The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

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P U S S - I N - B O O T S

Figaro qua, Figaro là

As the first line of Carter’s story more than hints, ‘Puss-in-Boots’ is based far more on Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville (adapted, in turn, from a play by Beaumarchais) than it is on Charles Perrault’s famous version of the fairy tale. Aside from the fact that ‘Figaro’ is a cat who acquires a pair of military boots, the plot of the story is almost identical to that of the opera: just as Figaro carries lovers’ messages as part of his assumed role of factotum of the city, so does Puss, and by three schemes involving disguise, he manages first to enable his master (the romantic lead) to be seen by his great love (who is effectively imprisoned by her, much older and impotent, husband); then to deflower her, and then latterly to marry her. The disguises of Almaviva (the romantic lead) in The Barber of Seville are first as a student, then as a drunken soldier billeted on the family of Rosina (his love), and finally as her singing teacher. In ‘Puss-in-Boots’ the disguises are first as a mountebank serenading his love (The Barber of Seville opens with Almaviva serenading Rosina disguised as a poor student); second as a rat-catcher, and finally as a doctor. There are a few more significant differences in the storylines: in Rossini, the romantic lead Almaviva is an aristocrat – a count – rather than a dissolute soldier, and Rosina, his love, is not yet married, but is the ward to Don Bartholo (equivalent to Signor Pantaleone in ‘Puss-in-Boots’). Carter’s version is much racier in that Pantaleone is married to the female lead, and therefore the relationship between her and the male lead is technically adulterous (only technically as the marriage has not, in fact, been consummated). Finally, Puss (unlike Figaro) is also given a romantic interest – a cat who resides at Signor Pantaleone’s house – with whom he eventually settles down to produce a litter of kittens. This may conceivably be an oblique reference to Beaumarchais’ second play about his character – The Marriage of Figaro – famously turned into an opera by Mozart. Finally, Carter’s wonderful old hag who guards the female lead is based on the character Berta (or, ‘Youth’ as she is ironically referred to in the opera).

Having established at least some of the basic parameters connecting Carter’s story with her source, it is necessary to broaden this approach further to appreciate this most allusive of all the collection’s tales. For The Barber of Seville was not simply plucked out the aether by Beaumarchais, but instead was itself part of a whole genre of similar stories with the same stock characters originating in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and continued, after the latter’s demise, in the French pantomime. It is, of course, as a ‘panto’ that ‘Puss-in-Boots’ is best known today. The most famous of the Commedia characters is Harlequin, who was originally conceived of as a stereotypical servant from Bergamo in Lombardy (which town provides Carter with her setting). Figaro is a Harlequin character, and so is Puss-in-Boots; his love-interest, Tabs, the similarly scheming female cat of Pantaleone’s household corresponds to the stock character Columbina. The two lovers of the tale, prevented from consummating their relationship, are immediately recognisable as the Innamorati of the Commedia, while the connection with Italian improvised theatre is also made explicit by Carter’s naming of the elderly, impotent husband of the female lead as Signor Pantaleone. This was the stock name for a Venetian merchant and is usually corrupted to Pantalone or Pantaloon. Pantaloon’s traditional characteristics are exactly those found in Carter’s version: he is a powerful, rich money-grubbing miser, whose role is to try to prevent the two lovers from consummating their relationship, but who is easily tricked and baffled by Harlequin and Columbina.

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