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Critics often note the universal appeal of Moliere's plays, evidenced by his international popularity throughout three and one-half centuries. As a "comedy of manners," however, The Misanthrope is also set in the historically and culturally specific context of the fashionable upperclass Parisian elite of the Louis XIV era in France. Many references to fashion, high society, and court life thus run throughout the play. A better understanding of the history and culture of these references will enhance the reader's appreciation of the play as social satire, as well as increasing awareness of the highly topical nature of The Misanthrope from the perspective of Moliere's contemporary audience.
Several specific references are made in The Misanthrope to the king, meaning King Louis XIV. In Act I, Oronte offers Alceste the possibility of benefiting from his influence with the king, letting it be known that:
I think my influence with the King
Is pretty widely known In everything
He's always proved—oh, quite sublimely kind
In Act III, Acaste, boasting of his all-around good fortune as a man who is "young, blueblooded, beautiful, and rich," adds that "the King adores me." Later in Act III, Arsinoe lets Alceste know that she may be able to use her influence in order to procure for him the favor of the king, mentioning, "I'd like the King to take some note of you." Throughout the play, characters mention the king only in order to brag about their influence and favor in his majesty's eyes and for the purpose of manipulating others to benefit their own interests. In addition to continually reminding others of their associations with the king, the characters in The Misanthrope also frequently mention their influence at court. The court of the seventeenth century did not simply refer to the court of law, but included the array of nobles, officeholders, and social elite with which the king surrounded himself in his royal palace. Moliere's characters are thus referring to this larger social-political milieu when they speak of court. And, although none of the scenes in the play is actually set at court, the presence of the court offstage, including the court of law, represents a locus of social power around which the relationships between the characters revolve.
While frequently bragging about their social connections by referring to their influence with the king and at court, various characters also simply refer to their presence in Versailles or the Louvre, both palaces of the king. For instance, in Act II, Clitandre enters, telling the others, "I've just been to the Louvre." Although it became a national art gallery in the eighteenth century, the Louvre in Paris was the royal residence and location of court from the mid-sixteenth-century through the first half of the reign of Louis XIV, during which time he added to its impressive collection of international art.
In 1655, just a year before the first performance of The Misanthrope, the king initiated renovation of the Louvre, the mention of which would have been of topical interest to Moliere's audience. Clitandre thus mentions his presence at the royal palace of the Louvre as a means of showing off his courtly social connections. Likewise, in Act III, when Arsinoe tells Alceste that she could use her influence in order to secure a government post for him at Versailles, she is referring to the king's royal palace at Versailles, one of the visible accomplishments of the king's reign.
The royal palace was eventually moved by Louis XIV from the Louvre to the village of Versailles, ten miles from Paris, where royalty had formerly enjoyed the comforts of a hunting lodge. Louis XIV renovated and extended the palace of Versailles over a period of fifty years, from 1661 to 1710, employing the most talented architects, landscapers, and interior decorators of the age in a spectacular achievement expressive of the king's far-reaching power. During the period in which The Misanthrope was performed, the remodeling of Versailles was an ongoing project of the king, who would most likely have been pleased by its mention in Moliere's play. And, although it did not become the official residence of the king and his court until 1682, it was clearly functioning in this capacity as early as 1666, when The Misanthrope was first performed.
Alceste, however, assures Arsinoe that he "simply wouldn't prosper at Versailles," because of his inability to play the game of social politicking required for a government post. (One may note that Moliere himself, in contrast to the fictional character of Alceste, greatly benefited from the favor and patronage of the king, who supported his theatrical company and his career, as well as providing significant increases in his pension over the years.)
In addition to topical references to the king and his court, and his majesty's ongoing achievements represented by renovations of both the Louvre and Versailles, Moliere includes in his play reference to major events in the history of France. Philinte, complaining of the boring conversation of an acquaintance, mentions his habit of bragging about his service in the civil war as one of his more irritating conversational traits. Philinte mentions "Dorilas, who's such a bore / About his exploits in the Civil War." This is most likely a reference to the series of civil wars in France known as the Fronde, which were waged between 1648 and 1653. The Fronde occurred in several phases, each revolving around a somewhat different set of issues and events. However, the overall thrust of the violent civil disturbances known as the Fronde was an effort of the upper classes to curtail the power of the monarch over parliament. Once this period of rebellion was quelled, however, Louis XIV reacted by creating the most powerful monarchy in Europe, exercising extensive control over his dominion. At the time of The Misanthrope, the civil war would have been over for some thirteen years, and the man who still bragged about his participation in such events is seen as a bore because of his inability to discuss more pertinent, up-to-date matters.
Central to the comedy of manners are the specific fashions of the age in which it takes place, in this case a distinct aesthetic known as the Louis XIV style. The prominence of fashion in French high society was increased with the development of Paris as a center of European style and taste during this era. The attitude expressed in Moliere's play toward men's fashions of the day is indicated by the description of Celimene's suitors, Acaste and Clitandre, as "fops"—men overly concerned with emulating high fashion to the point of rendering themselves ridiculously vain and clownish. Alceste refers to several characteristics of the flamboyant men's fashions of the Louis XIV era when he interrogates Celimene about her reasons for flirting with Clitandre, one of his rivals for her attention. He asks her:
Just tell me what it is
You like about him That long nail of his?
(His little finger nail.) or—let me see—
His blonde wig—that's it' Well, admittedly
The world of fashion thinks it's quite the thing.
That's why you keep the poor fool dangling?
Or is it all those nbbons you adore?
Is it his stocking that you love him for?
Have his vast breeches worked their magic on you?
