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The Misanthrope | Context

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The Court of the Sun King

Louis XIV, born in 1638 when Molière was a teenager, succeeded to the throne of France in 1643. Just as Molière was finishing his apprenticeship in the provinces in the late 1650s, King Louis XIV began to establish his own imprint as monarch. With more of an inclination for the arts than for politics, the king distributed his royal patronage among a brilliant group of authors, musicians, painters, performers, architects, landscape designers, and decorative artists. These beneficiaries would all add luster to the vast court of le Roi Soleil (the "Sun King"), centered at Versailles, a small town about 15 miles west of Paris. In due course, the king's palace at Versailles would become the most celebrated royal residence in Europe. In October 1658, Molière and his company succeeded in gaining the patronage of the brother of King Louis XIV, Philippe d'Orléans, with an entertainment entitled Le Docteur amoureux (The Doctor in Love).

Neoclassical Drama in France

As late as 1630, French drama was a nondescript medley, largely consisting of street shows and occasional informal displays of Italian players in the commedia dell'arte. Quite remarkably, this changed over the course of the next half century to become what is still today regarded as a golden age of the theater in France.

The great flowering of French drama was due primarily to three supremely talented playwrights: Pierre Corneille, Molière, and Jean Racine. All three are generally classified as neoclassical, either because they drew their plays from classical Greek and Roman sources or because they observed classical rules of form, structure, or style. These rules had received their most celebrated formulation in the Poetics of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and in the Art of Poetry of the Roman poet Horace (65–8 BCE). In 17th-century France, the literary critic and poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711) did much to codify the principles of classical composition in his L'Art poétique. Boileau became a great friend and admirer of Molière.

Molière on Stage

Depiction of Folly

Although Molière's dramatic output is extremely diverse, critics have made certain generalizations to describe his comedies. One of the most important of these is with regard to Molière's comic protagonists, who often exhibit an obsession or blind spot of exaggerated folly. Thus, Alceste in The Misanthrope is driven by his conviction that hypocrisy and insincerity are the key moral failings of society. In The Miser (1668), the protagonist Harpagon is consumed by stinginess. In The Would-Be Gentleman (1670), Jourdain is obsessed by the desire to rise above the middle class into the ranks of the aristocracy. And in The Imaginary Invalid (1673), Argan typifies hypochondria. Perhaps the most complex case of such characterization appears in one of Molière's greatest works, Tartuffe (1664). In this play, a religious hypocrite (the title character) preys on his new friend, Orgon. However, Orgon is blinded by admiration for him and endangers his family by following Tartuffe's corrupt advice too closely.

Staging

Molière's plays contain a wide variety of settings. One standard stage set, however, features a house on either side of the stage with a street in the middle. Plays with their action entirely indoors, such as The Misanthrope, were comparatively easy to stage because no action is shown taking place outside the single room. Actors typically furnished their own costumes, which were not paid for by the company.

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