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Alceste confronts Célimène about what he believes to be her poor behavior. He criticizes her for entertaining the advances of multiple suitors and insists that she demonstrate more discretion, specifically questioning her affection for one specific suitor, Clitandre. Célimène assures Alceste that he need not worry, stating that she has true affection for him. Célimène does mention, however, that Clitandre might be able to help her with a lawsuit in which she is involved.
Alceste largely rejects Célimène's arguments, however, and he suggests that she might be expressing her love to other suitors as well. Offended, Célimène vows to "unsay all that I have said in the past." Subsequently, Alceste censures himself for being so jealous and hopelessly in love.
Alceste reacts angrily when Célimène agrees to accept a visit from Acaste. Célimène contends that she must stay in good favor with Acaste because he carries considerable clout in "Court circles."
Célimène's servant, Basque, announces the arrival of Clitandre. The disgruntled Alceste insists that he is leaving. Célimène asks him to stay, but he stubbornly refuses.
Célimène's cousin Éliante arrives with Philinte, Acaste, and Clitandre. Still present, Alceste demands that Célimène "explain" herself to all present. She ignores him. The suitors listen intently as Célimène gossips, quite negatively, about several people of the Court. Alceste argues to Célimène and the others that, while they are quick to point out the faults of others, they will likely be just as quick to ingratiate themselves with those same people they criticize. Célimène maintains that Alceste is arguing for argument's sake and dismisses his negativity as unfounded.
Opposing Alceste, the other suitors praise Célimène, calling her "perfect," "charming and gracious." Alceste argues that, in being critical of Célimène, he is demonstrating a true, honest love for her. Éliante mentions that love does not usually take this form, describing man's typical inclination to find merit in the faults of a lover.
Basque announces the arrival of a man to see Alceste. Alceste asks the Officer to enter.
The Officer announces that the Marshals of France (a judicial body created to settle matters of honor) would like to see Alceste about his "squabble with Oronte." Alceste finds the request ridiculous, and refuses to withdraw his criticism of Oronte's poem. Philinte pleads for Alceste to be reasonable. Eventually, Alceste agrees to go see the Marshals.
Like Alceste, Célimène first appears as a sketch of a character type. With her gossiping and flirtatiousness, Célimène seems to represent the stereotypical spoiled daughter. She enjoys her society as much as Alceste despises it, setting up the central irony of the play: Alceste falls hopelessly in love with a representative of the society he abhors. Molière does not imply that Célimène's behavior is appropriate or moral. Rather, he uses her to comment of the lifestyle of one who has completely given herself over to the values of society. Alceste, who is probably more moral, at least more honest, than Célimène, is unhappy. The second act begs the question of whether morality or happiness is more important.
In a sense, Célimène projects her own style of misanthropy. While Alceste's ill will extends to the whole of society, Célimène's is targeted, and as such, more biting. In Act II, scene iv, Célimène demonstrates her capacity to bear malice when she mediates a gossip session among her suitors. Célimène differs from Alceste in that her misanthropy is tactful. She speaks behind the backs of those whom she criticizes, not to their faces as Alceste does. Additionally, Célimène's honed sense of humor obscures the severity of her insults. She entertains her suitors with her mockeries, whereas Alceste entertains no one with his.
With the gossip session, Molière indicates that mockery is a social construct. Without the encouragement of the suitors, Célimène would have less reason to degrade others. Alceste points out to the suitors, "Her satirical humour is fed and watered by your wicked flattery" (2.4). In Alceste's ideal world, neither mockery nor flatter would exist. Such a world being implausible, however, society must find some medium, and perhaps flattery alone is not all bad. We can certainly imagine a type of flattery that does not encourage the recipient to mock. Act 2, Scene 4, depicts a world of floating values in which there is no concrete standard. The only obvious faults appear to be those connected to extreme values. Alceste's complete refusal to acquiesce marks his rejection of societal values, however ambiguous those might be.
In what is probably Éliante's most important speech (at the end of 2.4), she introduces the concept of justification. She defines a "man in love" as one who recognizes his lover's faults as virtues. Here, Molière maintains the ambivalence of ethics. Few would argue that love is wrong or wicked, but what if it blinds those in love from the truth? By Éliante's argument, love could be blamed for contributing to falsehood. Conversely, Alceste might be incapable of love because he cannot accept dishonesty in any form. He argues that "the proof of true love is to be unsparing in fault- finding" (II.iv), but this reasoning seems to define some kind of distant, theoretical love, not the visceral love that Éliante describes. Molière suggests that Alceste is at war with himself over the nature of his love for Célimène. Often, he tries to fight his deep, uncontrollable frustration with Célimène by applying the rationality of his system of beliefs. Like all humans, Alceste falls victim to the whims of the heart.
The first major turning point comes at the end of Act 2, when Alceste is summoned to appear before the Marshals of France. All at once, Alceste's standing with Célimène and his standing before the law are threatened. Molière uses Alceste's court case to move the play to a point of greater crisis. For the first time, the playwright employs suspense as a dramatic device.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Misanthrope!