During the mid-seventeenth-century, men's high fashion was characterized by massive wigs made up of curls that were styled high up on the head and then cascaded down below the shoulders. Ribbons, as well as lace, were a prominent feature adorning the male wardrobe, while the style of men's "breeches" became so full and loose that they were recognized as closer to the feminine skirt or petticoat. Alceste thus makes note of the fashionable men's wardrobe of the day, made up of a wig, ribbons, and "vast breeches." Ridicule of men's fashions continues in Act II, when Celimene complains of Timante, a male acquaintance whom she criticizes for his vanity. She suggests that, while he frequently claims to be running off on important business, in fact, "he's only crept off to adjust his bows / Or put some powder on his wig!" In Act V, Acaste reads aloud several letters that Celimene has written to each of her suitors, criticizing each of the others behind his back. She paints each man as a buffoon, making reference to his vanity in the use of fashion. Alceste she refers to as "the man with the green ribbons," associating the men's fashion characterized by extensive use of ribbons with Alceste's "green" envy of other men. And Oronte she calls "the buffoon in the waistcoat," referring to the hip- or waist-length jackets men wore over their white shirts. In all of these instances, the men's fashions of the day are mentioned only in order to be ridiculed as signs of vanity, clownishness, and self-absorption.
The Misanthrope, a masterpiece among Moliere's comedies of manners, holds a universal appeal in its ridicule of social games of propriety and powermongering, in the context of a setting that is unique to the fashion, society, and politics of the Louis XIV era. The king and his court, located both at the Louvre in Paris and the palace at Versailles, are brought into conversation among these characters only for the purpose of bragging about their social and political connections, either threatening or manipulating others with the power of their influence. Likewise, historical events are referred to in conversation for the purpose of ridiculing the outdated conversation of a fellow acquaintance. Finally, the high fashions of the day, specifically the excessive quality of the latest men's fashions, are ridiculed as a sign of vanity and foolishness.
Source: Liz Brent, "Critical Essay on The Misanthrope", in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.
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It is in teaching literature that the critic/professor is forcibly reminded of the continuing reality of literary problems that he or she may have come to regard as solved. It is in trying to explain to students the logic of a particular solution that the critic is often led to new realizations by the unexpected vitality of an "old" question. Each time I teach Le Misanthrope, I am obliged to confront the question of the play's being or not being entirely comic; and I find that each group of students' initial response to Alceste is much like the one expressed by Rousseau in his "Lettre a d'Alembert sur les spectacles." For each group I must repeat—and, indeed, rethink—the critical process whereby I arrived at the conviction that Alceste is an entirely comic—and not at all an admirable—character. It is impossible to do this without recognizing that the issues raised bear on the essence of Moliere's comic art, the nature and importance of comedy in general, and the nexus of the relationship between theatrical and real identities.
The crux of the critic's difficulty in showing Alceste to be a thoroughly ridiculous character is that Alceste seems at first glance to be living the essentially tragic opposition between the integrity of the individual self and the arbitrary, ineluctable laws of collective existence. Alceste's choice of sincerity as his ideal—or mask—is what makes the play so quintessentially theatrical and comic; he tries to use sincerity as a vehicle for radically individuating himself, despite the fact that sincerity is a characteristic of communication which can only be ascribed to an individual by a group whose language and basic expectations he shares. "Sincerity," like any virtue, makes sense only as a performance evaluated within a context of perceptions and values. The play clearly ridicules the idea that there can be opposition between an individual and his social environment, except within socially defined limits.
Individuation itself is actually a function of collective existence. It is this complex aspect of context—generating and nourishing, as well as limiting, individuation—that Alceste tries to ignore. Indeed, it is the fact of context in general, and of his particular context, that Alceste, like most other comic figures, fails to consider. What makes a being real, or a performance meaningful, is the same thing—context—that makes it contingent.
Alceste would like to be his own source, and the source of all that surrounds him. He actually attempts to reverse the relationship between individual and group by imposing his condemnation—his misanthropy—as the defining context wherein others must exist. He wants to be the audience in whose gaze all performances find their meaning. His situation becomes comic when it is clear that his refusal to perform is itself a performance, and that his apparent wish to annihilate others as morally significant beings clashes with his insistence that others acknowledge and admire his supposed difference from them. What the lucid spectator sees as the play progresses is that Alceste's "sincerity," both as an individual trait and as a characteristic of social relations, must be confirmed and participated in by the group. Like Moliere's other ridicules, Alceste hopes to escape the consequences of this interdependence by obscuring others' awareness of the mutuality imposed by a shared context. He wants to keep them from recognizing and playing their role in creating his meaning and identity. The comedy is reinforced by the fact that the rhetoric of Alceste's performance, which he hopes will constitute a person whose essence is distinction, actually reveals the extent to which his thinking and behavior are similar to those practiced in the group.
Oronte's famous sonnet, presented in Act I, scene ii, is a key element in this comedy of convergence. It is typical of Alceste that he tries to place the poem in a definitive context—that of his negative judgment—before he has heard it. The significance he ascribes to this scene, and the role he will play in it, have been predetermined for Alceste by his loudly declared rejection of social conventions (Act I, scene i). Writing sonnets and praising them are conventions. As Oronte reads the poem, Alceste classifies it as sottises.
The importance of the sonnet cannot be fully discovered by trying to decide whether Alceste is sincere, or correct, in his judgment of it. The scene itself is important and comic in that it shows Alceste torn between his desire to condemn the poem and the difficulty of being blunt. In terms of the play as a whole, however, the sonnet is central in a different way: the poem is, in fact, in its tone and logic, a brief summary of Alceste's own speeches to and about Celimene. The fact that Alceste is guilty here of both prejudice and equivocation is less important than the close correspondence between the rhetoric of the sonnet and Alceste's performance. Alceste's denunciation of the poem as fatuous becomes integral to his ridiculousness as his persona converges with its persona. In other words, the spectators' judgment, which is Alceste's and the play's ultimate context, is conditioned in part by this convergence.
Alceste, having warned Oronte that expatiating on love can lead one into playing de mauvais personnages, spends much of the rest of his time on stage expatiating on love, and creating a very comic personnage. The poem's persona is the lover who is tired of living on hope:
L'espoir, il est vrai, nous soulage
Et nous berce un temps notre ennui,
Mais, Philis, le taste avantage
Lorsque rien ne marche apres lui!
