The Marriage of Figaro: Love Versus Marriage
The Marriage of Figaro, a romantic comedy opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is a social commentary that mirrors the concepts of inequality outlined by Jean Jacques Rousseau. On the one hand, Rousseau investigates the relevance of property rights to social inequality and how humans progressed from its original state of nature that was made of equality, love, and compassion to the civil society based on law and institutions in ‘The Discourse on Inequality.’ On the other hand, Mozart criticises the rampant inequality and corruption in the aristocratic societies and tries to apply similar concepts about inequality in a comedic setting through The Marriage of Figaro. In this paper, I will focus on the countess, one of the deuteragonists and the wife of the main antagonist, the count who tries to revive a feudal privilege to sleep with newly married women, and explain how her relationship with the count compares to Cherubino’s careless philandering in the same way the civil society compares to the state of nature.
Rousseau’s description of the civil society has several similarities to the marriage of the count and the countess, especially in how the act of owning something leads to hate and rivalry. In his essay, Rousseau argues that the civil society comprising of laws and institutions originate from ‘the right of property’ that causes social inequality among humans and makes them unsympathetic, deceitful, and violent, as he claims that ‘the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society’ (Discourse on Inequality, pp 40) and that ‘to be and to seem became two totally different things; and from this distinction sprang insolent pomp and cheating trickery, with all the numerous vices that go in their train’ (Discourse, pp 40).
Like how civil societies started with someone claiming an enclave of land as their own, lack of understanding between the count and the countess begins with the marriage. In Act 2 Scene 8, the countess sings ‘first [the count] loved me, then neglected me and finally deceived me, in a strange mixture of infidelity, jealousy and disdain’ in a sombre tone (Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, 1:53:38). It implies that when they were not in a serious relationship yet, they were in a deep love and affection like the state of nature described by Rousseau — young, independent, and free. However, because of the marriage, the couple became constrained by moral standards and conventions like fidelity, honour, and marriage laws, and with this new ‘right of property’ came pride, envy, and jealousness. Rousseau describes this transition as ‘a tender and pleasant feeling insinuated itself into their souls, and the least opposition turned it into an impetuous fury: with love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions.’
The difference between being and seeming is best demonstrated by the countess’s reflection as she checks if there is no one in the room and starts showing doubts about the scheme and even says ‘To what humiliation am I reduced…to seek help from my servant!’ (1:53:38). This is a stark contrast to the countess’ behaviour when Figaro or Susanna is around, during which she appears to see them as ‘equals,’ avoids having a conflict with them (in Act 2 Scene 1, when Figaro proposes to dress Cherubino as a woman, the countess quietly asks Susanna whether it would work, instead of asking directly (00:56:10)), and even tolerates a lower-class servant like Figaro belittling the count, the husband of her and the master of Figaro, as he sings ‘If, my dear Count, you feel like dancing, it’s I who’ll call the tune’ next to her (00:56:45).
Nevertheless, however humiliating it might be, she understands that without her servants’ help, she cannot take actions against her husband’s infidelity and make him love her again, all by herself. This is because, according to Rousseau, ‘[people] were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each become in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men’ (Discourse, pp 49). Therefore, by showing this contradiction in the opera, Mozart tries to highlight the servants-outwitting-the-master aspect of the opera.
On the other hand, Cherubino’s love life depicts a stark contrast with the countess’ marriage, for Cherubino is young, free, and not committed to anyone — to put it differently, in his ‘state of nature’. Rousseau explains that ‘[the state of nature], in which the care for our own preservation is the least prejudicial to that of others, was consequently the best calculated to promote peace,’ meaning that the original state of nature of humans is based on love, compassion, and equality (Discourse, pp 32). And unlike Countess Rosina who frequently yearns for love from the count and does not show love herself, Cherubino is not hesitant to give and express his love to others. This is evident in his poem:
…Every woman makes me change tremble.
At the very word love or beloved
My heart leaps and pounds,
And to speak of it fills me
With a longing I can’t explain… (00:59:39)
His immaturity, innocence, and intimacy parallels that of ‘savages’ who ‘breathe only peace and liberty’ as described by Rousseau. At the same time, in the eyes of Cherubino, all women are ‘equal’ in the sense that he is not obliged to be honest to anyone and vice versa, allowing him to feel love and stay happy. His happiness is further emphasised by the variations of tone, tempo, and voice in contrast to the countess, who, despite having the same vocal roles as Cherubino (soprano), tends to sing in the higher vocal range throughout the opera.
Furthermore, Cherubino and the countess appear to contrast even in the act of loving someone. Although the countess expresses her wishes to love and be loved by the count throughout the opera, the actions she takes — siding with her servants to undertake a plan to publicly humiliate him — implies that it was not only the count who ceased to love her, but the countess too. She remains to be the enemy of the count until the end of the opera, when she responds to the count’s beg for forgiveness by ‘I am kinder: I will say yes.’ By doing so, however, she breaks the social conventions and brings human emotion back to the centre stage — possibly much to the awe of the audience.
The marriage of the count and the countess is one of many different examples of law and institutions appear in the opera, from the count’s power to arbitrate civil disagreements, even when he has personal interests in the case, to Figaro’s contract to marry Marcellina in the event he does not pay his debts. By bringing up comedic edge cases to the conventional social norms, Mozart shares the message of inequality and Enlightenment to the public. At the same time, Mozart explains how excessive rules, laws, and legislation that restrict human freedom — like how marriage made both the count and the countess less like each other — can cause inequality even in romantic relationships and take away love and happiness from us, a message that is analogous to Rousseau’s understanding of social inequalities.
Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro. Medici TV, 2018. https://edu.medici.tv/en/operas/mozart-le-nozze-di-figaro-gustavo-dudamel-jurgen-flimm-ildebrando-darcangelo-anna-prohaska-marianne-crebassa-staatskapelle-berlin/.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques, and Cole G D H. Discourse on Inequality. Digireads.com Publishing, 2005.
This essay was written as a coursework for UC Berkeley. Any sort of plagiarism will be strongly condemned.