The Barber of Seville
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
PIERRE-AUGUSTIN DE BEAUMARCHAIS 1775
The Barber of Seville was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s first comic work and first successful play. Beaumarchais drew on age-old themes and comic types to create a work that dazzled the audience with its humorous wordplay, irreverent activity, and lively characterization. The use of archetypal characters allowed viewers to readily relate to Figaro and company. However, Beaumarchais imbues his characters with traits of particular importance to his original pre-Revolutionary audience. Thus does The Barber of Seville successfully take on weightier issues than do most comedies.
Figaro easily emerges as the star of The Barber of Seville. So popular was he that Beaumarchais brought Figaro back a few years later in The Marriage of Figaro. In addition, the radical cry that Beaumarchais raises, the condemnation of the prevailing social system, is most apparent through Figaro. As Geoffrey Brereton points out in French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, “Figaro’s self-confidence, rooted in the conviction that inherently he is as good as any other man, is the basis of the social criticism already apparent, though muted, in this play.” Figaro also is a successful character because of his joyful yet irrepressible behavior. He survives in contemporary times as the epitome of the roguish figure, endowed with cleverness, wit, and restrained insolence.
Beaumarchais was born in Paris, France, on January 24, 1732. He attended school until the age of thirteen and then went to work as an apprentice for his father, a clockmaker. In 1753, Beaumarchais devised a mechanism for watches. He was presented at the court of Louis XV in 1754, and he soon became the royal watchmaker as well as music instructor to the king’s daughters. Upon marrying Madeleine-Catherine Aubertin Franquet, a widow, he became Clerk Controller and gained her husband’s property, called the property of Beaumarchais, from which he took his name. He became wealthy through business associations and purchased the title of Secretary of the King, which gave him noble status.
Beaumarchais’s first literary efforts were parades, short comedic plays. Beaumarchais’s parades were performed privately among the nobility, but they were not published until long after his death. They contain many of the themes, situations, and stylistic characteristics that Beaumarchais would more fully develop in his later dramas.
Beaumarchais became a serious playwright after a visit to Spain in 1764. 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, Two Friends, appeared three years later. Neither of these plays, however, was a critical success. Also in 1770, Beaumarchais became involved in a highly controversial series of court cases. Although he eventually won his case, he was stripped of his civil rights.
With the ascension of Louis XVI to the throne in 1774, however, Beaumarchais’s civil rights were reinstated. The king also hired Beaumarchais as a secret government agent operating out of London. He became interested in the cause of American independence, and, with the support of the French government, helped provide money and arms to the American colonists.
He continued to work on his writings, and The Barber of Seville, which some critics believed derived from one of his parades, was produced in 1775. His Marriage of Figaro, which reintroduced the members of Count Almaviva’s household, was produced four years later, in 1784. The libretto Tarare was staged 1787; it was reproduced in 1790 with a new ending adapted to the political changes brought about by the French Revolution. His final play, A Mother’s Guilt, was presented in 1792 and culminates the Figaro trilogy.
Beaumarchais pursued other important work as well. In 1777, he founded the Society of Dramatic Authors, one of the first organizations that protected authors’ rights and gave them copyrights to their works. Between 1783 and 1790, he published a complete seventy-volume edition of the works of the French writer Voltaire.
Throughout this busy period, Beaumarchais also continued to pursue his business interests. On behalf of the French revolutionary government, he undertook arms negotiations in 1792 but was imprisoned on suspicion of hiding guns. Freed in 1794, Beaumarchais fled to England and then to Hamburg, Germany. In response, the French government declared him an émigré (a French noble living abroad who wanted to overturn the Revolution) and barred his return to France, imprisoned his family, and seized his property. Beaumarchais remained in exile in Germany until 1796, when the new government, under pressure from Beaumarchais’s family, finally allowed him to return. He died of a stroke in Paris on May 18, 1799.
Beaumarchais explains the plot of The Barber of Seville in his foreword: “An amorous old man intends to marry his ward on the following day; a young man who is more clever forestalls him, and on that very day, captures the girl in the guardian’s house, right under his nose, and makes her his wife.” The play opens on a street in Seville, where Count Almaviva waits under a window for Rosine to appear. After seeing and falling in love with Rosine in Madrid, he has tracked her down and now is determined to make contact with her. While he is waiting, Figaro, his former servant, appears. The Count explains his predicament, and Figaro promises to help him.
