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. Eighteenth century Italy was a country in transition, lagging behind the other European countries in economic and political developments, and the contest between these two absurd figures reflects the conditions that existed at the time. Many of the old families were being overwhelmed by the newly affluent commercial families; power was changing hands, being yielded to the ruthless and shrewd, and soon the supreme upstart of them all, Napoleon Bonaparte, would appear on the scene.
In The Mistress of the Inn, Goldoni combines old dramatic traditions with his own innovations. The convention of the insolent, shrewd servant, Fabricius, for example, goes back to ancient Roman and even Greek comedy, and the character of Mirandolina suggests some of the independent courtesans of the old Roman comedies. On the other hand, the sense of the momentary scene is new to Goldoni; the audience is always aware that life is going on around these characters on the stage and that the events of the comedy are not occurring in a vacuum. Part of the vitality of the play stems from this feeling of the ever-changing quality of human life.
The characters themselves are the primary reason for the play’s long success. They are broadly sketched, but each possesses a good-natured vitality. Mirandolina does not marry out of her class, which would have shocked eighteenth century audiences, but the possibility that she might do so tantalizes them until the very end. Her gaiety and cleverness control the proceedings as she plays on the self-centered men...
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as on musical instruments. They, in turn, respond to her efforts according to their personalities, ever jealous of one another, ridiculing one another, proud and arrogant, yet not one of them is a match for this earthy, witty woman.
Goldoni was a prolific dramatist, and his work completely reformed the comedy of his day. The son of a Venetian doctor, he ran away from school with a company of players. Although he eventually took a degree in law, the theater was always his first love. After making a false start with a lyric tragedy, he found his natural bent with a comedy in verse. Believing that a radical change was necessary in the Italian theater, he followed Molière’s example by attempting to depict the realities of social life in as natural a manner as possible. To later audiences, his plays do not seem realistic, but they were a startling departure from what came before him. Goldoni freed his actors from the traditional practice of wearing masks on the stage, and he suppressed improvisation by writing out the parts in full. He eventually replaced the haphazard Italian farces of the day, the commedia dell’arte, with his own style of comedy of manners. His plays were both earthy and moral in tone and attempted a faithful mirror of life. Goldoni’s best plays, which reflect the true life of the varied social classes in his native land, have endured and will continue to be enjoyed by audiences around the world. They possess a gaiety and shrewdness unsurpassed in later drama, and they present a tantalizing picture of a dynamic and rapidly changing moment in history.