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!