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The Politics of Self Interest

By Stephanie Chidester

Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters is at once charmingly light yet surprisingly complex, blooming as it did in the garden of commedia dell’arte. The playwright grafts depth of character and theme into the Italian comedic forms of his day, taming the wildness of farce and improvisation while cultivating the joyful exuberance inherent in those forms. It is, in Timothy Holme’s words, “not only . . . a pure joy from beginning to end, but . . . also a perfectly constructed halfway-house between the commedia dell’arte and the new comedy of character, containing, it could be argued, the best of both worlds” (A Servant of Many Master**s: The Life and Times of Carlo Goldoni [London: Jupiter Books, 1976], 91).

Goldoni enriches the farcical plot-lines of The Servant of Two Masters with themes both humorous and serious. One such theme is self-interest, a force seen not only in the behavior of the characters but also in the play’s backdrop of Venetian society. Occasionally, some aspects of this backdrop creep into the foreground of plot-lines–namely, double standards and the callous treatment of women by male guardians and law-makers. Of the female characters in the play, Smeraldina feels the injustice of double standards most strongly, and she speaks out against it repeatedly. She berates Silvio, “It’s as the old saw says; we get the kicks and you the halfpence. They say women are unfaithful, but men are committing infidelities all day long. People talk about the women, and they never say a word about the men. We get all the blame, and you are allowed to do as you please.” She then explains the root of this evil: “’Tis the men who have made the laws. If the women had made them, things would be just the other way” (Goldoni, Carlo, The Servant of Two Masters (Il Servitore di Due Padroni), trans. Edward J. Dent. 2nd ed., [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.], 39). This is self-interest on a truly large scale. Smeraldina makes no claim for the moral superiority of women—indeed, if positions were reversed, women would show just as much bias.

By the end of the play, Smeraldina, and perhaps even Clarice, come to see marriage as a necessary evil–a matter not merely of romance and flirtation but also of conflict and subjugation. Smeraldina’s final word on this subject is less than optimistic: “Men are all cruel to us, some more, some less. They demand the most absolute fidelity, and on the least shadow of suspicion they bully us, ill-treat us and are like to murder us. Well, you have got to marry one or another of them some day, so I say to you as one says to sick people–since you have got to take your nasty medicine, take it” (78).

Though Beatrice evades the tyranny of male guardians by disguising herself and fleeing to Venice, she has great faith in Florindo’s love and views marriage as an escape from ill-treatment. The threat of male guardians, as much as her love for Florindo, informs her every action. Beatrice’s worst act of self-interest—deceiving Pantalone and fraudulently taking his money—is tempered by the fact that less subversive behavior would mean giving up her freedom and abandoning her search for Florindo. Beatrice rejects Brighella’s suggestion that she be honest with Pantalone: “If I do that, I can do nothing. Pantalone will begin by treating me as if he were my guardian; then they will all worry me and say my conduct is unbecoming and all that sort of thing.” Her final plea is rather poignant and shows awareness that she must soon return to that restrictive world: “I want my liberty. Help me to it. ’Twill not last long” (12).

While the men in the play–and Beatrice in male disguise–have great freedom of movement, the women—maid and mistress alike—must either comply with social mores (which require chaperones and restrictions) or suffer recriminations. “Female presence in rooms where male visitors are received is . . . strictly controlled. . . . The inn too represents an indoor setting, but with a very public significance (which accounts for the young maid Smeraldina’s reluctance to enter it).” (Günsberg, Maggie. Playing With Gender: The Comedies of Goldoni [Leeds (U.K.): Northern Universities Press, 2001], 62). So when Clarice inconsiderately orders Smeraldina to go alone to Brighella’s inn and deliver a letter to Beatrice/Federigo, she places her maid’s reputation in jeopardy. Even though Smeraldina refuses to enter the inn, she nonetheless suffers implied insults when the waiter mistakes her purpose in being there. Likewise, Beatrice’s flight and her disguise are seen as serious offenses, crimes for which “The Court of Justice . . . intends to have [her] arrested” (23).

Self-interest also rears its ugly head in the play on the level of individuals. Pantalone’s choice to offend both his friend the doctor and his daughter stems not from a desire to honor his word to Federigo, but rather from greed. He puts an end to Silvio’s petitions and insults by revealing his primary motive: “The Rasponis are worth a hundred of the Lombardis. An only son, and rich as he is–you won’t find that every day. It has got to be” (35).

Silvio too is appallingly selfish. While he does seem more attached to Clarice than to her dowry, his behavior toward her, after the engagement is dissolved, is more that of a child whose new toy has been snatched away than that of a man who loves his fiancée and cares for her well-being. When it appears that Clarice is complying with her father’s wishes, Silvio accuses her of infidelity and disbelieves her protestations of her innocence and her love for him. Worse, he stands by unmoved when she attempts suicide–if he can’t have her, why should anyone else? It is Smeraldina who rescues and defends her mistress: “Look at you, you’re a pretty little fellow, that expects ladies to disembowel themselves for you!” (38).

The most entertaining—and arguably most innocuous—example of self-interest in the play is the title character, Truffaldino. When sent to announce Beatrice/Federigo to Pantalone, he is easily distracted from his errand by a pretty maid. When Beatrice fails to feed and pay him as much as he would like, he takes on two masters at once, hoping to double his wages and his meals. “Truffaldino . . . is greedy and cheerfully muddle-headed, but the light of pure truth shines in the touching pride he shows at being able to serve two masters at the same time, although the feat involves hard word and kicks. . . . He is a sort of archetype of all those Italian waiters who even today face a packed restaurant, not as a piece of drudgery, but as a challenge to their skill” (Holme, 91).

Ultimately, love and kindness triumph over selfishness. Beatrice takes pity on Clarice and reveals her true gender; Clarice forgives Silvio rather than revenging herself by rejecting him; and Truffaldino sacrifices his double meals and wages for the love of Smeraldina. Goldoni’s denouement is unabashedly happy: The Court of Justice is conveniently forgotten, the lovers are happily mated, Pantalone and the doctor are reconciled, and Beatrice and Truffaldino are forgiven their deceptions.

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