Discuss the use of duplicity and subterfuge for comic affect in The importance of being earnest. The importance of being Ernest written in 1899 by Oscar wild is a comedy of manners which was first shown to the Victorian society. Being a comedy of manners, the play includes many features of a Victorian melodrama including confusion, mistaken identity and a final happy ending. However subterfuge and duplicity is inherent in all characters and is the main source of comic value within the plot. We see the comic value of subterfuge and duplicity not only within the main characters and the cameo roles but also heavily embedded within the plot to highlight wild’s attack on the hypocrisy of upper class Victorian society. Within the plot of The importance of being earnest nobody is who they appear to be and that is what plants the seed for the humour. All the confusion and farce that is creates right before your very eyes creates a comprehensive amount of dramatic irony for the audience to sit and laugh at, little did they know however that they are laughing at a mirror image of themselves. From the butlers – Lane and Merriman – to the very top predators of the Victorian social society such as Lady Bracknell, they all have a measurement of deceit hidden within them – all rising in amount – to reflect their social status. Other than the characters the whole plot created by wild was intended to exploit the hypocrisy of the Victorian social society. This theme of exposing the upper class you find in all the characters within the play.
One of the lead characters, Algernon Moncrieff is also the main instigator of deceit within the play. The first case of duplicit behaviour is clear in “please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches they are specially made for Aunt Augusta” (act 1, 83) this is physically amusing as he has been sat there eating the cucumber sandwiches and has utterly contradicted himself. This error of his own, makes Algernon look foolish and a little stupid, however due to this being a response to jacks attempt to eat one it also lets us view Algernon as being self important and even little vein. Within this first section he also entertains the audience by appearing to be childish and immature. “However, it makes no matter/ isn’t yours after all” (Act1, 121-122) is his first notion of subterfuge he has been in possession of this cigarette case and planning this moment a while in advance. This adds humour in two ways; firstly the tone of conversation between jack and Algy as it’s incredibly childlike and makes them appear the opposite of polite Victorian behaviour. Secondary this humiliates jack as he is seen to be foolish by leaving his possessions around. This section of conversation makes Algy be seen as a rather sly and clever character. This attitude of Algy being very sharp and a little selfish is clear through the dramatic irony of “bunbury is dead”(act3,94) this is amusing to the audience due to his earlier statement of “nothing will induce me to part with bunbury” (act1,254). This duplicit action is amusing as it shows Algy to a little clumsy and naive.
To the contrast, John Worthing is first portrayed to be an angelic romanticist “I am in love with Gwendolen” (Act1, 67) but we later see that his façade is hiding as much as the rest of the characters. The most prominent and the first comic point of subterfuge is of his “name is earnest in town and jack in the country” (act1, 166) this is amusing as it’s a complete contradiction of the immediate vision we have of jack. This first instance of subterfuge lets us believe that he is hiding a huge secret which following Victorian melodrama will all become unravelled shortly; this also entertains the audience as being of a higher class they stereotypically found peoples misfortunes fun. This case of subterfuge allows another duplicit action take place. “he died abroad; in Paris, in fact”(act2,224) this duplicit action of just cancelling a life out to ensure no loose ends is highly amusing due to the dramatic irony as Algy who is posing as Jacks brother and is with Cecily. This shows jack to be also very naive like Algernon. We further see jack to be like Algernon even more through his declaration to chausable of “I would like to be christened myself” (act2, 258) this shows him to have no indication of the true meaning of religion and belief. The Victorians were very religious and expected to go to church every day and to know about the bible so for Jack to have such a low regard for religious meaning would have been even more of a contrast of the innocent angelic person we saw walk out on stage, this would have been quite comical as further throughout the play we see him change more and more into a deceitful character such as Algernon. This would have been more amusing to the women of the audience as they see that all men deep down are just the same. These examples of duplicity and subterfuge show jack to be clever, cunning and a little selfish as he doesn’t seem to care about the consequences and just that it will lead him to his main priority; Gwendolen.
