The Misanthrope | Study Guide

Molière

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The Misanthrope | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

The play's first scene flows directly into the second with the entrance of the courtier Oronte. Addressing Alceste, he professes a "vast admiration" for him and avows he would like to unite "friendship's bond." Oronte stresses both his devotion and his social rank, immediately implying that he is both a flatterer and a snob—hardly promising character traits if he is to be a friend of Alceste.

Oronte's objective is to secure Alceste's approval of a sonnet (a short poem) that he has just completed. Despite Alceste's obvious lack of enthusiasm, Oronte proceeds to recite the sonnet. At each break in the poem, Philinte exclaims in admiration, while Alceste, in a series of dismissive asides, reveals his own distaste. (We later learn that the sonnet is addressed to Célimène, and thus Oronte is one of Alceste's rivals for the young lady's affections and writes to tell her that.)

When Oronte presses Alceste for his sincere opinion of the poem, Alceste responds with a crushingly negative analysis. He dubs the sonnet's style "unnatural" and "artificial," offering specific examples and also a set of alternative lines which, he claims, illustrate a rougher but purer manner of expression. Oronte sharply disputes Alceste's verdict, and any semblance of courtesy between the two men swiftly vanishes. The scene ends with rapid-fire and bitterly sarcastic repartee between the two.

Analysis

Scene 2 blends seamlessly with Scene 1; note that Molière employs a run-in technique, whereby a single alexandrine line is split between the old scene and the new. At his entrance, Oronte completes the verse that Philinte began in the last line of the preceding scene. Molière employs the same technique at Act 2, Scenes 1 and 2, and Act 3, Scenes 3 and 4.

As often in Molière's plays, Scene 2 commences with elaborate, though superficial, courtesies and spirals rapidly downward. (For a structural parallel, see later the discussion of Act 3, Scene 5 between Célimène and Arsinoé). Oronte's objective is to forge a close friendship with Alceste—a goal that turns the scene into a lab experiment, probing the practical results of the theoretical approaches to friendship set out in Scene 1. The triviality of the dispute—a stereotyped set of verses on the theme of hope—adds to the comedy. Oronte's sonnet may be dismissed as silly, but Alceste's substitute is not that much of an improvement. Of course, the deck is stacked. From the beginning of the scene, spectators and readers armed with a knowledge of Alceste's character can predict how he will react to Oronte's pretensions and insincerity. What, then, is so comic about the way Molière develops the encounter?

First, Molière ingeniously magnifies Oronte's hypocrisy. At the outset, Oronte characterizes himself as an eager admirer of Alceste, but it is soon all too clear that the person he really admires is himself. Piling compliment upon compliment as he addresses Alceste, he loses no opportunity to insinuate hints of his own importance and skill. He is, for example, "much in favor with the throne." His sonnet took him "only a quarter-hour" to write. When Alceste lets loose with criticism, Oronte angrily retorts that others have praised his sonnet "to the skies." Finally, he denounces Alceste as "opinionated and conceited."

Second, Molière skillfully paces Oronte's recitation of the sonnet so that a series of admiring comments from Philinte can be juxtaposed with Alceste's withering criticisms, delivered "aside" and sotto voce (Italian for "in an undertone"). Oronte is thus delightfully led on to believe he is making a favorable impression on his audience. This technique illustrates Molière's mastery of dramatic irony, a pointed contrast between the awareness of the audience and the awareness of one or more characters on the stage.

Finally, Molière manages the pace and intensity of the dialogue so adeptly in this scene that spectators and readers usually register surprise, rather than confirmation, in the way the quarrel unfolds. For example, when Oronte presses Alceste more and more pointedly for his opinion of his verses, Alceste repeats the phrase "I don't say that" (Je ne dis pas cela in French)—each time, sharpening his critique as increasingly nasty rather than less so.

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