The Characters of Molière's The Misanthrope

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The Characters of Molière's The Misanthrope

The characters in Molière's The Misanthrope inhabit a world different from that of many of the playwright's other works: we are viewing the actions of people at the very top of the social ladder of 17th-century France. For example, the foppish Acaste and Clitandre, who come into Célimène's house in the second act, are marquesses, the second-highest rank one can hold in the country. They can spend most of the day with Célimène, if they so choose, for their only remaining duty at court is to attend the coucher of Louis XIV, the formal going-to-bed ceremony of the king, to which only the highest members of the court were invited to attend. The characters of The Misanthrope own estates, hold power, and are immensely wealthy. They are not the bourgeois household of Tartuffe, they are not members of the upper-middle class--they are the court.

Through Alceste, the misanthrope of the title, Molière mocks and attacks the behavior of the highest level of his society. But Alceste is no Tartuffe, censuring those about him, while giving the appearance of a puritan, set apart from society. No, Alceste, himself an owner of estates, yearns to be accepted by the very society he condemns, and that was seen from the first in the costume which Molière wore when he played Alceste, a costume that represents the latest fashion--expensive, tasteful, and stylish.

We do not know much about this costume from the script, other than it is adorned with green ribbons. We know what Alceste wore--at least in the first productions--from an inventory of Molière's effects, made after his death:

Item, another box where one finds the costumes for the presentation of Le misanthrope consisting of breeches an...

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... wearing a curved-brimmed hat, fashionable shoes, and richly embroidered, highly fashionable justaucorps. It was (and is) an Alceste as hypocritical as the society he condemns for hypocrisy, a "supremely paradoxical creature," as David Whitton has called Alceste: "a fish which cannot abide water, nor live out of water."

Works Cited

Dock, Stephen V. "Authentic Costuming for Tartuffe and Le misanthrope." Approaches to Teaching Molière's Tartuffe and Other Plays. Ed. James F. Gaines and Michael S. Koppisch. New York: MLA, 1995. 117-36.

Lawrenson, Tom. "The Wearing o' the Green: Yet Another Look at Ôl'Homme aux Rubans Verts.'" Molière: Stage and Study. Essays in Honour of W. G. Moore. Ed. W. D. Howarth and Merlin Thomas. Oxford; Clarendon, 1973. 163-69.

Whitton, David. Molière: Le Misanthrope. Glasgow: U of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1991.

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