Le Misanthrope  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux (June 4th 1666) is a 17th century comedy of manners written by French playwright Molière.

This play, like Molière's Tartuffe and others, is a comedy. It satirizes the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society, but it also engages a more serious tone when pointing out the flaws which all humans possess. The play differs from other farces at the time by employing dynamic characters like Alceste and Célimène as opposed to the traditionally flat characters used by most satirists to criticize problems in society. It also differs from most of Molière's other works by focusing more on character development and nuances than on plot progression. The play, though not a commercial success in its time, survives as Molière's best known work today.

Because both Tartuffe and Don Juan, two of Molière's previous plays, had already been banned by the French government, Molière may have subdued his actual ideas to make his play more socially acceptable. As a result, there is much uncertainty about whether the main character Alceste is supposed to be perceived as a hero for his strong standards of honesty or whether he is supposed to be perceived as a fool for having such idealistic and unrealistic views about society. Molière has received much criticism for Le Misanthrope. One critic, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, hated the play for depicting Alceste as a fool on stage. He believed that the audience should be supporting Alceste and his views about society rather than disregarding his idealistic notions and belittling him as a character.



Alceste- the protagonist and "misanthrope" of the title. He is quick to criticize the flaws of everyone around him, including himself. He cannot help but love Célimène though he loathes her behavior.

Célimène- A young woman who is courted by Alceste, Oronte, Acaste, and Clitandre. She is playful and flirtatious, and likes to point out the flaws of everyone she meets behind their backs. Célimène pays much attention to social appearances.

Philinte- A polite man who genuinely cares for Alceste, and recognizes the importance of occasionally veiling one's true opinions in a social context. He is mainly thought of as Alceste's foil.

Éliante- Love interest to Philinte and cousin to Célimène, who initially pines for Alceste. She possesses a good balance between societal conformity and individual expression.

Oronte- An outgoing, seemingly confident man who also loves Célimène for a time. His insecurity is revealed when he is unable to handle Alceste's criticism of his love sonnet.

Arsinoé- A highly moralistic older woman who is jealous of the attentions which Alceste pours onto Célimène.

Acaste- A young, pompous marquis who believes he is deserving of Célimène's love.

Clitandre- Another marquis who attempts to woo Célimène and win her love, and enjoys gossiping with her about notable social figures.

Du Bois- Alceste's farcically blundering manservant.

Basque- Célimène's loyal manservant.

Officer- A messenger of the Marshals of France who asks Alceste to answer for his criticism of Oronte's poetry.

Plot summary

This work centers on the protagonist Alceste, whose wholesale rejection of his culture's polite social conventions make him tremendously unpopular. In the first act of the play, he states: “…Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race”. However, this conviction manifests itself in the primary conflict of the play, which consists of Alceste's intense love for Célimène, a flirtatious young woman who pays great attention to social appearances and conventions. Alceste's determination to reject society and its supposed dishonesty is countered by his desire to share a life with Célimène, whose actions oppose all that he stands for. Alceste has other women pining for him, such as the moralistic Arsinoé and the honest Eliante. Yet his preference lies in Célimène. His deep feelings for the latter primarily serve to counter his negative expressions about mankind, since the fact that he has such feelings includes him amongst those he so fiercely criticizes. Judging by his bold assertions, the reader may initially take him for a strong, deliberate man who will let nothing stand in his way of implementing his decision. But his reaction to Celimene’s treatment of him reveals his inherent frailty, and the reader learns that he may wish to leave mankind behind, but mankind will not leave him so easily. The plot then thickens to involve a court justice that results from Alceste's refusal to praise Oronte's paltry love poem. Alceste typically refuses to dole out false compliments, and this practice lands him in court. Some of the most memorable parts of the play are the constant plays on words and the extremely humorous jibes at society and its rules.

Philinte represents a foil for Alceste's moral extremism, and speaks throughout the first act of the play on the necessity of self-censorship and polite flattery to smooth over the rougher textures of a complex society. Alceste, on the other hand, believes that people should be completely honest and should not put on pretenses just to be considered polite in society. Eventually, Alceste's inability to cope with society and its inescapable affectations causes him to forsake Célimène, who ultimately agrees to marry him, and retreat to a deserted land where he will no longer have to deal with other people. Philinte, for his part, marries Eliante and the pair receives Alceste's blessing.

Alceste's Poetic Criticism

Molière includes several instances of poetic criticism within his play, indicating his parameters on how to judge poetic output. He communicates his message, primarily, through Alceste, the play's main character. Alceste judges poetic output based on the true passion and feeling behind the rhyme. He communicates that flighty infatuations do not give way to good poetry: "That one should curb the heady inclination/ To publicize one’s little avocation". According to him, a verse should be composed with passion and honesty, which are not always in fashion. It should communicate natural emotions, not insipid personal inclinations that give way to mere word play: “This artificial style that’s all the fashion, / Has neither taste, nor honesty, nor passion; / It’s nothing but a sort of wordy play, / And nature never spoke in such a way”. Alceste praises the ancient poets, who, according to him, knew how to communicate true passion and grit. He admires them for not paying as much attention to the style and fashion of the verse, and instead concentrating on the poetic content and meaning. He comments on an old poem: “The rhyme’s not rich, the style is rough and old, / But don’t you see that it’s the purest gold/ Beside the tinsel nonsense that is now preferred, / And that there’s passion in its every word?” Molière's argument can be directly related to the social norms of the time, when appearance and social standing were valued above all else, and when the career of royal courtier was in fashion.


Modern adaptations of the play have been written by Tony Harrison and Liz Lochhead. Lochhead's version is set in the early years of the Scottish Parliament and satirises Scottish Labour's relationship with the media. The Grouch, a more modern verse version of Le Misanthrope by Ranjit Bolt was first performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2008. It is set in contemporary London, and most of the characters' names are recognisably linked to Moliere's: in the sequence of the above cast list they are Alan, Celia, Phil, Eileen, Orville, Fay (Arsinoe), Lord Arne, Chris, and manservant Bates.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Le Misanthrope" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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