Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658

Despite its comedic situations, clever word play, and inane posturing, The Barber of Seville carried social messages of great importance to its earliest audiences. One of these messages was the irrationality and arbitrariness of the division of social classes. This issue was of rising interest in a society in which the majority of members, the exception being clergy and nobility, held few legal, political, or economic rights. To a self-made man such as Beaumarchais, a system that honored wealth and birth, as opposed to ingenuity, was absurd; thus, Beaumarchais created Figaro, a servant who is smarter and more capable than people with greater wealth and higher social standing. Indeed, Figaro’s triumph was an example of a theme to which he would return more definitively and more bitingly in the play’s sequel, The Marriage of Figaro.

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The role of the social classes emerges as a major theme in this play. While the Count and Figaro work together to achieve a common goal— notably, one that serves to benefit only the Count— each individual is acutely aware of the social chasm between them. Their social roles are manifest from their first reintroduction on the street in front of Rosine’s window. The Count alternately calls Figaro a rogue and a fool, while the former servant benignly acknowledges the Count’s ill manners. He ironically comments, ‘‘You always honored me with that kind of friendly greeting,’’ and his audience understands his tacit criticism. The Count proceeds to further insult Figaro, telling him, ‘‘When you were in my employ, you were a pretty slovenly character. . . . Lazy, disorganized.’’ Figaro responds to the Count’s numerous remarks calmly yet wittily. Notably, when the Count discovers that Figaro is his key to getting close to Rosine, his attitude quickly changes: ‘‘Figaro, you are my friend, my guardian angel, my liberator, my savior,’’ he says, embracing his former servant. Figaro accurately notes that ‘‘Now I’m useful to you we’re close friends.’’

Also significant is Figaro’s immediate recognition of his former master, even though the Count is dressed as a priest. For despite this humble disguise, the Count’s ‘‘haughtiness’’ and ‘‘nobility’’—traits inherent to the Count’s nature, as will be proven by his actions over the next twenty-four hours—are apparent in his very stance and bearing. Even though the Count is attempting to conceal his true self, he is unable to alter his innate sense of superiority, which he wears as clearly as any article of clothing. His air of superiority—cultivated by his social class and life experiences—is key in his dealings with Figaro. Although the Count is no longer Figaro’s master and therefore has no real authority over him, the current relationship between the two men recalls their former relationship of master and servant. (Indeed, as seen in The Marriage of Figaro, after his chance encounter, Figaro once again returns to work in the household of the Count.)

Being superior is second nature to the Count, as is evident in the smallest details of the play. For example, he is unable to recognize the ‘‘fat’’ and ‘‘flabby’’ Figaro upon their first meeting because poor people, or members of the servant class, are supposed to be thin. The Count’s attempt to enter Bartholo’s household as a drunken soldier is even more telling. Figaro coaches the Count to act more intoxicated, but the Count rejects this advice, saying, ‘‘No, that’s how commoners get drunk.’’ His words imply that there is a great difference between men of low rank and men of high rank, even in such basic behaviors as becoming intoxicated. When the Count does enter the household, thusly disguised, he is impertinent, rude, and even obnoxious to...

(The entire section contains 1658 words.)

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