Soon, Rosine and her guardian, Bartholo, appear at the window. He is angry with her for reading a modern play that he finds foolish. Dropping a note into the street, she asks the Count to identify himself. Bartholo sees that she drops a piece of paper, but she claims it is only song lyrics. Bartholo, however, suspects trouble and resolves to marry Page 15 | Top of ArticleRosine as soon as possible. He sends his servant Bazile to a notary to make arrangements for the wedding to take place the following day.
Meanwhile, Figaro urges the Count to identify himself to Rosine in song. The Count claims to be an undistinguished young man named Lindor. After Rosine is forced to retire into the house, Figaro and the Count plot. Figaro comes up with the idea of getting the Count into the house disguised as a soldier who has billeting orders.
To make his plot work, Figaro incapacitates the household staff with medications. Then he goes to Rosine’s room and tells her that Lindor does love her. Rosine, who has been writing Lindor a letter, gives it to Figaro to deliver. When Bartholo enters, he is immediately suspicious. His suspicions are further aroused when Bazile arrives with the news that the Count has been seen in Seville, looking for Rosine. Again, Bartholo resolves to marry Rosine the following day. Figaro, hiding in the closet, learns of this plan. Once Bartholo and Bazile leave, Figaro tells Rosine of Bartholo’s intention. He also tells her that he and Lindor will prevent the planned wedding.
Bartholo returns to Rosine and demands to know if Figaro brought her a reply to the note she dropped earlier. Just then, the Count appears, disguised as a drunken soldier. Although he manages to pass Rosine a letter, Bartholo sees him. After the Count has been ejected from the house, Bartholo demands to read the letter. While at first Rosine refuses, she manages to switch the letter with a letter she received from her cousin. After Bartholo leaves, Rosine reads the Count’s letter.
The Count returns to Bartholo’s home, this time disguised as Alonzo, an assistant of Bazile. He says that Bazile is ill and that he will give Rosine her singing lesson. To gain Bartholo’s trust, Alonzo hands him Rosine’s letter, saying it was written to the Count. Bartholo determines to foil the Count’s plan. Alonzo gives Rosine her singing lesson and manages to tell her about the plan that he and Figaro have devised to get her out of Bartholo’s household that evening. Bazile shows up unexpectedly during the lesson, but Figaro and the Count prevent him from unmasking Alonzo. However, Bartholo realizes that something is amiss, and they all argue. Rosine announces that she will not marry Bartholo—
instead, she will marry whoever rescues her from him. Bartholo chases the Count and Figaro from his house.
After Bazile informs Bartholo that he does not know Alonzo and was not sick, Bartholo grows even more upset. He sends Bazile to bring the notary immediately. He then confronts Rosine with her letter, claiming that he got it from another woman who is involved with the Count. Rosine is confused because she does not know who the Count is, and Bartholo convinces her that Lindor is not in love with her but rather is wooing Rosine on behalf of the Count. Believing that she has been betrayed, Rosine agrees to marry Bartholo. She also tells him that the Count and Figaro are planning to return to the house that night.
Figaro and the Count arrive as planned. At first, Rosine rebuffs the Count, but when he explains his true identity, she realizes that she has not been betrayed. The three try to leave the house only to discover that they have been locked in. Then Bazile arrives with the notary. Bribed, he serves as a witness to the marriage of Rosine and the Count. Then Bartholo returns. He had gone to fetch a justice of the peace to arrest the Count. However, Page 16 | Top of Articlethe couple is already married, and the magistrate refuses to make the arrest. The play ends with Figaro remarking that when love and youth conspire against an old man, anything he does to stop the romance will be a useless precaution.
Count Almaviva is a young nobleman with one thought on his mind: to woo the beautiful Rosine. Having fallen in love with her at first sight in Madrid, by time the play opens, his continual presence under her window has made Rosine fall in love with him as well. The Count’s desire to wed Rosine forms the intrigue of the play. The Count manages to achieve his goal of winning Rosine only through the help of the clever Figaro.
To win Rosine, the Count takes on numerous roles. Because his interest in Rosine is known to her guardian, Bartholo, he disguises himself to get into the older man’s household. He dresses up as a drunken soldier demanding to be billeted, and later he masquerades as Alonzo, a music teacher and assistant to Bazile. Through both of these disguises, he is able to communicate important information to Rosine. However, he also disguises his true identity to his love. He claims to be an undistinguished, penniless man named Lindor because he wants to be sure that she, unlike the other women he knows, loves him instead of his wealth and position. He finally reveals his true identity to Rosine, once he is certain of her sincerity.
