Le Malade Imaginaire has a special interest as the last play written and acted by Moliere before his death. It also has received just admiration for the success with which the author has combined sparkling wit with a deep and serious purpose.
At this period, late in life, Moliere was suffering from the disease which eventually caused his death. He was almost broken down by ceaseless mental labor. He was unhappy in his home relations as well, embittered by family quarrels.
The unavailing efforts of the doctors to afford him relief called his attention to the fraud and ignorance which disgraced the medical profession of his time.
Moliere therefore resolved to attack the whole medical system from the stage. In this play, Le Malade Imaginaire, he has let loose the full force of his stinging satire, ridiculing to the utmost the ignorant doctors, their rough, crude methods, their bleedings, and purgatives, and above all their quackery and pretensions to knowledge. The great difficulty was to handle so repulsive a subject in such a way as to make it agreeable, and in this, Moliere succeeded to an astonishing degree, without one whit weakening his attack.
The central character of the piece is Argan, a middle-aged man, whose ruling passion is his selfish fear of death. Though in robust health, in "insultingly robust health," as one critic has said, Argan has always some imaginary ill, for which he consults quack physicians. The chief of these, M. Purgon, holds his cowardly patient in perfect subjection, threatening him with the most horrible maladies if he neglects to take the various doses prescribed.
Beline, Argan's second wife, assists in deluding him, by her mock anxiety and feigned affection. In reality she hopes for his death, that she may inherit his fortune.
There are two daughters by a former wife. One is a spoiled child of eight years of age. The elder, however, Angelique, of an interesting age, is most attractive.
Angelique falls in love with Cleante, a handsome young fellow, but is dismayed to learn that her father has promised her hand to a young doctor, Diafoirus. Argan is bent upon getting a doctor into the family, as it would be so economical and convenient, but the stepmother, Beline, naturally opposes any marriage, with a sharp eye for Argan's money.
The young doctor and his father visit Argan, and in their very presence, Cleante, masquerading as a music teacher, sings a love scene with Angelique.
In an attempt to dissuade Argan from his dependency on the doctors, Toinette appears disguised as a foreign physician, and in this scene the quacks are effectually ridiculed. The attempt is defeated by the efforts of Celine, but the stepmother is at length shown in her true colors, when her husband feign death, and she shows her delight.
The play ends happily with the union of the lovers. Argan finally puts on a doctor's gown and doses himself, which he likes even better than his old plan of having a son-in-law for doctor.