universal character types; and it maintains an unflagging sense of the comic. Although Molière wrote some of his plays—TARTUFFE, for example—in verse, THE DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF is written in prose, but without detriment to the play or its pointed barbs. All in all, the play has retained its acerbic wit over the years remarkably well, and Molière's reputation is in no way diminished by its continuing popularity.