Unknown to the male leads – Jack and Algy – Cecily and Gwendolen are equally as bad. We start off with Cecily’s subterfuge filled announcement to Algy that “today I broke off my engagement with Ernest. I feel it is better to do so. The weather still continues charming” (act 2, 476) this example of Bathos as well is shockingly amusing to the audience as we have been lead to believe that Cecily Isn’t romantic at all, and yet she’s lived another all together contrasting life through her diary (The diary which is a motif throughout the play to show how life to them is an art and they write down the things that are important and regularly build on.) As Gwendolen says: “one should always have something sensational to read on the train” (act 2, 635-636). This shows that Cecily isn’t very much of a serious of a person and wild used this to expose the stereotypical fussiness of Victorian women who spent all there times creating fictional stories and they didn’t really know much truth. This innocence and naivety is contrasted heavily by Gwendolen and her duplicit behaviour. The most entertaining piece of Gwendolen dupicit story is that of the dramatic irony she creates of “from the moment I saw you I distrusted you” (act 2, 699) this is a complete contradiction of her earlier statement of “something tells me we are going to be great friends/ my first impressions are never wrong” (act 2, 548) this shows a foolish side to Gwendolen which a Victorian audience would have laughed at as women were seen as lesser and more foolish than the men of the era. This disagreement provokes Cecily with her duplicit actions “puts four lumps of sugar into the cup/ cuts a very large slice of cake” (act 2, 285-290) is physically entertaining as we see the two women having a rather foolish and childlike fight. This is also a reflection of Algy and Jack with their childish behaviour over the cigarette case.
This is Wilds’ opportunity to expose the upper social class of their flouncy behaviour and that they have no regard for life outside of their own and just live in a childlike state for the eternity of their lives. This child like behaviours that Wild uses for the women really puts them in their place “women should be seen and not heard” (anon) and once again just shows wilds anger of that he disagreed with the way they didn’t seem to life but exist. These examples of duplicit behaviour so far are more entertaining to an audience of the modern day as we don’t live by the same laws and regulations of the Victorian social society and then view it as an outsider and see how bizarre and immature their lives were.
However it isn’t just the higher classes, Lane the butler carries many duplicit actions even if they may be for Algy’s benefit but his lack of moral groundings send him right along with the story. “there were no cucumbers in the market” (act 1, 302) this is Lanes most obvious duplicit action as he then allows the blame to fall onto him when in fact it was Algy who ate all of the cucumbers. This lie although it is only small exposes the ‘lower’ class as being a sort of runner boy for the ‘predators’. This would have been entertaining for the Victorian audience as it shows whose important and they can have a laugh how they are at the top and the butlers are just there to be an almost slave in the extremity. Although for an audience of the modern day it’s the dramatic irony that is the more entertaining as we know there were cucumbers and he’s just going to lie to save his masters skin. This shows the butlers and in general the ‘lower’ class to have a high level of self control and diligence. Going up to the contrasting side of the social scale is Lady Bracknell. Although she is seen as the very top ‘predator’ and that everything goes by her she also has her fare share of subterfuge mainly being that of her announcement of “I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind” (act 3, 291) this is entertaining in the shocking sense of that she has earlier stated that fortune is important but she can do it? This highlights the upper class’ tendency to life by one rule and give another out. The dramatic irony created by this is also entertaining and so does the gender role reversal as typically it was the men who married for fortune and not the other way around. This again highlights Lady Bracknell’s attitude of nobody is better than her and she shall do anything she wishes.
However is it the duplicity and subterfuge within the plot and characters that adds the most humour or is it how the deceit and subterfuge is used to show the hypocrisy of Victorian England? All of the examples of duplicity throughout the play all expose the characters Achilles tendon and in turn a member of Victorian social society. Wild created ‘emotions’ rather than characters to purely show the emotional state of the characters and the exaggeration of their beliefs compared to a middle class life. Due to wild being homosexual and therefore ostracised from their social circle he began to see how utterly naïve and how the Victorians had so little regard for anything other than themselves, so he used The importance of being earnest to convey his laughter and anger at that social class. Even the
names included such as ‘Worthing’ being close to worthy meaning having a high moral standing and the name ‘Earnest’ meaning to have great importance or something of seriousness are complete contradictions of Jack who uses both. He like all the personas created are all as duplicit as the other and none of them are truly honest. All they seem to want is to have the power and use it for what they want. It’s this total mess of how hypocritical the Victorian society was that adds the greater amount of humour and plants the seeds for the laughter of how the lies never seem to stop. The main theme throughout is that nobody is who they seem to be, this is even more laughable to a modern day audience as we see that it exposes the Victorians and how they looked down on people, but is that just what further generations will thing of us as the audience? The main message that Oscar Wild was really putting across was that of people will never change, we are who we are and the stupidity that we carry out every day is what makes it all so entertaining, because we are duplicit and we have the same hypocrisy within our lives.