The lover then expresses despair at the prospect of eternal anticipation:
S'il faut qu'une attente eternelle
Pousse a bout Fardeur de mon zele,
Le trepas sera mon recours.
Alceste's frustration at waiting for an explicit understanding with Celimene, his belief that there is reason to hope, and his shows of desperation all closely parallel the sonnet. His threat to withdraw to a desert—a noncontext—corresponds to the sonnet's rhetorical threat of suicide. Having failed to accept openly the necessity of performance, Alceste becomes a theatrical being in the worst sense: he constantly repeats the themes of a narrow, thoroughly prefabricated role. His "being" is as superficial as the wordplay of the sonnet. His virtues and emotions look like mere textual formulas, and his awareness of context is as faulty as that of the stargazing philosopher who falls into a well. Alceste's comic downfall is consummated in the consciousness of the spectators, whose role in creating Alceste's—and the play's—meaning corresponds to that of the group in accepting or rejecting any individual's version of himself.
Awareness of context as a fact of life, and of the evolving patterns of a particular context is, then, an attribute that Moliere's ridicules lack. Alceste's attempt to evade the complexities of communication and to blind his "spectators" by identifying himself with sincerity is based on the comic error of ignoring the fundamentally social and theatrical nature of sincerity. He could scarcely have been more maladroit in selecting his stance vis-a-vis society; misanthropy is as much a social performance as is sincerity.
Another proof of Alceste's convergence with the group he wants to both dominate and reject is the fundamental similarity between misanthropy and the group's principal pastime, medisance. In Act II, scene v, Alceste listens to Arsinoe's jealous gossiping about Celimene in order to gain a social advantage. Misanthropy's similarity to medisance is underscored by this partnership. Because of his desire to possess Celimene and to be individuated, Alceste is bound to others in a relationship that is inescapable, and even mimetic, as well as contradictory. His performance is comic because his perceptual errors result from a willful ignorance of context. His misanthropy is a form of lover's lament, and is thus convergent with the most hackneyed poetic attitudinizing. Sincerity and uniqueness must be ascribed by the group, and Alceste's performance follows a pattern which was, in a real sense, invented by and for the group. He never makes good his threat to flee to the desert of non-context and non-meaning, and thus denies himself the quasi-tragic status Rousseau erroneously gave him.
Moliere is at pains to define the difference between proper and improper perception and use of performance, or theater. Life is theater-like, and Moliere's comic theater ridicules any who ignore or misuse the analogy. In the case of Le Misanthrope, Moliere dramatizes an attempt to oppose the social context and triumph in that context. In the process, he shows us—as theater nearly always does—that individual and context are not entirely distinguishable unless meaning and identity are to be sacrificed. It is certainly ridiculous to use absolute condemnation of the group as a means to obtain what only the group can confer. The very fundamental resources of individuation are derived from the context. Only after recognizing Alceste's ultimate similarity to his fellows can one appreciate the comic contradictions of his performance. Alceste is profoundly similar to any comic character who is clumsy and ineffectual because he ignores something critically important about his environment; and the comedy makes perceptible the fact that this error is a very common one.
Source: Larry W. Riggs, "Context and Convergence in the Comedy of Le Misanthrope," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall 1984, pp. 65-69.
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Our newly revived historical anthropology starts from the premise that despite its apparent immutability human nature in fact has a history and, further, that this history—the sediment of constantly reformulated and superseded projects in the process of human self-determination—can be understood as man's second nature. The literary historian can best illustrate what is meant by this formula by tracing changes in the presentation and interpretation of moral character types. No matter how timeless these characters may seem in comedy and moral reflection, they have not always been a part of Western tradition. They first appear at a later stage of Greek literature, in the new comedy of Menander, after Theophrastus had drawn up the first characterology based on observation of everyday life. With the appearance of Theophrastus' work, European comedy acquired a basic repertory of character types that lived on in the oral tradition of so-called mimology (short, crude scenes of popular farce), surviving the interruption of the Christian era in which they were excluded from the canon of the representable. Christian literature in the Middle Ages founded its official canon of characters on the ancient animal fables and on folkloric animal farces. The analogy of animal characters or manners with human nature revealed a new conception of human existence, and the newly created animal epic Reynard the Fox at the summit of medieval satire opposed the idealism of all heroic and courtly poetry for the first time.
The classical repertory of everyday characters was revived by the humanist rediscovery of Plautine comedy and underwent a period of fruitful reception culminating in classical French comedy. Its purest development, Moliere's comedy of character, was once again accompanied by a moral-philosophical characterology, La Bruyere's Caracteres ou les moeurs de ce siecle (1688). This work assimilated and surpassed Theophrastus' characterology by attempting to portray the entire social life of the age of Louis XIV in its customs as well as its institutions. La Bruyere thus pursued the goal of a moralist: he examined his fellow man's behavior and forms of life in order to ascertain what could be attributed to human nature in general and what was conditioned by changing times. He thus assumed the role of observer as well as critic of his times.
The historical thought of the Enlightenment, foreshadowed in La Bruyere's text, devalued not only the characterology of the classical moralists, which can be considered a kind of proto-sociology, but also Moliere's comedy. By 1800 Goethe could affirm that the time for character plays was over. How he arrived at this prognosis remains a question, but its accuracy seems thoroughly confirmed by the subsequent history of comedy. As Peter Szondi has noted, Hofmannsthal's Der Schwierige has remained "the only modern figure in the character gallery of great comedy." As an untimely exception, Der Schwierige confirms the historical rule in a highly instructive manner. It allows us to see what was required in order to invent—as a reply to Moliere's Misanthrope—such an unforgettable figure as Count Buhl, who had to be a "character" in the eyes of others without having a character in his own. From this point on characterology was increasingly relegated to the museum of the history of science. Scientific psychology today recognizes only social norms and functions, and questions whether moral behavior is at all classifiable. The concept of "character," which is no longer found in psychological lexicons, has been replaced by a theory of "personality" which does not require the notion of "human nature" but only that of the interaction of disposition and situation.
