At first glance, The Misanthrope is a provocatively simple comedy: Alceste, a noble writer, loves Célimène, but the young widow he tries to court strings him along. Impatiently, he goes to her palace to extract a clear statement from her. There he meets numerous major and minor hypocrites, friends, competitors and women who are all against him.
Alceste has a reputation for being exhausting, smart, witty, wealthy and full of hatred for the society which he is a part of and which is also a part of him. He lashes out, hurls damaging insults, preaches the unconditional truth and non-compromise – and is increasingly marginalised. Escape from the world seems to be the only possible path for the misanthrope.
"Molière chastised people by penning them as they truly were," Voltaire wrote about his compatriot, a hundred years after The Misanthrope was written. And indeed, Molière impaled his characters like insects, revealing himself to be both an expert judge of character and a comedy writer in doing so. He locates his figures somewhere between brash egotism and heartfelt forlornness, surrendering them to the audience's ridicule.
The most fervent indignation, antipathy and rejection start to waver, the viewer's fixed image of humanity starts to crack, and weaknesses become more bearable – at best even our own.
The Misanthrope is probably Molière's most autobiographical play.
At the court of Louis XIV, having finally made a name for himself, a clearheaded, easily seduced playwright who succumbed to a woman 21 years his junior, Molière himself played the role of The Misanthrope at the premiere. He knew perfectly well that nothing was funnier than a man caught in the vortex of his own flaws. He saw through the mechanisms of the court and its power hierarchy. He was aware of the customs and rules, the masks and self-projections, and the rigidity with which conformist behaviour was promoted and nonconformism punished.
On the other hand, he also recognised people's natural selfishness and deep-seated malice, and saw the need for a social contract.
But what would such a vision look like? What would be the rules? How much honesty, diplomacy, illusion and unconditionality could people bear?
Alceste is one response; his ridiculousness is another. And the position of the audience in its time is deeply interesting.