See Count Almaviva
Bartholo is an old man and the guardian of Rosine, whom he plans to marry. The crotchety, curmudgeonly Bartholo is far from an ideal match for Rosine. He despises any sign of modernity, treats Rosine like property, and tries to rule his household with absolute authority. He is constantly suspicious of Rosine’s actions as well as of the actions of Figaro and the Count (in his numerous disguises). To this end, he tries to keep Rosine isolated in his household. Fearful that he will lose Rosine, he arranges for the notary to come to his home and perform the marriage ceremony. His machinations to wed Rosine are foiled, and, at the end of the play, even the law will do nothing to help him. Thus, he must accept the loss of Rosine to his rival.
Bazile is Rosine’s music teacher, but he also performs numerous duties and favors for Bartholo. However, Bazile awards his loyalty to whoever can pay the highest fee for it, which, in two important instances, is the Count. Because of this characteristic, Bazile does not tell Bartholo the truth about Alonzo, which likely would make Bartholo even more vigilant in guarding Rosine from the Count. He also fails to stop the notary from performing the ceremony.
Figaro is a former servant of the Count. He is a sort of jack-of-all-trades; since leaving the Count’s service, he has worked at many jobs, including as a writer. His personality is an unexpected mix of tenacity and laxity. He currently is employed as a traveling barber, serving Bartholo’s household, but he willingly puts his job at risk to help the Count. Figaro has long proven his ability to survive and to take care of himself under any circumstances.
The clever, quick-thinking Figaro agrees to help the Count win Rosine. He masterminds the complicated series of events that lead to the union between the lovers. He devises the plan to get the Count into the house to speak with Rosine, passes letters between the two, and tries to thwart Bartholo and his mounting suspicions. He performs these services for twofold reasons. He initially agreed to do the favor for the Count, but then the Count also added a financial incentive.
Despite the aid he renders the Count, Figaro is always aware that the Count treats him condescendingly because he is a member of the lower class. However, while he does not refuse to help the Count as a result of this behavior, he continually speaks out—usually with subtlety but occasionally not—and points out this poor treatment. His comments are a statement on the inequities of the social system that prevailed in France during Beaumarchais’s time as well as on the smugness of the French aristocracy.
See Count Almaviva
Rosine is the young ward of Bartholo. She knows Bartholo intends to marry her very soon, and when the Count, as Lindor, makes his interest known, she quickly falls in love with him. Thus, she wholeheartedly goes along with Figaro’s plans. She takes chances to bring about her union with Lindor and acts obstinately toward Bartholo. To keep her affairs secret, she tells Bartholo many lies and refuses to accede to his demands. However, when she believes that Lindor has deceived her, she agrees to marry Bartholo. Upon learning that Lindor is the Count and is not merely attempting to woo her for the Count, she forgives and marries him.
The subtitle of The Barber of Seville is “The Useless Precaution.” The useless precaution theme in drama focuses on an old man trying to isolate his young wife or intended wife, and it harkens back to the days of Roman theater. By the 1770s, the useless precaution premise was a stock element of French literature, found in countless plays and stories, and while Beaumarchais’s theme was highly derivative, his treatment of it was wholly original. As Frédéric Grendel wrote in Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro, “The thing that matters is that Beaumarchais made the theme his own. No one before him, not even Molière, had used the devices of ellipsis and punning so freely and so naturally.” John Dunkley concurred, writing in the Reference Guide to World Literature, “Beaumarchais infuses it [the theme] with new life through memorable characters and a brilliantly honed dialogue.”
Beaumarchais emphasizes the theme when the audience is first introduction to Rosine in act I. She claims to drop a lyric sheet from a new comedy entitled The Useless Precaution. Her interest in this play indicates her distaste for a marriage to the antiquated Bartholo, who assesses the play as “modern rubbish” that represents a “barbarous century.” He refutes the accomplishments of the contemporary world, railing against it as filled with “Every kind of stupidity: freedom of thought, the law of gravity, electricity, religious tolerance, inoculation, quinine, the encyclopedia.” Thus does Beaumarchais make clear that Bartholo is far too old and set in his ways to be an appropriate spouse to Rosine.