I have chosen to examine here the character of the Misanthrope because it is represented at the beginning, the culmination, and the end of this tradition in significant works of Menander—his Dyskolos is his only full preserved work—Moliere, and Hofmannsthal. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the Misanthrope is not included in the Aristotelean classification of the ten affects of the soul accompanied by pleasure or pain, nor in Theophrastus' classification of moral attributes in social life. Does the Misanthrope fail to appear in such anthropological or moral-philosophical treatises because to be or to feel oneself an enemy of mankind would go against nature and the social condition of human existence? If this conjecture were true, then the Misanthrope would not be accidental invention shaped by poetic fiction, but would be rather a limiting case created to test and explore (auszuspekulieren) what human nature can be—if man is capable of acting against his own nature—and to see how he can be brought to abandon his unnaturalness and return to ... the ancient ideal of moderation. These considerations allow us to determine in a preliminary fashion what was involved in Menander's creation of a literary character, the Dyskolos, out of a comparable type of social behavior described by Theophrastus as 'the distrustful man.' The genuine task of literary hermeneutics is the exploration of such transformations of philosophical questions into possible literary answers and their testing through aesthetic experience. My study will offer an interpretation of the literary history of Moliere's Misanthrope, whose well-documented reception exemplifies the changing horizon of characterology. I shall consider this character against the background of the history of the concept of character and in the light provided by the mutual illumination of practical philosophy and literary fiction.
Character (from the Greek word [meaning] 'to scratch or etch') has the basic meaning of something engraved, imprinted, hence indelible. The corresponding Latin word also signifies a brand, a letter, a military identification mark, and, in an extended sense, a writer's hallmark. After Theophrastus, the word is applied not only to an exterior mark but also to inner nature, and thus acquired the moral meaning of an inscribed personal characteristic. For Theophrastus, differences in human behavior reflect differences in nature, and are thus innate and immutable. This is in accord with his belief that after the child's native dispositions have been fully developed no further education is possible—a view which deviates from Aristotle's. Nevertheless, Theophrastus uses the Aristotelian principle in evaluating his characters: their description illustrates a prior definition (e.g., "Distrustfulness is a presumption of dishonesty against all mankind; and the Distrustful man is he that will...") through observations which compose a mosaic portrait, representing human behavior in terms of excess or deficiency in relation to an ideal but unmet mean. From the outset, ethical characters are negatively determined by their failure to attain the proper measure of the Good Life, and consequently by their weaknesses or "vices." Virtues apparently have no characters, as Christian tradition later confirmed (virtue acting through the holy man transcends all merely individual differences in human nature).
When these ethical characters enter literature, in the passage from Theophrastus to Menander, they are not merely developed in dramatic action involving conflict with others. The literary elaboration also draws attention to the paradox of a consciousness aware of depending upon nature, against its will to be another nature. The characters of the Boor, the Distrustful Man, the Superstitious Man, the Shy Man, the Misogynist, and the Misanthrope, all characters corresponding to the titles of Menander's plays, are not simply the objects of ridicule. The comic exaggeration of their behavior makes the one-sidedness of their nature evident and thus confirms, ex negativo, in the eyes of the unconcerned spectator, the unrealized norm of the Good Life. The comedy sets before our eyes a character who deviates from the ethical norm and at the same time remains completely enslaved by his own nature. He may become more or less aware of his enslavement, he may suffer or obstinately persist in it, even to an extreme, when his affectively rigid, circular behavior runs counter to his own ends. As an example of this kind of comic effect we may adduce the beginning of the Dyskolos, where the grumbler Cnemon summarily turns away a visitor by calling him a "criminal" (even though the visitor wants to offer him an advantageous business opportunity), pelts him with stones and clods of earth and, finally, "when nothing else was left," with pears, the hardwon fruit of his dry, infertile land. Cnemon's contempt for all his fellow men may not only damage his own interests but may even lead to the wish to destroy himself. Thus when his future son-in-law Sostrates appears, Cnemon first wishes he could go about like Perseus with a Medusa's head "to turn all those who pestered him to stone" and then complains that "even if a man should somehow want to hang himself,/there's nowhere he could find the privacy he needs for that!" Menander's Misanthrope also goes beyond the simpler character of the Distrustful Man, in that Cnemon's unnatural behavior extends even to the most natural family relations, which Theophrastus' Distrustful Man still respects.
Menander raises the Dyskolos to the level of a limiting case that makes it possible to investigate the most extreme possibilities and contradictions of human nature within the framework of literary fiction. He achieves this ultimately by means of an astute experiment which he apparently tried only in this comedy: the reversals of the action—the fall into the well, the encounter with death, and the rescue by the stepson Gorgias—bring Cnemon to see that he has fallen prey to an error. "The mark of inhumanity drops away, and the spectator glimpses the clenched pain of a tormented soul which calls for pity." Cnemon's great monologue, in which he recognizes as delusion his belief that he was "self-sufficient and would need no help" and rejects the philosophical ideal of autarchy, arouses in the modern spectator the expectation that a different Cnemon, freed from his unnaturalness and more open to his fellow man, will result from his recantation. We therefore find it all the more strange that this expectation will be disappointed and that, instead, Cnemon's return to his solitary nature in the last act and his punishment for it in the final harassment scene must have been fully in accord with the classical spectators' expectations.
