Social Class and Difference in Theatrical Comedies | Free Essay Example

Social Class and Difference in Theatrical Comedies

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Topic: Literature
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Class difference is an inevitable constitute of literary work. A drama that reflects the social construct of time is an indispensable source to understand class and societal structure of an era. In an attempt to portray, the world dramatists demonstrated the littlest equations that set the people apart. Most prominent of these are the servant-master relationship. The relationship between a servant and the master demonstrates a lot about the class structure and the class difference that is portrayed through the characters. The social class and difference in the three plays are analyzed in this essay. The plays are Tartuffe by Moliere, The Way of the World by William Congreve, and A Mid Summer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. I believe that there existed a subtle class tension in the master-servant relationship portrayed in the three dramas and that there is a deliberate attempt made in covertly showing that the servant was more knowledgeable than the master.

The first attempt to define the class distinction in the servant-master relation in the three plays it is important first to know the characters. First, I begin with Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dreams. The characters that I choose for discussion in the essay are Puck and Oberon. Puck is the mischievous trickster who is actually an elf in the Shakespearean drama about Anglo-Saxon mythological characters. Puck initially is introduced as the “shrewd and knavish spirit” that plays the part of a jester to Oberon, the king of fairies (Shakespeare). Puck is the one who messes up the drama of the lovers’ stories and creates confusion regarding who loves who. Puck describes himself in Act 2, Scene 1 of the drama as follows:

I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there. (Shakespeare Act 2, Scene 1)

Puck is actually Oberon’s servant, who is angry with his queen Titania. Oberon sends Puck to fetch the flower that has been hit by the Cupid’s arrow and use its juice to fix the love confusion between two Athenian lovers who were present in the forest. Puck is the main character of the play, which does not have any major protagonist. Puck makes the mistake of putting the juice on the wrong lover and creates all the confusion and comedy in the drama. Puck infuses humor into the play and sets it into motion by making intentional shenanigans of the character of humans. Puck, who transformed Bottom’s head into that of a donkey and intentionally smeared Lysander’s eyelids with the love potion instead of Demetrius, demonstrated such witty jests. The witty presence of Puck, his magical fancy, and his suggestive language makes the play more effervescent.

In contrast to Puck’s charming, humorous, witty character is that of his master’s. Oberon is the king of fairies, and husband of Titania. The play shows different facets of Oberon’s character. First, he is a man who believes he has an obligation to do the right matchmaking and bring the four lovers together. In his quest, he asks Puck to help the Athenian lovers with a love position so that they can come together. Oberon, on the other hand, is portrayed as a power-hungry master who even tricks his own wife into getting his way. He tricks the four lovers into having a good laugh at their expense. He actually abuses his powers to amuse himself. Shakespeare describes Oberon as flamboyant and frivolous with women and one who had many open affairs. Therefore, Oberon is described essentially as a king who likes to utilize as well as abuse his power and authority.

Through this characterization, the class distinction between Puck and Oberon is set, the former being the servant and the latter the master. Puck is a dutiful servant who keeps his master’s wish by fetching the love potion and dropping it on the Athenian lover’s eyelids:

Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
Night and silence.–Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear:
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound,
On the dank and dirty ground…
So awake when I am gone;
For I must now to Oberon. (Shakespeare Act 2, Scene 2)

The servant Puck is witty than the master. Oberon is eager to know what happened to Titania in Act 3 Scene 2 when Puck delivers this message in his witty and eloquent style:

My mistress with a monster is in love.
Near to her close and consecrated bower,
While she was in her dull and sleeping hour,
A crew of patches, rude mechanicals,
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls,
Were met together to rehearse a play
Intended for great Theseus’ nuptial-day. (Shakespeare Act 2, Scene 2)

When Puck finishes his explanation of all that he had done on the command of his master, it is Oberon who says that he himself could not do it better: “This falls out better than I could devise.” (Shakespeare Act 2, Scene 2) When Oberon inquires of the love potion applied to the Athenians, Puck replies that he had done that to perfection too. Soon with Demetrius and Hermia’s entrance, it is revealed that the elf had wrongly applied the potion. Therefore, Puck shows more wit than Oberon in bringing about the humor in the play.

