Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990

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Useless Precaution
The subtitle of The Barber of Seville is ‘‘The Useless Precaution.’’ The useless precaution theme in drama focuses on an old man trying to isolate his young wife or intended wife, and it harkens back to the days of Roman theater. By the 1770s, the useless precaution premise was a stock element of French literature, found in countless plays and stories, and while Beaumarchais’s theme was highly derivative, his treatment of it was wholly original. As Frédéric Grendel wrote in Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro, ‘‘The thing that matters is that Beaumarchais made the theme his own. No one before him, not even Molière, had used the devices of ellipsis and punning so freely and so naturally.’’ John Dunkley concurred, writing in the Reference Guide to World Literature, ‘‘Beaumarchais infuses it [the theme] with new life through memorable characters and a brilliantly honed dialogue.’’

Beaumarchais emphasizes the theme when the audience is first introduction to Rosine in act I. She claims to drop a lyric sheet from a new comedy entitled The Useless Precaution. Her interest in this play indicates her distaste for a marriage to the antiquated Bartholo, who assesses the play as ‘‘modern rubbish’’ that represents a ‘‘barbarous century.’’ He refutes the accomplishments of the contemporary world, railing against it as filled with ‘‘Every kind of stupidity: freedom of thought, the law of gravity, electricity, religious tolerance, inoculation, quinine, the encyclopedia.’’ Thus does Beaumarchais make clear that Bartholo is far too old and set in his ways to be an appropriate spouse to Rosine.

Verses from The Useless Precaution continue to appear throughout the play. In act III, Rosine sings a song that celebrates the coming of spring and youthful love. Her paraphrasing of the song is more telling, however. She describes the disappearance of winter—which, like Bartholo, has kept people shuttered inside—and compares herself to the ‘‘slave who has been locked up for a long time and then appreciates his liberty more than ever.’’ The play ends by invoking the theme. As Figaro reminds Bartholo—and the audience—‘‘when love and youth unite to deceive an old man, anything he does to try and stop them can only be called a useless precaution.’’

Disguises
Figaro’s plot to keep Bartholo from marrying Rosine and to bring about her marriage to the Count relies on a series of disguises. In order to get close to Rosine, the Count takes on several roles and costumes. Figaro first comes across the Count as the latter lurks outside Rosine’s window, dressed in the long brown cloak and broad-brimmed hat of a priest. Though he has donned the clothing of a priest, however, the Count is unable to cover up other qualities that indicate his true station in life; as Figaro remarks to himself upon first seeing the Count, ‘‘No, he isn’t a reverend. That haughtiness, that nobility. . . . I wasn’t wrong: it’s Count Almaviva.’’

The Count is physically introduced into Bartholo’s household—where he is able to communicate his love as well as important messages to Rosine—in the guise of a drunken soldier who demands that Bartholo give him quarters for the evening. He next enters Bartholo’s house in the guise of a music teacher. Bartholo comments upon the inefficacy of the Count’s disguise: ‘‘You look more like a disguised lover than an official friend.’’ However, even the suspicious Bartholo does not realize that he has hit upon the truth.

The Count uses disguises for other purposes as well. He refuses to reveal his true identity to Rosine. Instead, he claims to be a penniless young man named Lindor. As he explains to Figaro, ‘‘Since she’s already interested in me without knowing who I am, I’ll keep this name Lindor; it’ll be better to hide my title until I’ve won her.’’ The Count wants to be sure that he is loved for himself, not for his wealth or social station.

Music
Music provides an underpinning for the play’s structure and plot. Viewed in that light, it is not surprising that Figaro’s introduction upon the stage takes place while he composes a song for a comic opera. Additionally, Rosine claims to carry a song sheet as she is introduced to the audience, though the sheet in her hand is actually a letter for the Count. Bazile, her music teacher—notably the only person outside Bartholo’s household with whom Rosine is allowed contact—gives her verses from a new comedy entitled The Useless Precaution. Thus, the audience realizes immediately that music has an important role in the play and that music will reiterate the overarching theme.

The lyrics that the characters sing are important to the advancement of the plot. They give the lovers voice to ‘‘speak’’ with each other and express their feelings. The song the Count sings to Rosine in act I allows him to introduce himself—albeit disguised as Lindor—and declare his love. When the Count masquerades as a music instructor, he gains access to Rosine, who then communicates her dislike of the idea of a marriage to Bartholo by singing lyrics from The Useless Precaution that specifically celebrate young love. In marked contrast to their verses are those of Bartholo, who vulgarly sings a verse alluding to sexual relations between an older man and a younger wife: ‘‘I may not be handsome, yet/I know how to play. When the night gets dark as jet/Every cat looks grey.’’

Lyrics also allow characters to impugn others. For instance, in act II, the Count describes Bartholo impudently in song as ‘‘Greedy and destructive and as vicious as a stoat. A scraggy old, baggy old, cheap minded churl’’ and as a doctor who ‘‘eliminate[ s] not merely pain and disease. But also your patients.’’ Bartholo readily recognizes the insult and throws the Count out of his house.

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