Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721
From its earliest readings in France, The Marriage of Figaro raised concerns over Beaumarchais's criticism of the social class system. This system, in place since the Middle Ages, put members of the aristocracy in positions of governmental and military power even if they did not merit it. It also allowed for little upward mobility. Figaro's plotting against his master is a usurpation of aristocratic authority. His actions literally demonstrate several bold assertions: that such authority is designated merely by virtue of birth and not by worth, and that his own desire is paramount to the Count's. He and the Count then compete for Suzanne, and Figaro—the worthier man—wins. Figaro also continuously expresses his disdain for the aristocracy, letting no opportunity pass for criticizing the upper class. Among other things, he points out their lack of intelligence and their lax morality.
Figaro's monologue contains the most biting criticism of the aristocratic class. In this speech, he specifically points out the randomness that places some people in power over others. "What have you done to earn so many advantages?'' he wonders. He provides the only accurate answer: "You took the trouble to be born, nothing more. Apart from that, you're a rather common type.’’ Figaro then asserts that members of the servant class, such as himself, must use their wits, strategy, and skill merely to get by; therefore, they clearly have more natural abilities.
Fidelity and Adultery
The play's intrigue centers around the Count's adulterous desire for Suzanne. Bored with his wife, the Count has set his sights on Figaro's betrothed. That she is the fiancée of his loyal servant does not divert him in the slightest, which clearly depicts how noblemen such as himself regarded affairs with their underlings. Indeed, this experienced philanderer pursues other young, attractive women on his estate in addition to Suzanne.
Despite his own lapse of fidelity, the Count becomes furious when he believes that his wife is, or may be in the future, unfaithful. He banishes Cherubino from the estate because the page reveals his love for the Countess. He assumes that the reason his wife won't open the closet door is that a man is in the room. When he views Suzanne dressed in his wife's clothing, having apparently succumbed to Figaro's seduction, he rushes out to attack the servant. He refuses to forgive his "wife," and fails to see the hypocrisy within himself, even though his wife forgives him.
Figaro also questions his beloved's fidelity. Although he told Marceline that he would forgive Suzanne anything, even unfaithfulness, he becomes furious when he believes she is accepting the Count's favors. His jealously leads him to the elm grove so he can see what happens. In this instance, he comes to resemble the Count in his quick acceptance of his lover's infidelity.
Women and Gender Roles
The way the men in the play treat the women demonstrates how society in Beaumarchais's time regarded gender roles. Women faced great inequality. They were often subject to the whims of their husbands or guardians. For example, Suzanne cannot marry Figaro unless her uncle Antonio allows it, and the Count threatens to banish the Countess to her room ‘‘for a long time!’’ as punishment.
Most significantly, although the Count happily and casually engages in extramarital affairs, his wife can "never" be forgiven for doing the same thing. The Count's attitude toward his wife—and Figaro's attitude toward Suzanne when he believes she is about to have an affair—shows that women were perceived as objects that belonged to their lovers. In this view, women lose "value" when they commit an infidelity. On the basis of circumstantial evidence, Figaro even considers "dropping one wife and wedding another.’’ Such threats show that a woman's value—derived exclusively from her faithfulness and virtue—reflects on the man who possesses her.
The plot hatched by the Countess and Suzanne, however, shows women attempting to subvert this narrow gender role, and the Countess specifically forbids Suzanne from telling Figaro about the plan. Indeed, all the key players in the plan are female. Significantly, Figaro's plan to outsmart the Count does not work, but the Countess's does; she and Suzanne alone devise and execute a plan to save the maid's virtue and return the affections of the Count to the Countess.