This hermeneutic crux permits us to recognize an archaic horizon which allowed classical comedy to plumb the depths of a character by playing out the consequences of a limiting case, but only in order to bring to light his unchangeable and ultimately unmotivated nature. Of course, Menander is not content merely to show that his Dyskolos' nature is unmotivated. His comedy implies a question which Theophrastus had not yet asked in his characterology: how can a person, against his own nature, become an enemy of mankind? But the answer that Cnemon's monologue gives does not illuminate grounds for his misanthropy, it only reveals his error in having followed the philosophical principle of autarchy. By saving his life, Gorgias has proven that selfless help among human beings is needed and provided, but Cnemon is not cured of his misanthrophy by being freed from his delusion of autarchy. He does not merely repeat the fate of Timon, whose fall from power, riches, and generosity to ruin and isolation motivates his contempt for human beings and gods; rather, the groundlessness and inalterability of Cnemon's misanthropy is thrown into relief at the very moment of insight when, faced with deadly danger, his delusion is stripped away from him. In an act which is both a reconciliation and a farewell, Cnemon hands over his rights and responsibilities as family head to his adopted stepson in order from that time on to live completely alone and outside all human society ("No man on earth/would ever suit me. One thing—let me live the way I want"). This decision is the only action that Cnemon himself initiates in a play that always portrays him—in accord with his character—as reacting, not acting. But Cnemon's decision to want to be as he believes himself compelled to be by nature can no more be the comedy's last word than the celebration of the double wedding can be its last scene, although on the religious level of the ritual sacrifices which frame the Dyskolos' action it fulfills Pan's prediction of a happy ending. Cnemon's last request that even the old kitchen servant attend the merry celebration so that he can be completely alone in the house is an affront not only to the solidarity of the family, to which he no longer wants to belong, but also to the entire human community represented by the ritual of sacrifice. The provocation of this extreme separation is avenged by even the humblest members of the community, a slave and a cook, who take it upon themselves to exorcise their former master's nature with an "ennobling" beating and to close the action of the play with a Dionysian wedding feast. Of course we have learned to explain this denouement as a punishment meted out by "poetic justice." But nevertheless we cannot but recognize such a poetic justice as unjust and so foreign to us that the case of the classical Misanthrope seems to illustrate the hermeneutic paradox: that is, a perfect explanation of a remote horizon of experience does not necessarily imply an understanding of its alterity.
La Bruyere, who translated and further elaborated Theophrastus' Characters, designated the aesthetic norm of French Classicism against which Moliere's comedy should be measured when he wrote that the principal source of comedy is not witticisms, obscenities, double entendres, or any other type of linguistic joke. Rather, comedy must rely on characters alone to make a wise, virtuous—hence educated—audience laugh. La Bruyere did not explain why human characters should produce the purest comic effect, and therefore never asked how characters could trigger laughter for different reasons at different times. Moliere, in turn, did not add much theoretically to La Bruyere's apodictic assertion. Once when he does discuss the peculiar enterprise of making the honnetes gens laugh, he points out only that it is not done by portraying people according to their nature. The difficulty, for Moliere, lies in portraying this nature in a way that will bring out the failings of one's contemporaries. Since tragedy, in Moliere's view, does not pose this problem, he considers it a less exacting genre. Neither La Bruyere nor Moliere apparently suffered from any anxiety of influence; for them the perfection of their classical models rendered superfluous any effort to justify their own work theoretically. We can see this attitude in another cryptic statement by Moliere: "Le ridicule" is defined as "la forme exterieure et sensible que la providence a attachee a tout ce qui est deraisonnable." Moliere can thus counter the church's criticism of the immoral effect of theater in the final analysis comedy, which reveals in the ridiculous a deviation from what is natural and reasonable in order to reaffirm the "fameux quod decet des anciens," cannot but serve the ends of Christian Providence. Has Providence in its wisdom not placed before us a "perceptible sign" in the form of the comic so that we might recognize in the defects of human nature what the golden mean of an upright life demands of us.
In the realm of art, theory and practice seldom coincide, and this is also true for Moliere. In matters of theory he was an "ancient" and wanted to raise the ridiculum to the level of an agent of Providence in order to legitimize the moral claims of classical comedy. But in matters of practice he was a "modern," and his conception of literary characters decisively questions the naive harmony posited by his theory. His Miser or his Hypocrite can no more be understood on the basis of the classical norm of the comic than can his Sosias or Georges Dandin, his "Malade imaginaire" or "Bourgeois Gentilhomme." These modern characters are no longer definable by the mimetic presentation of a one-sided nature; rather, they are caught between having to be and wanting to be what their nature requires, between natural being and reflective consciousness. They play out their self-contradictions in such a way that the spectator's laughter constantly subsides, changing suddenly into pity or alarm. Far from being a perceptible sign of a self-evident, providential world order, the comic is now aimed at society's claim that it already knows what is natural and reasonable rather than at individual weaknesses and vices. I have shown elsewhere in my interpretation of Harpagon's monologue in L'Avare how a consciousness enslaved by an unnatural greed can again become productive and rise above all natural and societal orders. Moliere thereby brings out a specifically Christian problematic: an evil gradually revealed in the unnaturalness and self-contradiction of the characters. In other words, his comedy represents an aspect of fallen human nature. But this modern view of characters remains untouched by the discovery of the individual, which the history of ideas shows as undergoing a change of meaning in which the Christian conception of human nature gradually prevailed over the inheritance of classical anthropology.
The Christian phase of the history of the concept of character presupposes a new determination of human nature which developed eventually out of a new value placed on individual existence. Augustine, who discovered the individual self in the act of conversion, described in his norm-building Confessions the constitution of Christian subjectivity as from the very beginning a divided, temporally split, and—as the mere image of its creator—necessarily imperfect existence. But the lost wholeness of the primal nature was restored as soon as the new Christian received through the sacrament of baptism his indelible mark. To this end, Augustine took over the popular expression militiae character and extended it as character crucis to the trinitarian baptismal formula. According to the subsequent Christian view, still evident in Thomas Aquinas as well as in Martin Luther, the baptized person receives through the sacrament a "spiritual mark on the soul." Later this concept seems to move away from the theological toward the philosophical meaning of character in that the feature of indelibility is taken from the sacrament of baptism and applied to the individualitas of a man, in order to distinguish his specific character as the nature of his singularity. The same word which in the pre-Christian view referred to the unalterable being of different human types or "natures" acquires in the Christian conception a dynamic and later a historical meaning. According to Leibniz the power of ideas operated in mathematical characters and more particularly in the formula as a rule-for-construction which allows the comprehension of an infinity of numbers. Lessing was the first to speak precisely of the "formation [Bildung] of a character" which can lend unity to dramatic action. German Idealism then completes the reversal of meaning from character as a determination of nature to character as a determination of freedom. Kant introduced the distinction between physical and moral character, distinguished the latter as a type of thought from the natural dispositions of what he called temperament (Naturel), and ultimately defined man as a rational being on the basis of "what he is willing to make of himself." Hence, more precisely, the enlightened man "has a character, which he himself creates, insofar as he is capable of perfecting himself in accord with goals that he establishes for himself."
