The Complex Alceste of Moliere's Misanthrope

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The Complex Alceste of The Misanthrope

"I cannot improve on it, and assuredly never shall," said Molière of his satire The Misanthrope, {1} and the critic Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux concurred by accounting it one of Molière's best plays.{2} But the French public did not like it much, preferring the dramatist's more farcical The Doctor in Spite of Himself--a play that, according to tradition, was written two months after The Misanthrope's premiere to make up for the latter's lack of success.{3} In fact, The Misanthrope horrified Rousseau, who thought that its aim was, in Donald Frame's words, "to make virtue ridiculous by pandering to the shallow and vicious tastes of the man of the world."{4} Both he and Goethe after him regarded Alceste, the protagonist, as a tragic figure rather than a comic one.{5}

It is evident from such a diversity of sentiments that the work before us is complex enough to provoke a variety of reactions. On the one hand, Molière made The Misanthrope a comedy, not a tragedy. Alceste, despite his bold railings against the hypocrisy of society, often finds it impossible to set a heroic example in front of his all-too-"civilized" circle. He is no lone upholder of a noble creed forced to martyrdom for his beliefs; in fact, his announcement, at the end of the play, of the martyrdom he is imposing upon himself--exile to "some solitary place on earth/Where one is free to be a man of worth"{6}--makes him look less heroic than ridiculous.

And yet, if we do not place our sympathies with Alceste, we search this play in vain for another character worthy of them. The silly marquises do not command much respect. Arsinoé is conniving, spiteful, and a critic of everyone else's morals. Oronte is not only as vain a...

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...f which is given in Brown and Kimmey, pp. 121-72), this is marked as V.viii, ll. 21-2.

{7} Cf. John Dover Wilson, "Introduction," in William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1936), p. xlviii.

{8} II.v, ll. 711-30 (ll. 153-72 in Wilbur).

{9} I.i, line 118 (so also Wilbur).

{10} Frame, "Introduction to The Misanthrope," op. cit., p. 21.

{11} Richard Wilbur, "Introduction to The Misanthrope," in Brown & Kimmey, p. 360.

{12} Ibid., p. 361.

{13} V.iv, line 1782 (V.viii, line 50 in Wilbur).

{14} I do not include Arsinoé in this, since in a sense she receives some sort of punishment when in the last scene (V.iv [ in Wilbur]) she is put to shame by Alceste's implication that he is fully aware of her true motives. Her discomfiture should be enough to satisfy a sense that poetic justice has been served in her case.

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