The Misanthrope | Study Guide

Molière

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The Misanthrope | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

While chairs are provided for the visiting noblemen, Alceste grimly warns he will not withdraw, as he had threatened in the previous scene. Furthermore, he tells Célimène she will soon have to choose between him and his rivals. Célimène replies that Alceste must be mad.

Clitandre and Acaste initiate a gossip session about various court personalities, beginning with two foolish courtiers named Cléonte and Damon. Éliante, the cousin of Célimène, remarks to Philinte that "the conversation takes its usual turn, / And all our dear friends' ears will shortly burn." Prodded in turn by Clitandre and Acaste, Célimène is the star of the gossip session, skewering target after target for an array of foibles and follies: snobbery, conceit, and pseudo-wit are only some of the faults that Célimène amusingly describes.

At length, Alceste breaks in to reprove the company for their attacks. Face to face, he reminds the critics, they would all hypocritically embrace their targets. However, Clitandre, Philinte, and Célimène turn on him with a gathering host of counterarguments. If Alceste is so convinced that the courtiers are "knaves and fools," why does he protest against those who ridicule them? Célimène comments wryly on Alceste's "heaven-sent spirit of contrariness," whereupon Alceste retorts that "righteous anger's never out of season."

The scope of the conversation then expands, as the characters discuss the nature of love. Lovers steer clear of criticism, maintains Éliante. Alceste begins to protest, but Célimène interrupts him, suggesting that the group take a stroll through the gallery where they are.

Analysis

This is the central scene in Act 2 and is often referred to as the "portrait scene" because of the miniature profiles of various self-inflated or foolish courtiers rendered by Célimène. She proves, in fact, to be a skillful and highly amusing portraitist, unrelenting in her satirical acumen. Pushing back against the destructive energy of her satire, however, is Alceste's abiding concern with sincerity and authenticity. Whereas Alceste runs the risk, as always, of appearing to be a fault finder to the highest degree, Célimène's critiques of the courtiers, while immensely clever, risk the appearance of mean-spiritedness on her part.

In the introduction to his translation of The Misanthrope, Richard Wilbur includes an interesting note on Molière's use of redundancy. His illustration of this stylistic feature is drawn from a speech by Arsinoé in Act 3, Scene 5. However, the point might just as well be exemplified by any of the portraits of the hypocritical or foppish courtiers sketched in Act 2, Scene 6 by Célimène. Take, for example, her depiction of the egocentric Adraste: "Oh, that conceited elf / Has a gigantic passion for himself; / He rails against the court, and cannot bear it / That none will recognize his hidden merit; / All honors given to others give offense / To his imaginary excellence." As Wilbur points out, in passages such as this a character makes essentially the same point in a number of successive couplets, thus producing a "specifically rhetorical pleasure." Wilbur emphasizes that a prose translation would almost certainly lack the "baroque exuberance" and exaggerated excess that Molière's cumulative, rhyming alexandrines convey.

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