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The Misanthrope
By Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Known as Molière (1622-1673) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Title
Molière's Masterpiece
Setting
Characters
Character Development
Verse Format
Rhyme Scheme
English Translations
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Climax
Irony
Lovers in Conflict
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Molière
Complete Free Text: French
Complete Free Text: English
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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010

Type of Work and First Performance
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The Misanthrope is a five-act stage play generally categorized as a comedy of manners (or drawing-room comedy), which satirizes the customs, attitudes, and activities of the fashionable upper classes. Such a work thrives on witty dialogue and comic situations that reveal hypocrisy, deceit, excessive pride, and other moral shortcomings. Moliére debuted the play June 4, 1666, at the Palais-Royal Theatre in Paris. He and his wife, Armande, played the leading roles—Molière as Alceste and Armande as Célimène.

Sources

The complete title of the play in the original French is Le misanthrope, ou l'atrabilaire amoureux (The Misanthrope, or the Irritable Lover). L'atrabilaire amoureux may also be translated as the disagreeable lover or the ill-tempered lover.

Molière's Masterpiece

Critics generally regard The Misanthrope as Molière's masterpiece. Charles A. Eggert, PhD, wrote the following in his introduction to the Molière text:

No poet of the age of Louis XIV has so vividly painted that age as Molière. It lives in his comedies, and particularly in his Misanthrope. Eugène Despois, the distinguished editor of the works of Molière, calls this comedy the noblest of comic masterpieces. Goethe, the most illustrious of its readers, has said: "I am reading it again and again, as one of the pieces I like best in the world." (v)
The Misanthrope continues to be popular in the twenty-first century. For example, in December 2009, the play drew packed houses at the Comedy Theatre in London in a modern version starring Keira Knightley, Damian Lewis, and Tara Fitzgerald. The play was scheduled to run for about four months. New York's Juilliard School of Dance, Drama, and Music staged another modern version, beginning in October 2008. Traditional versions were staged by the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., in 2004 and by the Deep Dish Theater Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the same year.

Work Cited

Eggert, Charles A. Moliere's Le Misanthrope. Boston, D.C. Heath, 1889.

Setting
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The action takes place in Paris in the 1660s at the residence of a young woman of the upper class. The sun king Louis XIV sits on the throne of France, presiding over an age of high fashion, architectural splendor, titillating gossip, and court intrigue.

Characters

Protagonist: Alceste
Antagonists: Célimène and the World in General

Alceste: Young aristocrat who continually bemoans the deceit and flattery people use to make their way in the world. Their hypocrisy has turned him into a misanthrope, a person who despises all humankind. Although quick to point out flaws in others, he fails to acknowledge his own flawed behavior.
Célimène: Fashionable young woman who says she loves Alceste but flirts with several other men pursuing her. She is intelligent and quick-witted, and she enjoys gossiping about others in her social circle. 
Philinte: Level-headed friend of Alceste who attempts to persuade the latter to moderate his behavior.
Éliante: Mild-mannered cousin of Célimène. Philinte likes her, but she hopes to attract the attentions of Alceste.
Oronte: Gentleman of Paris who is one of Célimène's suitors. He takes legal action against Alceste after the latter criticizes his poetry. 
Acaste: Marquis who is one of Célimène's suitors. (A marquis ranks above a count but below a duke.)
Clitandre: Another marquis. He also is one of Célimène's suitors.
Arsinoé: Older woman who pretends to be a prude to mask her failure to snare a man. She has eyes for Alceste. 
Basque: Célimène's servant.
Dubois (also spelled Du Bois in some texts): Alceste's servant.
Guard: Official representing the Maréchaussée, consisting of marshals who enforce the law.
Marshals: Officials who issue summonses and enforce the law. The marshals in The Misanthrope summon Alceste before them; however, they have no speaking roles.

Persons Criticized in Conversations

Adraste: Excessively proud man.
Bélise: Dreary woman.
Cléon: Man who relies on the excellence of his cook's food to attract visitors.
Cléonte: Man who exhibits bad manners at the Louvre (museum).
Damis: Man who pretends to be witty.
Dorilas: Boastful man.
Emilia: Old woman who wears too much makeup.
Geralde: Man who tires people with his storytelling.
Timante: Man who is always busy but has nothing to do.

Character Development

The Misanthrope centers more on character development than on plot twists and turns. Consequently, witty or revealing dialogue is more important than humorous situations involving mix-ups or buffoonery.