One of the most interesting differences between French and German language and culture is that the meaning of "character" as defined by the philosophy of German Classicism appears in French for the first time only a century later. We do not find a French equivalent to the famous lines from Goethe' s Torquato Tasso—"Es bildet em Talent sich in der Stille, / Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welf'—before the phrase "former son caractere!" used by Andre Gide and by Andre Maurois. This shows that in France the question of character was posed primarily in terms of the social nature of man. What La Bruyere and Moliere interpreted through their characters was further developed in moral philosophy and psychology as a specific heritage of French Classicism, and also taken up by the German Enlightenment in the literary form of "moral portraits." Later this tradition continued in the so-called "physiologies" or "tableaux" (e.g., of Paris, of France) which were periodically revived in the nineteenth-century as a way of portraying society. Finally, it entered into the ambitious project of Balzac who, as a historien des moeurs, wanted to produce a complete description of his time. Contrary to this French development, a process of singularization, similar to what Reinhart Koselleck has termed the paradigm change from histories to history, was initiated in Germany. A singular character based on the ability of an individual to create and to perfect himself is detached from the plurale tantum of social characters. Character as singulare tantum becomes henceforth the privileged subject of aesthetic formation (Bildung) which, in Germany, was raised to the level of the ideal life and given a literary form in the Bildungsroman. The latter was unknown in France where the ideal of aesthetic formation seems to be absent in nineteenth-century culture and literature. The modern character of the Misanthrope created by Moliere is strongly affected by this multiple, changing horizon, as is shown by the history of his reception.
In order to summarize Moliere's comedy, I shall follow the example of French classicism and attempt to construct a portrait "a la maniere de Theophraste" from the details of Alceste's behavior. Misanthropy can be defined as the melancholy temperament of a grouser (esprit chagrin the language of Moliere's time) who without any visible cause is angry at everyone and meddles at every opportunity in order to condemn the corruption of human nature and in doing so to find his own solitary satisfaction. The Misanthrope is something like the following: he wants to renounce the friendship of his only friend simply because the latter received a third party with studied politeness and afterwards had to acknowledge that he was, in fact, indifferent to him. Alceste goes so far as to claim that if he had been caught behaving in such a deceitful way be would have hanged himself immediately. When a lawsuit is brought against him, he relies only on his own righteousness to win his case, refusing all good advice and announcing that he would gladly pay a goodly price to lose "Pour la beaute du fait." When his case is lost in the first court, he refuses to appeal to a second because a 20,000 franc fine would be a small price to pay for the privilege of complaining with full justification about the injustice of all humanity. When a would-be poet reads his most recent work to him and awaits his praise, Alceste tells him candidly, "Franchement, il est bon a mettre au cabinet." To complete the affront, Alceste presents him with a poem that is an example of good taste—that is, of Alceste's taste. In matters of the heart, he does not choose the woman who shares his convictions, but rather confesses his weakness for an extremely worldly and coquettish young widow, whom he is willing to accept despite her failings so that he may purge her soul of them. When she informs him that she favors him, he provokes her by asking if she tells her other suitors the same thing and expresses his love with the bizarre compliment: "Et c'est pour mes peches que je vous aime ainsi." When he decides once and for all to turn his back on all mankind, he is caught in the contradiction of wanting to take with him a member of the very society that is so hateful to him. But his scandalous beloved, who is supposed to share his solitude from then on, does not, of course, agree to this.
This character portrait allows us to see how the modern Misanthrope contrasts with his ancient predecessor whom Moliere possibly—if at all—knew in the modern form of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. The scene is no longer a wilderness in which a Cnemon or a luckless Timon must hoe or dig in the earth: now, society itself is the stage on which the unsociable man must bear his contradiction, only to finally turn away into an even deeper solitude. Moliere's Misanthrope is not taught by others and is not brought back to reason from his delusion of autarchy. Nor, at the end of the comedy, when he persists in his unnaturalness, is he punished with the beating that fulfilled the classical spectator's expectation of poetic justice. Now it is the Misanthrope himself who poses as the judge of his age constantly instructing his friends, his lover, and eventually everyone. At the same time, the comic exaggeration raises questions concerning the more profound justice of social conventions, and the expected confirmation of poetic justice is not forthcoming. Thus Moliere suggests, for example, that the "Marshals of France"—the highest arbiters in courtly society—might decide whether Oronte's sonnet is as bad as Alceste, doubly provoked, thinks it is. At this point, the laughter prompted by the absurd cause and the spite of the misanthropic judge of culture surreptitiously turns around and ends up being directed against the arrogance of a royal authority that would decide by decree what shall be considered beautiful. The comic in Moliere is not simply based on a deviation from a societal norm of bienseance. Subversively the play draws attention to and revalidates what had been repressed by the claim of the upper class to be the unquestioned representative of reason. The modern Misanthrope, who "im offiziell Geltenden das Nichtige und im offiizell Nichtigen das Geltende sichtbar werden laBt," is, according to this famous formula of Joachim Ritter, at the same time a comic and a morally ambivalent character: in social matters because of his unconditional righteousness in a society schooled in the value of bienseance, but also as a character, because of the pathological foundation of his nature.
