The Misanthropeby Molière
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Molière understood profoundly what makes us noble, pathetic, outrageous and funny, and in his splendid comedies satirized human folly to perfection. One of the best of his plays — and one of the greatest of all comedies — is The Misanthrope, first performed in 1666, when the King of France himself had assumed patronage of Molière's company, and the actor/playwright was at the height of his career.
Spotlighting the absurdities of social and literary pretension, The Misanthrope shows us a man who is quick to criticize the hypocrisies, inconsistencies and faults of others, yet remains blind to his own. As "the misanthrope" grows more and more irritable with others, the play becomes more and more entertaining, even as a happy ending for the hero seems less and less likely.
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By Molière, Shane Weller
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1992 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
PHILINTE. What is the matter? What ails you?
ALCESTE. [Seated] Leave me, I pray.
PHILINTE. But, once more, tell me what strange whim ...
ALCESTE. Leave me, I tell you, and get out of my sight.
PHILINTE. But you might at least listen to people, without getting angry.
ALCESTE. I choose to get angry, and I do not choose to listen.
PHILINTE. I do not understand you in these abrupt moods, and although we are friends, I am the first ...
ALCESTE. [Rising quickly] I, your friend? Lay not that flattering unction to your soul. I have until now professed to be so; but after what I have just seen of you, I tell you candidly that I am such no longer; I have no wish to occupy a place in a corrupt heart.
PHILINTE. I am then very much to be blamed from your point of view, Alceste?
ALCESTE. To be blamed? You ought to die from very shame; there is no excuse for such behavior, and every man of honor must be disgusted at it. I see you almost stifle a man with caresses, show him the most ardent affection, and overwhelm him with protestations, offers, and vows of friendship. Your ebullitions of tenderness know no bounds; and when I ask you who that man is, you can scarcely tell me his name; your feelings for him, the moment you have turned your back, suddenly cool; you speak of him most indifferently to me. Zounds! I call it unworthy, base, and infamous, so far to lower one's self as to act contrary to one's own feelings, and if, by some mischance, I had done such a thing, I should hang myself at once out of sheer vexation. PHILINTE. I do not see that it is a hanging matter at all; and I beg of you not to think it amiss if I ask you to show me some mercy, for I shall not hang myself, if it be all the same to you.
ALCESTE. That is a sorry joke.
PHILINTE. But, seriously, what would you have people do?
ALCESTE. I would have people be sincere, and that, like men of honor, no word be spoken that comes not from the heart.
PHILINTE. When a man comes and embraces you warmly, you must pay him back in his own coin, respond as best you can to his show of feeling, and return offer for offer, and vow for vow.
ALCESTE. Not so. I cannot bear so base a method, which your fashionable people generally affect; there is nothing I detest so much as the contortions of these great time-and-lip servers, these affable dispensers of meaningless embraces, these obliging utterers of empty words who view every one in civilities, and treat the man of worth and the fop alike. What good does it do if a man heaps endearments on you, vows that he is your friend, that he believes in you, is full of zeal for you, esteems and loves you, and lauds you to the skies, when he rushes to do the same to the first rapscallion he meets? No, no, no heart with the least self-respect cares for esteem so prostituted; he will hardly relish it, even when openly expressed, when he finds that he shares it with the whole universe. Preference must be based on esteem, and to esteem every one is to esteem no one. Since you abandon yourself to the vices of the times, zounds! you are not the man for me. I decline this over-complaisant kindness, which uses no discrimination. I like to be distinguished; and, to cut the matter short, the friend of all mankind is no friend of mine.
PHILINTE. But when we are of the world, we must conform to the outward civilities which custom demands.
ALCESTE. I deny it. We ought to punish pitilessly that shameful pretence of friendly intercourse. I like a man to be a man, and to show on all occasions the bottom of his heart in his discourse. Let that be the thing to speak, and never let our feelings be hidden beneath vain compliments.
PHILINTE. There are many cases in which plain speaking would become ridiculous, and could hardly be tolerated. And, with all due allowance for your unbending honesty, it is as well to conceal your feelings sometimes. Would it be right or decent to tell thousands of people what we think of them? And when we meet with some one whom we hate or who displeases us, must we tell him so openly?
PHILINTE. What! Would you tell old Emilia that it ill becomes her to set up for a beauty at her age, and that the paint she uses disgusts everyone?
PHILINTE. Or Dorilas, that he is a bore, and that there is no one at court who is not sick of hearing him boast of his courage, and the lustre of his house?
ALCESTE. Decidedly so.
PHILINTE. You are jesting.
ALCESTE. I am not jesting at all; and I would not spare any one in that respect. It offends my eyes too much; and whether at court or in town, I behold nothing but what provokes my spleen. I become quite melancholy and deeply grieved to see men behave to each other as they do. Everywhere I find nothing but base flattery, injustice, self-interest, deceit, roguery. I cannot bear it any longer; I am furious; and my intention is to break with all mankind.
PHILINTE. This philosophical spleen is somewhat too savage. I cannot but laugh to see you in these gloomy fits, and fancy that I perceive in us two, brought up together, the two brothers described in The School for Husbands, who ...
ALCESTE. Good Heavens! drop your insipid comparisons.
PHILINTE. Nay, seriously, leave off these vagaries. The world will not alter for all your meddling. And as plain speaking has such charms for you, I shall tell you frankly that this complaint of yours is as good as a play, wherever you go, and that all those invectives against the manners of the age, make you a laughing stock to many people.
ALCESTE. So much the better, zounds! so much the better. That is just what I want. It is a very good sign, and I rejoice at it. All men are so odious to me, that I should be sorry to appear rational in their eyes.
PHILINTE. But do you wish harm to all mankind?
ALCESTE. Yes, I have conceived a terrible hatred for them.
PHILINTE. Shall all poor mortals, without exception, be included in this aversion? There are some, even in the age in which we live ...
ALCESTE. No, they are all alike; and I hate all men: some, because they are wicked and mischievous; others because they lend themselves to the wicked, and have not that healthy contempt with which vice ought to inspire all virtuous minds. You can see how unjustly and excessively complacent people are to that bare-faced scoundrel with whom I am at law. You may plainly perceive the traitor through his mask; he is well known everywhere in his true colors; his rolling eyes and his honeyed tones impose only on those who do not know him. People are aware that this low-bred fellow, who deserves to be pilloried, has, by the dirtiest jobs, made his way in the world; and that the splendid position he has acquired makes merit repine and virtue blush. Yet whatever dishonorable epithets may be launched against him everywhere, nobody defends his wretched honor. Call him a rogue, an infamous wretch, a confounded scoundrel if you like, all the world will say "yea," and no one contradicts you. But for all that, his bowing and scraping are welcome everywhere; he is received, smiled upon, and wriggles himself into all kinds of society; and, if any appointment is to be secured by intriguing, he will carry the day over a man of the greatest worth. Zounds! these are mortal stabs to me, to see vice parleyed with; and sometimes I feel suddenly inclined to fly into a wilderness far from the approach of men.
PHILINTE. Great Heaven! let us torment ourselves a little less about the vices of our age, and be a little more lenient to human nature. Let us not scrutinize it with the utmost severity, but look with some indulgence at its failings. In society, we need virtue to be more pliable. If we are too wise, we may be equally to blame. Good sense avoids all extremes, and requires us to be soberly rational. This unbending and virtuous stiffness of ancient times shocks too much the ordinary customs of our own; it requires too great perfection from us mortals; we must yield to the times without being too stubborn; it is the height of folly to busy ourselves in correcting the world. I, as well as yourself, notice a hundred things every day which might be better managed, differently enacted; but whatever I may discover at any moment, people do not see me in a rage like you. I take men quietly just as they are; I accustom my mind to bear with what they do; and I believe that at court, as well as in the city, my phlegm is as philosophical as your bile.
ALCEST. But this phlegm, good sir, you who reason so well, could it not be disturbed by anything? And if perchance a friend should betray you; if he forms a subtle plot to get hold of what is yours; if people should try to spread evil reports about you, would you tamely submit to all this without flying into a rage?
PHILINTE. Ay, I look upon all these faults of which you complain as vices inseparably connected with human nature; in short, my mind is no more shocked at seeing a man a rogue, unjust, or selfish, than at seeing vultures eager for prey, mischievous apes, or fury-lashed wolves.
ALCESTE. What! I should see myself deceived, torn to pieces, robbed, without being ... Zounds! I shall say no more about it; all this reasoning is beside the point!
PHILINTE. Upon my word, you would do well to keep silence. Rail a little less at your opponents, and attend a little more to your suit. ALCESTE. That I shall not do; that is settled long ago.
PHILINTE. But whom then do you expect to solicit for you?
ALCESTE. Whom? Reason, my just right, equity.
PHILINTE. Shall you not pay a visit to any of the judges?
ALCESTE. No. Is my cause unjust or dubious?
PHILINTE. I am agreed on that; but you know what harm intrigues do, and ...
ALCESTE. No. I am resolved not to stir a step. I am either right or wrong.
PHILINTE. Do not trust to that.
ALCESTE. I shall not budge an inch.
PHILINTE. Your opponent is powerful, and by his underhand work, may induce ...
ALCESTE. It does not matter.
PHILINTE. You will make a mistake.
ALCESTE. Be it so. I wish to see the end of it.
PHILINTE. But ...
ALCESTE. I shall have the satisfaction of losing my suit.
PHILINTE. But after all ...
ALCESTE. I shall see by this trial whether men have sufficient impudence, are wicked, villainous, and perverse enough to do me this injustice in the face of the whole world.
PHILINTE. What a strange fellow!
ALCESTE. I could wish, were it to cost me ever so much, that, for the fun of the thing, I lost my case.
PHILINTE. But people will really laugh at you, Alceste, if they hear you go on in this fashion.
ALCEST. So much the worse for those who wll.
PHILINTE. But this rectitude, which you exact so carefully in every case, this absolute integrity in which you intrench yourself, do you perceive it in the lady you love? As for me, I am astonished that, appearing to be at war with the whole human race, you yet, notwithstanding everything that can render it odious to you, have found aught to charm your eyes. And what surprises me still more, is the strange choice your heart has made. The sincere Éliante has a liking for you, the prude Arsinoé looks with favor upon you, yet your heart does not respond to their passion; whilst you wear the chains of Célimène, who sports with you, and whose coquettish humor and malicious wit seem to accord so well with the manner of the times. How comes it that, hating these things as mortally as you do, you endure so much of them in that lady? Are they no longer faults in so sweet a charmer? Do not you perceive them, or if you do, do you excuse them?
ALCESTE. Not so. The love I feel for this young widow does not make me blind to her faults, and, notwithstanding the great passion with which she has inspired me, I am the first to see, as well as to condemn, them. But for all this, do what I will, I confess my weakness, she has the art of pleasing me. In vain I see her faults; I may even blame them; in spite of all, she makes me love her. Her charms conquer everything, and, no doubt, my sincere love will purify her heart from the vices of our times.
PHILINTE. If you accomplish this, it will be no small task. Do you believe yourself beloved by her?
ALCESTE. Yes, certainly! I should not love her at all, did I not think so.
PHILINTE. But if her love for you is so apparent, how comes it that your rivals cause you so much uneasiness?
ALCESTE. It is because a heart, deeply smitten, claims all to itself; I come here only with the intention of telling her what, on this subject, my feelings dictate.
PHILINTE. Had I but to choose, her cousin Éliante would have all my love. Her heart, which values yours, is stable and sincere; and this more compatible choice would have suited you better.
ALCESTE. It is true; my good sense tells me so every day; but good sense does not always rule love.
PHILINTE. Well, I fear much for your affections; and the hope which you cherish may perhaps ...
ORONTE, ALCESTE, PHILINTE.
ORONTE. [To ALCESTE] I have been informed yonder, that Éliante and Célimène have gone out to make some purchases. But as I heard that you were here, I came to tell you, most sincerely, that I have conceived the greatest regard for you, and that, for a long time, this regard has inspired me with the most ardent wish to be reckoned among your friends. Yes; I like to do homage to merit; and I am most anxious that a bond of friendship should unite us. I suppose that a zealous friend, and of my standing, is not altogether to be rejected. [All this time ALCESTE has been musing, and seems not to be aware that ORONTE is addressing him. He looks up only when ORONTE says to him]—It is to you, if you please, that this speech is addressed.
ALCESTE. To me, sir?
ORONTE. To you. Is it in any way offensive to you?
ALCESTE. Not in the least. But my surprise is very great; and I did not expect that honor.
ORONTE. The regard in which I hold you ought not to astonish you, and you claim it from the whole world.
ALCESTE. Sir ...
ORONTE. Our whole kingdom contains nothing above the dazzling merit which people discover in you.
ALCESTE. Sir ...
ORONTE. Yes; for my part, I prefer you to the most important in it.
ALCESTE. Sir ...
ORONTE. May Heaven strike me dead, if I lie! And, to convince you, on this very spot, of my feelings, allow me, sir, to embrace you with all my heart, and to solicit a place in your friendship. Your hand, if you please. Will you promise me your friendship?
ALCESTE. Sir ...
ORONTE. What! you refuse me?
ALCESTE. Sir, you do me too much honor; but friendship is a sacred thing, and to lavish it on every occasion is surely to profane it. Judgment and choice should preside at such a compact; we ought to know more of each other before engaging ourselves; and it may happen that our dispositions are such that we may both of us repent of our bargain.
ORONTE. Upon my word! that is wisely said; and I esteem you all the more for it. Let us therefore leave it to time to form such a pleasing bond; but, meanwhile, I am entirely at your disposal. If you have any business at court, every one knows how well I stand with the King; I have his private ear; and, upon my word, he treats me in everything with the utmost intimacy. In short, I am yours in every emergency; and, as you are a man of brilliant parts, and to inaugurate our charming amity, I come to read you a sonnet which I made a little while ago, and to find out whether it be good enough for publicity. ALCESTE. I am not fit, sir, to decide such a matter. You will therefore excuse me.
ORONTE. Why so?
ALCESTE. I have the failing of being a little more sincere in those things than is necessary.
ORONTE. The very thing I ask; and I should have reason to complain, if, in laying myself open to you that you might give me your frank opinion, you should deceive me, and disguise anything from me.
ALCESTE. If that be the case, sir, I am perfectly willing.
ORONTE. Sonnet ... It is a sonnet ... Hope ... It is to a lady who flattered my passion with some hope. Hope ... They are not long, pompous verses, but mild, tender and melting little lines. [At every one of these interruptions he looks at ALCESTE]
Excerpted from The Misanthrope by Molière, Shane Weller. Copyright © 1992 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Molière is one of the greatest writers of comedy of all time. Works include Les Fourberies de Scapin, Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and The Hypochondriac.
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