Tuesday, 8 December 1998

Molière: The Misanthrope (1661)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 177

The Misanthrope has two juvenile leads, who represent different aspects of human nature - indeed, as surmised by John Wood in his introduction, different aspects of the personality of Molière himself.

On the one hand, we have Alceste, disgusted with the hypocrisy of the world, who has declared that there is no good in man, and who has vowed never to lie about the virtues of others. He is, of course, the misanthrope of the title. This attitude gets him into a considerable amount of trouble, including a law suit which he loses because he refuses to flatter the judge and the enmity of Oronte, whose poetry he cannot bring himself to praise. His big problem is that he is in love with the flirtatious and shallow Célimène (as is his rival Oronte), and continues to be so despite his knowledge of all her faults, ones which he despises in others.

On the other hand, we have his friend Philinte, who has the instincts of a courtier, always ready to find a word in praise of others. Molière manages to make him sufficiently sympathetic that the audience will not blame or despise him for this in the way that it will some of the other characters. Nevertheless, the main interest for both Molière and for us is the character of Alceste, which is only natural given that there are more possibilities for comedy in a character who is different from everyone else around him (and from the audience too - a major part of the point of the play), and who refuses to moderate his principles in any way whatsoever.

We all know both the impulse to be the courtier and that to reject all hypocrisy, and this is one reason why The Misanthrope succeeds so well. John Wood describes it as Molière's masterpiece, and that is certainly a judgment that his translation bears out.

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