Places Discussed

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Figaro and Suzanne’s bedroom

Figaro and Suzanne’s bedroom. Room that Figaro and Suzanne hope to share after their marriage. The minimal furniture reflects the fact that the marriage has not yet taken place. It also emphasizes the poverty of the couple, which makes them susceptible to Marceline’s machinations.

Countess’s bedroom

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(The entire section contains 2197 words.)

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Figaro and Suzanne’s bedroom

Figaro and Suzanne’s bedroom. Room that Figaro and Suzanne hope to share after their marriage. The minimal furniture reflects the fact that the marriage has not yet taken place. It also emphasizes the poverty of the couple, which makes them susceptible to Marceline’s machinations.

Countess’s bedroom

Countess’s bedroom. The luxurious appointments emphasize the differences of class that separate the characters and cause Figaro’s struggles. The use of bedrooms, private places linked to secrecy, also coincides with the numerous plots in which the characters engage.

Throne room

Throne room. This setting further stresses the power of the count with the portrait of the king representing his aristocratic connections. A secondary scene involving the count and Figaro’s proposed trip to England serves both to mock the English and to show how Figaro’s trickery will aid him.

Gallery

Gallery. Public room that allows the characters to spy on one another, creating new problems. The festive decorations reflect the joy of Figaro and Suzanne, who seem to have overcome the obstacles to their marriage.

Park

Park. Outdoor setting that functions as the location of Figaro’s famous revolutionary monologue. This is especially appropriate in that, outside the château, Figaro seems to gain increased freedom.

Historical Context

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France on the Brink of Revolution
Throughout the 1700s, France was the largest and most powerful nation in Europe. French society was divided into three estates. The First Estate consisted of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church and made up less than one percent of the population. The Second Estate, the nobility, made up less than two percent of the population. People were born into the Second Estate, but they could also purchase titles. Neither the First nor the Second Estate paid any significant taxes. The Third Estate consisted of everyone else in France, from the peasants to the bourgeoisie, and constituted about ninety-seven percent of the French population.

Around the mid-1700s, discontent in France began to grow among the members of the Third Estate. Peasants were charged higher rents, and laborers' wages did not match the rising cost of food. The bourgeoisie, the urban middle class, wanted political power equal to their economic strength, less governmental interference in business dealings, and their sons to have important positions in the church, government, and army. The Third Estate also resented being the only group to pay taxes.

France was also undergoing a serious financial crisis. Left with huge debts after fighting the Seven Years' War, Louis XV, who ruled France from 1715 to 1774, raised taxes, borrowed more money from bankers, and refused to economize. His successor, Louis XVI, saw France's debts rise as the country aided the colonists in the American Revolution. Louis's financial advisers advocated taxing the First and Second Estates. When such taxes were proposed, the nobles protested and refused to cooperate; some even took part in riots. By 1787, the country stood on the brink of financial ruin.

Having little choice, Louis called representatives of all three estates to the Estates General at the Palace of Versailles in May 1780. He hoped that the group would approve his new plan of imposing taxes upon the wealthy. However, the Third Estate refused to follow the old custom that called for each of the three representative bodies to cast one vote. When the king did not take action, the Third Estate, on July 17, 1789, declared itself the National Assembly. This action began the French Revolution, which brought an end to the French monarchy.

The American Revolution
The American Revolution started in 1776 with the American Declaration of Independence. For several years, colonists were angry over the fact that they were forced to pay increasingly higher taxes without having representation in the British Parliament. France, Britain's longtime enemy, was pleased to see the Revolution start. France formed an alliance with the patriots, signing a treaty in 1778, and French emissaries such as Beaumarchais supplied the American forces with weapons. Individual French citizens also contributed to the patriot cause. The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in America in 1777 to fight alongside the patriots. He also gave large sums of money to aid the American forces. The fighting lasted until 1781, when the British surrendered. A new democracy was born. The success of the American Revolution was an inspiration for the leaders of the French Revolution.