Verses from The Useless Precaution continue to appear throughout the play. In act III, Rosine sings a song that celebrates the coming of spring and youthful love. Her paraphrasing of the song is more telling, however. She describes the disappearance of winter—which, like Bartholo, has kept people shuttered inside—and compares herself to the “slave who has been locked up for a long time and then appreciates his liberty more than ever.” The play ends by invoking the theme. As Figaro reminds Bartholo—and the audience—“when love and youth unite to deceive an old man, anything he does to try and stop them can only be called a useless precaution.”
Figaro’s plot to keep Bartholo from marrying Rosine and to bring about her marriage to the Count relies on a series of disguises. In order to get close to Rosine, the Count takes on several roles and costumes. Figaro first comes across the Count as the latter lurks outside Rosine’s window, dressed in the long brown cloak and broad-brimmed hat of a priest. Though he has donned the clothing of a priest, however, the Count is unable to cover up other qualities that indicate his true station in life; as
Figaro remarks to himself upon first seeing the Count, “No, he isn’t a reverend. That haughtiness, that nobility.... I wasn’t wrong: it’s Count Almaviva.”
The Count is physically introduced into Bartholo’s household—where he is able to communicate his love as well as important messages to Rosine—in the guise of a drunken soldier who demands that Bartholo give him quarters for the evening. He next enters Bartholo’s house in the guise of a music teacher. Bartholo comments upon the inefficacy of the Count’s disguise: “You look more like a disguised lover than an official friend.” However, even the suspicious Bartholo does not realize that he has hit upon the truth.
The Count uses disguises for other purposes as well. He refuses to reveal his true identity to Rosine. Instead, he claims to be a penniless young man named Lindor. As he explains to Figaro, “Since she’s already interested in me without knowing who I am, I’ll keep this name Lindor; it’ll be better to hide my title until I’ve won her.” The Count wants to be sure that he is loved for himself, not for his wealth or social station.
Music provides an underpinning for the play’s structure and plot. Viewed in that light, it is not surprising that Figaro’s introduction upon the stage takes place while he composes a song for a comic opera. Additionally, Rosine claims to carry a song sheet as she is introduced to the audience, though the sheet in her hand is actually a letter for the Count. Bazile, her music teacher—notably the only person outside Bartholo’s household with whom Rosine is allowed contact—gives her verses from a new comedy entitled The Useless Precaution. Thus, the audience realizes immediately that music has an important role in the play and that music will reiterate the overarching theme.
The lyrics that the characters sing are important to the advancement of the plot. They give the lovers voice to “speak” with each other and express their feelings. The song the Count sings to Rosine in act I allows him to introduce himself—albeit disguised as Lindor—and declare his love. When the Count masquerades as a music instructor, he gains access to Rosine, who then communicates her dislike of the idea of a marriage to Bartholo by singing lyrics from The Useless Precaution that specifically celebrate Page 19 | Top of Articleyoung love. In marked contrast to their verses are those of Bartholo, who vulgarly sings a verse alluding to sexual relations between an older man and a younger wife: “I may not be handsome, yet/I know how to play. When the night gets dark as jet/Every cat looks grey.”
Lyrics also allow characters to impugn others. For instance, in act II, the Count describes Bartholo impudently in song as “Greedy and destructive and as vicious as a stoat. A scraggy old, baggy old, cheap minded churl” and as a doctor who “eliminate[s] not merely pain and disease. But also your patients.” Bartholo readily recognizes the insult and throws the Count out of his house.
In his two earliest plays, Beaumarchais tried to uphold the dramatic theory known as the bourgeois drama, which was an attempt to replace the neoclassical forms of drama with subject matter and method more suited to contemporary times. Bourgeois drama was serious drama written in simple prose that emphasized moral instruction in modern social contexts. However, Beaumarchais’s bourgeois dramas were generally critical failures, and, with The Barber of Seville, Beaumarchais abandoned the bourgeois drama and embraced pure comedy. The essential plot derives from comedies stretching back to the Greek New Comedy circa 300 B.C.E. However, as John Richetti writes in European Writers, “what made his [Beaumarchais’s] play much more than popular farce is... the irrepressible wit and cascading linguistic vivacity.” The comic tone of the play is embodied in Figaro, who, Beaumarchais writes in his foreword to the play, is “a comic, happy-go-lucky fellow who laughs equally at the success and failure of his enterprises.”
