The Misanthrope

by Moliere

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Places Discussed

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Célimène’s salon

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 expect her to abandon everything for him. The salon in which this comedy takes place creates specific expectations that create numerous surprises in the minds of Molière’s audiences.

Historical Context

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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 court, which was converted for its purposes, and quickly became the leading theater in Paris. The Marais Theatre burned down in 1644 but was rebuilt with updated stage machinery. After 1660, Moliere's troupe was housed in the Palais-Royal Theatre.

The Italian commedia dell'arte (also called the Comedie-Italienne), a troupe with which Moliere's company shared space in two different theaters, was an equally important presence in the world of French theater. Moliere's contemporaries in the theatrical world included Jean Racine, a master of...

(This entire section contains 677 words.)

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the tragic play and equal in status to Moliere as master of the comic play. While Moliere's troupe produced several of Racine's early plays, a falling out occurred in 1665, when Racine secretly negotiated to have his plays produced simultaneously at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Racine's masterpiece,Phedre, was first produced in 1677. The year of Moliere's death, 1673, the king ordered the close of the Marais, combining its theatrical troupe with that of the late Moliere and later with the troupe that had been associated with the Hotel de Bourgogne. In 1680, this combined theatrical company was named the Comedie-Francaise, the first nationalized theatrical company in modern Europe.

The English Restoration Moliere's comedies of manners greatly influenced the seventeenth-century English stage, as well as the French. In 1660, King Charles II, having spent years in exile in France, was restored to the English throne. Influenced by his exposure to Parisian culture of the Louis XIV era, especially the theater, Charles II revitalized the English stage within months of his return. The theatrical arts in England had suffered since all theaters were shut down at the beginning of the civil war in 1642 and remained closed for eighteen years. Charles II first established two theatrical companies, the King's Players and the Duke's Players, and had two new theaters, the Theatre Royal and the Duke's Theater, built at the sites of converted tennis courts. He also allowed the presence of female actors on the English stage for the first time (whereas female parts had previously been played by boys and young men).

Restoration theater was greatly influenced by the comedies of manners of Moliere, particularly in the works of William Wycherley (who studied in France as a young man), such as The Country Wife (1675) and The Plain Dealer (1676). Other writers of note include William Congreve, whose Way of the World (1700) represents the crowning achievement of Restoration theater. However, as these productions catered primarily to the elite and not the general populace, they were not entirely successful. In 1682, due to declining theater attendance, the King's Players and the Duke's Players were combined to form the United Company, which remained the only theatrical company in London for the next thirteen years.

Literary Style

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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.'"

Rhymed Verse 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." Thus, while the content of Moliere's dialogue ridicules social convention, the structure of the verse expresses this critique through means of a conventional literary form. The effect of this is to stylistically unify the disparate voices that can be heard throughout the play. In an introduction to his 1955 translation of The Misanthrope, Richard Wilbur observes, "The constant of rhythm and rhyme was needed, in the translation as in the original, for bridging great gaps between high comedy and farce, lofty diction and ordinary talk, deep character and shallow."

Translation from FrenchThe Misanthrope was originally written in French. Thus, the English language reader has access to the play only in translation, of which there are a number of different renditions. One grammatical feature of the French language that has no equivalent in English is the distinction between tu and vous, both of which mean "you." However, vous is the formal form of the word you, used in addressing figures of authority or those one does not know well; tu, on the other hand, is the informal word for you, to be used with friends and family or in some casual social situations. Because this distinction cannot be translated literally, translators of Moliere, such as Nicholas Dromgoole, in his 1998 translation of The Misanthrope, have retained these French terms through the translation. Thus, in Act II, Celimene, who is ridiculing one of her acquaintances for his arrogance and "self-importance," complains that "he calls the bluest-blooded people 'tu'— / Reserving 'vous' for plebs like me and you." In other words, he speaks to the most elite members of society using the familiar tu form while he regards those he considers to be of lesser importance with the more distancing vous. In this way, he shows off his intimacy with the most elite class and snubs all others as distant acquaintances. Because of inherent differences in French and English, this distinction would be lost without the translator retaining the original French forms of the word you in this line.