The French Theatre
French drama developed greatly in the 1600s and 1700s. The seventeenth century was France's neoclassical period. Pierre Corneille wrote more than thirty plays, most of which followed Aristotle's precept of unity of time, place, and action. Jean Racine introduced a simpler style and more realistic characters and plot structures. The comic genius of Molière explored social, psychological, and metaphysical questions. The works of these playwrights remain mainstays of the French theatre. Other playwrights who contributed to the development of French drama during this period include Scarron, whose comedies were based on absurdity, and Marivaux, who focused on love instead of social realism. The 1700s witnessed fewer landmark developments in the theatre. Although French comedy reached its height in Molière's day, Beaumarchais offered many bold and exciting changes for the stage. He introduced social discourse into French comedy, along with rapid action, lively dialogue, and complex plots. His plays used comedy to highlight social abuses and subtly protest them.

Literary Style

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Monologue
Figaro's lengthy monologue in act V breaks up the quick pace of the comedy. In the first part of the monologue, Figaro reflects upon Suzanne's faithlessness and deceit as well as the arbitrary nature of the aristocracy's power. In the second part, he recounts the numerous jobs he has held as a means of exploring his future. In the third and final part, Figaro reflects upon the course his life has taken.

While Figaro's monologue slows down the pace of the play at a crucial juncture, it serves to demonstrate that he possesses greater depth than his previous comic antics, as well as his irrational jealousy, might otherwise suggest. On a larger thematic level, the monologue challenges French society's tradition of honoring wealth and rank above merit. Some critics have interpreted Figaro's commentary on the social abuses of the aristocracy as a forecast of the impending French Revolution and the end of the class system.

Satire
A satirical play is one that uses humor and wit to criticize human nature, society, and institutions. Beaumarchais's play, though comic, never shies away from pressing social issues. However, he uses indirect satire, relying upon the ridiculous behavior of his characters to make his point. An example of indirect satire is when the Count is forced to hide behind the chair in Suzanne's room.

Beaumarchais's main objects of satire are the members of the aristocracy. Embodied in the person of the Count Almaviva, the aristocracy is seen as vain, foolish, self-centered, dissolute, and dishonest. The character of the judge, Bridlegoose, provides another good example of how Beaumarchais uses satire, in this case, to attack the judicial system. The stuttering Bridlegoose is completely ineffective and stupid. He has great difficulty understanding the facts of Figaro's case as put before him. The only thing that is clear to him is that Marceline, Figaro's mother, will not marry her son. Though his position as a judge—a position that he purchased—would seem to require that he render opinions, he constantly refuses to do so. In fact, his opinion is not needed at all, for the Count is the final authority in the court; he delivers its decision, thus devaluing Bridlegoose by taking away what should be his primary function.

Trilogy
Beaumarchais's plays The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and A Mother's Guilt comprise his trilogy about Count Almaviva. The Barber of Seville, the first play of the trilogy, focuses on Figaro's successful plan to win Rosine (the Countess Almaviva) for the Count. A Mother's Guilt finds the Count and Countess, and their loyal servants Figaro and Suzanne, living in France.

Beaumarchais makes use of the first play in his second. For instance, he neglected to write new descriptions for some characters in the playscript of The Marriage of Figaro; instead, he describes them as ‘‘the same as in The Barber of Seville.’’ However, Beaumarchais also breaks away from the earlier play in significant ways. Most notably, he reverses the character of the Count from a gallant romantic to a deceitful lech. The Count abolished the ‘‘rights of the nobleman’’—the right dating from feudal times that allowed the lord of the manor to deflower his vassal's wife on her wedding night—upon his marriage to Rosine in the first play, but he attempts to take advantage of this outmoded right in The Marriage of Figaro.

Compare and Contrast

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1780s: In the mid-1780s, France is a monarchy ruled by King Louis XVI. The king holds absolute power.

Today: France is a republic headed by a president who is elected by popular vote for a seven-year term.

1780s: French women lack the same rights as men. For instance, the father is the absolute authority of the family and males usually supersede females in inheritance rights.

