Clitandre and Acaste discuss their affections for Célimène. When Clitandre asks why Acaste is always so cheerful, Acaste arrogantly notes that he is young, rich, and attractive, and therefore has no reason not to be cheerful. Acaste's disposition changes when he admits that his love for Célimène goes unrequited. He and Clitandre agree that, should one of them fall out of favor with Célimène, he will stop courting her, yielding to the other.
Célimène discovers that Clitandre and Acaste are still in the house. Clitandre claims, "It's love that detains us."
Basque announces the arrival of Arsinoé, a woman whose company neither Célimène nor Acaste can bear. Célimène mentions that Arsinoé has feelings for Alceste, thus making Arsinoé jealous of Célimène.
Arsinoé informs Célimène that people have been speaking critically of her "flirtatiousness." While Arsinoé claims to have spoken in defense of Célimène, Arsinoé comes across as insincere, and her jealousy of Célimène is apparent. Arsinoé recommends that Célimène change her ways.
Célimène responds to the attack on her character by criticizing Arsinoé's "excessive piety" and pretentiousness, suggesting that Arsinoé is a hypocrite. Célimène adds that people have been discussing Arsinoé's faults as well. Célimène allows that it may just be Arsinoé's age that causes her to behave as she does. Arsinoé rebuffs, arguing that Célimène should be careful not to place too much value on her youth. Arsinoé claims that Célimène's courtiers are attracted to her lack of restraint, not her "good qualities."
Alceste enters as Célimène leaves, and Alceste and Arsinoé are left alone together. Arsinoé praises Alceste's integrity, expressing her disapproval of the way the Court has handled Alceste's legal matters. Alceste rejects Arsinoé's compliments, contending that she should be more discriminating in her flattery. Arsinoé continues, however, mentioning that she could "pull a few strings" to get Alceste a "post at Court." Alceste rejects her offer. In a last-ditch attempt to gain Alceste's affection, Arsinoé tells him that Célimène has been deceiving him. Arsinoé claims that she has proof of Célimène's deception at her house.
Act III, scene i is our first and only chance to see two suitors (other than Alceste) alone, candidly discussing their attraction to Célimène. In a sense, the scene provides a "behind the scenes" look at the motivations of Clitandre and Acaste. The scene begins with Acaste's speech about his own virtues and abilities, though his confidence soon gives way to his despair over Célimène's rejection. For once, someone other than Alceste demonstrates anguish. Acaste's anguish, however, is private, whereas Alceste's sense of honesty requires that he admit his shame to Célimène. Acaste possesses the will to play the game of courtship without exposing his true self. Alceste, on the other hand, prefers straightforwardness to game- playing. The pact that Clitandre and Acaste make to better their chances of winning over Célimène furthers this notion of game-playing. This scene contrasts the typical approach to romance with Alceste's unorthodox method. Molière satirizes both.
With the scene between Célimène and Arsinoé (III.iv), Molière explores the idea that people—his characters, at least—find a way of saying what they really mean, but that they do so indirectly. Alceste may save time by forfeiting decorum with his frankness, but the others save their social integrity by taking the circuitous route to criticism. In III.iv, Arsinoé provides a long list of society's grievances against Célimène, but she then claims to have taken Célimène's side. Célimène then mimics Arsinoé's passive-aggressive style by listing Arsinoé's faults while claiming to have defended Arsinoé in public. Both women, then, get to say what they really think of one another without having to take credit o responsibility for their own words. Molière depicts a society in which one is punished only by taking responsibility for his or her potentially offensive thoughts (Alceste, for example). Of course, the passive-aggressive approach endorsed by Arsinoé and Célimène is doomed to failure of another sort. The two women cannot help but become enraged at one another; indeed, by the end of the scene, they have commenced verbal warfare.
In Act III, Molière develops the notion of masks, showing how certain characters wear false identities to cover their true selves. The characters are perhaps afraid of exposing themselves to a world that might not welcome them. Arsinoé, for example, would have others believe that she is a proper, God-fearing woman, uninterested in the company of men. However, Molière makes it clear that Arsinoé does want a relationship, with Alceste. Arsinoé refrains from flirtation, not because she is uninterested in such behavior, but because she knows that her flirtation would not yield the results that Célimène's does. Arsinoé wears a mask that provides comfort and keeps her from risking emotional pain in much the same way that Acaste disguises his heartbreak with upbeat confidence (III.i).
Tied to the theme of masks is the concept of acting. Molière reminds us that theater and life are similar in their superficiality and conscious deception. Just as the actors playing Molière's characters "put on" certain dispositions to carry the message of the play, so do the characters act the parts that they think will better their social or romantic position. In this exploration Molière uncovers the theatrical element of French society. Of course, theater is more than just the art of lying. Alceste employs the drama of exaggeration to call attention to himself, and Célimène uses comic devices to make her gossip more appealing. Indeed, Molière's characters are often in performance, with Célimène's house their stage. The formality of the theater parallels the formality—and the duplicity—with which the characters relate to one another. Nevertheless, even given the "acting" of the characters, Molière begins, in Act III, to break down the one-dimensional identities he established in Act I. The characters slowly reveal additional pieces of their true selves. Acaste's breakdown in front of Clitandre is only the first in a series of truthful moments that demonstrate the complexity of the characters.