The characters in The Barber of Seville are stock characters; they represent archetypes dating back to ancient Greek drama. Figaro derives from the wily slave or servant; the Count and Rosine represent the young lovers; Bartholo is the aging man who attempts to thwart the relationship; Bazile is the fool who possesses hardly an ounce of common sense. Beaumarchais also makes use of two character types popular in Spanish entremeses, which were after-dinner entertainments held in private homes: the itinerant Spanish barber, represented by Figaro, and the comic sacristan, whom Beaumarchais has transformed into Bazile.
Many critics have pointed out the parallels between Figaro’s adventures and those of his creator, Beaumarchais. John Wells writes in his introduction to The Figaro Plays, “Figaro became Beaumarchais’s spokesman on stage, and the three plays represent a kind of autobiography.” Both Figaro and Beaumarchais began their careers as dramatists in Spain. Both men dreamed of a more liberal future, in which a person’s social class mattered less than his personal ability.
Figaro is introduced to the audience while he is composing a comic opera. It is in his monologues, however, that the resemblance is more substantial, as Figaro refers to life experiences that often match those of Beaumarchais. For example, like Beaumarchais, Figaro has become an author, one of those “beset by... their critics, their booksellers, their censors, the people who envied them, and the people who imitated them.” Figaro’s recitation of traveling “philosophically through the two Castiles, La Mancha, Estremadura, Sierra Morena, and the Andalusia, being acclaimed in one town, jailed in another, but always on top of events; praised by these people, denounced by those people... laughing at my misfortune” evokes Beaumarchais’s own travels around Europe. While today’s audiences generally are ignorant of such allusions, Beaumarchais’s audience understood the subtle attacks on those who attempted to stand in the dramatist’s way.
Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and A Mother’s Guilt, make up a trilogy. The Barber of Seville, the first play, focuses on Figaro’s successful plan to win the hand of Rosine for the Count. The Marriage of Figaro places former conspirators Count Almaviva and Figaro at odds, as Figaro must use his resourcefulness to protect his fiancee from the amorous yearnings of the Count. The final play in the trilogy, A Mother’s Guilt, finds the Count and Countess and their loyal servants, Figaro and his wife, living in France.
Although the plays form a trilogy, several inconsistencies appear among them. Notable is the shift in the Count’s character. In The Barber of Page 20 | Top of ArticleSeville, he is a smitten young lover devoted to Rosine, but in The Marriage of Figaro, he is a lecherous husband who attempts to exercise his legal rights as lord of the manor to deflower his vassal’s wife on her wedding night. Another significant inconsistency is the setting. The first two plays of the trilogy take place in Old Spain, while A Mother’s Guilt takes place in Revolutionary France.
France on the Brink of Revolution
Though France was the largest and most powerful nation in Europe during the 1700s, it experienced serious domestic discord by the middle of the century. French society had long been stratified. French people belonged to one of three legal, social, and political classes, called estates. The First Estate consisted of members of the Roman Catholic clergy, who made up less than one percent of the population. The Second Estate consisted of members of French nobility, who made up less than two percent of the population. People were born into the Second Estate, but they also could purchase titles, as did Beaumarchais. 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. Neither the First nor the Second Estate paid any significant taxes, thrusting France’s growing financial burden upon those who could least afford it.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), France was left with huge debts. King Louis XV, who ruled France from 1715 to 1774, raised taxes, borrowed money from bankers, and refused to economize. Under his successor, Louis XVI, France’s debts continued to rise as the country aided the colonists in the American Revolution. While Louis’s financial advisers advocated taxing the First and Second Estates, the nobles protested, refused to cooperate, and even rioted when such taxes were proposed.
Throughout this period, France’s Third Estate also experienced growing discontent. Peasants were forced to pay higher rents, and laborers’ wages did not match the rising cost of food. The bourgeoisie—the urban middle-class—wanted a rise in their status equal to their economic strength. They wanted greater political power, less governmental interference in business dealings, and important positions in the church, government, and army for their sons. The Third Estate also resented being the only group to pay taxes. All these factors forced France to the edge of financial ruin in 1787, when bankers refused to lend the government any more money.
Having little choice, Louis XVI called representatives of all three estates to the Estates General, a meeting at the Palace of Versailles in May 1789. 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 a single collective vote. This custom had long allowed the top two estates to outvote the Third Estate. When the king closed the meeting with no action being taken, 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 French Theater
French drama developed greatly in the 1600s. France’s neoclassical period dominated the seventeenth century. Pierre Corneille wrote more than thirty plays. While most of his plays followed Aristotle’s precept of unity of time, place, and action, Jean Racine introduced a simpler style with more realistic characters and plot structures. Molière, a comic genius, explored social, psychological, and metaphysical questions. The works of these playwrights remain mainstays of French and world theater. Other playwrights who contributed to the development of French drama during this period include the romantic playwright Pierre Marivaux and the absurd comic Paul Scarron. Beaumarchais drew his subtitle for The Barber of Seville from a Scarron short story.
