The Marriage of Figaro
The Marriage of Figaro
PIERRE-AUGUSTIN DE BEAUMARCHAIS 1784
Like its author, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro had a long, illustrious history. Completed in 1780, the play would not be acted on the French stage until 1784. Beaumarchais faced many obstacles in producing his comedy. The official French censors, as well as King Louis XVI, opposed the play. The comedy was scandalous in its depiction of a pleasure-seeking, incompetent nobleman who is upstaged by his crafty, quick-witted servant in their quest for the same woman. In its questioning of France’s longstanding social class system, which stood as the very basis of France’s governing body, it was also revolutionary. The aristocracy who made up the play’s appreciative audience understood its subversive nature, yet continued to attend showings in record numbers.
The Marriage of Figaro deserves praise for its important social messages, its subtle wit, comic mastery, and vivacious dialogue; many scholars believe that this play is Beaumarchais’s masterpiece. However, the play also holds an important place in the development of French theatre. It is a play in which the aristocracy face their impending decline. The triumph of Figaro, valet to a nobleman, signifies the victory of ability over birthright. As such, Beaumarchais presages the tumultuous events of 1789, the year that brought the French Revolution and the downfall of France’s established class system.
Beaumarchais was born in Paris, France, on January 24, 1732. In 1753, working as an apprentice to his watchmaker father, Beaumarchais devised a mechanism that was recognized by the Academy of Sciences. Two years later, he was appointed watchmaker to the royal court of Louis XV. Upon marrying a widow, he became Clerk Controller and also inherited the property of Beaumarchais, from where he took his name. He became wealthy through business associations and purchased the title of Secretary of the King, which made him a member of the French nobility.
Beaumarchais traveled to Spain in 1764, after his sister’s fiancé refused to marry her, where he revealed the fiancé’s treachery. This trip gave him the opportunity to observe Spanish life and culture, including the wastefulness of the nobility and the abuses of the government. He returned to Paris in 1767 to present his play Eugénie, which made use of these experiences. His next play, Les Deux Amies, appeared three years later, in 1770. That same year, Beaumarchais became involved in a lawsuit. Although he eventually won his case, he was stripped of the civil rights belonging to French citizens, and these rights were not reinstated until 1776.
During this period, King Louis XV hired Beaumarchais as a secret agent. On frequent trips to England, he became interested in the cause for American independence. With the support of the French government, he helped provide unofficial money and arms to the American colonists.
He continued to work on his writings. The Barber of Seville, which first introduced Figaro, was produced in 1775. He completed The Marriage of Figaro in 1780, but it was not produced until four years later. The liberetto Tarare came out in 1787, and again in 1790 with a new ending adapted to the political changes that had taken place because of the French Revolution. La Mere Coupable was presented in 1792. Between 1783 and 1790, Beaumarchais published a complete edition of the works of Voltaire. In 1777 he also founded the Society of Dramatic Authors, one of the first organizations that protected an author’s rights.
Beaumarchais continued to pursue his business interests, undertaking arms negotiations in 1792 on behalf of the French revolutionary government. Accused by the government of hiding the guns, he was imprisoned but freed from jail in time to escape the September massacres that took place that year.
Beaumarchais fled to England and then to Hamburg, Germany. The French government declared him an emigre, which barred his return to France, before imprisoning his family and seizing his property. He remained in exile in Germany until 1796, when the new government allowed him to return. He died of a stroke in Paris on May 18, 1799.
The Marriage of Figaro opens on the day of Figaro and Suzanne’s marriage. Suzanne informs her fiance that the Count has offered her a dowry if she spends the first night with him. Figaro realizes that he must take quick action to thwart the Count’s desires. He vows to mislead the Count by moving ahead the time the wedding will take place. At the same time, he must ward off Marceline, who wants to marry him. Marceline has involved Bartholo in her plans to win Figaro, which include encouraging the Count to oppose the marriage between Suzanne and Figaro.