Verse Format

Molière wrote most of the lines in The Misanthrope in one of the most popular literary formats of seventeenth-century France, Alexandrine verse. An Alexandrine line consists of twelve syllables. Syllables 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 are unaccented. Syllables 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 are accented. In the middle of the line, between syllables 6 and 7, is a brief pause called a caesura. Occasionally, an Alexandrine line contains 13 syllables, the last one unaccented. In English versification, an Alexandrine line is equivalent to iambic hexameter, iambic referring to the succession of unaccented/accented pairs and hexameter referring the total of six two-syllable pairs. Following is the forty-sixth line of The Misanthrope in the original French, demonstrating the Alexandrine scheme. The accented syllables are in boldfaced red.

   1.....2..3.....4.........5....6.......7...8.9.10..11...12 
Ces obligeants diseurs d’inutiles paroles (Paroles may also be read as three syllables: pa ROL es)
Loose English translation: These obliging speakers of useless words
The Alexandrine format does not apply to lines with only a few syllables, such as the following:
DU BOIS
Parlerai-je haut? (Shall I speak out?)

ALCESTE
Oui, parle, et promptement. (Yes, speak, and quickly.)

Molière's Rhyme Scheme

Molière wrote The Misanthrope in rhyming couplets. A couplet is a pair of lines with rhyming final syllables. Following are lines 41-46 in the original French, demonstrating this rhyming pattern. Alceste is the speaker. 

Non, je ne puis souffrir cette lâche méthode
Qu’affectent la plupart de vos gens à la mode;
Et je ne hais rien tant, que les contorsions
De tous ces grands faiseurs de protestations,
Ces affables donneurs d’embrassades frivoles,
Ces obligeants diseurs d’inutiles paroles

Loose English Translation
Not so. I cannot bear so base a method
Which your fashionable people generally affect; 
There is nothing I detest so much as the contortions
Of these great time-and-lip servers, 
These affable dispensers of meaningless embraces, 
These obliging utterers of empty words,

English Translations

Most English translations of The Misanthrope render the play in prose instead of verse in order to make it more appealing to modern English speakers. However, good translations retain the spirit of the play and the subtleties of the dialogue.

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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Based on a Project Gutenberg Public-Domain Translation of the Play

Note: All the scenes take place in the Paris home of an attractive young socialite, Célimène. 

Alceste is grumpy because his friend Philinte treated cordially a man he does not admire and hardly even knows. Philinte says he sees nothing wrong with exhibiting kindness even to those who deserve criticism. To get along in this world, one must sometimes withhold his true feelings. 

Not so, says Alceste. One must speak his mind even when doing so offends the listener. 

“There is nothing I detest so much as . . . these affable dispensers of meaningless embraces, these obliging utterers of empty words, who view every one in civilities, and treat the man of worth and the fop alike” (1.1), Alceste says. 

In truth, nothing about the world pleases Alceste, who observes, “Everywhere I find nothing but base flattery, injustice, self-interest, deceit, roguery. I cannot bear it any longer; I am furious; and my intention is to break with all mankind” (1.1).

Philinte tells Alceste he should spend less time railing against humankind and more time paying attention to his lawsuit against an influential opponent, who may use underhanded tactics to win. But Alceste says will not bother himself about the matter. He is in the right, he says, and that is all that matters. If the court finds against him, he says, “I shall see by this trial whether men have sufficient impudence, are wicked, villainous, and perverse enough to do me this injustice in the face of the whole world.”

Philinte then asks why Alceste he chose to love Célimène. Her flirtatious nature and “malicious wit” (1.1), he says, are the very qualities that Alceste condemns. Why did he not choose the sincere Éliante, or the prudish Arsinoé, who likes him? Does he not recognize Célimène's faults? Alceste says he does see her faults but loves her in spite of them. He cannot help himself. He has come to Célimène's, he says, to express his feelings toward her.

Oronte, one of Célimène's gentleman acquaintances, enters, saying he has heard that Éliante and Célimène were out shopping but that Alceste was within. He says he wishes to make the acquaintance of Alceste, noting that “a zealous friend, and of my standing, is not altogether to be rejected” (1.2). Oronte then lavishly praises Alceste as a man whom the entire kingdom admires for his extraordinary qualities. Alceste replies that the two of them should first get to know each other before committing themselves to friendship. Oronte then reads a sonnet he wrote, asking Alceste to evaluate it. As he reads it, After Oronte completes his recitation, Alceste severely criticizes it as “beside all good taste and truth” (1.2) with weak versification and an outdated style. He tells Oronte to go elsewhere if he wishes praise.

