Molière (1622—1673)

The playwright history knows as Molière was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris in 1622. The young Molière likely established his affinity for theater at an early age, given the cultural and theatrical fertility of the Paris of his youth. One should note, however, that his plays are not entirely French-influenced, as he borrows from Spanish and Italian influences as well.

Molière was well educated: he studied at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont and later studied law. He even had a brief career in law, which may partly explain his inclusion of lawsuits and legal strife in The Misanthrope. After a brief stint as a lawyer, Molière turned his attention to acting around 1642, at which point he joined in creating the Illustre Théâtre, a company whose success, although sporadic, gave Molière opportunity to commit himself full-time to the theater. Though he is best known as a playwright, Molière never stopped acting. His experience as an actor led to the creation of some of the most intense character studies in theater at the time, plays that require great effort and skill on the actor's part.

Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, died in 1673 after collapsing on stage while acting in his final play, The Imaginary Invalid.

Background on The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope (1666) is at least partially autobiographical, although the extent to which Alceste mirrors the playwright is a point of contention among scholars. Molière was likely involved in a lawsuit while he wrote parts of the play, and he is known to have been in poor health, both of which may have given rise to misanthropic behavior. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine that Molière's misanthropy reached the extent of Alceste's bitterness. The Misanthrope is far more sophisticated than a simple autobiography, and critics have generally stayed away from searching for incessant parallels between Alceste and Molière.

The farcical element of The Misanthrope is more subdued than in Molière's other comedies, such as Tartuffe (1664) or Those Learned Ladies. Perhaps discouraged by the 1666 banning of Tartuffe, a play many found offensive because of its assault on church hypocrisy, Molière embarked on a more serious study of human relationships with The Misanthrope. He does poke fun at French aristocracy, but this satire is overshadowed by Molière's attention to those human flaws to which all are subject.

Although Molière typically worked within certain stylistic and traditional constraints, he was unique in his quest to experiment and to create new types of theater. The Misanthrope demonstrates Molière's twisting of the traditional farce or satire, which typically used flat stereotypes to make a broad comment on social or political issues. Alceste and Célimène, along with the play's other characters, are more multidimensional, their behavior more ambivalent. In The Misanthrope, Molière uses a style that allows the audience to sympathize with his characters and to seek more subtle meanings in his work. While Alceste is not a stereotype, he is an extreme, implying Molière's criticism of certain human traits—a departure from his earlier attacks on broader class traits.

Additionally, The Misanthrope is distinct from Molière's other work in its relative lack of movement. The fact that not much happens in the form of plot development forces the audience or reader to pay particularly close attention to character behavior and motivation.