Moliere makes the grandiose one-sidedness of Alceste problematic by playing him off against a counter-character. Alceste is contrasted with Philinte, the melancholic with the phlegmatic man, and the temperaments of the two men are compared in turn with the contrasting female figures of Celimene, Eliante, and Arsinoe. Thus Moliere constructs a communicating system of characters who must unfold their nature dialogically rather than monologically in reciprocal role-playing. Alceste's and Philinte's temperament and even their linguistic demeanor are presented in accordance with the traditional theory of the four bodily humors. This theory was still held in high regard by the medical science of Moliere's time, and it is entirely possible that a portion of Moliere's contemporary audience recognized symptoms of humoral pathology in the individual traits of these characters. But even if a spectator were acquainted with the pathological basis of the comic figures of Alceste and Philinte, the conflict of such completely contrasting temperaments would have constantly challenged him to consider whose side he should take and how he might find a reasonable mean between these two extremes, because Moliere's play assails the prevailing reason and very self-righteousness of his society. But even if these serious challenges—which interpreters have answered in the Misanthrope's history of reception in three different ways—threaten to dissolve all comic effects in moral reflection, the audience could always be brought to laughter or smiles by the ultimate idiosyncrasy which most clearly distinguishes Alceste from Cnemon or Timon and which, according to La Bruyere and Boileau, was the very reason the honnetes gens laughed at him. The schism between wanting to be and having to be expresses itself in the comic serf-contradiction of an atrabilaire amoureux who is in principle a misanthrope but, by way of exception, is nevertheless in love.
The response of Moliere's contemporaries indicates that they had to change their views and realize why the comic figure Alceste was in bitter earnest. The spectators in the parterre (mere consumers in Moliere's day) found nothing to laugh at in the play. The gallery (the connoisseurs and critics) laughed at the wrong times They had to be taught, for example, that Oronte's sonnet, which was at first considered quite beautiful, was being made fun of as a modish, clumsy piece written by a would-be poet. Symptomatic of this change of views is the case of a certain Monsieur de Montausier. He summoned Moliere in a rage because he had been told that the Alceste everyone was laughing at was his exact portrait. But the highborn man received the trembling author with surprising respect. He had read the work himself in the meantime and could now only thank Moliere because his Misanthrope was the most perfect gentleman he had ever encountered in his life. Moliere's first public came to esteem Alceste to the extent that they began to see that his ridiculous behavior and bizarre speech were the other face of a rare virtue, righteousness, and that no character could "speak more effectively against the corruption of his fellow men than their enemy." Contemporary critics went so far as to praise the consistency with which Alceste "maintains his character" in all situations, as if it were not his enslavement to his nature but rather his free will and honor which prompted him to set an example for society. "Soutenir bien son caractere"—this newly coined meaning shows that in French Classicism the concept of character encompassed both nature and will. This new understanding presupposed that an individual in his social role maintains the character embedded in him, but it did not yet include a concept of the singular and the private, of the individual as distinguished from a public role. The modern view of Alceste as a misunderstood individual in a degenerate society first arose in German Classicism, and was developed by the Romantics. This major shift in the interpretation of the Misanthrope was ushered in by Rousseau's criticism of Moliere.
The classical understanding of the Misanthrope was indeed renounced point by point barely a century later. Rousseau reproached Moliere for adapting his comedy to the prevailing taste and—worse yet—for not having seen through the ideology of his society. In Rousseau's view, Moliere exposed to ridicule the only sincere, indeed the only just man who had the courage to point out society's vices. To pillory "le ridicule de la vertu" on stage was to commit the ultimate sin of withholding from a deluded society the fact that its much-praised advances in knowledge and the arts were being purchased by a parallel decline in its morals and virtues. Was the derided enemy of humanity not actually the unrecognized friend of humanity; was it not because Alceste loved humanity that he was compelled to hate and denounce its vices? A new ideal of human nature was thus imposed by this complete reversal of the classical meaning. In Rous¬seau's view, Alceste prefigures the homme naturel of the French Enlightenment and his failure is the typical fate of the "citoyen de Geneve," who in his sincerity tears away the mask of social appearances and wants to set an example of the path to a natural existence.
It is apparent in the subsequent effects of Rousseau's new interpretation that a new understanding of a classical work often involves both a gain and a loss in meaning. Rousseau himself recommended that the text be revised so that Alceste could become a tragic figure. The "misanthrope amoureux" should be abandoned and instead Philinte the conformist should be exposed to ridicule. What Goethe, echoing Rousseau, called the solitary "Konfhkt mit der socialen Welt, in der man ohne Verstellung und Flachheit nicht mehr umhergehen kann" no longer tolerates the spirit of comedy. Moliere's Misanthrope could no longer be understood simply as a comic subject because in his societal tragedy the inner world of a great individual had been revealed. Thus Goethe asked "ob jemals ein Dichter sein Inneres vollkommener und liebenswurdiger dargestellt habe," as did Moliere a quality which Schlegel, in Goethe's view, completely failed to recognize. Goethe and the Romantics were not the only followers of the tragic Alceste. French readers of Rousseau drew another conclusion. Alceste could only be found ridiculous or tragic during the Ancien Regime. Once republican freedom is developed comedy will have exhausted its purpose and Alceste have lost his right to complain. Perhaps Stendhal put it best when he wrote that the children of the revolution could no longer be expected to enjoy the pleasures of classical comedy. Its characters should be replaced by a new source of the comic for which Stendhal believed he had found the formula: "se tromper sur le chemin qui mene au bonheur." Alceste in particular should have realized that all his suffering derived from the power of the monarchy. The refore Moliere could retain only a historical interest for his nineteenth-century public unless and this actually happened after 1789 his enemy of mankind was interpreted as a Jacobin avant la lettre
The second great shift in the history of reception of the Misanthrope results from a reversal of Rousseau's paradigm It is precisely his unquestioned premise that sincerity was the ground for Alceste's
behavior that is now doubted. The psychoanalytic interpretation given to Moliere's character gave rise to a profusion of aesthetically important readings and thereby weakened the prejudice that psycho-analytic approaches to literature reduce the artistic character of a work to concerns alien to art. This new understanding can be summarized in the following questions, which had not been asked before: Is the comic figure of Alceste rightly and without loss of meaning reducible to the modern character of the sincere individual a character not found in the tradition before Moliere or does he not rather remain a profoundly ambivalent character? When Alceste demands of Philinte and eventually of everyone, "Je veux qu'on soit sincere", is only the sincerity of others in question and never his own7 Why does he still seek the unconditional recognition of others ("Je veux qu'on me distingue") when he finds them incorrigible and, indeed, hates humanity in toto? Is something else hiding behind his demand for unconditional sincerity perhaps the compulsive need to subject all other wills? Does not the initially legitimate protest against the self-righteousness and serf-delusion of society always change suddenly into the hubris of one who despises the world and considers only himself upright? Karlheinz Stierle has noted that "in Moliere's Misanthrope a fundamental social fear the dissolution of society by the / that posits itself as absolute is thematized in such a way that the public is freed from this fear through laughter." If the audience of French Classicism could free itself from such fears through laughter, wouldn't that laughter subside if today's audience were to see in an enemy of humanity the possible appearance of a tyrant?
