How are stock characters used in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde?
Stock characters, by definition, are archetypal and easy-to-identify roles within a work of literature. The role of the stock character can be comparable to the so-called Hollywood "typecast" in that the audience can easily predict what to expect from the character in terms of the value it will bring onto the play. Will it make it funny? Will it make it miserable? The flat, static nature of the stock character is what makes it so "cut and dry," that is, so obvious for the audience to figure out.
A comedy of manners such as The Importance of Being Earnest is almost entirely dependent on these stock characters, because the purpose of the play, itself, is to mock social norms and dynamics. This is done best by criticizing the very people that enable these dynamics to occur: the sanctimonious Victorians of the upper and middle classes.
Enter Oscar Wilde, a born social genius whose unfiltered views of his world earned him many enemies. As one of the best storytellers in the world, his craft was to take the essence of these Victorian archetypes, with which he mingled and still detested at the same time, and rid them of any redeeming quality: they were to be characterized exactly for what they truly were:
Gwendolen and Cecily: regardless of their different backgrounds, they mirror each other as catty women with shallow views on love and courtship, in need of a husband, as expected of them by Victorian standards.
Algernon and Jack: archetypal Victorian bachelors living above their means and leading double lives.
Chausible and Miss Prism: they represent the ultra repressed, older pre-Victorian generation, but they both have a hidden, hedonistic streak that betrays their shallow nature just like every other character.
Lady Bracknell: the matron with a past whose commentary about everything, from death to poverty, is filled with prejudices seeming nearly sociopathic in nature.
All of these characters combine to balance each other out, although in reality none of them changes, transforms, or grows. That is the idea, anyway.
We might read Gwendolyn as a soubrette: a female character who is vain and flirtatious. Though she is somewhat mischievous and likes to hear and spread gossip, the soubrette is ultimately light-hearted. Gwendolyn falls in "love" with Jack, but it seems that the name she believes is his––Ernest––plays a big part in her feelings. It also appears as though her mother's disapproval of Gwendolyn's feelings for Jack/Ernest go a long way in prompting her to feel them even more deeply; in other words, she loves him for his name and because her mother doesn't like him. Her initial interaction with Cecily shows her vanity and gossipy side, but, in the end, she has a sense of humor and a good heart.
We could read Cecily as an ingenue: another young female character who is completely wholesome and sweet. Although Cecily can give as good as she gets in terms of her interaction with Gwendolyn, she is young and sweet and very romantic. She's concocted this entire fantasy relationship with Jack's "brother," Ernest, and when he seems to show up at the house, she is already head over heels in "love" with him as a result of his name (which isn't really his) and his bad-boy nature (which is somewhat more truthful).
Using stock characters really increases the humor in the play, because we recognize these characters as types. They aren't characters with whom we are likely to empathize, because they are not really three-dimensional or well-developed; they are also quite static––they don't learn lessons or grow. They are almost all at least a little bit immoral in a way that would not be funny at all in real life, but because we see them for what they are, we can laugh at their behavior and their really terrible choices.
Most of the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde are based on the prototypical stock characters of Roman comedy. They are often used for humorous effect. Some of the stock characters are:
Lane: Algernon's butler is an example of the servus callidus, the clever servant. This tends to be funny because of the incongruity of the servant who can appear smarter and more "noble" than his master.
Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing: These are slightly older and smarter versions of the adulescens, the young male lover who is a typical protagonist. The comedy in Wilde comes from the way that the two young men at first go against type by appearing worldly and cynical, but then reveal themselves as just as romantic and impulsive as their prototype.
Lady Bracknell: She fits the role of the matrona, and is an hyperbolic version of this stock character. The humor is derives from the way she inverts gender roles, by being a powerful force in a patriarchal world.
Reverend Chasuble: This is a stock character of the senex, the old man, who creates comedy by falling in love in a somewhat incongruous fashion.