Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

In The Marriage of Figaro, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais takes Figaro through more intrigues and adventures. Again the shrewd barber matches wits with those who would oppress him, again young lovers must overcome obstacles planted by their more powerful enemies, and the high good humor and clever wit of Figaro triumph. Critics have interpreted The Marriage of Figaro as everything from a giddy sensual romp to the first rumblings of the French Revolution. Certainly aspects of this delightful play can be used to support a number of interpretations. Beaumarchais claimed about this work, as he did about all his writings, that it was his intention both to entertain and to reform society.

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Although Beaumarchais’s comic style was often copied by other writers of his day, it was never surpassed. With charm and gaiety, The Marriage of Figaro examines love in its many forms and the mad things people do in pursuit of love. Nevertheless, Beaumarchais allows everything to come right in the end: In spite of the lustful lord and predatory spinster, Suzanne and Figaro let nothing keep them from their love match; the estranged count and countess rediscover what had first drawn them together and reconcile under the moonlit chestnut trees; Marceline, who seemed ridiculous in her pursuit of the unwilling Figaro, blooms when she learns she can now love him as her long-lost son—she even gets Bartholo to marry her, albeit thirty years late.

Beaumarchais’s meticulous stage directions contribute to the breathless fun. The play teems with examples of the split-second timing and mistaken identities that are so necessary to farce: Chérubin slips behind and then into a chair, only to be discovered as the count mimes finding him; Suzanne and Chérubin switch places in the countess’s dressing room; Suzanne loses her composure when she sees Figaro kissing Marceline. The continuing small confusions climax in the total confusion of the last act.

The play revels in a sunny sensuality. Much of the action involves the trappings of feminine apparel; Suzanne and the countess take delight in exchanging clothes and in dressing Chérubin up as a girl (especially droll since Chérubin is usually played by a woman). The dialogue repeatedly refers to soft fabrics, flowers, ribbons, and smooth skin, a subtle reminder that virtually all the characters are thinking about sex.

The play also deals with the social tensions and injustices that would soon destroy the ancien régime, particularly in Figaro’s long tirade in act 5. He rhetorically asks the absent count, “What have you done to deserve so much? You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more.” He describes the struggles of his own early life—his poverty, his imprisonment for political “crimes,” and controversies with censors. At every step, Figaro learned that society is rigged against men who are intelligent but have no status.

In the character of the count, the play implicitly criticizes those who have and abuse power. The count, the passionate lover in Le Barbier de Séville: Ou, La Précaution inutile (pr., pb. 1775; The Barber of Seville: Or, The Useless Precaution, 1776), is in this work a bored husband who misuses his power as an aristocrat, especially toward the women in his domain. He and Figaro, formerly allies against the pompous Bartholo, now oppose each other as the count seeks to reclaim the droit du seigneur (the right of a lord to take the virginity of a peasant bride on her wedding night). Figaro twice forces him to renounce this right publicly, but even so the count intends to enjoy Suzanne, if necessary by extortion in withholding the dowry needed to pay Figaro’s debt to Marceline. The count abuses his power in other ways, too. He feels justified in jealously bullying his wife when he mistakenly suspects...

(The entire section contains 1015 words.)

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Critical Overview