The Misanthrope; or the Cantankerous Lover
is a work of satiric verse by French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, published popularly under the name Molière. The play makes fun of the social norms and flaws of the French aristocratic class, while illuminating general moral flaws that tend to manifest in people around the world. Different from other satires of the time, which utilized flat characters, The Misanthrope
uses dynamic ones to provide a more nuanced criticism of French life. The play is unusual even in contrast to Molière’s other publications because it spends much of its time developing a rich set of characters rather than advancing its plot. Though the play flopped commercially after its publication, it survives today as Molière’s magnum opus.
A French aristocrat Alceste complains about rampant corruption in France to his friend, Philinte. Philinte denies his points but fails to deter Alceste, who gives a litany of platitudes about honesty and integrity. Philinte replies that honesty occasionally needs to be constrained by manners since people should make allowances for human faults. The conversation further reveals that Alceste is in the middle of a lawsuit.
Next, Oronte, a marquis, enters the conversation and suggests that he and Alceste agree to be friends. Alceste declines, suggesting they learn more about each other first. Oronte asks Alceste to give feedback on a sonnet
he wrote. Alceste reads it and insults Oronte by recommending that he find another job. Oronte departs.
Alceste meets up with Célimène, a woman he is in love with and the owner of the house in which the comedy takes place. He chastises her for entertaining too many suitors. Célimène retorts that she is merely flirting harmlessly; she reserves her true love for him. Then her servant, Basque, informs them that Acaste and Clitandre, two other people courting her, have arrived. Alceste threatens to leave Célimène but doesn’t.
Célimène’s suitors, minus the pouting Alceste, meet with her and her cousin Eliante to hear gossip about the Court. Her harsh criticisms impress them all. Suddenly Alceste’s voice emerges objecting to a perceived hypocrisy but is ignored. Eliante declares that Alceste is behaving strangely since he should be complimenting Célimène rather than disparaging her and her friends.
A legal officer arrives and tells Alceste that Oronte has filed a lawsuit for the unkind criticism of his poem. Alceste departs to look at the details. Clitandre and Acaste take the opportunity to talk privately about their love for Célimène. Though Acaste has a big ego, he despairs that Célimène does not love him despite his wealth and handsomeness. The two men decide that if one of them is rejected outright, the other will support the victor in earning Célimène’s true love.
Alceste returns just as Célimène leaves. Arsinoe compliments him for his integrity and offers to help him get a position in the Court. He balks, whereupon she reveals that she has a letter proving that Célimène has been unfaithful to him. They leave to examine the letter. After they depart, Philinte and Eliante tell the Marshals of France about Alceste’s rudeness. While Philinte lambasts him, Eliante says that she respects that Alceste sticks to his personal values. Eliante adds that Célimène is unsure about whom she is in love with, admitting that she herself would probably accept Alceste as a suitor if he wasn’t so set on Célimène. At this point, Philinte reveals that he is attracted to Eliante and would accept her advance. Just then, Alceste enters extremely upset. He wants to punish Célimène for lying to him and going after a different suitor. Alceste suggests that he and Eliante create revenge by having their own relationship. Eliante, however, tells Alceste not to be reckless.
Eliante and Philinte exit as Célimène appears. Alceste criticizes her, but she defends herself and says that he is foolish to believe the letter. Du Bois, his servant, rushes in, warning him to flee as his lawsuit has been lost and he is now a wanted man. Alceste leaves to learn more and finds Philinte, who recommends that he challenge the legal outcome. Alceste stubbornly refuses, saying that it is a prime example of the Court’s corruption. He declares that he will become a willful pariah, and plans to ask Célimène to come with him one final time.
Oronte and Alceste arrive together and demand that Célimène choose one of them. She declines, giving the decision to Eliante to make. Eliante arrives and refuses the responsibility. Acaste and Clitandre arrive with a letter composed by Célimène that insults both of the men. Arsinoe and Philinte also return and renounce Célimène.
At the comedy’s conclusion, Alceste remains the only man who is willing to court Célimène. He offers his forgiveness on the condition that she lives with him in isolation. Taken aback, Célimène says that she is far too young, agreeing only to marry him. Enraged, Alceste retracts his love for Célimène. She departs, and Alceste says that it would be unfair to request Eliante’s devotion. She agrees, deciding to go after Philinte. Leaving alone, Alceste is pursued by Eliante and Philinte, who wish to change his mind about disappearing forever.
A play where only a couple of minor and inauspicious characters end up happy, The Misanthrope
criticizes the archetype of the stubborn Frenchman who refuses to play along with social convention. Ultimately, this attitude leads to self-isolation rather than the enlightenment of the protagonist or his society, casting the dismantling of social convention as a futile enterprise for one man to attempt alone.