Alceste, a French aristocrat, argues with his friend Philinte about the proper way to treat those for whom one has little respect. Alceste insists on brutal—total honesty—criticizing Philinte's notion that such honesty might be rude or inappropriate. Philinte suggests that Alceste be more accepting of human flaw and not so critical of the behavior of others.
In his talk of honesty, Alceste reveals that he is presently embroiled in some sort of lawsuit. Philinte, attempting to find fault in Alceste's theories of human relationships, points out that Alceste seems to turn a blind eye to the faults of Célimène, the woman whom he is presently courting. Alceste counters, stating that he does recognize Célimène's faults and points them out upon noticing them.
Oronte, another of Célimène's courtiers, appeals to Alceste, praising Alceste's honorable qualities and suggesting that the two men become friends. Alceste is hesitant, stating that they should not make any sort of friendship agreement until they come to know each other better. Oronte then proposes that Alceste offer his critique of a poem Oronte has written. Though reluctant at first, Alceste ultimately agrees to hear the poem.
Alceste reacts with disgust as Oronte begins his recitation. Philinte, on the other hand, praises the sonnet. Out of earshot of Oronte, Alceste berates Philinte for flattering the poor writing. When Oronte finishes his recitation, Alceste suggests that he give up writing and stick to what he does best. Alceste presents an example of what he considers good poetry. Insulted, Oronte challenges Alceste to write something better that what Oronte has presented. Alceste turns down the challenge.
Philinte criticizes Alceste for the way he has treated Oronte. Alceste cuts Philinte off, demanding that he leave. Philinte refuses to leave, telling Alceste not to "be absurd."
At the opening of The Misanthrope, we immediately learn that the play will have at least some elements of farce. Molière's protagonist, Alceste, is comically extreme. He rants about the flaws and failures of humankind, allowing no exceptions. The playwright suggests that such behavior, however right or noble it might be, will not fit well in the world of the play. We learn that Alceste is embroiled in a lawsuit, suggesting that he even reaches the extreme of breaking the law. At first, Alceste is the caricature of the disgruntled old man, telling Philinte, "I find mankind so odious that I should hate to have it approve of me" (I.i). Molière later clouds this initial characterization as the play evolves. He begins The Misanthrope in much the same way he begins his other comedies, but later acts reveal an experiment with form and style.
In the first scene, Molière establishes Philinte as the straight man to the misanthropic Alceste. Philinte is a voice of reason; he understands that politeness and forgiveness are just as important as honesty. For Molière, Philinte exemplifies the proper way to navigate French society. The playwright also uses Philinte to buffer our harsh opinion of Alceste. We might believe that Alceste—if Philinte has befriended him—must not be all that bad. Philinte also pushes a message of greater society's indifference to an individual's gripes. Though Philinte agrees with some of what Alceste has to say, he tells Alceste, "The world won't change its ways on account of anything you may do." He implores Alceste to be practical, to behave within society limits—not because such limits are just, but because they are inevitable.
As he parodies Alceste's disposition, Molière also pokes fun at French aristocracy, specifically targeting Oronte. From the outset, Oronte is pompous and outspoken, attempting to formalize even what most would consider emotional interactions outside the realm of formality. Oronte suggests that he and Alceste shake hands to confirm their affection for one another, implying an aristocratic notion that pacts and rules supercede feelings and emotion. Molière also points to the idleness of the aristocracy. Given their immense wealth, French aristocrats need not work, so they instead turn their attentions to hobbies of intellect. Molière suggests that such hobbies might not be the best fit for the aristocracy. Far from original, Oronte's poem appears to achieve only a basic pattern of rhyming. When Alceste advises Oronte to give up poetry, the incensed Oronte challenges Alceste to do better, suggesting an aristocratic inability to take criticism.
Alceste is also a member of the aristocracy, as far as we can tell at this point. Although he rejects the vices of hypocrisy and false intellect, he too does little in the way of work, spending most of his time in court or pestering Célimène. Additionally, Alceste is haughty in his own way, considering himself superior because of his strict code of ethics. Ironically, he criticizes the class of which he is a member. More broadly, Alceste shuns all of mankind, of which he is also part. This may mean that he despises himself. Perhaps, in his assault on others, Alceste assaults himself as well. Indeed, his unhappiness stems from his relationship to others. Were he alone, he might be satisfied, but as a part of society his lack of social tact dooms him to misanthropy.
Dramaturgically speaking, Act I immediately establishes the central conflict of the play: Alceste's struggle to relate to others—and to himself. Molière does not keep many secrets from us, showing his characters as they truly are from the very beginning. Indeed, character is Molière's primary focus. Though he sets up Alceste's conflict almost immediately, he provides little in the way of real action. For much of the first act, the characters philosophize about the nature of mankind, advancing their opinions regarding the proper way to carry oneself. In turn, we learn a great deal about each of the characters in the first act, but little about where the play is headed. Nonetheless, Alceste's bitterness may foreshadow his eventual fate.