Alone in her room, Suzanne is visited by Cherubino, whom the Count has dismissed upon catching him in Fanchette’s room. Cherubino wants Suzanne to persuade the Count to reinstate him. The Count’s arrival forces Cherubino to hide behind the chair and thus overhear the Count asking Suzanne to meet him later to discuss spending the night together. Basil’s entry into the room, however, forces the Count to hide behind the chair and Cherubino to hide atop the chair. Basil counsels Suzanne to give in to the Count. He also reveals Cherubino’s love for the Countess, which forces the Count to announce himself. He orders the page dismissed for good. Under pressure from the household, however, he declares that he will give Cherubino a commission in the army instead of merely casting him out. Figaro needs Cherubino for his scheme to thwart the Count, so he tells the page to return to the castle right away. The Count, meanwhile, hopes that Marceline will help him prevent the marriage.
The Countess, Suzanne, and Figaro agree upon a two-fold plan to thwart the Count and return his affections to his wife: Figaro provokes the Count’s jealousy by giving him an anonymous note warning that the Countess has a lover; Figaro also proposes that they send Cherubino, disguised as Suzanne, to meet the Count that evening. Cherubino arrives, but when the Count knocks on the door, he hides in the closet. The Count is upset by the note he has just received, and his suspicions are raised further when Cherubino makes a noise in the closet. Although the Countess says it is only Suzanne in the closet, the Count does not believe her. He leaves the room, accompanied by the Countess, to get tools to break down the door. While they are gone, Suzanne takes Cherubino’s place in the closet, and he jumps out the window. When the Count opens the door, he finds only Suzanne.
Figaro comes in and is forced to cover himself when the Count finds out that he was behind the note. Marceline arrives on Figaro’s heels, proclaiming that she has a note that says that Figaro must either repay a debt or marry her. The Count declares that the matter will be heard by the court.
Alone, the Countess and Suzanne reject Figaro’s plan. They decide that the Countess will dress up as Suzanne and go meet the Count. The Countess forbids Suzanne to tell Figaro of the new plot.
At the beginning of act 3, the Count wavers back and forth over whether he will rule in Marceline’s favor or in Figaro’s. Although Suzanne agrees to meet him that night, the Count does not trust her motivation because he realizes that she has told Figaro of his seduction plan. He decides instead to champion Marceline’s cause.
At the trial, a blot over a crucial word renders unclear the exact meaning of the contract between Marceline and Figaro. After numerous readings, the Count decides that Figaro must, within the day, repay Marceline or marry her. Figaro tries to escape the verdict by arguing that he cannot marry without his parents’ permission. However, he was stolen by gypsies at birth, so he does not know their identity. He reveals a mark on his arm, leading Marceline to realize that he is her and Bartholo’s illegitimate son. Marceline embraces her long-lost son, but Bartholo is disgusted because he dislikes Figaro. Suzanne rushes in with money the Countess gave her to enable Figaro to repay the loan, but Marceline returns it to Figaro as his dowry. The Countess, Suzanne, and Figaro then urge Bartholo to marry Marceline.
Figaro asks Suzanne not to meet the Count, and she agrees. However, when she tells the Countess of her intention, the Countess points out that she needs Suzanne’s help so she can have the opportunity to win back her husband’s love. The two women write a note to the Count, asking for a meeting under the elm trees. During the double wedding ceremony, Suzanne passes her note to the Count. Figaro observes the Count reading it but does not yet know it is from Suzanne. However, a chance comment alerts him to this fact and the location of the meeting. Figaro grows jealous and angry but, at Marceline’s advice, decides to attend the rendezvous secretly.