The 1700s ushered in fewer great developments; however, Beaumarchais introduced exciting changes into French comedy, such as social discourse, rapid action, lively dialogue, and complex intrigue. While his plays were explicitly comedies, with fun-filled plots and schemes, they implicitly underscored and critiqued social abuses of contemporary society.
In the 1700s, many educated Europeans began to question traditional rules and mores that had long guided society and politics. This change of ideas and attitudes was known as the Enlightenment, and
its great thinkers were called philosophes (French for philosophers). The philosophes wanted to perfect themselves and society, and, to this end, they inspired a growing sense of individualism and personal freedom. Significantly, they also believed in the basic equality of all people, which stood at odds with governmental and social systems throughout Europe.
France was an important location for the development of Enlightenment thinking. Many political ideas that are still current today, such as separation of powers and popular sovereignty, came from French Enlightenment thinkers. The Baron de Montesquieu published The Spirit of Laws in 1748, in which he defined the perfect government as one in which powers are separated among different branches to prevent any single branch from becoming too powerful. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the inherent goodness of all humans; he thought that society was what corrupted people. In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau described his perfect society as one composed of free citizens who created their own government, according to their will.
In 1772, Beaumarchais wrote his first version of The Barber of Seville as a comic opera, complete with Spanish airs, or melodies, he had collected on his trip to Spain. When the play was rejected by the Comédie-Italienne, a group of Italian actors playing in France, Beaumarchais decided to transform it into a play for the Comédie Français, France’s national theater. The play was set to be staged in early 1774 when rumors started that it included allusions to earlier legal run-ins Beaumarchais had had with a French judge. The production was forbidden. Finally, in February 1775, the play was mounted as a comedy in five acts. To
the delight of Beaumarchais’s numerous enemies, the French audience found the play too long and drawn out. Beaumarchais’s friend Gudin de la Brunellerie (quoted in John Richetti’s “Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais”) explained part of the problem: “The comedy that enchanted us when we read it was too long for the theater. Its superabundance of wit surfeited and fatigued the audience.” Beaumarchais revamped his play swiftly, editing it down to four acts and producing it again a scant two days later. This abbreviated play enjoyed instant success. Madame du Deffand was at both performances and recalled (quoted in Richetti’s “Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais”), “At first it was hissed, yesterday it had an extravagant success. It was exalted to the clouds, and applauded beyond all bounds.”
Within a year, The Barber of Seville had been translated into English and performed on stage in England; over time, it was translated into most European languages. In 1785, the royal court at France’s Palace of Versailles even performed the play, with Marie Antoinette acting the role of Rosine and the Comte d’Artois, King Louis XVI’s brother, acting the role of Figaro. Today, along with The Marriage of Figaro, it remains one of the only French eighteenth-century comedies to survive as part of the modern comedic theater.
Despite its great success, some critics nevertheless attacked the play, along with the stylistic devices employed by its creator. Some of Beaumarchais’s contemporaries disliked his manner of allowing his characters to speak directly and without affectation. These critics believed that by allowing his characters to attack French mores he violated the overruling decorum that prevailed upon the French stage. The critic for the Journal de Bouillon lodged numerous criticisms against the play, which he found to be “low comedy,” alleging that it had no plot, that its action was implausible, and that Rosine was a “badly brought-up daughter” (as quoted by John Wells in an introduction to Beaumarchais’s The Figaro Plays). One of Beaumarchais’s main impetuses for writing the foreword to his play was to contradict such public statements.
Beaumarchais has consistently enjoyed a high critical reputation in France, where he is seen as instrumental in transforming comedy by emphasizing social discourse over formal style. However, his writings have received far less attention in the English-speaking world.
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, Korb discusses the disparity between social classes as seen in The Barber of Seville.
