Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
Honesty and Hypocrisy
The overriding theme of The Misanthrope is honesty and hypocrisy. Alceste, the central character, is a misanthrope because he is disgusted by the hypocrisy that, in his view, characterizes human society. Alceste claims to be the only truly honest person he knows. As the play opens, he is criticizing Philinte for insincerely behaving with affection toward someone who is merely a mild acquaintance. When Oronte asks for Alceste's opinion about the love sonnet he has written, Alceste is brutally honest in claiming that the poem is "trash" and that Oronte should refrain from ever writing another poem. Against Alceste's diatribes, Philinte argues for the value of insincerity in social interactions for the sake of the feelings of other people, as well as in the interest of endearing oneself to those with influence. Critical discussion of the character of Alceste, however, reveals that he may be the biggest hypocrite of all in claiming to be the only honest man around. Nicholas Dromgoole, in an introduction to a translation of Moliere: The Misanthrope, argues that, while, in theory, Alceste's argument is one that most people might agree with—that the world would be a better place if people were more honest and sincere with one another—"Alceste carries this idea to the point of obsession, of absurdity."
Peter Hampshire Nurse, in Moliere and the Comic Spirit, observes that Alceste's so-called sincerity in speaking his mind to others is merely a "rationalization for self-centered passion"; hence, "the inauthenticity of Alceste's whole code of sincerity." Thus, D. B. Wyndham Lewis asserts in Moliere: The Comic Mask, "A moral theologian could indict [Alceste] almost at sight for the sin of pride." By allowing for this ambiguity in Alceste's true character and motives, Moliere's play thus leaves open the question of the value of absolute sincerity as advocated by a misanthrope.
Throughout the play, Alceste is concerned with the issue of justice, both in the abstract, moral sense and in more concrete terms, as practiced by the judicial courts. Among the characters in The Misanthrope, litigation seems to be the rule of the day. Lawsuits are apparently so common that characters frequently refer to "my lawsuit" without explanation of the nature of the suit. In the context of the play, however, one can assume that these lawsuits are essentially trivial and a matter of personal revenge rather than any claim to real justice.
Alceste, in particular, is embroiled in several lawsuits during the course of the play. Oronte takes him to court for the offense of having criticized his poem—a matter that is resolved only when Alceste agrees before a tribunal to apologize for not liking the poem, although he refuses to take back his statement that the poem is terrible. Alceste's other lawsuit involves a man who has circulated a publication criticizing the government and attributed it to Alceste's authorship. While everyone else seems willing to play the game of legal battles by attempting to make friends with those who have influence at court, Alceste refuses to participate in this game even though it would be in his best interests. Rather, he prefers to remain self-righteous in his argument that true justice should prevail in the legal system, as elsewhere, and that the fact of his being in the right should suffice as his legal defense. It is made clear throughout the play, however, that justice is hardly a factor in legal disputes, because it is equally absent from society as a whole.
Games People Play
As a comedy of manners, The Misanthrope is about the game of social propriety as a cover for power-mongering, revenge, and manipulation. Throughout the play, characters make reference to social custom and civility as a game. For instance, Celimene says of the need to flatter those who have influence at court: "It's not a nice game, but it must be played." Hallam Walker, in Moliere, explains Moliere's comic method as one in which "he sets up some guidelines for a game of human relations, gives the characters an initial nudge, and lets them play themselves." Alceste, then, is a misanthrope because he refuses to play by the rules of the social game in which everyone around him is engaged. In this play, the game is one in which everyone pretends to adore everyone else, speaks critically behind everyone's back, and uses the power of influence at court to manipulate others, exact revenge, curry favor, and satisfy their own desires. Roxanne Decker Lalande, in Intruders in the Play World, reads the character of Alceste into the context of Moliere's social milieu, observing that "by refusing to play the game, Alceste threatens to shatter the illusions upon which seventeenth-century polite society has secured its foundations."
The Individual in Society
In his distaste for common civility, which he sees as hypocrisy, his insistence on the belief that justice should prevail, and his refusal to play by the rules of the game of society, Alceste represents the classic figure of the individual struggling against the conformity that society demands. Walker observes that, while the theme of "the conflict between one eccentric individual and the public good is a timeless scheme for comedy," which Moliere had used in previous plays, "Le Misanthrope is the most subtle and far-reaching treatment of the theme." In her article, "Oh, Those Black Bile Blues: Teaching Le Misanthrope," Louise K. Horowitz points out, however, that Alceste's very claim to individuality is merely an aping of an oft-repeated stance against society. As with the question of sincerity, Moliere's play raises the question of the sincerity of claims to individuality, leaving open to interpretation whether or not Alceste's insistence on defying the everyday requirements of social convention is only an elaborate excuse for manipulating others and serving his own ends.