The Countess, disguised as Suzanne, meets the Count, Cherubino, and Fanchette, who had arranged their own meeting. They hide in the pavilion on the left, where Marceline has also ensconced herself. The Count attempts to seduce “Suzanne,” and her complicity angers Figaro, who is observing the pair from afar. He steps forward to stop the Count, the Count flees, and the Countess enters the pavilion on the right. Figaro then meets Suzanne, disguised as the Countess, but he quickly recognizes his bride’s voice. To get back at Suzanne, he proposes a sexual liaison to the Countess. When Suzanne realizes that Figaro has recognized her, she explains why she made the rendezvous with the Count. When the Count returns to find “Suzanne,” he becomes irate upon seeing his “wife” with Figaro. Suzanne flees into the pavilion on the left, while the Count seizes Figaro and places him under arrest. Figaro pretends that he was about to have an affair with the Countess. The Count goes into the pavilion to drag his wife out and force her to admit her infidelity in front of the household. However, Cherubino, Fanchette, and Marceline are dragged out instead. Then Suzanne herself comes out, but she hides her face so the Count will still think she is the Countess. The company all fall on their knees in front of the Count, begging him to forgive his wife. While he steadfastly declares that he will never do so, the disguised Countess emerges from the other pavilion and joins the others. Seeing both Suzanne and his wife, the Count realizes that he has been tricked. The play ends with Figaro and Suzanne married and rich with a triple dowry.
The Count’s main interest in the play is fulfilling his amorous desires, and intrigue surrounds his efforts to seduce Suzanne. To this end, he promises her money if she will spend her first night as a married woman with him. Although he places a monetary figure on the situation and also holds the power to prevent Suzanne and Figaro’s marriage, the Count views his designs as merry and light-hearted; as Beaumarchais describes the character of the Count in the playscript, “In keeping with the morals of those days, the great regarded the conquest of women as a frolic.” While he actively pursues women, the Count becomes extremely angry when he suspects his wife of infidelity, thus demonstrating the double standards of his day.
The Count holds the ultimate authority on his estate, even deciding the outcome of Figaro and Marceline’s court case. He demands the respect of those who surround him but does not realize that his own actions, at times bordering on the ridiculous or petty, make this difficult. At the end of the play, however, he laughingly accepts that he has been outwitted.
The Countess is the Count’s wife. She is torn between two conflicting feelings for her husband:
- 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.
anger and love. She seeks to regain his affections and, to this end, secretly hatches a plan with Suzanne. Unlike her husband, the Countess is a very human, likable figure. She is clever enough to devise the plot that ends in success for her, Suzanne, and Figaro. She is a good friend to Suzanne, despite the vast difference in their classes, doing what she can to bring about the maid’s marriage. Also, as further demonstration of her humanity, she cannot help but be drawn to Cherubino who shows her affection at the very time her husband has withdrawn his.
Antonio is the castle’s tipsy gardener. He is also Suzanne’s uncle and guardian as well as Fanchette’s father. Antonio is prepared to oppose Suzanne’s marriage to Figaro. Antonio is the one who reports on the man who jumped into the flowerbed, causing Figaro to devise a story about what happened so the Count will not learn of Cherubino’s presence.
Bartholo is a doctor from Seville. He helps Marceline, his former mistress, attempt to win Figaro for her husband. After they discover that Figaro is their son, he marries Marceline.
Basil is the Count’s music master. He loses the Count’s favor when he delivers the note from Figaro that falsely accuses the Countess of infidelity. Basil dislikes Figaro greatly. Although he wanted to marry Marceline, he loses all interest in her once he discovers she is Figaro’s mother.
Don Guzman Bridlegoose
Bridlegoose is the judge of the district. However, in this role he is generally ineffective, failing to understand the cases that are put before him as well as the events that have taken place during the day.
Cherubino is a page in the Count’s household. A prepubescent youth, he is beginning to feel sexual stirrings, and he is infatuated with many of the females on the estate, including the Countess, Suzanne, Fanchette, and even Marceline. Dismissed from the household after the Count finds him in Fanchette’s bedroom, he becomes a part of Figaro’s plan; he is the one initially chosen to meet the Count, dressed as Suzanne.
Fanchette is the twelve-year-old daughter of Antonio. As befits her youth and inexperience, she is naive, not understanding the Count’s true desires toward her. She is also important to the plot, being the person who reveals to Figaro the rendezvous between the Count and “Suzanne.”