Exchange Insults

When the two men trade insults, Alceste gets the better of him. Oronte leaves. Philinte then comments, “Well! you see. By being too sincere, you've got a nice affair on your hands . . .” (1.3).

Later, after Alceste escorts Célimène home from shopping, he reproves her for her coquettish behavior with other men—in particular, Clitandre. "Are you, like all the rest of the fashionable world, fascinated by the dazzling merit of his fair wig?" (2.1) he says.

Célimène notes that Clintandre and his friends back her in a lawsuit in which she is involved. After she and Alceste argue further, Célimène assures Alceste that she loves him but complains that he seems to love her only so that he can quarrel with her. 

Basque, Célimène's servant, announces the arrival of Acaste. After Célimène tells Basque to fetch Acaste, she and Alceste continue to quarrel. Moments later, Basque announces that Clitandre has also arrived. Shortly thereafter, Éliante, Célimène's cousin, and Philinte also come in. Célimène tells Basque to arrange chairs for everyone.

Clitandre commences the conversation by criticizing an acquaintance, Cléonte, for exhibiting bad manners at the Louvre. Acaste then criticizes another man, Damon, for engaging him in conversation for a whole hour in the blazing sun. Célimène joins in the criticism. When Clitandre mentions Timante as “another original” (2.5), Célimène observes that Timante is always busy even though he has nothing to do and “quite oppresses people by his ceremonies.” Acaste then asks her opinion of Geralde. “A tiresome storyteller,” she says. When Clitandre notes that Geralde is fond of Bélise, Célimène refers to her as "the dreariest company" (2.5).

Célimène gives her opinion of three others whose names Clitandre and Acaste bring up: Adraste (“What excessive pride!”), Cléon (“a very bad dish”), and Damis (“he pretends to too much wit”) (.2.5). 

Alceste interrupts to criticize Clitandre and Acaste, saying that if the persons under review were present the two men would be fawning all over them. He also chastises them for providing the fodder for Célimène's gibes. Célimène defends the right of the two men to speak their mind.

Moments later, an official representing the king's police force (Maréchaussée) arrives with a summons for Alceste. It seems Oronte is suing him for criticizing his poetry. Alceste reluctantly agrees to answer the charge but vows that he will not be bullied into saying that the poetry has merit.

After he leaves, Clitandre and Acaste make a gentlemanly agreement regarding Célimène. If one of them can prove that he has won her affections, the other will step aside. Basque enters and announces the arrival of Arsinoé. When Acaste observes that she has a reputation as a prude, Célimène says that in reality Arsinoé is just as carnal as any other woman. Her problem is that she cannot get a man. Consequently, to save face, she rails against the moral shortcomings of women with admirers. She is especially jealous of Célimène, who enjoys the attentions of the man Arsinoé wants: Alceste. 

Arsinoé enters just as Clitandre and Acaste are leaving. She says she has come to offer advice: Célimène must cease courting the attentions of young men, for people are talking about her. 

“Not that I believe that decency is in any way outraged," she says. "Heaven forbid that I should harbour such a thought! But the world is so ready to give credit to the faintest shadow of a crime. . ." (3.5).

Célimène thanks her for the advice, then gives advice of her own. At a recent gathering, she says, people criticized Arsinoé's “prudishness and too fervent zeal . . . your eternal conversations on wisdom and honor, your mincings and mouthings at the slightest shadows of indecency . . . that lofty esteem in which you hold yourself, and those pitying glances which you cast upon all” (3.5). The people concluded that Arsinoé should pay less attention to the actions of others and more to her own. 

Arsinoé and Célimène exchange angry words. When Alceste enters, Célimène leaves, telling Alceste to entertain Arsinoé until her carriage arrives. Arsinoé expresses her pleasure at having Alceste to keep her company, then urges him to seek a place at a court.

"If you will only give me a hint that you seriously think about it, a great many engines might be set in motion to serve you" (3.8), Arsinoé says. 

But Alceste says he has neither the disposition nor the desire to serve at court. 

"To be open and candid is my chief talent," he says. "I possess not the art of deceiving people in conversation" (3.8).

Arsinoé then attempts to drive a wedge between Alceste and Célimène by saying that the latter is unworthy of Alceste's attentions. In fact, she says, if he goes with her to her house, “I will give you undeniable proof of the faithlessness of your fair one’s heart” (3.8). They leave immediately for her residence.

