Critical Evaluation

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Although the plot of The Barber of Seville has been used many times by dramatists and composers, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais took a fresh approach to the story. The play, fast-moving and brisk, has all the necessary ingredients for a sentimental comedy: intrigue, wit, clear-cut characterizations, satire, and a well-defined plot. Indeed, the plot is more important than the actors themselves, even though Figaro, the barber, has become famous in the literature of all countries.

Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville displays wit, humor, and gaiety, and its structural ingenuity—the sheer fun of the piece—assures its immortality, just as in Gioacchino Antonio Rossini’s opera of the same name and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which is based on Beaumarchais’s sequel to the play.

Probability and depth of character are sacrificed to the plot, but the superbly constructed plot is well worth the sacrifice. It is a masterpiece of ingenuity and invention. Bartholo, the antagonist, and the protagonists Rosine, the count, and Figaro are expert in their attempts to outwit one another.

In the best tradition of farce, particularly French farce, the action never seems to flag. Even the catching songs that seemingly interrupt the action are, in fact, organic parts of it. Beginning somewhat slowly in the first act, much of which is necessary exposition, the action gathers momentum, twists and turns, moves from climax to higher climax, and ends abruptly in a quick denouement. The characters are confronted with one obstacle after another; there is withheld information revealed at crucial points in the play; and, finally, there is the big scene, or scène à faire.

Equally entertaining is the play’s humor, which ranges from broad burlesque and farce to sophisticated comedy of manners. Slapstick is punctuated with brilliant wit and trenchant observations about people and society. However, Beaumarchais’s touch is always light. Though Bartholo is ridiculed as the stock jealous cuckold pursuing a lady young enough to be his daughter, the satire stops short of bitterness or vituperation. His only punishment is that he loses Rosine, whom he never possessed in the first place. Seriousness and heavy-handed moralizing are also averted. There is, of course, the underlying moral that youthful lovers can always outwit a foolish old man, but that moral is absorbed in the rollicking dialogue and madcap antics of Figaro and the count. Here, nevertheless, the conquest of innocence is less offensive or cynical than in earlier neoclassical plays dealing with the same theme: Count Almaviva does not seduce Rosine but marries her. Not only love but also good will and lighthearted humor triumph.

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Critical Overview