Figaro is the Count’s faithful servant as well as his competition. The Count’s pursuit of Suzanne requires that Figaro conspire against his master. He must rely upon his wits to carry out a plan for keeping Suzanne out of the Count’s hands that still allows the couple to marry. Because the plot that he devises is complex and even backfires in key instances, the Count’s suspicions are raised, and Figaro is unable to make it work. Figaro further jeopardizes the situation by deliberately playing with the Count. In this respect, his belief that he is more resourceful and smarter than the Count, though borne out by the play, fails to serve him well, for he increases the Count’s wrath.
Suzanne and the Countess come up with their own plan for thwarting the Count but do not inform Figaro about it. His isolation contributes to a jealous rage that overtakes him when he believes Suzanne is unfaithful. His monologue in act 5 asserts his rights, despite a lack of parentage, fortune, or social rank.
Marceline is the housekeeper of the castle. She has strong feelings for Figaro. Not realizing that it is maternal love, she conspires to marry him, even if it means forcing him to do so against his will. Upon finding out the truth, however, she embraces her long-lost son and helps him to find happiness with Suzanne. At the end of the play, she marries Bartholo.
See Countess Almaviva
Suzanne is the maid to the Countess. “In her role... there is not a word that is not inspired by goodness and devotion to her duty,” writes Beaumarchais of her in his character descriptions. She is also intelligent, honorable, and full of wit. She has the good sense to tell the people she trusts the most—Figaro and the Countess—of the Count’s intentions toward her. As the object of the Count’s lust, Suzanne must be careful to protect herself without alienating the Count to such an extent that he will forbid her marriage. Suzanne and the Countess, her friend and confidante, conspire secretly against the Count. It is their plan that ends in success, bringing Suzanne her happy marriage.
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
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Beaumarchais originally set The Marriage of Figaro in France in the 1780s. Do you think changing the setting to Spain lessens any of the issues he raises about social classes and rebellion against it? Write a paper comparing the social and political environments of these two countries.
- Critics disagree as to whether Figaro’s monologue in act 5, in which he chronicles the abuses of the nobility against the lower classes, forecasts the French Revolution and the end of the French aristocracy. Write a persuasive essay supporting this belief or attacking it.
- Read The Barber of Seville. Compare Beau-marchais’s characterizations of the Count, the Countess (Rosine), and Figaro in the two works.
- Conduct research to find out more about the social abuses of the aristocracy in the years prior to the French Revolution. Does Beaumarchais do a good job of presenting these issues? Explain your answer.
- Learn more about Beaumarchais’s life. In what ways do you think his own experiences affected his creation of The Marriage of Figaro?
- Conduct research about the development of either the comedic play or the French theatre. Comment on the importance of Beaumarchais’s contribution.
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 fianceé 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, show 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.
Figaro’s lengthy monologue in act 5 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.
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.
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 & CONTRAST
- 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.
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 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 Moliere 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 his 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 Moliere’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.
Beaumarchais first completed The Marriage of Figaro in 1780. Although the Comedié Française accepted it for production in September 1781, the play took several years to gain the approval of the official censors because of its theme of rebellion. During this period, however, it was played in salons and at court, where it brought out conflicting opinions among the audience. Madame Campan reported in her Mémoires that King Louis XVI denounced the play, proclaiming: “It is hateful, it will never be played.... That man mocks everything that is to be respected in government.” After a private performance of the play was given in honor of his brother, the king relented. Beaumarchais also had made several edits to the play, including changing the location of the play from contemporary France to old Spain, which made the comedy less objectionable.
The premiere of The Marriage of Figaro finally took place in April 1784 at the Comedié Française, though the struggle to get the play produced was not quite over. Suard, one of the censors who refused to give his approval, continued to attack Beaumarchais. When Beaumarchais made it known that he planned to ignore Suard, having had to fight “lions and tigers” in order to win the play’s approval, the king, believing that Beaumarchais included him in this characterization, sent him to prison. However, Beaumarchais was freed on the fifth day with the king’s apologies.