It is certainly possible, however, to laugh freely at Hofmannsthal's Der Sckwierige. Considering it in relation to Moliere's work, we could say that this belated comedy of character corrects, as it were, its classical model. If contrary to all classical expectations expectations which the most intricate action of the play strengthens almost to the end the Misanthrope is at last cured, this comic catharsis is made possible by the fact that in Count Buhl Hofmannsthal has created and investigated an eminently modern "character." For this "difficult man," who was first conceived in terms of the traditional character of a hypochondriac, is in fact far from being a character corned by nature. Rather, Count Buhl is like the hero of Musil's contemporary novel a "man without qualities" or, better yet, a "man without intentions," as Hofmannsthal first wanted to call his hero in a title he later rejected. So
both the natural character of French Classicism and the self-creating character of German Classicism are discarded with the figure. The comic sovereignty of the "difficult man" originates in that others ascribe to him feature by feature the qualities he lacks in order to form a stable image of his being, an image County Buhl denies and finally destroys in an unexpected action. Thus the self-contradiction of Moliere's character, the schism between his nature and his will, is converted into a new, specifically modern contradiction between being for oneself and being for others and dissolved in the cathartic outcome of the comedy. But this denouement is by no means a triumph of narcissism confirming the principle of individuality. Nor is Count Buhl, who considers it naive to think ' 'das man etwas aus sich machen kann", a character in the German Idealist sense. His comic dilemma does not grow out of the autonomy of a subjectivity that, in Hegel's phrase, "sure of itself, can bear the dissolution of its goals and realizations,'' but rather out of the heteronomy of an action which finally solves his difficulty unexpectedly, bringing him nolens volens back to sociability.
If one sees in Hofmannsthal's comedy a palinode or an ironic antiphony to Moliere's comedy of character, then the humor of Der Sckwierige originates in the contrariness of a plot which entangles in the ' 'odiosen Konfusionen'' a ' 'man without intentions" for whom nothing seems more demanding than to understand "wie man von einer Sache zur andern kommt." At a soiree which he finds perfectly awful he sets out to accomplish diplomatically three extremely delicate intentions- the reconciliation of his former mistress with her husband, the engagement of his nephew with Helene, and his own farewell to her whom he loved in secret. What effects the ironic reversal of the classical role of the Misanthrope is that Count Buhl is no longer the critical adversary but rather the perfect representative, admired by all, of the aristocratic society of Old Vienna, who, from a superior position, presides over its declining art of conversation His difficulty is caused not so much by the fact that the medium of conversation, on which he constantly meditates, itself becomes problematic to him. He first gets into an "unentwirrbarer Knauel von MiCverstandmssen" by not avoiding the role of lecturing others, although he, in contrast to Alceste, considers lessons impossible. He fails in his mission at every step and indeed produces the opposite of what he mtended. Helene finally teaches him the most unexpected, indiscreet, and at the same time simplest of all lessons which penetrates the wall of confusion he had erected and relieves him forever of the difficulty implied in his noncharacter. The lesson of the comedy with respect to the character of the Schwierige is contained in the explanation Helene gives for his bizarre behavior—an explanation which is a worthy close to the long hist ory of Misanthrope interpretations, since it teaches us to see the ultimate cause of his self-contradiction in a new light:' 'Was Sie hier hinausgetrieben hat, das war lhr MiGttauen, Ihre Furcht vor Ihrem eigenen Selbst .. Vor Ihrem eigenthchen tieferen Willen." With respect to the behavior of the Schwierige in society the lesson of the comedy is the cure of the unsociable man by Helene's confession of her love. What seems to be a social "Enormitat" allows this remarkable pair to attain sociability in the process of finding themselves—paradoxically, in the very act by which they withdraw from society "Aber es ist die letzte Soiree," announces Count Buhl, "auf der sie mich erscheinen sieht"
One of Hofmannsthal's concise and programmatic notes reads "Das erreichte Soziale: die Komodien "His comedy Der Schwierige ends ironically, but there is also a ' 'promesse de bonheur'' The power of the comic resolution can only initiate "the reconciliation with society; it cannot complete it. The normative seriousness of social life is challenged anew since the engagement kiss must be sanctioned by the bridegroom's sister and the bride's father as their delegates. But can we not see in the comic catharsis a desire to turn the solitude of the Schwierige into a regained sociability shared by two, which leaves us with some hope'?
I should like to explain this hope by introducing a notion of truth which, I suppose, may be pertinent not only in poetry but also in social life. If a truth which could convince all would be too much for us, and if truth possessed by one man alone would be too little, are there not many things which are true for at least two people? Do not Count Buhl and Helene, who begin history anew as a first couple in the image of Adam and Eve, and who succeed in destroying the illusion of a truth possessed by a single person (that is, the illusion of classical autarchy as well as of modern individualism), thereby pave the way for a truth which can perhaps someday constitute a "promesse de bonheur" for all?
Source: Hans R. Jauss,' 'The Paradox of The Misanthrope,'' in Comparative Literature, Vol 35, No. 4, Fall 1983, pp 305-322.
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