There are several reasons why Molière is arguably more approachable for a French speaker than say Shakespeare is for an English speaker. The language Molière used in his plays is much closer to modern day French than Shakespearian English is to modern day English. Molière also wrote several of his plays en prose rather than en vers, and Le Malade Imaginaire is such a play. This makes the subtleties of the dialog easier to follow than in verse plays like Le Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope or Les Femmes Savantes for instance, so if you want to read Molière, this is a good one to start with!
Le Malade Imaginaire is centered around Argan, a wealthy middle-aged man who believes himself to be afflicted by several severe illnesses. Living in fear, seeking attention and wishing to surround himself with as many medical practitioners as possible, Argan decides to marry his eldest daughter off to a young doctor (who turns out to be idiotic and repulsive). The play follows Argan as he bumps heads with his servant Toinette, who tries to advise him against this less than happy match, and to remove him from his obsession with medicine.
Argan is a highly entertaining character. In the opening scene, he essentially explains that if he takes fewer medical treatments, it must mean he is not doing as well as if he were taking more:
Argan. (...) Si bien donc que, de ce mois, j’ai pris une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit médecines ; et un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix, onze et douze lavements ; et, l’autre mois, il y avoit douze médecines et vingt lavements. Je ne m’étonne pas si je ne me porte pas si bien ce mois-ci que l’autre.
Not only does the play gently mock the hypochondriac in all of us, it also reconciles us with the part of ourselves that wants to be fussed over and pitied for its fragility. In the end, the play is very much about our own mortality: do we want to complain about it and feel sorry, or do we want to face it and live our lives as fully as possible? It’s a question that many of us are currently asking ourselves during these trying times, and clearly Molière has some interesting things to say on the matter!
Béralde. Et j’aurais souhaité pour vous divertir, (…) vous mener voir, sur ce chapitre, quelqu’une des comédies de Molière. (…)
Argan. Par la mort non de diable ! si j’étais que des médecins, je me vengerais de son impertinence ; et, quand il sera malade, je le laisserais mourir sans secours. Il aurait beau faire et beau dire, je ne lui pardonnerais pas la moindre petite saignée, le moindre petit lavement ; et je lui dirais : Crève, crève ; cela t’apprendra une autre fois à te jouer à la Faculté.
Ironically, Argan is the last role that Molière interpreted. He collapsed on stage during the play’s fourth performance and died soon after on February 17th, 1673. Was this Argan’s revenge? Or was it a sign that there is nothing more beautiful than doing what you excel at until the end? We’ll leave the answer up to you!
Pour aller plus loin :
- Borrow the book on Culturethèque here !
- Listen to France Culture for more thoughts on Le Malade Imaginaire
- Find out about Molière’s 400th birthday celebrations here !
A dual citizen of France and the USA, Sonia grew up between the Midwest and Brittany. After obtaining her BA in Philosophy and Modern Languages at Oxford University in 2015, she spent several years in Paris, working in classical music and studying voice & opera at the Conservatoire. She moved to Boston in the fall of 2020, where she now performs as a singer. Sonia is thrilled to also be a part of the French Library’s team, where she can put her deep love of French literature to use while working as Librarian.