Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 1-4
The fop, Acaste, is telling Clitandre about his own merits. He can find no reason to be discontent with himself, since he is rich, young, and of a good family, and furthermore, he exhibits a certain style in everything he does. He always sits on the stage during productions of plays and acts as the self-appointed critic. In conclusion, he can say "without conceit" that he dresses well and is admired by all of the fairer sex.
Clitandre wonders why Acaste, who has so many easy conquests elsewhere, spends so much time trying to win Célimène' s affections. In response to Clitandre's inquiry about his relationship to Célimène, Acaste at first says that he has reason to believe that he is favored by the lady, but then pretends that he is deceived in thinking so. He refuses to admit the extent of his relationship. The two fops then make a pact whereby if one does receive definite proof of Célimène's affections, the other will automatically withdraw.
Célimène returns and is surprised to find them both still present. At this moment, the servant, Basque, announces the arrival of Arsinoé. Acaste and Clitandre make some slanderous remarks about Arsinoé, and Célimène soon picks up the refrain. She complains about such a person as Arsinoé, who would like very much to have a lover but being unable to get one, pretends to be such a prude. Just as Célimène is disparaging her, the lady arrives and immediately Célimène changes her tone and tells the new guest how pleased she is to see her.
Acaste's "frank" estimate of himself at the beginning of this act contrasts excellently with Alceste's estimate of himself. The fop's opinion of himself illustrates the very things that Alceste objects to in society. In reality, Acaste is a rather slight, one-dimensional character, whose purpose in the play is to represent one aspect of society which the misanthrope justifiably detests.
Embedded in his opinion of himself is an interesting reference to a habit which Molière objected to. During this era of theater there was actually room on the stage for a certain number of people to sit while a play was being produced. The type of person who occupied these places was often the man-of-mode or fop — who generally had an exaggerated opinion of his critical abilities. Molière undoubtedly disliked this interfering fop, and used such speeches to ridicule just that type who would be sitting on the stage during the presentation of The Misanthrope.
Act III opens in a manner parallel to Act I. In the earlier act, we saw the two friends, Alceste and Philinte, talking and discussing certain problems. In Act III, we have another set of acquaintances, but this time they are fops, Acaste and Clitandre. One of the main concerns in the play is sincerity in human relationships. In Act I, Alceste represents one view in stating that one must be completely frank at all times, whereas Philinte suggests that other people's feelings must be taken into consideration. For all the ostensible antagonism between Alceste and Philinte in Act I, however, we can see that beneath the exterior arguments, there is a true friendship. Although the parallel between Act I and Act III is largely on the surface, in the third act, we do not have the sense that the two fops possess that essential quality of true friendship. There is a difference in the depth of character, and the subject matter is considerably more superficial than was the subject of the conversation between Philinte and Alceste. The scene in the third act, furthermore, ends with a bit of clever dialogue wherein both characters feign their real views and content themselves with expressing the artificial superficialities associated with society. The implicit contrast between the two sets of characters serves to raise Alceste and Philinte in our estimation.
The technique of the scene where Célimène characterizes Arsinoé is the same technique used earlier in Act II, where people are ridiculed but when they appear are then welcomed with exuberant graciousness. In the speech just prior to Arsinoé's arrival, Célimène launches into another of her verbal portraits as she paints a picture of Arsinoé as the insidious hypocrite. Yet Célimène's views and her subsequent actions prove her to be just as hypocritical. In the actual stage presentation, we would see that Célimène is being very spiteful and nasty about Arsinoé, but when the character actually arrives, there would be a sudden transformation in the physical actions of Célimène. She would then be all smiles and would flutter around the new arrival, trying to show how utterly concerned she is with Arsinoé; therefore, in addition to the hypocrisy of her statements, her actions would reveal even more of the hypocrisy to the audience.