Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scenes 1-4
Alceste and his beloved Célimène are squabbling over her encouragement of rival suitors. Alceste is jealous and cannot tolerate competitors for Célimène's affections or attentions. He is especially disturbed by favors bestowed on one Clitandre, with his blond periwig, frills at his knees, and his affected falsetto voice. Célimène merely thinks that Alceste is becoming jealous of the entire universe.
While Alceste and Célimène are talking, the servant, Basque, announces the arrival of another suitor, Acaste, and then the arrival of Clitandre. Alceste tries to escape because, as he says, "these conversations only bore me." Célimène begs him to stay but when he refuses her, she tells him to "be off! Do as you please!"
At the beginning of this act, we see that Alceste is putting his theories to the test; or as Philinte had said in the end of the last act, proving his "precious sincerity." This desire for absolute honesty on Alceste's part urges him to approach Célimène and openly tell her her faults.
The basis for Alceste's criticism of Célimène is that she has too many admirers and that she treats all people with the same degree of courtesy. She refuses to deny her presence to anyone and "gives any and everyone too easy access to" her heart. Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" aptly suggests the exact nature of Alceste's objections:
She had A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
In general, Alceste makes the unreasonable request of almost all lovers in wanting the lady to have no acquaintances other than himself.
Unlike Alceste, Célimène's arguments do not stem from any particular points of integrity. She argues like a coquette. First she asks if she can be blamed for her beauty. She is so naturally beautiful that men are automatically attracted to her. When Alceste spurns this, she then argues that these suitors can advance her interest in society. Finally, she is reduced to illogical but witty rebuttals against Alceste's objections. Isn't it better for her to have many suitors than to bestow her affections on one particular person. Finally, she complains that if he is so jealous then he really can't be in love with her.
Each of the characters is acting in terms of his own version of "reasonable" behavior. The disparity between the two vividly indicates two different opinions on how man should function in society. Throughout the discussion, we should be aware that Célimène is trying to pacify Alceste's arguments, which suggests that she is concerned about their relationship. Even though it will be revealed more fully in later scenes, the reader should now be aware that Célimène's arguments are the cleverer of the two.
Molière somewhat undercuts Alceste's position by the exaggerated language he provides him. When Alceste cries out "No man has ever loved as I do!" he is the picture of a stock romantic lover. In the mouth of this eccentric "rationalist" these words are even more absurdly comic than usual. Honest Alceste is thus not so reasonable at all times as he would have himself seem.
On Alceste's words to Célimène, "Let us be entirely open with each other," Basque interrupts to announce the arrival of the type of fop about whom the lovers have been arguing. Alceste is left totally exasperated with her. The technique used in these scenes is similar to that used in Act I. Two characters argue a particular point, then the argument is put to the test by the entrance of a third party. In Act I, Alceste and Philinte argue the relative merits of social amenities and personal sincerity in dealing with undesirable but influential people one is acquainted with. Each takes his stand — Alceste for strict honesty, Philinte for a necessary flexibility in conduct. Immediately, Oronte, an influential but extremely foppish character, enters and acts as a catalyst for each character to test his position. In Act II, Célimène and Alceste argue about her numerous suitors. He believes that she should not be so readily accessible to them and should not treat them with such easy familiarity; she believes in being polite and responsive to them. Then the suitors arrive and the audience may observe how the expressed opinions meet the test.
Finally, Alceste admits for the first time that he is trying to break his infatuation with Célimène. Since Alceste's final actions in the play will be his break with Célimène, we should be aware that Molière has begun to prepare us for this idea.
In Scene 3, Molière ironically undercuts Alceste's sense of exaggerated integrity. For a man who stands for complete honesty and who has just been arguing the value of always being completely frank, suddenly to have him ask Célimène to lie is a clever undercutting of his character. He asks "Can you never bring yourself to say you are not at home for one single moment." This rings false from a champion of truth and integrity, and is therefore comic.