Despite its comedic situations, clever word play, and inane posturing, The Barber of Seville carried social messages of great importance to its earliest audiences. One of these messages was the irrationality and arbitrariness of the division of social classes. This issue was of rising interest in a society in which the majority of members, the exception being clergy and nobility, held few legal, political, or economic rights. To a self-made man such as Beaumarchais, a system that honored wealth and birth, as opposed to ingenuity, was absurd; thus,
Beaumarchais created Figaro, a servant who is smarter and more capable than people with greater wealth and higher social standing. Indeed, Figaro’s triumph was an example of a theme to which he would return more definitively and more bitingly in the play’s sequel, The Marriage of Figaro.
The role of the social classes emerges as a major theme in this play. While the Count and Figaro work together to achieve a common goal—notably, one that serves to benefit only the Count—each individual is acutely aware of the social chasm between them. Their social roles are manifest from their first reintroduction on the street in front of Rosine’s window. The Count alternately calls Figaro a rogue and a fool, while the former servant benignly acknowledges the Count’s ill manners. He ironically comments, “You always honored me with that kind of friendly greeting,” and his audience understands his tacit criticism. The Count proceeds to further insult Figaro, telling him, “When you were in my employ, you were a pretty slovenly character.... Lazy, disorganized.” Figaro responds to the Count’s numerous remarks calmly yet wittily. Notably, when the Count discovers that Figaro is his key to getting close to Rosine, his attitude quickly changes: “Figaro, you are my friend, my guardian angel, my liberator, my savior,” he says, embracing his former servant. Figaro accurately notes that “Now I’m useful to you we’re close friends.”
Also significant is Figaro’s immediate recognition of his former master, even though the Count is dressed as a priest. For despite this humble disguise, the Count’s “haughtiness” and “nobility”—traits inherent to the Count’s nature, as will be proven by his actions over the next twenty-four hours—are apparent in his very stance and bearing. Even though the Count is attempting to conceal his true self, he is unable to alter his innate sense of superiority, which he wears as clearly as any article of clothing. His air of superiority—cultivated by his social class and life experiences—is key in his dealings with Figaro. Although the Count is no longer Figaro’s master and therefore has no real authority over him, the current relationship between the two men recalls their former relationship of master and servant. (Indeed, as seen in The Marriage of Figaro, after his chance encounter, Figaro once again returns to work in the household of the Count.)
Being superior is second nature to the Count, as is evident in the smallest details of the play. For example, he is unable to recognize the “fat” and “flabby” Figaro upon their first meeting because
poor people, or members of the servant class, are supposed to be thin. The Count’s attempt to enter Bartholo’s household as a drunken soldier is even more telling. Figaro coaches the Count to act more intoxicated, but the Count rejects this advice, saying, “No, that’s how commoners get drunk.” His words imply that there is a great difference between men of low rank and men of high rank, even in such basic behaviors as becoming intoxicated. When the Count does enter the household, thusly disguised, he is impertinent, rude, and even obnoxious to Bartholo. As befits a man accustomed to getting his way, he knocks Bartholo’s papers on the floor, demands to see his exemption from quartering soldiers, and sings a song describing the older man in the most unflattering terms.
Bartholo, as well, is not impervious to social rank. When the Count, disguised as Alonzo, offers the letter that Rosine wrote him, tell Bartholo that it was for the Count, Bartholo reads aloud the words, “Since you have told me your name and rank,” and immediately throws the letter down. Not knowing that the Count withheld the truth about his social position, Bartholo grows angry, recognizing that the Count’s social position will make him infinitely more attractive to Rosine—as well as better suited to her. However, when dealing with Figaro, a member of a lower class, he treats him as shabbily as the Count (disguised as the soldier) had previously treated Bartholo. He calls Figaro a fool, accuses him of saying “idiotic things,” and impugns his honesty. “You are so rude to the lower classes,” Figaro succinctly concludes.
The importance of social rank in all aspects of daily life is made apparent, not only in the relationship between Figaro and his former master, but throughout the play. The Count’s status is the reason that Bartholo and his assistant Bazile are unable to vanquish the young rival. “We could soon frighten him away if he were an ordinary citizen,” Bazile Page 25 | Top of Articlemuses, and Bartholo agrees that if the Count were not a Count, they would be able to attack him, thus scaring him away from Madrid. Bazile instead strikes upon the idea of spreading rumors about the Count. However, this strategy is bound to fail, for Bazile is completely unsuited for slandering the much more highly placed Count. As Figaro points out, “You need an estate, a family, a name, a rank, in other words, quality, if you want to become a professional scandalmonger.” His words also tacitly impugn these men of “quality,” implying that they spread rumors—and perhaps spread them often.
