Essays and Criticism

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

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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.

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 Bartholo. As befits a man accustomed to getting his way, he knocks Bartholo’s papers on the floor, demands to see his exemption from quartering soldiers, and sings a song describing the older man in the most unflattering terms.

Bartholo, as well, is not impervious to social rank. When the Count, disguised as Alonzo, offers the letter that Rosine wrote him, tell Bartholo that it was for the Count, Bartholo reads aloud the words, ‘‘Since you have told me your name and rank,’’ and immediately throws the letter down. Not knowing that the Count withheld the truth about his social position, Bartholo grows angry, recognizing that the Count’s social position will make him infinitely more attractive to Rosine—as well as better suited to her. However, when dealing with Figaro, a member of a lower class, he treats him as shabbily as the Count (disguised as the soldier) had previously treated Bartholo. He calls Figaro a fool, accuses him of saying ‘‘idiotic things,’’ and impugns his honesty. ‘‘You are so rude to the lower classes,’’ Figaro succinctly concludes.

The importance of social rank in all aspects of daily life is made apparent, not only in the relationship between Figaro and his former master, but throughout the play. The Count’s status is the reason that Bartholo and his assistant Bazile are unable to vanquish the young rival. ‘‘We could soon frighten him away if he were an ordinary citizen,’’ Bazile muses, and Bartholo agrees that if the Count were not a Count, they would be able to attack him, thus scaring him away from Madrid. Bazile instead strikes upon the idea of spreading rumors about the Count. However, this strategy is bound to fail, for Bazile is completely unsuited for slandering the much more highly placed Count. As Figaro points out, ‘‘You need an estate, a family, a name, a rank, in other words, quality, if you want to become a professional scandalmonger.’’ His words also tacitly impugn these men of ‘‘quality,’’ implying that they spread rumors—and perhaps spread them often.

By contrast, in his budding relationship with Rosine, the Count is so aware of his appeal as a member of the noble class that he refuses to reveal his true identity. He tells Figaro, ‘‘I am bored with these unending conquests of women whose motives are self-interest, social climbing, or vanity. It is sweet to be loved for oneself,’’ and he determines to see if Rosine loves him and not his money and power. From his first communication with Rosine, the Count takes on the identity of a man lacking social distinction and even a modicum of wealth. His song of introduction emphasizes his ‘‘low birth’’ and the ‘‘simple, sincere’’ pledge that a poor man is making to a woman of noble rank. He sings, ‘‘I wish I could offer my dear one/ High rank and estates of great birth.’’

Rosine, who happens to possess a fortune of her own, cares for Lindor despite his impoverished circumstances. As she points out once the Count has revealed himself (both in words and in ‘‘magnifi- cent’’ dress), ‘‘Fortune, birth! These are things that come by chance.’’ Her words show that even in a world ordered by social stratification, some people are able to see beyond class implications and restrictions. Bartholo’s reaction, upon learning Lindor’s, or the Count’s, true identity, warrants mention as well. ‘‘Anywhere else, my lord, I am your humble servant, but in my house, rank does not mean anything, and I ask you to leave,’’ he says. The insincerity of his words is manifest—he has already shown himself as rude and condescending to the lower classes—and they are predicated merely by his desire to keep Rosine for himself.

To Bartholo’s words, the Count responds with the noble sentiment, ‘‘No, rank doesn’t mean anything here; I have nothing over you except Rosine’s preference.’’ Interestingly, however, once the Count admits his true identity to Rosine, he no longer hesitates to make use of his status. The arrogant Count Almaviva who emerges in the final moments of the play is a far cry from the mild, hopeful Lindor. His sense of his own grandeur is most apparent when Bartholo opposes the marriage that has just taken place between the Count and Rosine on the grounds that she is not of legal age to enter into a legal contract. ‘‘The young lady is noble and beautiful. I am now a man of rank, and I am young and rich,’’ the Count declares. ‘‘She is my wife. Is anybody prepared to dispute this marriage which honors us both?’’ No one present will speak against the Count’s ‘‘honorable marriage.’’

Though The Barber of Seville focuses on the intrigue surrounding Count Almaviva’s efforts to woo and win Rosine, at the heart of the play is the relationship between Figaro and his former master. These two characters bring to life the issue of social classes brewing in France at the time in which Beaumarchais wrote his play. However, critics hold differing views on this relationship. Joseph G. Reish writes in ‘‘Revolution: Three Changing Faces of Figaro,’’ ‘‘Neither Figaro nor the Count is guided by social role playing; class distinctions are set aside.’’ By contrast, John Richetti asserts in European Writers that the play upholds ‘‘the social and moral positions of man and master.’’ He also believes that ‘‘Figaro recognizes in Count Almaviva a noble dignity that deserves his service as well as a power that he needs to placate in order to survive and prosper.’’ Frédéric Grendel holds yet another view of the relationship between the two men. Writing in Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro, he states, ‘‘Figaro may still call his master ‘Your Excellency’ or ‘My lord,’ but he does so only to conform with custom.’’ Perhaps at the time of writing, the conflict between social groups was not as pressing a topic as it would become. For, a scant few years later, Beaumarchais produced The Marriage of Figaro, which bitingly and archly demonstrates the rising conflict in pre-Revolutionary France.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Barber of Seville, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

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