The second play in the discussion is Tartuffe by Molière. The characters that are analyzed in this section are that of Dorine, the maid, and Marian. Dorine’s character is an archetypical character of the time that is shown as the block of wisdom and can see through all pretenses. Though she is inferior in social class to Mariane, who is the mistress, Dorine is superior in her wits. According to the tradition of the time, Dorine was probably a part companion and a servant to Mariane. Her character comes out to be one that is strong-willed, witty, clever, and direct. Her ability to look into a matter and derive meaningful conclusion is apparent when Madame Pernelle, Cleante, and Dorine are conversing about lingering gossips:

If there is talk against us, I know the source:
It’s Daphne and her little husband, of course.
Those who have the greatest cause for guilt and shame
Are quickest to besmirch a neighbor’s name. (Molière Act 1, Scene 1)

It is she who tries to persuade Mariane not to marry Tartuffe according to her father’s (Orgon’s) wishes. So when Oregon beseeches Mariane to marry Tartuffe, Dorine interjects the conversation with witty remarks about Tartuffe like “Oh yes, he is cute” and “There’s a lucky girl! If I were in her shoes, no man would force me to marry” (Molière Act 2, Scene 2). Above all, she was making these remarks at Orgon, the master of the house, without even hesitating, as she was smart enough, to tell the truth without offending. To further show, her courage Dorine openly tells Orgon when he was commanding Mariane to marry Tartuffe that “I’d be laughed at if I accepted such a husband.” (Molière Act 2, Scene 2)

In Act 2, Scene 3 opens with Dorine actually scolding Mariane for not having said anything to her father when he commanded her to marry Tartuffe: “have you lost your tongue; do I have to do all the talking for you?” This scene actually demonstrates Mariane’s docility when she says, “With a tyrant for a father, what can I do?” in contrast to Doriane’s courage, strong will, and conviction. When advises Mariane to tell Orgon that “hearts don’t fall in love at someone else’s command, that you marry to please yourself, not him;” Mariane reply is that she was always too scared to speak a word in front of her father.

In this master-servant relationship, clearly, Mariane is the underdog, and Dorine is the clever one. She is more dominating than Mariane and helps her to make up her mind about her affections towards Valere. Dorine even accuses her master of being untruthful of her affections: “Who knows whether that’s your mouth or your heart speaking.” When quizzed of her love for Valere, Mariane confides that if she is forced to marry Tartuffe, she will kill herself to which Dorine satirically replies: “Right: that’s a remedy I hadn’t thought of. All you have to do to get out of this difficulty is to die. A wonderful remedy. That kind of talk infuriates me.” (Molière) She openly declares her contempt for her mistress’s docility and says, “I have no sympathy for people like you who talk nonsense and tremble when they face difficulty.” (Molière) In Act 2 Scene 4, it is actually Dorine who advises the couple (Mariance and Valere) to keep up the charade of going with the idea of the marriage to Tartuffe:

Your father is being a fool, talking nonsense. But it would be best for the two of you to pretend you agree to his foolish ideas. That way, it will be easier for you to delay this proposed marriage if you have to. Once we have time, we can do anything… [ To Valere] Leave and urge your friends to help you get what was promised to you. We’ll go and warn Orgon’s brother-in-law and enlist Elmire’s help. (Molière Act 2 Scene 4)

The conversations clearly demonstrate that Dorine is the cleverest of the three i.e., Dorine, Mariane, and Valere, and is more quick-witted. She reprimands her mistress for her lack of courage to talk in front of her father or to refuse to marry Tartuffe when she loves someone else. At the end of the scene, it is actually Dorine who draws the plan to avert Orgon’s proposed marriage of Mariane with Tartuffe. Clearly, Dorine shows more knowledge, wisdom, and wit than Mariane, who is characterized as docile and naïve. Her strength of character and her conviction is shown throughout the play. She was the one who goes to Demise and talks of the plan so that he can be taken to their side. In Act 3, Scene 5 Dorine confronts Tartuffe with contempt and rebuke when the latter asks her to cover her “bosom” as they may infuse “sinful thoughts”:

