Critical Evaluation

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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.

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...

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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 her of being as unfaithful as himself. He sends Chérubin off to the army because Chérubin pursues the same women he does. He has the final say in judicial proceedings and, purely out of spite, does his best to force Figaro to marry Marceline.

These actions seem humorous because they all fail, thanks to the efforts of the women and Figaro. Yet the potential for real damage remains, as becomes clear in Beaumarchais’s little-known sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, L’Autre Tartuffe: Ou, La Mère Coupable (pr. 1792, pb. 1797; Frailty and Hypocrisy, 1804). Here, soon after the reconciliation, the count resumes his habits of unfaithfulness and leaves the unhappy countess to seek consolation in the arms of Chérubin; that liaison results in a child, as does one of the count’s liaisons, and the romantic involvement of those half-siblings twenty years later gives a blackmailing lawyer his opening. When the ashamed Chérubin had learned of the countess’s pregnancy with his child, he had let himself be killed in battle. Had the count remained a faithful, loving husband, the countess would not have had an affair, and the charming Chérubin might not have died so young. Though Figaro again manages to foil the count and young love triumphs here, too, this play shows even more clearly than the first two what harm unthinking abuses of power can cause.

Although he roundly criticized the social system of his time, Beaumarchais was, however, not advocating revolutionary change. He strongly supported the American Revolution, contributing generously to the cause and persuading the French government to do the same, but he had too much at stake in the French monarchy and aristocracy to want their downfall. Beaumarchais enjoyed life in the highest circles of French society and even added the title “de Beaumarchais” to his name after marrying a wealthy widow. Like Figaro, he had tried his hand at a wide variety of careers, among them watchmaker, musician, financier, pamphleteer, diplomat, gunrunner, and spy. Also like his creation, he wound up hitching his fortunes to those of the rich and well born. Beaumarchais wrote as an insider who saw the flaws of the system and sought to reform it, not as a radical seeking to destroy it.


Critical Overview