The Misanthrope

Moliere is a 17th century French writer known for his satiric comedy plays. His plays-be it Tartuffe, The Misanthrope or The School for

Husbands-predominantly look at the French society of the time with a satiric lens.  In his Preface to the play Tartuffe, Moliere has specifically outlined that the function of comedy is to correct men and society’s faults. This was the prevailing view of comedy’s function among Western writers of the time.

The Misanthrope is also a much layered play which brings into question the hypocrisies of the artificial upper classes of 17th century French society. The play is about Alceste, who detests contemporary society and its ways and manners, and his love for the beautiful widowed Celimene. Alceste does not wish to follow any superficial manners and believes them to be a waste of time and anyone who blindly follows them always elicit bursts of anger and hatred from Alceste. Celimene, on the other hand, believes that it is important to follow the social conventions for one’s own gain. This creates a lot of tension between the two extraordinary lovers who are as different as fire and ice. Alceste’s friend, Philinte, tries his best to diffuse the tension and to make Alceste understand that being in constant argument with the social world and with mankind is detrimental. With this main plot, Moliere explores several questions-whether Alceste is really a misanthrope or is it someone else and if he is the former, then it is rather paradoxical that a misanthrope is in love with Celimene; whether it is worth to struggle with social norms and not accept them at all and several others. There are several sub plots as well such as the nascent love between Philinte and Eliante; the simmering relationship between Celimene and Arsinoe; Oronte’s sonnets and his suit against Alceste who insulted the former’s writing abilities etc.. Within these several layers are revealed the minute workings of the aristocratic class, their hypocrisies regarding human relations, their vanity, the position and status of women etc.

The Misanthrope is a fun play to read as it provides an acute analysis of the malaise of the times, which Alceste detested, in a light, comic manner. All the characters are colourful and rounded with their unique viewpoints. Their dialogues and mannerisms give the reader a glimpse into their personalities and ways of thinking.  Moliere is a master of satiric comedy and he invests The Misanthrope with several lines of thought and meaning which the reader can ponder over. Many critics have pointed out that Alceste’s character is based on Moliere himself and that his deteriorating relationship with Armande Bejart was the basis for Alceste’s relationship with Celimene. We can never know the truth, but only speculate. And while you speculate, do try and relate the play to our own contemporary hypocrisies as well. Happy reading!

Pati, patni aur woh

Obscenity, indecency and lewdness are quite common in today’s media-television shows, news, soaps, popular songs, movies, magazines,books, Facebook, and the internet in general. It probably does not shock us that much because we are ‘oh so modern’ and are not narrow minded like those restrained Victorians! Its also kind of ‘cool’ to be indecent at times in today’s world. Bollywood movies will teach all the Indian guys how to woo a girl by eve teasing her or worse even by raping her. However, even today, we do sometimes get outraged by shameless displays of obscenity and well mostly its the Censor Board that gets outraged which then displays its own obscene power to chop down obscenity to protect the people from getting outraged too!

Well, there wasn’t any Censor Board in the Restoration Period in the late 17th century or even later on yet the drama of that time received some flak for its indecency. Nonetheless, at the height of the Restoration, it was enjoyed by the audience to the fullest and only later on did the drama begin to be looked down upon.

The Country Wife‘ is one such play produced at that time which was one of the most popular plays but like the rest of Restoration drama it was ignored and only resurrected in the 20th century when a few ‘modern’ critics considered those works from a literary angle and critiqued it intelligently. Written by William Wycherley, ‘The Country Wife‘ is a quintessential Restoration play as its core is wit, satire, and indecency. The Indian Censor Board would have banned it if it was written today but thankfully it has been put in the sacred halls of literary work. Even if it hadn’t been, it is wrong to define this play and all the other Restoration plays as being solely obscene. As mentioned before, the play is replete with wit and it pokes fun at the aristocracy and their hollow/superficial lives. Satire and wit were esteemed aspects of that life and were incorporated in the plays as well particularly in comedies. Thus, ‘The Country Wife‘ is a hilarious play with several literary devices particularly the double entendre (double meanings) which furthers the wit along with the indecency.It is this hilarity that also acts as a biting commentary on the frivolous and decadent ways of the Restoration aristocracy.

The Country Wife‘ has a main plot and a sub plot. The former is centered on a gentleman named Horner, who pretends to be an eunuch so that he can gain the trust of the husbands who would then allow their wives to spend time with him. A rich middle class man, Sir Jasper Fidget, falls for this ruse and allows him to enjoy the company of his wife, Lady Fidget and daughter, Miss Dainty Fidget. He also falls for a town gentleman’s wife, Margery Pinchwife when he sees her in the theater. Her husband, Mr. Pinchwife only married her because he could not keep a ‘whore’ to himself and felt that the country wife would not cheat on him because of her innocence and naivete. Yet he is wholly jealous of her and keeps her restricted and even locked up so that she won’t cheat on him. Margery is thus the titular character of the play. The play then goes on as to how Horner makes a ‘cuckold’ of all the husbands because of his stratagem. This is interspersed with the sub plot that basically deals with Harcourt and Alithea’s (Mr. Pinchwife’s sister) love. The two plots are in stark contrast to each other. The former is all about cheating on one’s wives and husbands and the latter extolls true love. In the end, it is Harcourt and Alithea’s relationship that is a right example of how love should be treated.

The downside of the play is that is a tad bit sexist because it is judgmental towards the aristocratic women and not the great pretender Horner who seems to have a vicious appetite for fornication. This attitude also reflects on how badly women were treated then particularly accentuated by Pinchwife’s cruel treatment of his wife. Wycherley, however, does show Pinchwife in a ludicrous light perhaps to manifest that husbands who restrict their better halves and treat them so will deserve to be cheated and ‘cuckolded.’

The play may not be everyone’s cup of tea especially for those who are touchy about indecent language and manners. Yet those very things are what make the play a satire. It is an inseparable part of the play. Knowing a little about the time and the literary techniques and customs will also help in further understanding the play. For eg, the dominant stock characters such as the fop, the rake, the wit etc that were usually used in the Restoration comedies, the predominant French influence(seen in ‘The Country Wife‘ as well in the many French words and the influence of Moliere), the importance of wit in the towns, the constant juxtaposition of town and country and the usual deriding of the country ways and manners etc.

So you could either dismiss ‘The Country Wife‘ as being bawdy and uncouth or read it up and go with the flow as 17th century bawdry could not shock us anymore! Moreover, who wouldn’t enjoy the sexual innuendos?