Today: Although laws guarantee women political, economic, and social rights equal to men, French women still are discriminated against. For example, they earn on average twenty percent less than men and make up less than five percent of senior managers in France's two hundred largest companies. An unequal division of labor still exists at home, where women complete eighty percent of domestic tasks and working women spend two hours more each day on such tasks than working men do.

1780s: The nobility, who make up less than two percent of the population, enjoy special privileges such as the right to collect feudal dues from peasants. The nobility holds the highest positions in the army and government. Members of the Third Estate, however, may purchase titles and thus enter the aristocratic class.

Today: A French aristocratic class still exists, but many members of this class work for a living. Class distinctions are generally accepted in France, and many class divisions remain rigid. Children of all classes attend state schools together, but there is little sense of a classless meritocracy.

Media Adaptations

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Mozart wrote a four-act opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, based on The Marriage of Figaro. It was first performed in 1786. Numerous recordings of it are available.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Brereton, Geoffrey, French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1977, pp. 237-55.

Campan, Mme., Mémoires, quoted in Joseph Sungolowsky, Beaumarchais, Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Cox, Cynthia, The Real Figaro: The Extraordinary Career of Caron de Beaumarchais, Longmans, 1962, quoted in Joseph Sungolowsky, Beaumarchais, Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Sungolowsky, Joseph, Beaumarchais, Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Ubersfeld, Annie, ed., Le Mariage de Figaro, Editions Sociales, 1966, quoted in Joseph Sungolowsky, Beaumarchais, Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Further Reading
Hayes, Julie C.,"Rewriting Bourgeois Drama: Beaumarchais's Double Plan,'' in The Age of Theatre in France, edited by David Trott and Nicole Boursier, Academic Printing & Publishing, 1988, pp. 41-51. This volume collects essays about the French theatre in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Howarth, William D., Beaumarchais and the Theatre, Routledge, 1995. Howarth analyzes Beaumarchais's plays and their critical reception in the context of the political and theatrical events of the period.

Lally, Carolyn Gascoigne, ‘‘Beaumarchais's Le Mariage de Figaro,'' in The Explicator, Vol. 58, Winter 2000, p. 75. This short piece discusses how Beaumarchais uses comedy to attack the civil justice system.

Le Maître, Georges, Beaumarchais, Knopf, 1949. Le Maître presents a basic account of Beaumarchais' s life.

McDonald, Christie, ‘‘The Anxiety of Change: Reconfiguring Family Relations in Beaumarchais's Trilogy,’’ in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 1994, p. 47. McDonald discusses the depiction of familial relations in The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and A Mother's Guilt.

Bibliography

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Cox, Cynthia. The Real Figaro: The Extraordinary Career of Caron de Beaumarchais. London: Longmans, 1962. Focuses primarily on Beaumarchais’ many activities other than writing. In her discussion of his ventures into diplomacy, Cox notes Beaumarchais’ success as an intriguer and interprets the character of Figaro as a self-portrait. Includes illustrations and a good bibliography.

Grendel, Frédéric. Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro. Translated by Roger Greaves. London: MacDonald and Jane’s, 1977. Interprets Figaro as Beaumarchais’ alter ego and The Marriage of Figaro as the pinnacle of his career. Believes Beaumarchais was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and traces his chameleon-like adaptability to the fact that he was secretly a Protestant in Catholic France. Includes illustrations and a selected bibliography.

Ratermanis, J. B., and W. R. Irwin. The Comic Style of Beaumarchais. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961. Interesting scene-by-scene analysis of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, analyzing what makes the comedy work on stage, especially in the context of the decline of comic dramatic writing in eighteenth century France. Uses theories of Henri Bergson and others on the nature of humor.

Sungolowsky, Joseph. Beaumarchais. New York: Twayne, 1974. Concise biographical treatment, with a useful chronology, notes, selected bibliography, and detailed analysis of all the plays.

Wood, John. Introduction to “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro,” translated by John Wood. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964. Excellent concise discussion of the plays and their social context. The edition also includes Beaumarchais’ own notes on the characters and their costumes.

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