Self-Referentiality The term self-referential describes texts that, directly or indirectly, refer back to themselves or their authors. In The Misanthrope, during a heated discussion with Alceste, Philinte mentions the play The School for Husbands (1661), written by Moliere. He tells Alceste, "We're like the brothers in that Moliere play—'The School for Husbands'—you recall the way." To which Alceste responds, "Your favorite trick—a facile parallel!" The effect of this self-referential passage in Moliere's play is that of a gesture that literary theorists sometimes refer to as a "wink" at the audience; in mentioning another of his own plays, only to have his protagonist write off the reference as irrelevant, Moliere invites his theatrical audience to have a laugh at his expense while reminding them that the events and characters they are watching are simply the creation of the dramatist and meant to be taken in a playful vein.

Denouement The denouement of a story refers to the resolution or conclusion with which most stories end, providing the reader with a sense of closure and the impression that the central conflicts of the story have been essentially resolved. The ending of The Misanthrope, defying the classic denouement, is disarmingly abrupt. It should not surprise a reader to find himself or herself flipping confusedly through the final pages of the play, wondering if a sixth act has been erroneously omitted from the text. This is because The Misanthrope does not end with the type of denouement that is standard to comedy, such as the happy marriage of several couples in many of Shakespeare's comedies. Rather, it ends with Alceste's final renouncement of his love for Celimene and his abrupt departure for the "wilderness," where he claims he will spend his life in solitude. Philinte insists on following after Alceste, hoping to convince him not to leave. Asserting that "the irresolution" of The Misanthrope "is the most daring bit of theatrical trickery that Moliere undertakes," Walker describes the final action of the play as "a dash off the stage with a peculiar sense of projected energy utterly foreign to a proper resolution of a drama," adding that "indeed, nothing is at all finished or settled, nor was the contemporary audience wrong in finding the ending very odd."

Compare and Contrast

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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.

1945-1958: The end of the war leads to the formation of a Fourth Republic. Women in France are granted the right to vote.

1959: A military coup in French colonial Algiers leads to the end of the Fourth Republic. The Fifth Republic is headed by General Charles de Gaulle.

1968-1969: A national crisis is caused in May 1968 with the occupation of the Sorbonne university in Paris by student radicals, which inspires a surge of wildcat strikes among workers throughout France. De Gaulle, whose national standing never quite recovered from May 1968, resigns in 1969.

1981-1995: The election of Francois Mitterrand ushers in a socialist presidency in France, which lasts through two terms. In 1995, Jacques Chirac is elected president of France, ending the fourteen-year period of socialist rule.

1600s: The reign of Louis XIV fosters the theatrical arts. Three theaters dominate the Parisian world of drama: The Marais, the Hotel de Bourgogne, and the Palais-Royal. After the death of Moliere in 1673, the king orders the merging of three main theater troupes, which, in 1680, become the Comedie-Francaise, the first national theater in Europe.

1790s: During the French Revolution, the Comedie-Francaise is divided along lines of political sympathies.

1800s: Under the emperor Napoleon, the Comedie-Francaise is reestablished. In 1812, Napoleon issues a decree stating the rules according to which this national theater is to be run.

1900s: A new director, appointed to the Comedie-Francaise in 1970, initiates the performance of new plays, along with traditional plays.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

Wilbur, Richard, "Introduction," in The Misanthrope, translated by Richard Wilbur, Harcourt, 1955.

Further Reading Bernier, Olivier, Louis XIV: A Royal Life, Doubleday, 1987. This is a biography of King Louis XIV of France, who reigned from 1643 to 1715 and who remained an ardent supporter of Moliere's theatrical career.

Jones, Colin, The Cambridge Illustrated History of France, Cambridge University Press, 1994. This is a history of French civilization with an emphasis on graphic display, such as artwork, engravings, and photographs.

Lalande, Roxanne Decker, Intruders in the Play World: The Dynamics of Gender in Moliere's Comedies, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. This is a feminist reading of the representation of women and gender in Moliere's major theatrical comedies.

Marshall, W. Gerald, A Great Stage of Fools: Theatricality and Madness in the Plays of William Wycherley, AMS Press, 1993. This book contains a discussion of the works of Moliere's English counterpart as the master of the comedy of manners on the English stage.

Maskell, David, Racine: A Theatrical Reading, Clarendon Press, 1991. This book discusses the works of the greatest tragic playwright of seventeenth-century France.

Powell, Jillian, A History of France through Art, Thomas Learning, 1996. Powell's text contains a history of art in France, in a cultural and historical context, from medieval through modern times.

Walker, Hallam, Moliere, Twayne, 1990. Walker's book discusses the development of Moliere's dramatic career, with a focus on his major works.


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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.

Mander, Gertrud. Molière. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Includes descriptions and analyses of fourteen plays and a usefully detailed chronology of Molière’s life.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide