The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope (1666) is a comedy of manners play by French playwright Molière (1622-1673). The play tells the story of Alceste, a cynical French aristocrat who constantly grumbles about the shallowness of his times. A purist for the truth, Alceste ends up in legal trouble when he offends an influential royal court member. Molière's biting comedy is an illuminating probe of hypocrisy and the limitations of belief. 

The Misanthrope The Misanthrope

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Table of contents

    The Misanthrope: Summary

    Alceste is a misanthropic French aristocrat who likes to complain about French society. The play opens as Alceste sits in his girlfriend's house, Célimène. Alceste debates human nature with his friend Philinte. While Alceste argues that society is corrupt because people refuse to be open and honest about their feelings and intentions, Philinte believes it is essential to understand and accept humanity's inherent flaws. The characters also discuss love as Philinte admits to being in love with Célimène's cousin, Éliante. Alceste confides that he has doubts about Célimène.

    A misanthrope is a person with deep hatred and mistrust of other humans and humanity in general. Misanthropes are generally antisocial, cynical, and mean-spirited. Famous examples of literary misanthropes include Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1843) and Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (1951).

    Oronte, an influential aristocrat, enters and wants to be Alceste's friend. Alceste is suspicious and sees Oronte's advance as an example of the social climbing prevalent in the french aristocracy. Oronte announces he has written a poem and would like Alceste's feedback on it. Alceste listens to the poem and then tells Oronte to quit writing. Oronte leaves, feeling deeply insulted.

    In the opening debate between Alceste and Philinte, which man presents a stronger argument about the actual state of human nature?

    When Célimène enters, Alceste accuses her of being unfaithful and is jealous of her openness with other potential suitors. In response, she accuses him of hating humanity. During the argument, two of Célimène's suitors, Acaste and Clitandre, arrive and sit at the table with Éliante. As the group indulges in gossip about members of the royal court, Alceste remains on the outside, criticizing their shallowness.

    The Misanthrope Gentlemen StudySmarterAlceste finds himself surrounded by stuffy, pretentious, upper-class bores. Wikicommons

    A court representative arrives to present Alceste with a lawsuit from Oronte over the insults regarding the latter's poetry. Alceste exits to deal with the case. Arsinoé, a high society lady, confronts Célimène to warn her that rumors about her flirtatious behavior with multiple suitors have been circulating. An upset Célimène responds by warning Arsinoé that many court members are talking about her pretentiousness and age.

    When Alceste returns, Célimène exits, leaving Alceste alone with Arsinoé. She compliments his honesty and offers to use her influence to get him a job at the court. Alceste refuses, and Arsinoé tells him that Célimène has lied to him. She produces a love letter to prove her claim.

    Throughout the play, Célimène entertains several male suitors. Is she genuinely committed to Alceste or unable to commit to one man?

    Alceste confronts Célimène with the letter and begs her to tell him the letter was written to a female friend. She refuses, and Alceste rants about how powerless his love for her makes him feel. Alceste's servant interrupts to tell Alceste that he has lost the court case and must flee before he is arrested.

    The Misanthrope Justice StudySmarterTrue justice does not exist in the courtroom for a man as cynical as Alceste.

    Philinte counsels Alceste and tries to convince him to challenge the court's decision. Alceste refuses and believes that injustice should be allowed to stand as an example of human corruption. He announces his plan to retire from public life and live far from other people.

    The play's ending is purposefully left unclear as Alceste vows to the rest of his life in solitude. Is he able to commit to this vow, or will this be an act of hypocrisy on his part?

    Alceste and Oronte confront Célimène to demand she chooses one of them. After she refuses, Acaste and Clitandre enter with a letter written by Célimène, which insults both of them. Each man breaks off their courtship with her. Alceste offers to forgive Célimène if she agrees to live in isolation with him. She refuses, and he renounces his love for her. As Éliante announces her commitment to Philinte, Alceste exits.

    Is Alceste accurate in his criticism of the shallowness of those around him? Why or why not?

    The Misanthrope: Characters

    Here is a look at the most important characters from Molière's The Misanthrope.


    As the title suggests, the play's protagonist dislikes being around other people. Alceste views people as sickeningly hypocritical and spends much of his time ranting against those who participate in social norms. He is isolated and often ignored by others who dismiss his complaints as a form of ideological snobbery.

    Throughout the play, Alceste's experience reflects the cost of idealism and the limitations of sticking to a strict moral code. Although he is deadly serious about his firmly held convictions, his inability to compromise or accept the true nature of human beings makes him a figure of fun to other characters.


    One of Alceste's few remaining friends, Philinte holds an opposing view on human nature. He understands that people are inherently flawed and that society does not adhere to a rigid standard. Unlike Alceste, Philinte has made peace with the contradictory elements of human nature. While Alceste is unrestricted in his criticisms and complaints, Philinte exercises self-control and moderation. Ultimately this restraint helps to succeed at the end of the play when he ends up engaged to Éliante.


    While her suitor, Alceste, is completely disgusted by the fake nature of the social scene, Célimène loves to engage in gossip and flattery. Célimène enjoys the company of others, especially the numerous male suitors vying for her affection. Though she has enjoyed a privileged and protected upbringing, Célimène is portrayed as fiery, outspoken, and quick-witted. She is able to counter Alceste's rants and complaints with astute observations of his behavior and shortcomings.

    The Misanthrope: Themes

    Though The Misanthrope is a comedy, Molière uses the story to point out serious flaws in French society and the pitfalls of absolutist thinking.

    Honesty and Hypocrisy

    Throughout the play, Alceste often rages against the hypocrisy of other people and the social norms they follow. As a member of the French aristocracy, he is disgusted by the endless gossiping and false flattery in which the other aristocrats engage. Alceste sees himself as an individual struggling against the unfair demands of society.

    While others lie to maintain their social status, Alceste refuses to engage in flattery or sugarcoat the truth. He believes strong relationships are built on a foundation of absolute truth, even when this truth is hurtful and damaging. Against this, Philinte argues that it is sometimes necessary to lie or flatter mild acquaintances to spare their feelings and maintain good relations. This clash of opinions is evident after Oronte asks for each man's feedback on his poetry. While Philinte can graciously compliment Oronte's efforts, Alceste brutally criticizes the work and implores Oronte to give up writing altogether.

    The Misanthrope Hypocrisy StudySmarterAlceste cannot accept the gap between people's actions and words.

    Alceste is ultimately punished and isolated when he attempts to live a truthful life. People do not want to always listen to Alceste's absolute truths and distance themselves from him. Molière shows that in most social settings, sometimes small acts of hypocrisy are necessary to ensure solid social bonds.

    Though Alceste sees himself as rational and fair, he is also guilty of hypocrisy. While he criticizes others for allowing their emotions to dictate their decisions, he is completely dominated by feelings for Célimène. Ultimately, Molière illustrates the dangers of two extremes. While Célimène is caught up in the pretensions of aristocratic life, she cannot commit to a man who loves her. Similarly, Alceste is so stubbornly committed to an ideology of living his absolute truth that he often ends up making life for himself and those around him miserable.

    Justice vs. Injustice

    Alceste constantly complains about the lack of justice in French society and life. He believes that the legal system and morality should strive to achieve an unobtainable level of fairness. Many characters are engaged in active lawsuits against accusations of slander, reflecting the importance of social standing in French aristocracy. Since most characters are involved in legal cases, they are often shown trying to curry favor with court members. Alceste refuses to engage in this because he stubbornly believes justice should be impartial.

    This romantic view puts Alceste entirely out of step with the people around him and the reality of his social setting. Molière is critical of the concept of justice as he believes that ideas of impartiality and fairness are constructs that rarely guide human beings.

    The Misanthrope: Analysis

    Molière was born into the French aristocracy and produced many famous works that mocked the shallowness of the pompous noble class. The Misanthrope is a Comedy of Manners.

    A Comedy of Manners, also called an anti-sentimental comedy, is a genre of social satire that explores the manners and quirks of the upper class. Famous Comedy of Manners plays include Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).

    Molière uses the play to explore the illusion of etiquette. Many characters use social niceties and polite manners to cover up their drive for power and status, referring to this act as a game that must be played. The Misanthrope uses witty dialogue and broad characters to satirize the vain and shallow nature of the French aristocracy. The exchanges are usually fast-paced and lively, building a back-and-forth banter that keeps the audience engaged and amused.

    The Misanthrope Molière StudySmarterMoliere's plays often targeted the members of the French upper class.

    In The Misanthrope, the sentences of dialogue are formed into rhyming couplets.

    "Sir, it's a very great honor you extend:

    But friendship is a sacred thing, my friend;

    It would be profanation to bestow

    The name of friend on one you hardly know." ( Act I, scene ii)

    This quick pace of rhyming gives the dialogue a musical tone that helps to keep the audience engaged and allows Molière to inject humor. This rhyming verse is known as Alexandrine verse and was the most popular form of writing in both plays and poetry during Molière's era. Alexandrine verse has twelve syllables, with the rhyme on the sixth and last syllables. In some English translations of the plays, the lines are shortened to 10 syllables.

    The Misanthrope was written by one of the most influential French writers during an important period for French culture. Molière is the stage name of French playwright, poet, and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin who produced his most famous works during the reign of Louis XIV.

    Louis XIV referred to himself as the "Sun King," declaring that everything the sun touched was part of his kingdom. During his reign, he relocated the royal court to the city of Versailles. He was determined to make Versailles the most powerful and culturally significant European city. Louis became a patron of the arts, and writers like Molière benefitted greatly from the King's financial support.

    The Misanthrope Versailles StudySmarterDuring Moliere's lifetime, Versailles was home to a generation of important artists, architects, and artists.

    Molière was born in Paris as the son of a royal furnisher and was assigned to follow in his father's footsteps until he renounced the royal appointment to pursue a career as an actor. Louis enjoyed Molière's biting social satires and comedies. The King was particularly fond of the dance sequences Molière included in his play and is said to have sometimes joined in the festivities onstage.


    Molière uses Oronte's poem to embody the worst aspects of the French aristocracy. Though its author believes the poem to be touching and heartfelt, Alceste (and the audience) sees it as poorly written and insincere. Oronte's sense of entitlement and desire to be congratulated reflects the noble classes' unearned privilege during the period.

    In the arguments between Alceste and Philinte about human nature, Philinte symbolizes a more grounded and reasonable approach to humanity. While Alceste wishes for a perfect world full of perfect people, Philinte argues that humans are flawed. Philinte's more open nature is symbolized in his name, which contains the Greek root "phil," meaning "love."

    The Misanthrope: Quotes

    In The Misanthrope, Molière uses witty dialogue and rhyming couplets to show Alceste's cynical outlook on people and the world. Here are some meaningful quotes from the play.

    "Esteem is founded in comparison:

    To honor all men is to honor none." ( Act I, scene i)

    While the people around him shower each other with empty compliments, Alceste warns that false platitudes ultimately demean actual praise. Alceste refuses to take part in the fake flattery which greases the social wheels of his society. Moliere presents Alceste's ideas as overly idealistic, as the character is often isolated because of his extreme beliefs.

    "Men, Sir, are always wrong, and that's the reason

    That righteous anger's never out of season." (Act II, scene v)

    Alceste never doubts his cynical view of people. Because humans will always be wrong, people like him will always have a right to be angry.

    The Misanthrope - Key takeaways

    • The Misanthrope (1666) is a play by French playwright Molière.
    • The play tells the story of Alceste, a cynical French aristocrat who offends an influential royal court member.
    • Molière uses the work to examine hypocrisy and the limitations of belief.
    • The play employs a playful tone to satirize the shallow behaviors of the French aristocracy and is considered a comedy of manners.
    • Written in rhyming couplets, The Misanthrope contains fast-paced and humorous dialogue.

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Misanthrope

    What is the theme of The Misanthrope?

    The Misanthrope explores themes of hypocrisy and the idea of justice.

    When was The Misanthrope created?

    The Misanthrope was written in 1666.

    What is the tone of The Misanthrope?

    The Misanthrope employs rhyming couplets and broad characters to build a light comic tone.

    What is the meaning of The Misanthrope?

    The Misanthrope is Molière's warning against the dangers of pretensions and the limitations of remaining stubbornly committed to a dogmatic ideology.  

    Who wrote The Misanthrope?

    The Misanthrope was written by French playwright Molière. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Misanthrope is set in which European country?

    A misanthrope is a person who ______________. 

    Alceste repeatedly accuses those around him of _________. 


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