Dover Book

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mis-an-thrope: one who hates or distrusts mankind
Just in case you didn't know what it meant. (I didn't; I had to look it up.)

In this deliciously funny satire, Molière (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) pokes fun at 17th century French aristocrats, and the phoniness, pretentiousness, and puffed-up arrogance that were considered the norms of society. Modern readers can relate to these characters. We all know the back-stabbers, those who say one thing to your face and turn around to insult you to others. Or the ones that are afraid to speak the truth because someone might not "like" them. The hypocrites that say what you want to hear then behave in the opposite manner. And of course there's those with the over-inflated egos, whose main subject of interest is themselves. Yep, they're all here, behaving like the cast of a really bad soap opera, ready to provide us with lots of laughs, not only at them, but at little pieces of ourselves!

The play begins as Alceste (the misanthrope) and his friend Philinte argue over whether it is best to always be truthful and candid, or if it is better to be polite. Alceste says, 'We ought to punish pitilessly that shameful pretense of friendly intercourse." Philinte responds, "Would it be right or decent to tell thousands of people what we think of them?" They continue to argue, and Philinte brings it to Alceste's attention that the woman he loves, Célimène, flirts and is less than sincere. Philinte also points out to Alceste that two other women are in love with him who are much more sincere and proper. Alceste responds that he is conquered by Célimène's charms, but believes his pure heart will correct her flaws, and that she truly loves him.
(Yeah, right.)
Next, enter Oronte who praises Alceste so profusely that he is unaware he is being spoken to. Oronte wishes to embrace him as a friend, but Alceste suggests they become more acquainted before they declare friendship, to see if they actually like each other. Oronte then asks Alceste to listen to a sonnet he just wrote to judge if it is good. Alceste politely declines, saying that he "is a little more sincere in those things than is necessary." But Oronte insists, saying that he welcomes an honest opinion.
(Well, we'll see about that!)
So, as Oronte reads his sonnet, Philinte acts charmed, but Alceste mumbles that it is rubbish. At the conclusion, Alceste, in trying to be diplomatic, tells Oronte that he recently told another person who wrote poetry ". . . a gentleman ought at all times to exercise a great control over that itch for writing which sometimes attacks us. . ." Oronte asks Alceste if he thinks HE could write better, and he responds that he probably could not, but he wouldn't make a fool of himself by reading it to anyone.
We next see Alceste in a jealous fit, threatening Célimène to break up with her and ridiculing one of her suitors, Clitandre, over his fair wig, ribbons, German breeches, and falsetto voice. Soon a group of friends enter, including Clitandre and Acaste, and they sit around finding rude things to say about other people they know while Alceste just fumes. As the gossip continues, a guard enters and summons Alceste to court for insulting Oronte's poem!
Later, we see Célimène's "friend" Arsinoé enter. Célimène gushes over her (after she has just finished dissing her!). Arsinoé says she must warn Célimène (because she is her friend) about the gossip being spread about her, and suggests that it would stop if Célimène would correct her behavior. Célimène politely responds to Arsinoé (as a friend) that people think her prudishness and honorable behavior are fake, covering up the fact that she can't get herself a man. Arsinoé later responds to Célimène's 'constructive criticism" by showing Alceste a letter Célimène wrote to another of her lovers!!

Well, you get the idea. . . As the tittle-tattle, betrayals, insults, and hypocrisy continue to intensify, so does the hilarity, until finally in the end, nearly everyone loses.

This very funny play is worth reading over and over. It is quite short—only 52 pages—so I suggest reading it through quickly, then reading it again slowly, to really savor the wit.

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