Summary and Analysis
Alceste has lost the court case which was first mentioned in Act I. He rants on about it to Philinte: "By dint of sheer hypocrisy, of opened and most palpable fraud, right is overthrown and justice perverted!" Alceste vows to accept his punishment to prove himself a living example of one victimized by this wicked age, and further vows to withdraw from society. Philinte calmly says "I think your intentions are a little rash." He then explains that the weakness of human nature from which this injustice and evils of all kinds spring, is merely something that we must learn to live with. Alceste dismisses this and says that he will test Célimène's reaction to his decision. Philinte leaves to visit Eliante and Alceste waits for Célimène.
As the play began with Alceste and Philinte discussing sincerity and honesty, the final act begins with an almost identical discussion. Molière has balanced the play by placing the characters in essentially the same situation, with Alceste fuming and raging, and Philinte trying again to make him look at things reasonably. We can also say that Alceste has learned virtually nothing of the ability to adapt to society during the play and has become now more and more the misanthrope.
At this point in the play, we discover that Alceste has just lost his lawsuit. There is no evidence that Alceste's case was the right one and that it was unjust for him to lose, but because of his character and because of the reactions of the other characters, we can reasonably well assume that Alceste's was a just cause. A reader's first impression would be that Alceste should win, perhaps simply because he is such a brutally honest person.
Alceste cuts a ridiculous figure in this scene because of his obvious posing and the melodramatic air about him. He strikes the pose of the martyred innocent, crucified by society. He is even determined to buy his own cross by paying the 20,000-franc judgment. He almost seems delighted to have lost the case because this gives him the right to rail against mankind and to reject society.
Molière has created a delicate balance here between what Alceste says and the manner in which he says it. What he actually says is true, but his manner of stating it makes it impossible for the audience to sympathize with him completely. For example, Alceste says that "there is too much baseness in the world today." We categorically agree with this statement, but the manner in which Philinte frames the problem sets us to wondering: "The world is governed by intrigue and self-interest; fraud does carry all before it nowadays. Men ought to be different from what they are. But is the prevalence of injustice among them a reason for withdrawing from their society?" Embedded in this statement is the philosophical tone of the entire play: That is, Molière is criticizing the type of society which exists, but at the same time he is ridiculing someone like Alceste who cannot function in that society. On the other hand, even Philinte's statement — that one should welcome the bad society because only in the presence of baseness can his own true virtue shine forth — somewhat undercuts his "reasonable" stand. The logic is at best dubious.
At the end of the scene, the hater of mankind is left sulking in the corner of the stage awaiting the vibrant social butterfly, Célimène.