The Misanthrope

anthropos - human being
anthropic - relating to the era of human life on earth

MisanthropeThe Misanthrope is a sophisticated comic drama that was originally produced in Paris, 1666. It has been called Molière's sexiest and most alluring play, exploring the consummate love affair between two profoundly mismatched people — the vivacious Célimène, who adores the superficial society that nurtures her, and Alceste, who loathes its every move.

The playwright asks us whether or not it is possible to live honestly in a dishonest world. Is the plain-speaking Alceste a fool or a hero when he refuses to pander to popular opinion and risks his neck to tell the truth?

Alceste, originally impersonated by the author himself, is a candid soul who believes that the truth should be spoken at all times. He makes no allowances for ordinary courtesy and criticizes the insincerity of contemporary society at every turn. He does not hate mankind, however, nor is he an abrasive cynic. High and noble in nature, he is alienated from the world by its insincerities and hypocrisies.

His friend, Philinte, who is the embodiment of worldly wisdom, happily complies with the habits and customs of society, not because he believes in them so completely, but because he feels it is wise to make the best of circumstances, to take the world as one finds it. Through this character we discover the moral of the play. Molière enforces the necessity of social toleration, though in doing so he casts no ridicule upon Alceste, whose misanthropy is simply the outcome of excessive virtue.

Philinte tries to make Alceste see that honesty does not require him to go out of his way to offend and hurt people. He even points out that a few well-spoken words in the right place might go far toward bringing a favorable decision in the lawsuit Alceste has pending in the courts. Alceste vows that if his suit cannot win through its own merits, he will renounce the society which sanctions such injustice and leave Paris to live the life of a hermit.

When the young courtier, Oronte, seeks his opinion on some verses he wrote, Alceste's rude and needless criticism results in another name being added to his list of enemies and the threat of a second lawsuit.

Alceste falls in love with Célimène, a popular young woman with little regard for the truth. Her main interest is to surround herself with admirers, each of whom she attempts to convince that he is ‘the one.’ Alceste is aware of his recklessness even as he gives in to temptation, but in the argument between his head and his heart, it is love that wins out over principle. While Alceste is attempting to persuade Célimène to openly acknowledge their engagement, a duplicitous friend of Célimène's, Arsinoé, displaying the honesty that Alceste admires so much, exposes Célimène's falseness. All of her admirers except for Alceste drop away. His lawsuit has finally been lost, and now he asks Célimène to prove her love by sharing the hermit's existence to which he plans to retire.

Célimène is willing to take Alceste's name in marriage to make up for the pain her deceit has caused him. She confesses, however, that she is unwilling to leave Paris because she will not forego the pleasures of youth and beauty for anyone's sake. This confession does for Alceste what Arsinoé's exposure fails to accomplish. The blinders are off, and he finally sees Célimène for the flirt that she is.

Éliante, Célimène's cousin, had herself been in love with Alceste but since he announces a total lack of interest in women thenceforward, she contents herself with the love of his friend, Philinte. The play closes with this couple's stated determination to change Alceste's outlook on life.

[Source: The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 7. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 199-201]

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