Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094
Argan is the worst sort of hypochondriac. Each day sees him trying some sort of new drug, and as a result the doctor and the apothecary can exist almost exclusively on their profits from Argan. Toinette, his maidservant, is certain that there is absolutely nothing the matter with her master, but she tries in vain to persuade him not to worry about his health. He refuses to listen to her, determined to be an invalid.
He is encouraged in his supposed illness by his doctor and by Béline, his second wife, who uses his weakness to further her schemes to get his money. Because the law says that a second wife cannot inherit, it is essential to Béline that Argan make a settlement on her while he still lives. To that end also she tries to get him to place his two daughters in a convent, so that they cannot interfere or claim money for themselves.
Argan has plans for his older daughter, Angélique. He intends to force her betrothal to his doctor’s son in order to have a doctor in the family. He tells the girl that a dutiful daughter will take a husband useful to her father, but Angélique, who loves a young man named Cléante, begs her father not to force her to marry Thomas Diafoirus, the doctor’s son. Argan is firm, however, because the young man will also inherit a large sum of money from his father and another from his uncle, the apothecary. If Angélique will not obey his wishes, he threatens to place her in a convent, as her stepmother wishes him to do. Toinette scolds him severely for trying to force his daughter to marry against her wishes, but he will not be moved. Toinette, wishing to help Angélique, gets word to Cléante that his beloved is to be married off to someone else.
Cléante disguises himself as the friend of Angélique’s singing master and tells Argan that he was sent to give her a lesson. Toinette pretends to change her mind and sympathizes with Argan’s position regarding the marriage. In that way she can offer to guard Angélique, while in reality giving the young lovers an opportunity to be alone together.
While pretending to be the teacher, Cléante witnesses the meeting between Thomas and Angélique. Thomas is a great boob of a boy who quotes memorized speeches to Argan, Angélique, and Béline. His father, the doctor, is quite proud that Thomas, always a little slow in learning, follows blindly the opinions of the ancients, not accepting such new medical discoveries, for example, as the thesis that blood circulates through the system.
Poor Angélique knows that she could never marry such a stupid oaf. She begs her father at least to give her time to become acquainted with Thomas, but the most he will give her is four days. At the end of that period, she must either marry Thomas or go into a convent. In order to be assured of Argan’s money, Béline continues to plead with him to choose the convent for his daughter.
Argan’s brother, Béralde, calls on him and also pleads Angélique’s cause. He thinks it wicked to force her to marry against her wishes, and he knows that Argan is not really ill and does not need a doctor in the family. In fact, he knows that the doctor will soon cause his brother’s death by the constant “drenching” of his abdomen. Béralde sends the medicines away, whereupon the doctor renounces his patient and predicts his death within four days. The apothecary cancels his contract to give his nephew a marriage settlement, and neither of the professionals will be soothed by Argan’s protestations that it is his brother and not he who denounces them and their treatments. Argan believes that he will surely die without their attention.
Toinette and Béralde decide to trick the hypochondriac. Toinette disguises herself as a physician and tells Argan that his former doctor was entirely mistaken in his diagnosis of Argan’s illness. His liver and bowels are not ailing, but his lungs are; he must cut off his arm and pluck out his eye because they are drawing off all his strength. Even Argan will not agree to such a drastic remedy. The poor man feels he is doomed.
Nevertheless, he will not relent concerning Angélique. Since the doctor and the apothecary broke the marriage contract, Angélique must go to a convent and become a nun. When Béralde accuses him of being influenced by his wife, Argan agrees to Toinette’s suggestion that he allow his wife to prove her love for him. Because Toinette knows Béline’s greed, she suggests that Argan act dead so as to see from her response that it is him she loves and not his money.
The plan is carried out. When Toinette cries to Béline that Argan was dead, the wife praises heaven that she is rid of her dirty, disgusting husband, and she tries to bribe Toinette to help her keep Argan’s death a secret until she can get certain papers and money into her possession. At that, Argan rises from his supposed deathbed to confront his wife, who flees in terror.
Toinette persuades Argan to try the same plan with his daughter, and when Angélique is told that her father is dead, she weeps for him. Cléante comes into the room and Angélique tells him that now she cannot marry him. Her father is dead, and she can make amends for her previous refusals to obey him only by carrying out his wishes now. Argan again rises from his deathbed, this time to bless his daughter for her faithfulness. Toinette and Béralde remind him of his daughter’s love and of his duty to reward her by allowing her to marry the man of her choice. Argan agrees that she can marry Cléante if he will become a doctor and minister to Argan’s needs. Cléante is willing, but Béralde has a better idea. Argan should become a doctor himself; then he could give himself constant attention. All that is needed is that he don cap and gown. He can then spout gibberish and make it sound learned. Thus, the matter is settled, and the old hypochondriac gives his blessing to the young lovers.