The humor of Carlo Goldoni’s The Mistress of the Inn is based on certain assumptions of class and social structure, as well as on the positions of man and woman relative to each other in society. The heroine’s contacts in the play are made possible by virtue of her being an innkeeper, for, as a rule, women of a nobler class did not encounter large numbers of men in eighteenth century Italy. Although Goldoni underscores Mirandolina’s virtue often, her position suggested a certain moral looseness to audiences of the time. Indeed, a woman of mid-eighteenth century Italy would not have conducted herself with Mirandolina’s freedom; such behavior toward men would have been judged as being immoral and unfeminine, and such a woman would have lost her social position.
Nevertheless, a woman who defied men was an ideal subject for laughter, and Mirandolina’s self-assurance and cleverness were considered admirable then as in later times, though for different reasons. Goldoni’s contemporaries delighted in seeing Mirandolina triumph over the foolish men in the play, not because her conquests were men, but because they were fools. In truth, Goldoni’s audience would not have wanted women to be victorious over men in actuality, or even to challenge long-established male prerogatives. The humor of this battle between the genders is safe and acceptable in The Mistress of the Inn because it is not in any way realistic, at least for the time.
Another way in which Goldoni uses social distinctions for humorous effect is through the opposition between the old gentry and the nouveau riche. The count represents the newly moneyed class, whereas the marquis is of the old nobility, impoverished but clinging to his pride in his ancient rank. He scorns the bought title of the count, insisting that lineage cannot be purchased. Yet in the practical world, the man with money has the advantage, and the prestige of an old family is easily swept aside. The marquis babbles about the refinements that come from breeding, about “taste” and “protection” and “honor,” but when the count flashes a diamond ring, Mirandolina cannot resist....
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