At the home of Célimène sometime later, Philinte and Éliante discuss Alceste's obstinacy before the marshals of France. He absolutely refused to retract his criticism of Oronte's poetry. The only concession the marshals could gain from him was this statement to Oronte:“I am sorry, Sir, to be so difficult to please; and out of regard to you, I could wish, with all my heart, to have found your sonnet a little better” (4.1). The marshals then required them to make up with an embrace. 

Éliante says she admires Alceste for refusing to compromise his values. What is more, she says, she believes Célimène may be wrong for him. If he ever decided to break with her and turn his attention to Éliante, “I could easily be prevailed upon to listen to his addresses” (4.1), she says. Philinte says he would likewise welcome the attentions of Éliante if Alceste remains committed to Célimène. 

Alceste returns and angrily denounces Célimène as unfaithful. The proof, he says, is in his pocket—a letter in her handwriting which he says she addresses fond words to unnamed man. (Alceste believes she wrote it to Oronte. It is possible, of course, that she intended to send to to Alceste.) Éliante tries to calm him. Philinte tells him that he may have misinterpreted the letter. Alceste then declares that he is giving his heart to Éliante to gain revenge against Célimène.

"I shall punish her by the sincere attachment, and the profound love, the respectful cares, the eager devotions, the ceaseless attentions which [I] will henceforth offer up at your shrine" (4.1),he tells Éliante.

Éliante urges him not to be rash; he could be wrong about Célimène. But Alceste says his resolve is firm. At that moment, Célimène comes in. Philinte and Éliante leave.
Alceste castigates Célimène, calling her deceitful, treacherous and perfidious. When she asks why he is so angry, he shows her the letter “with contents so full of tenderness for Oronte” (4.3). She acknowledges that she wrote the note but adds, 

“[I]f it is a woman to whom this letter is addressed, how can it hurt you, or what is there culpable in it?" (4.3).

Demands Explanation

Alceste demands an explanation. She refuses to give it and says he is free to believe what he wishes. Saying she has inflamed him with love for her, he pleads with her to prove the letter is not what it seems. She replies that she has already assured him of her love for him. This assurance should be enough for him. Why, she asks, should she have to defend herself?

Dubois, Alceste's servant, arrives with a legal document and a note informing Alceste that he has lost his lost suit and that Oronte was among those who supported the opposition. Believing he has been dealt a grave injustice, Alceste tells Philinte that he renounces humankind as wicked and plans to withdraw from the world. 

Oronte and Célimène enter while Alceste is in a corner, unseen. Oronte asks Célimène for her love and ask her to choose between him and Alceste. The latter comes forth and says Oronte is right; she must choose. Célimène says there is no doubt in her mind whom she prefers, but she avoids saying which one. They press her further. When Éliante comes in, Célimène asks her for advice, but Éliante says only that she thinks people should speak the truth.

Arsinoé, Philinte, Acaste, and Clitandre all enter. Arsinoé says she has come at the request of Acaste and Clitandre to witness Célimène's response to slanderous reports against her. Acaste produces a letter that Célimène wrote to Clitandre. Clitandre produces a letter that she wrote to Acaste. 

The first letter (to Clitandre) says she is eager to meet with Clitandre; it ridicules all her other suitors. Acaste's “sole merit consists in his cloak and sword,” the letter says, and Alceste, “is the greatest bore in the world” (5.4). Of Oronte, she says, “[H]is prose bores me as much as his poetry.” The second letter (to Acaste) urges Acaste to “come see me as often as you can” and refers to Clitandre as “the last man for whom I could feel any affection” (5.4).
Outraged, Clintandre, Acaste, and Oronte leave.

Arsinoé criticizes Célimène for her treatment of Alceste. Alceste, however, says he can manage his own affairs and adds that “if ever I intended to avenge myself by choosing some one else it would not be you whom I would select” (5.6).

Arsinoé leaves in a huff.

Célimène acknowledges that she has wronged Alceste and that he has every right to hate her. Alceste calls her a “perfidious creature” (5.7) but says he still loves her. Célimène says she is willing to marry Alceste, but he says he will marry her only if she agrees to join him in his withdrawal from the world. Doing so is the only way that “you can repair the harm done by your letters” (5.7), he says.

She refuses, saying she is too young to renounce the world. 

After she leaves the room, Alceste says he is beginning to believe that marriage is not for him. He also leaves. Philinte and Éliante remain, and they pledge themselves to each other. Then Philinte says they must do everything in their power to prevent Alceste from living a life of solitude.

