Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
William S. Gilbert wisely set the story of THE GONDOLIERS in Italy rather than in England, so that he would have ample scope to satirize a topic otherwise unapproachable even for his genial talents: the institution of monarchy. However uncomfortable certain liberal spirits like Gilbert might have been with Queen Victoria, he could scarcely criticize upon the stage either her person or her prosperous reign; his was an audience which delighted, rather, in reading mischievous accounts about the vulgarity of American democracy, for which English travelers such as Mrs. Trollope gratified the public taste. But at the same time, Gilbert had to avoid offending American feelings, for his works were also popular in the United States. Consequently, he established his monarchy in the never-never land of Barataria and selected Venetians for his republican protagonists
Marco and Giuseppe, Gilbert’s two would-be kings, are simple gondoliers who have been reared to respect liberty; they cannot understand the pomp and pretentions of courtly life, and they cherish their freedom. At the Court of Barataria, garbed in their kingly robes, they clean their own crowns and scepters, while around them their servants and ministers-of-state fuss over games of chance and petty gossip. Unlike the drones at court, they work (as they explain in the brisk duet “Rising Early in the Morning”) only for the good of their subjects. Obviously, such egalitarian kings are unsuited to the monarchy. And with relief they learn that they are not kings, after all, but lowly gondoliers as before. Thus, with unobtrustive satire, Gilbert makes his point: the truly free are those who owe allegiance neither to king nor to the claims of ceremony.
Yet Gilbert is not so liberal that he neglects to expose, as well, the follies of republican government. Complete democracy, he shows, not only levels the privileges of caste but also suppresses the talents of great people to the condition of mediocrity. In Don Alhambra’s patter song “There Lived a King,” the author argues that the elite class should not, simply for the sake of a sentimental gesture, share power or wealth with the masses. The generous king who “wished all men rich as he,” advanced everyone “to the top of the tree.” But the result of his generosity—when “Chancellors were cheap as sprats / And Bishops . . . were plentiful as tabby cats”—was a bland communism in which all classes were reduced to the same state of meanness. Gilbert’s message, quite as pleasing to the aristocracy as his satire on the monarchy must have been to socialists, is that so long as the ruling class ceases to care “for cloth of gold,” up will go “the price of shoddy.” So Gilbert hedges his bets, offends neither class, but amuses his whole audience—which objective, after all, is his intention.
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