Summary and Analysis
Almost as if to vex Célimène, Alceste decides that he will stay while she is entertaining her other suitors. He furthermore announces that he will force her to "declare yourself. — For their satisfaction or mine." Along with Acaste and Clitandre, Célimène's cousin Eliante, and Alceste's friend, Philinte, enter the room. The two fops proceed to gossip with Célimène about several mutual acquaintances, much to the disgust of Alceste, Philinte, and Eliante.
Finally, unable to bear it any longer, Alceste speaks out and criticizes them for slandering their friends: "But let any one of them appear on the scene and you would all rush to meet him, offer him your hands in fulsome greeting, and protest your eternal devotion." Then Clitandre tells Alceste that he should not so much berate the men because his fiancée, Célimène, is more to blame for the gossip. Then the conversation turns to the subject of the sincerity of the man-woman relationship. Alceste claims that the man and woman must always speak the plain facts to each other. Eliante explains that love is blind, and flattery is an essential part of any love relationship.
The servant Basque announces the arrival of another guest, an officer of the court of the marshals. The officer tells Alceste that he must appear before the marshals on account of his quarrel with Oronte, the author of the sonnet which Alceste had criticized. Alceste comments as he is leaving that Oronte should be hanged for writing such bad verse.
At the end of the last scene, Alceste had announced that he was going to leave because he could not tolerate the presence of the dandies who were about to arrive. However, at the beginning of Scene 5, he changes his mind, partly to spite Célimène. His decision to stay perhaps smacks a bit of pettiness — he seems to stamp his foot and refuse to leave simply because Célimène told him to leave.
Among the "social types" being criticized in this scene Célimène should be a major culprit, as she gossips at length about her acquaintances. However, she is such a fascinating coquette, who amuses us with her wit and her verbal portraits, that we can hardly bring ourselves to condemn her. When she is fed a line of gossip by one of the fops, she transforms it into an extended stinging portrait of the hapless object. Her performance delights all of the fops while it disgusts Alceste. What Célimène is doing is playing the game of society; she is practically the epitome of this type of society.
Throughout these verbal characterizations, part of the reason we do not condemn Célimène as much as Alceste does is the fact that she is not being intentionally malicious; instead, she is merely functioning in the role that society has created for this type of person. Furthermore, there is an irony in each of her characterizations because she is guilty of every fault that she criticizes in other people. For example, she charges one of the people with being too conceited for words. Yet her very performance demonstrates that she is also conceited, and earlier she had told Alceste that she is so beautiful that men are helplessly drawn to her. She also talks of people being obsessed with rank and position, yet she cultivates a number of friends simply because these people can help her attain a higher rank and position.
One touch of Molière's greatness is his complex characters: They are rarely totally black or totally white. While we must condemn what Célimène does as wrong because it does no good, yet she does it with such vivacity, such charm and such wit, that we cannot totally reject her. She has such virtuosity in her characterization that we admire her ingenuity while condemning her purpose. Then when Alceste decries her actions as being pure hypocrisy, we must also agree with him.
Immediately after we sympathize with Alceste, Molière qualifies our view by having him act in ways that we cannot accept. For example, by dint of a clever equivocation, Alceste rebuts the arguments of the foppish suitors and claims that what Célimène is guilty of is not really Célimène's fault. The fault lies mainly with the foppish suitors who, by flattering her, really encourage her to participate in such slanderous sallies.
Throughout the play Molière introduces Alceste as the perfectly rational man who can see the faults in all of his acquaintances and in all levels of society. Then, throughout the play, point for point, Molière undercuts Alceste's opinion of himself and of others by showing him up as being often irrational in many of his actions. First, his reason is obviously blinded by his irrational love for Célimène. Second, his arguments are often based on the most dubious logic. Third, in her characterization of him, Célimène indicates that Alceste is often ruled by a certain spirit of contrariety in that he enjoys contradiction. This aspect of his character will be dramatically indicated in Act IV in the scene in which Alceste presents a letter to Célimène that she had written to Oronte and accuses her of perfidy. The scene concludes with Alceste on the defensive. For a further illustration of this idea, consult the Analysis after Act IV.
Célimène does see the contradiction in his character in that he speaks one way and acts another. Her view of Alceste attests to her understanding of his nature: He can never agree with other people's opinions. He must always maintain the contrary view. "He would think he was cutting a very ordinary figure if he were found to agree with anyone else." It is true throughout the play that he proves himself wrong. In this very scene he tells the group that "the proof of a true love is to be unsparing in criticism." But although he is the only person who does not find true love, yet he dwells on criticism. Likewise, in the preceding speech, he had not criticized Célimène, but shifted the fault to the flatterers.
Célimène's response is closer to a norm. However noble Alceste might sound when he advocates that one must be unsparing in criticism for whomever one loves, in society one cannot function in these terms. Célimène then takes Alceste's argument to his own extreme, and says that to prove her love she would have to be constantly criticizing him.
In this scene, Eliante and to a lesser degree, Philinte, stand as reasonable voices. Philinte tries to point out to Alceste that he is being unreasonable for criticizing Célimène for her verbal portraits because the people that Célimène is castigating are the same people whom Alceste also castigates; so it is not logical for Alceste to raise such strong objections. Likewise, at the end of the act, Alceste maintains that he will not "budge an inch," and Philinte tries to make him "be reasonable." Similar to Philinte, Eliante realizes that Alceste's criticism of flattery is justified, but she also realizes that human nature is imperfect and that lovers will always be flatterers.
The closing scene of the act — Alceste summoned to court — aptly illustrates the trouble his honesty can get him into. Richelieu and Louis XIV had taken stern measures to suppress the deadly prevalence of dueling among the nobility. To this end, a special court, the tribunal de marechaux, had been established to arbitrate quarrels that might otherwise terminate in bloodshed.