By contrast, in his budding relationship with Rosine, the Count is so aware of his appeal as a member of the noble class that he refuses to reveal his true identity. He tells Figaro, “I am bored with these unending conquests of women whose motives are self-interest, social climbing, or vanity. It is sweet to be loved for oneself,” and he determines to see if Rosine loves him and not his money and power. From his first communication with Rosine, the Count takes on the identity of a man lacking social distinction and even a modicum of wealth. His song of introduction emphasizes his “low birth” and the “simple, sincere” pledge that a poor man is making to a woman of noble rank. He sings, “I wish I could offer my dear one/ High rank and estates of great birth.”
Rosine, who happens to possess a fortune of her own, cares for Lindor despite his impoverished circumstances. As she points out once the Count has revealed himself (both in words and in “magnificent” dress), “Fortune, birth! These are things that come by chance.” Her words show that even in a world ordered by social stratification, some people are able to see beyond class implications and restrictions. Bartholo’s reaction, upon learning Lindor’s, or the Count’s, true identity, warrants mention as well. “Anywhere else, my lord, I am your humble servant, but in my house, rank does not mean anything, and I ask you to leave,” he says. The insincerity of his words is manifest—he has already shown himself as rude and condescending to the lower classes—and they are predicated merely by his desire to keep Rosine for himself.
To Bartholo’s words, the Count responds with the noble sentiment, “No, rank doesn’t mean anything here; I have nothing over you except Rosine’s preference.” Interestingly, however, once the Count admits his true identity to Rosine, he no longer hesitates to make use of his status. The arrogant Count Almaviva who emerges in the final moments
of the play is a far cry from the mild, hopeful Lindor. His sense of his own grandeur is most apparent when Bartholo opposes the marriage that has just taken place between the Count and Rosine on the grounds that she is not of legal age to enter into a legal contract. “The young lady is noble and beautiful. I am now a man of rank, and I am young and rich,” the Count declares. “She is my wife. Is anybody prepared to dispute this marriage which honors us both?” No one present will speak against the Count’s “honorable marriage.”
Though The Barber of Seville focuses on the intrigue surrounding Count Almaviva’s efforts to woo and win Rosine, at the heart of the play is the relationship between Figaro and his former master. These two characters bring to life the issue of social classes brewing in France at the time in which Beaumarchais wrote his play. However, critics hold differing views on this relationship. Joseph G. Reish writes in “Revolution: Three Changing Faces of Figaro,” “Neither Figaro nor the Count is guided by social role playing; class distinctions are set aside.” By contrast, John Richetti asserts in European Writers that the play upholds “the social and moral positions of man and master.” He also believes that “Figaro recognizes in Count Almaviva a noble dignity that deserves his service as well as a power that he needs to placate in order to survive and prosper.” Frédéric Grendel holds yet another view of the relationship between the two men. Writing in Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro, he states, “Figaro may still call his master ‘Your Excellency’ or ‘My lord,’ but he does so only to conform with custom.” Perhaps at the time of writing, the conflict between social groups was not as pressing a topic as it would become. For, a scant few years later, Beaumarchais produced The Marriage of Figaro, which bitingly and archly demonstrates the rising conflict in pre-Revolutionary France.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Barber of Seville, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Brereton, Geoffrey, French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, Metheun & Co. Ltd., 1977, pp. 237–55.
Dunkley, John, “The Barber of Seville: Overview” in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2d ed., edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.
Grendel, Frédéric, “The Barber of Seville,” in Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro, translated by Roger Greaves, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1977, pp. 134–45.
Reish, Joseph G., “Revolution: Three Changing Faces of Figaro,” in the Michigan Academician, Vol. IX, No. 2, Fall 1976, pp. 135–46.
Richetti, John, “Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais,” in European Writers, Vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984, pp. 563–85.
Wells, John, “Introduction (I),” in The Figaro Plays, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, translated by John Wells and edited by John Leigh, J. M. Dent, 1997, pp. xvii–xxii.
Hayes, Julie C., The Age of Theatre in France, edited by David Trott and Nicole Boursier, Academic Printing & Publishing, 1988.
This volume collects essays about the French theater 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.
McDonald, Christie, “The Anxiety of Change: Reconfiguring Family Relations in Beaumarchais’s Trilogy,” in Modern Language Quarterly, 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.
Sungolowsky, Joseph, Beaumarchais, Twayne, 1974.
Sungolowsky presents a good overview of Beaumarchais’s life and literary accomplishments.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2694100013