Alexandrine Verse-y, Hyperbolic, Self-Referential
(Yes, we know that adjective was a stretch, but cut us some slack here.)
We all know about iambic pentameter, or at least we all will in a second because we are going to tell you what it is. If you've ever checked out any Shakespeare, you've already got this. It's got 10 syllables that alternate in stresses (don't worry about these) so that it sounds like a clock or a heart beat: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Or, to put some words to it: "the SLINGS and ARrows OF outRAGeous FORtune."
Anyway, iambic pentameter sounds pretty natural in English, and Richard Wilbur's translation takes advantage of that by putting Molière's words into Shakespeare's moneymaking verse. Take this line:
For my taste, he's a most insipid dish
Whose presence sours the wine and spoils the fish. (2.2.80)
This is beautiful iambic pentameter, and it even rhymes. That makes it a heroic couplet, which was the way to write English poetry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The thing is, Molière's French isn't in iambic pentameter, but in Alexandrine verse which you could say is basically the equivalent of iambic hexameter in French. It's got 12 syllables instead of 10, and sometimes the lines are split in half by a pause. Oh yeah, and it rhymes. Check it out:
C'est un fort méchant plat que sa sotte personne,
Et qui gâte, à mon goût, tous les repas qu'il donne.
Don't worry if you don't know French, but see how the words at the end of the line look similar? That's because they rhyme. Also, check out how the comma in the second line splits it up into two sections of 6 syllables. That comma signals a little pause called a caesura.
So why is the French Alexandrine and the English translation in pentameter? Well, languages have different sounds and patterns. In France in the seventeenth century, people expected to hear plays written in rhyming, Alexandrine meter. But in English, twelve-syllable lines just sound … weird. You can check out a cool, Molière-specific discussion of the choices translators make here.
OMG, isn't that the most awesome and appropriate subsection heading ever? Could you even think of a better subsection heading?
That is hyperbole, ladies, gentlemen, and Shmoopers. It's using exaggeration to make a point about something, and boy howdy is there a lot of it in this play.
Let's just take one of Alceste's speeches during the very first act and scene of the play. When Philinte and Alceste are fighting, Philinte asks him what he did wrong, and Alceste lets loose a long spiel that is chock-full of hyperbole. An advanced Shmoop Team has bolded the hyperbole for your convenience.
He tells Philinte this:
My God, you ought to die of self-disgust.
I call your conduct inexcusable, Sir,
And every man of honor will concur.
I see you almost hug a man to death,
Exclaim for joy until you're out of breath,
And supplement these loving demonstrations
With endless offers, vows, and protestations;
Then when I ask you "Who was that?", I find
That you can barely bring his name to mind!
Once the man's back is turned, you cease to love him,
And speak with absolute indifference of him!
By God, I say it's base and scandalous
To falsify the heart's affections thus;
If I caught myself behaving in such a way,
I'd hang myself for shame, without delay. (1.1.16)
Seriously, we're pretty sure no one in the history of mankind has died of self-disgust, or of too much hugging. Also, Philinte would have to be doing a whole lot of exclamations to be out of breath from them, unless he has some severe asthma. And yeah, we know that Alceste is upset, but telling your best friend that he should kill himself because he forgot some guy's name? That's a bit over the top.
Are you starting to catch our drift? Alceste gives a pretty good example of Master of the Inappropriate and Over the Top Hyperbole, but he is certainly not the only one to over-exaggerate in this play. That's what helps to make it a laugh riot. If Alceste told Philinte to just quit frontin', well, people probably wouldn't have been reading (and performing, and studying) this play for hundreds of years.
Molière is a cheeky guy. Even though we are supposed to be thinking about the characters in the play as real people, he puts little hints and jokes into the text that remind us, "hey, it's just a play!"
For example, Philinte says, "You've no idea how comical you seem;/ Indeed, we're like those brothers in the play/ Called School for Husbands, one of whom was prey…" and Alceste replies, "Enough, now! None of your stupid similes." (1.1.104).
If you know Molière's work, you're going to be getting a good chuckle out of this, because you know that School for Husbands is another of Molière's plays. (And if you don't—hey, that's what we're here for.) It's kind of like how movies in the Marvel universe constantly reference each other to make the audience feel like they're in on some kind of secret joke that everyone else in the theater gets.
The other thing is, Molière doesn't just reference his other plays, but his life. We've mentioned that the play has lots of lawsuits in it (take a peek in the "Symbols" section), which might come from Molière's own legal troubles at the time, in addition to his training in law. Some scholars also think that The Misanthrope is a semi-autobiographical account of his relationship with his wife.
Want to get really meta? Molière even played Alceste while his wife played Célimène! Talk about marriage problems.