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the misanthrope

10 december 2018

Tartuffe is Molière's play about a hypocrite, and The Misanthrope is his play about an anti-hypocrite. Alceste, the title misanthrope, is sick of everybody lying to everybody else all the time, saying immediately behind people's backs the opposite of what they've said to their faces. His friend Philinte points out that if we went around telling the absolute truth all the time, we couldn't live with one another. But Alceste is intransigent.

As great comedies go, The Misanthrope is notably joke-free and has a sad ending. It ought to be funny, and as Joseph Harris points out in an introduction to Penguin's Four French Plays, it seems to have some of the requisites: a number of couples not getting sorted easily into relationships, a central character possessed by an exaggerated "humor." But The Misanthrope avoids blatant gags and obvious comic misunderstandings. Its characters seem vulnerable and, for all their hypocrisy, unusually straightforward. (While, ironically, it's the blunt Alceste who seems least in touch with his true self.) It ends up being a somewhat serious play about how an inability to compromise can make a person unhappy.

John Edmunds' translation is notably restrained and never showy. He writes in the same workmanlike English blank verse he employs in the plays by Corneille and Racine in this same Penguin volume. Edmunds allows himself a little rhyme here and there, as in the scene where Alceste and the lousy poet Oronte have a falling out after Alceste can't help telling Oronte that he can't write. But for the most part, his translation reinforces his interpretation of Alceste as a "deeply problematic comic figure" (xxviii).

The best set-pieces for the cast are that confrontation over the poem; a later confrontation between Célimène and Arsinoé (two of Alceste's would-be girlfriends) where, under the guise of giving each other advice, one calls one a slut while the other calls the other a prig; and a much later clearing of the deck of various suitors in which one of the fops courting Célimène reads a letter she's written that tells everybody in the company exactly what she thinks of them.

You'd think that the revelation of Célimène's grumpiness would be the perfect moment for she and Alceste to run into each other's arms. She really is his soul-mate, after all: like Alceste, Célimène thinks the worst of everyone she knows, and isn't choosy about how she phrases her disdain. But even that level of compatibility isn't enough for Alceste. Now that they've established that neither of them can stand anyone else, he insists that they run away to a rural hermitage. "I don't feel that my soul is great enough / Or strong enough," Célimène explains, and refuses to go with him (134-35).

"Our wooing doth not ende like an olde Play," Alceste might remark, in the words that Shakespeare's Berowne, another misanthrope of sorts, uses in Love's Labour's Lost. But Alceste is much more bitter than Berowne, and resolves to "leave this foul abyss where vices thrive" (135) and seek somewhere where everyone is honest – a possibility he seems to have defined out of existence before trying to find it.

Molière. The Misanthrope. 1666. Translated by John Edmunds. In Four French Plays. London: Penguin, 2013. 65-136.