Although in some of Molière’s plays the protagonist is deceived because he is both egotistical and foolish, in more thoughtful works, such as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, it is an excess of virtue that makes him vulnerable. In Tartuffe, Orgon was obsessed by religion; in The Misanthrope, Alceste is obsessed by honesty.
The Misanthrope begins with a conventional opening dialogue between the central character, Alceste, and his friend, the easygoing Philinte, who is the raisonneur. In this scene, Alceste states his determination to speak nothing but the truth, and the horrified Philinte vainly attempts to warn him of the consequences. In society, Philinte points out, a little dishonesty is essential. Otherwise, there would be open warfare. Alceste, however, is adamant. The scenes that follow trace the consequences of his resolution, from the failure of a lawsuit to the loss of his beloved Célimène.
It is Célimène who is Alceste’s one irrationality. Ironically, he is in love with the most deceitful woman at court. As far as the play is concerned, Célimène fulfills the function of the trickster. Her only motivation, however, is a selfish one: She lies so as to accumulate as many admirers as possible. Obviously, she is, in her own way, as obsessive as Alceste, without the excuse of virtue. Therefore, it is not surprising that she is finally exposed through some carelessness about letters. Nevertheless, she dashes...
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Alceste has been called a misanthrope by many of his friends, and he takes a rather obstinate delight in the name. This characteristic leads him to quarrel heatedly with his good friend, Philinte, who accepts uncritically the frivolous manners of the day. When Philinte warmly embraces a chance acquaintance, as is customary, Alceste maintains that such behavior is hypocritical, especially since Philinte hardly knows him.
Philinte reminds Alceste that his lawsuit is nearly ready for trial, and that he will do well to moderate his attitude toward people in general. His opponents in the suit are doing everything possible to curry favor, but Alceste insults everyone he meets and makes no effort to win over the judges. Philinte also taunts Alceste on his love for Célimène, who, as a leader in society, is hypocritical most of the time. Alceste has to admit that his love cannot be explained rationally.
Oronte interrupts the quarrel by coming to visit Alceste, who is puzzled by a visit from suave and elegant Oronte. Oronte asks permission to read a sonnet he had lately composed, as he is anxious to have Alceste’s judgment of its literary merit. After affecting hesitation, Oronte reads his mediocre poem. Alceste at first hedges but then, too honest to give false praise, condemns the verses and even satirizes the poor quality of the writing. Oronte takes instant offense at this criticism, and a quarrel breaks out between them. Although the argument is indecisive, there are hints of a possible duel.
Alceste then calls on Célimène. As soon as he sees her, he begins perversely to upbraid her for her frivolous conduct and her hypocritical attitude toward other people. He points out that although Célimène could slander and ridicule with a keen wit and a barbed tongue while a person is absent, she is all flattery and attention when talking with that person. This attitude displeases Alceste.
The servant announces several callers, including Éliante. To Alceste’s dismay, they all sit down for an interminable conversation. The men take great delight in naming all their mutual acquaintances, for as each name is mentioned, Célimène makes unkind remarks. The only gentle person in the room is Éliante, whose good sense and kind heart are in striking contrast with Célimène’s caustic wit. Éliante is overshadowed, however, by the more brilliant Célimène. The men all declare they have nothing to do all day and each swears...
(The entire section is 1006 words.)