Molière's illness daily assumed a graver aspect, but as the shadow of death deepened around him, he wrote and played in one of the most vivacious of his comedies. This was the Malade Imaginaire (Imaginary Invalid), composed for the diversion of the king on his return from the first campaign in Holland. In the main it was another broadside against the doctors, if not against the art of healing itself, ridiculing the fear of death and the love of life. M. Argan's hypochondriacism is nothing less than a mental disease. He takes as much medicine as would suffice for a regiment, and his doctors, needless to say, industriously flatter his self-deception. By a fine stroke of humor, too, his sick fancies are blended with a cautious frugality. His fond delight in the flowery language in which the bills against him are drawn up does not prevent him from cutting them down. "What particularly pleases me in my apothecary," he says, "is that his charges are so prettily worded. 'Pour refraichir les entrailles de Monsieur, thirty sour.' Yes, M. Fleurent; but you must not flay your patients. If you are not more reasonable, I cannot afford to be ill." In the same spirit he resolves to marry his daughter Angelique to a pusillanimous medical student, one Thomas Diafoirus, and in the end becomes a doctor himself. By donning the garb of the faculty, he is told, he will cover all deficiencies, as under such a garb folly becomes wisdom and gibberish learning. In a pleasant interlude, supplied with music by Charpentier, the hypochondriac goes through a caricature in macaronic Latin--an idea suggested by Boileau over a supper at Madame de la Sablière's--of the ceremony actually observed on the admission of new doctors to the college. In attacking medical science itself, Molière was not well advised; but it would be too much to expect a man in the last stages of an incurable malady to have much faith in the art of healing. Fortunately, Argan was not a character which subjected him to a heavy strain, and the author acted it with the most whimsical effect. Paris again roared at the expense of doctors, and by all others Le Malade Imaginaire was extolled as one of the merriest of Molière's pieces, nor has their verdict been reversed by that of posterity.
It was the last effort of the dying dramatist. Early in the day fixed for the fourth performance, he was so weak that his wife and Baron united in urging him not to play. But, as usual, he thought of others before himself. "How," he asked, "can I refuse to go on when so many persons' bread depends upon it? I should reproach myself for the distress I might cause them, having sufficient strength to prevent it." Nor was he to be diverted from his resolution. Soon after four o'clock, by which time an audience well disposed to appreciate the new satire on the physicians had filled the theatre to repletion, he again appeared in the high-backed arm-chair of the malade imaginaire. His acting showed no falling off in subtlety or humor, but to those who anxiously watched him from the side of the stage it was painfully evident that the comparatively slight exertion it entailed told heavily upon him. How curious it must have seemed to some of them that a man in such a state should be employed in giving expression to the fancies of a mere hypochondriac!
In the closing interlude, where Argan takes his oath as a new doctor, swearing to adhere to the remedies approved by antiquity, be they right or wrong, and to ignore modern discovery, there occurred something which had not been set down for him in the play. The last "juro" had hardly passed his lips when he was seized with a convulsion. He sought to disguise it by forcing a laugh, but its ring was so hard and harsh that many among that hilarious assembly felt a shiver pass through their frames. The curtain was lowered, and the stricken dramatist, now fainting and speechless, was tenderly conveyed to his home. Soon he was able to speak. "My course," he said, "is run. My wife promised me a drugged pillow to make me sleep; let me have it. The only remedies I shrink from are those which have to be swallowed; they are enough to rob me of the little life that remains." While being put to bed he was seized with a fit of coughing; blood streamed from his mouth, and he faintly asked that the consolations of religion might not be denied him. Baron and Armande immediately sought out two ecclesiastics of the parish of St. Eustache, who, however, told them that the author of Tartuffe was not a fit person to receive the last consolations. The next priest applied to had a better sense of his duties, but he arrived only in time to see Molière die in the arms of two Sisters of Mercy, to whom he had long given shelter during their Lenten visits to Paris, and who, by a suggestive coincidence, had chanced to knock at his door as the ecclesiastics of St. Eustache were refusing to soothe his last moments.