The Marriage of Figaro was an immediate, resounding success among its aristocratic audience. In French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century, Geoffrey Brereton sums up the play upon its opening as having “quite enough dynamite... to make this appear a dangerously, or excitingly, revolutionary play.” Despite its criticism of the class order, the play enjoyed a record run at the theatre. However, as Joseph Sungolowsky writes in Beaumarchais, “Eighteenth-century audiences did not fail to see the far-reaching social and political implications of the Mariage amid its joyfulness.” Baronne d’Oberkirch was one aristocrat who went to see the play and was angry at herself for laughing at it. Cynthia Cox quotes the Baronne in The Real Figaro as writing that the “nobility showed a great want of tact in applauding it, which was nothing less than giving themselves a slap in the face. They laughed at their own expense... They will repent it yet....”
Despite its popularity, the play and its author still drew criticism based on the astonishing themes that ran through this long play. After it had been running for a year, Beaumarchais wrote a lengthy preface to the work in which he defended its morality. Among other declarations, Beaumarchais asserted that he never intended to criticize the French aristocracy, justices, or military.
One of the most shocking ideas that the play raised was that a nobleman and a commoner could come into a conflict that was eventually won by the member of the lower class. Critics over the years have considered the play’s illustration of class struggle. Annie Ubersfeld notes in her introduction to Le Mariage de Figaro Napoleon Bonaparte’s opinion of the play: it portrayed “the Revolution in action.” However, Sungolowsky notes that while “[C]ritics have carefully weighed the theory of Beaumarchais as a revolutionary... most of them discard it.”
While Beaumarchais has consistently enjoyed a high critical stature in France, where he is seen as instrumental in transforming the comedic play, his work is far less known in the English-speaking world. Although Thomas Holcroft first translated Le Mariage de Figaro into English at the time the play appeared in France, no modern English edition appeared until 1961, when Jacques Barzun published a new translation. Since then, several other editions have been published, but there is still little English criticism of Beaumarchais’s work. Those critics who do exist, however, praise The Marriage of Figaro robustly. Sungolowsky calls it a “sublime masterpiece” whose message about the rights of the individual “remains eternally universal.”
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she explores how Beaumarchais uses comedy to raise social issues.
The subtitle of The Marriage of Figaro, “A Single Mad Day,” indicates the complexity of the intrigue that faces Figaro and the other characters on the day of his proposed marriage. What neither the title nor the subtitle indicate, however, are the more serious issues that Beaumarchais raises in his play. One of the most significant messages, and the one that led to the play’s initial censorship, is that the lower classes should be given the opportunity to resist and even compete with the upper classes. Writes Joseph Sungolowsky in Beaumarchais, “Insofar as it [the play] claims the rights of the illegitimate child, of women, and of the individual to enjoy his freedom and to obtain a fair trial, it remains eternally universal.”
On one level, despite the ever-changing plot machinations, the intrigue is very simple: Figaro, servant to the Count, wants to marry the woman he loves, Suzanne, who is the Countess’s maid. The Count, however, is determined to seduce Suzanne. These two men come into conflict as each strives to thwart the other and achieve his desire. The Countess, upon learning of her husband’s faithlessness, decides to teach him a lesson and plans with Suzanne to trap him. Meanwhile, Suzanne, who knows that Figaro is busy trying to foil the Count, does not alert him to the Countess’s plans. Thus, deception is crucial to the plot. The ways the characters deceive each other, and the extents to which they go, render the play comic. Despite the frivolity, the play does not lose sight of the crucial social issues it raises. Most shocking to the eighteenth-century audience, writes Brereton in French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, was the
struggle between two males for a desirable woman... [and] however it... is surrounded with gaiety, spectacle and song, there is no question that it is won by the better man, who is a commoner.
The physical act of hiding is most pronounced in act 1 as Suzanne receives many unwanted male visitors in her room. Not wanting to be seen by the Count, Cherubino hides behind the armchair. When the Count fears discovery by Basil, he throws himself behind the armchair, and Cherubino throws himself atop the armchair while Suzanne hides him under a dress. This series of movements is carried out gracefully yet is still largely comic because the Count is completely unaware of the page’s presence. Additionally, the Count is ridiculed as he is forced to hide, crouching, in his own domain. In a further bit of comic irony, his ignominious position comes at the heels of his using his social position as leverage to demand that Suzanne sleep with him. The comic tension in the scene is further heightened when the Count, having revealed himself, reenacts how he earlier discovered Cherubino hiding in Fanchette’s room.