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.Themes

Hypocrisy
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Célimène, Clitandre, Acaste, Oronte, and Arsinoé all use flattery and deceit to make their way in the fashionable upper-class world of seventeenth-century Paris. Their false faces hide their true feelings. 
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Tactless Candor

Alceste counters the hypocrisy around him with candor. However, his is a tactless candor; he seems to enjoy criticizing others. When Philinte points out to him his overzealousness, Alceste rejects the criticism. 
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Love Gone Wrong

A man and woman in love are willing to make sacrifices for each other; they are willing to compromise or yield on occasion. But neither Alceste nor Célimène is willing to defer to the other's wishes. Each is stubbornly fixed in his or her own pursuits—Alceste in his zealotry and Célimène in her coquetry. In the seventh scene of Act 5, Alceste says he is willing to overlook Célimène's offenses against him—but only if “you are determined to follow me without delay into the solitude in which I have made a vow to pass my days.”  Célimène rejects him, saying, “What! I renounce the world before I grow old, and bury myself in your wilderness!” It is a reasonable response, but its wording and tone are hardly sympathetic. At the end of the play, one is left wondering whether Alceste and Célimène really loved each other or were merely infatuated with each other. As Éliante says in the first scene of Act 4, "How can we judge whether it be true she loves? Her own heart is not so very sure of what it feels."
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Power
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In the age of the sun king, Louis XIV, having even a modicum of power at court was a coveted cachet—and a tool to manipulate others. In The Misanthrope, Molière shows how favored aristocrats used their court connections to try to manipulate others. For example, before introducing his poem to Alceste in the second scene of Act I, Oronte says, “If you have any business at Court, every one knows how well I stand with the King; I have his private ear; and, upon my word, he treats me in everything with the utmost intimacy.” When Arsinoé attempts to win the affections of Alceste in the seventh scene of Act 3, she says, “I could wish that the Court, with a real regard to your merits would do more justice to your deserts . . . . If you will only give me a hint that you seriously think about [a place at court], a great many engines might be set in motion to serve you; and I know some people whom I could employ for you, and who would manage the matter smoothly enough.”
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Moderation
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It is said that a phrase translated as “Nothing in excess” (or as “all things in moderation”) was carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece. Over the centuries, this phrase became a valued precept for right living. Philinte follows this precept—wittingly or unwittingly—and attempts to convince Alceste of its wisdom. In the first scene of Act 1, He tells his friend:

Let us torment ourselves a little less about the vices of our age, and be a little more lenient to human nature. Let us not scrutinize it with the utmost severity, but look with some indulgence at its failings. In society, we need virtue to be more pliable. If we are too wise, we may be equally to blame. Good sense avoids all extremes, and requires us to be soberly rational. . . I, as well as yourself, notice a hundred things every day which might be better managed, differently enacted; but whatever I may discover at any moment, people do not see me in a rage like you. I take men quietly just as they are; I accustom my mind to bear with what they do. . . .
Of course, Alceste ignores Philinte's advice and ends up withdrawing from society..

Climax
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The climax occurs when Acaste and Clitandre read the letters revealing Célimène's two-faced behavior with her suitors. This development leads to the standoff between Alceste and Célimène, and each goes his and her separate way.
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Irony
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A supreme irony in the play is that Alceste's affections fall upon Célimène. Here is a woman who regularly uses flattery and deceit to get her way, the very tactics that Alceste condemns in his tirades about the wickedness of humankind. 

Marital and Courtship Conflict: Common Literary Motif

Over the centuries, writers have centered many tragic and comedic works—or parts of them—on spouses and wooers in conflict. Among these works is The Misanthrope. Others analyzed by Cummings Study Guides include Molière's The Miser, Tartuffe, and The Imaginary Invalid; Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing,The Taming of the Shrew, and Othello; Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Euripides' Medea, Virgil's Aeneid (Dido episode), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary
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Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Research the life of Molière. Then decide whether he based the two leading characters, Alceste and Célimène, on himself and his wife. Present your answer to your class with an explanation.
  • Which character in The Misanthrope do you most admire? Which character do you least admire? Explain your answers.
  • Read "Love Gone Wrong" (above, under Themes). Then write a short essay taking a stand on whether Alceste and Célimène were really in love or merely infatuated with each other.
  • Write an essay that compares and contrasts the themes of Molière's play with the themes of Timon of Athens, a Shakespeare play about a legendary misanthrope.
  • ln your opinion, are Éliante and Philinte right for each other?
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