Misanthropy Made Plain
Richard Wilbur’s rhymed couplet translation of Molière unfolds in a long, dazzling parade of pithy aphorisms and pungent epigrams. This is not surprising, given the verse form. The favourite tool of English satirists of the 18th century (see for example Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes”), the razor-sharp two-liner suits a moralizing, pontificating tone better than any other, and Alceste, the titular curmudgeon of the first play, moralizes and pontificates at length—and brilliantly. Indeed, he takes up where Shakespeare’s embittered outcast, Timon of Athens, leaves off. Timon delivers his great, world-damning soliloquy outside the walls of Athens and then most of his caustic wit is spent, but Alceste’s rants at Philinte in Act One are just the start of his outraged speechifying. What is worst in people—all the unchanging darkness of the human heart—is the subject of the play, and Alceste’s bitter criticisms are no less perennial than what is being criticized. The modern edge given to the jibes by the modern translation underscore a key point: we’re as bad as we ever were, and solace for the moral imagination can be found, albeit of a sour-tasting sort, in the pages of The Misanthrope.
In Tartuffe there is a villain who is vilified and vanquished, and the reader can gloat at his downfall just as he groans at the credulity of the gulls who succumb to his trickery, and think himself superior. But in The Misanthrope there is no one worst wrongdoer and the reader realizes his own faults are on display as much as anybody else’s, in the great parade of follies that so galls Alceste. Indeed, even Alceste ultimately concedes, after all his stone-throwing, that he too is not without sin.