I grow suspicious while I talk to her and as I do so I case an eye about. Behind the door there was a curtain of sorts, a wardrobe, something for old clothes. Without seeming to I gently, slowly lift the curtain...
He illustrates by lifting the dress off the armchair.
And I see...
He catches sight of Cherubino.
... I say!
In this scene, the literal act of hiding provides comic release for the audience along with the opportunity to learn about the dynamics of the castle’s inhabitants. At the same time, however, the scene alludes to the social relationship between the upper and lower classes. Suzanne, as a servant in the Count’s household, is subject to his desires. The Count touches Suzanne and pressures her to meet him that evening. She also sees her wedding plans grind to a halt at the Count’s whim. Thus, she, as well as Figaro, is hardly able to assert individual will. Any amount of liberty they can attain must come through trickery, even when their own behavior is deserving of such liberty.
Act 2 mixes physical deception with an idea that is key to the success of both Figaro’s and the Countess’s plans to unmask the Count: taking another’s place. The Count surprises the Countess, who has been visited by both Suzanne and Cherubino. With nowhere to go, the page ducks into the closet, but when the Count is away from the room, Cherubino slips away and jumps out the window. Suzanne takes his place in the closet, but the Countess is unaware of the exchange. She is forced to admit that the page is hiding, however, when the Count opens the door, for the stage directions indicate that Suzanne comes out laughing. Suzanne’s laughter shows that she has the upper hand in this situation, if only for a brief moment. Of the three people now in the room, she alone knew the truth about what the Count would find when he opened the closet door. Here Beaumarchais underscores the idea of rebellion against the upper classes. Suzanne, a mere maid, holds power—in the form of knowledge—over her superiors. Later in this act, the Countess and Suzanne conspire to outsmart the Count. The Countess forbids Suzanne from telling Figaro about the plan, which Suzanne believes to be “delightful,” one that will ensure that her marriage will take place. This interlude upends the subjugation of women in Beaumarchais’s society. It pits the women against the men, even Figaro, who is certainly sympathetic to the cause. The women have taken control of their own destinies, and as the play bears out, it is their plan that results in happiness and triumph for both of them.
Another type of deception that is used throughout the play is the tactic of speaking in asides. The characters are continuously having conversations in which they try to determine how much knowledge the other person has and what his or her intentions are. As well, they attempt to mislead the other person about their own knowledge and intentions. A prime example of this occurs in the conversation between Figaro and the Count in act 3. The Count wants to know if Suzanne has told Figaro about his designs on her, while Figaro deliberately leads him to believe first one thing and then its exact opposite. In a series of asides, both the Count and Figaro announce their perceptions to the audience. The Count first believes that Figaro “wants to go to London; she hasn’t told him.” Shortly thereafter, he notes, “I can see she’s told him everything; he’s got to marry the duenna [Marceline].” These asides are comic because the characters remain oblivious to the irony of their words and actions, yet these scenes serve the important function of alerting the audience to plot developments. The importance of speaking secretly is emphasized at the end of this exchange. Suzanne, believing the Count has already exited, speaks aloud to Figaro: “You can go to court now, you’ve just won your suit,” meaning that the Count will allow the marriage between Figaro and Suzanne to take place because he thinks that Suzanne will give in to his demands for sex. However, the Count overhears, which leads to the next major plot twist—the court hearing that ends in Figaro being ordered to either pay Marceline back or marry her before the day is through.
