Molière was writing when the famous King Louis XIV reigned (think Versailles with its rich décor and lush gardens). The society in which Molière grew up and often criticized was one that appreciated the finer things in life. The men and women of the nobility were expected to exceed at speech, dance and manners. They were expected, too, to cultivate an appreciation of the arts, intellectual curiosity and a sharp wit—all traits that anyone might aspire to refine.
However, perhaps the most important quality associated with the French society of Louis XIV served as no doubt Molière’s easiest target—its obsession with glory and majesty. Securing immortal praise, and the spectacle of power, prestige and luxury were viewed as neither vain nor boastful, but were instead a moral imperative. With great power came great responsibility—a responsibility to stimulate the economy by building prestigious mansions and buying clothes, paintings, dishes and other furnishing befitting their rank. They were expected to host lavish parties, provide patronage to the arts and be generous befitting of their status—hence the expression noblesse oblige, meaning that noble ancestry requires honorable behavior. “Honorable behavior” required mastering emotions, especially fear, jealousy and any desire for vengeance.
Alceste's actions land him in court because he insults the honor and reputation of a nobleman. Molière's audiences would have recognized these qualities and actions as reflective of the characters' station, but would certainly have laughed at their extremity as represented in Célimène and Alceste, among others.
So is it the man or the society that is corrupt? David Ives' School for Lies asks us to consider much the same question.