Are you tempted that easily? Are you so preoccupied with the flesh? How come you’re so hot? I’m not aroused that quickly; I could see you stark naked from head to toe without being the least bit tempted. (Molière Act 3 Scene 5)

The whole play is set on the plans of Dorine, who is actually the servant, and her masters and mistresses confide to her wises. So in a way, the plot of revealing the fakeness in Tartuffe was hatched by Dorine, the servant. Although her social class made her the subservient, her wit and courage made her a character above Mariane, who is docile and indecisive. Therefore, in a way, the servant master relation shown in the play breaks the social code of a clever and dominating master and a docile, dim-witted servant. Rather Molière presents a role reversal in Dorine and Mariane where Dorine is dominating, clever, outspoken, and definitely wiser while Mariane is the follower.

The third play to be discussed in the essay is The Way of the World by William Congreve. The characters discussed in this play are Whitwell and Lady Wishfort. The play portrays Whitwell the valet, as a clever and accomplished servant. In Act 2, Scene IX Whitwell states to Mirabell about marriage:

Married, knighted, and attended all in one day! ‘Tis enough to make any man forget himself. The difficulty will be how to recover my acquaintance and familiarity with my former self and fall from my transformation to a reformation into Waitwell. Nay, I shan’t be quite the same Waitwell neither—for now I remember me, I’m married, and can’t be my own man again. (Congreve Act 2 Scene 9)

He is a stark contrast to his mistress Lady Wishfort who is an old widow of fifty-five and still looks for a suitable match for herself. She is arrogant, and her vanity fails her to see the right thing to do at her age. She falls for the flattery of Mirabelle in Act 1 and misinterprets it as his strong interest in her. Then her assortment of toilette demonstrates that Lady Wishfort as a woman who fails to accept her age gracefully in the third act. Lady Wishfort is rich and arrogant and is accustomed to having her own way. Nevertheless, she lacks common sense and lives in her own world. However, she constantly looks herself in the mirror but fails to see what others perceive of her. Her character actually shows her lack of understanding and her susceptibleness to flattery. Her lack of judgment makes her choose her friends unwisely, and therefore everyone who she feels is trustworthy betrays her. Therefore, to show her the truth, her daughter and others plot a plan to show her reality, which humiliates her considerably.

Lady Wishfort is an unwise character, and even as a mother, she failed to act wisely:

She was never suffered to play with a male child, though, but in coats. Nay, her very babies, were of the feminine gender. Oh, she never looked a man in the face but her own father or the chaplain, and him we made a shift to put upon her for a woman, with the help of his long garments, and his sleek face, till she was going in her fifteen. (Congreve Act 5 Scene 5)

Her remarks of her own daughter to Mrs. Marwood shows her low intelligence and shows that she had made a wrong choice for her daughter. In contrast to the dim-witted mistress, Whitwell is a clever and witty character. Disguised as Sir Rowland, he mocks the way of a gentleman, thus showing the difference between the classes and the class contempt present in the lower classes in English society.

In all the three plays, the servants are portrayed as wittier and cleverer. They are wiser and are often the ones who show the right way to their masters. On the other hand, the masters are not-so-clever people who fail to rise up to the stature of a true master in wisdom and brains. The characters, especially that of Dorine in Tartuffe and Whitwell in The Way of the World, show that the master-servant relationship is opposed in the plays, and the servants though lesser in social class, have greater stature in wisdom.

Works Cited

Congreve, William. The Way of the World. n.d. Web.

Molière. Tartuffe. New York: hecket Publishing, 2008. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” 2010. MIT. Web.