On another level, this dialogue between the two men reveals the class conflict that was an integral part of Beaumarchais’s society. Figaro acts insubordinately by refusing to be honest with his master. Additionally, he deliberately tries to needle the Count. As he reveals in an aside, “Let us see his game and match him trick for trick.” In truth, there is no logical reason for Figaro to let the Count know that Suzanne has revealed the seduction plan, and it is when the Count thinks thusly that he decides Figaro must marry Marceline. One plausible explanation for Figaro’s actions, however, is his desire to place himself on the same level as the Count. He can tussle with the Count as the man’s equal, not as a
“ONE PLAUSIBLE EXPLANATION FOR FIGARO’S ACTIONS... IS HIS DESIRE TO PLACE HIMSELF ON THE SAME LEVEL AS THE COUNT. HE CAN TUSSLE WITH THE COUNT AS THE MAN’S EQUAL, NOT AS A SUBORDINATE.”
subordinate. This dialogue shows that members of the lower classes have the same abilities as members of the upper classes.
Act 5 culminates in these two types of deception—physically hiding and speaking falsely—as the Countess, dressed as Suzanne, meets the Count. This rendezvous has attracted a large audience; Marceline, Fanchette, and Cherubino all are hidden in one of the pavilions. They observe the Count’s attempts to seduce “Suzanne.” His efforts are comical partly because they show him to be a practiced seducer who relies on cliches, like how her “little arm [is] firm and round” and her “pretty little fingers full of grace and mischief!” The comedy also derives from his comparison of “Suzanne” to the Countess; “Your hand is more lovely than the Countess’s,” he avows. Figaro and Suzanne are right in laughing at the Count, for all the trouble he takes to seduce his own wife.
In Act 5, Figaro and Suzanne also act out their own drama for the Count, pretending that the “Countess,” really Suzanne, is allowing Figaro to seduce her. The Count then chastises his wife, elevating the comedy to an even higher pitch. Condemning his wife as “an odious woman,” the Count proclaims that he can never forgive her, even though what he castigates her for is exactly what he wanted to do with Suzanne and has suggested to Fanchette. The Countess appreciates the ridiculous position in which her husband has placed himself in front of a large audience of his underlings—which now includes Basil, Antonio, Bartholo, and Bridlegoose—as she grants him forgiveness, she is laughing.
As with the rest of the play, however, the comedy masks serious issues. The Count’s behavior demonstrates that women are merely the chattel of their husbands or the men who hold power over them. The Countess’s words make this clear: “In my place, you would say ’Never, never!’ whereas I, for the third time today, forgive you unconditionally.” This idea that women may be regarded as nothing more than property is further supported by Figaro’s rampant jealousy when he believes that Suzanne will actually have an affair with the Count. It is only after heeding Marceline’s advice that they go witness the rendezvous that reins in his emotions and anger.
The play closes with a series of ten short verses. Though this segment is dubbed as “entertainment,” thus implying that its purpose is merely to amuse the audience, Beaumarchais has imbued the short songs with important messages. Suzanne sings the second verse, decrying the society that allows a husband to betray his wife but mandates that, if she similarly “indulge her whim,” she will be punished. Suzanne concludes that this double standard exists only because men, who are the dominant sex, have brought it about. The Countess’s verse puts down false virtue and recommends that women should be judged by their honesty. The two final verses remind the audience to pay attention to the moral issues raised in the play. Suzanne acknowledges that, though this play is “mad yet cheerful,” the audience should “accept it as a whole”; that is, enjoy the “gaiety” of the play, yet recognize the truths it speaks. Bridlegoose, upon whom the play closes, reminds the audience that the “c-comic art /... Apes the life of all of you.” Thus does Beaumarchais beseech the audience to pay attention to their own moral behavior.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Marriage of Figaro, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Elizabeth J. MacArthur
In the following essay, MacArthur discusses how the body and its desires contribute to the publicsphere in the Marriage of Figaro.
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Source: Elizabeth J. MacArthur, “Embodying the Public Sphere: Censorship and the Reading Subject in Beaumarchais’s Mariage de Figaro,” in Representations, Vol. 61, Winter 1998, pp. 57-72.
Walter E. Rex
In the following excerpt, Rex discusses the idea of games and the convention of the monologue in The Marriage of Figaro.
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Source: Walter E. Rex, “The Marriage of Figaro,” in The Attraction of the Contrary, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 184-96.
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.
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 Sèville, The Marriage of Figaro, and A Mother’s Guilt.