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Prior to the third act, Wilde sets the scene and establishes the main character’s idiosyncrasies and particularities. This knowledge the audience has already received contributes to the humour in the third act. The importance of being earnest is seen to be one of Wilde’s most farcical comedies. Both the storyline and many of the characters are totally ridiculous, yet the play is written with a high degree of wit and intelligence. An example of this wit lies in the title of the play, which is a pun itself. With ‘earnest’ being both a male Christian name and a word describing honesty and sincerity.
An important element, which adds to the humour of the third act, is the absurdity of some of the characters themselves. Characters such as Lady Bracknell, who is a very pedantic character, seem to be unrealistic characters as their manners are so extreme. She is an example of an exaggerated stereotype, a comical device use by Wilde. It seems that Wilde has attempted to make the main subjects of the play, Algernon and Jack, the most realistic also. Wilde also uses many linguistic techniques to add to the humour of the third act. One of these is the use of paradoxes. These are statements that seem to be self contradictory, but may be true.
For example, ‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his. ‘ Cecily says this in the third act. This statement mixes self- contradiction with possible truth, providing humour. The use of epigrams is also very apparent in the third act. Short, witty comments provide humour. ‘Why should there be one law for men and one law for women? ‘ This may be a commonplace for today’s audiences but at the time was seen as a radical and controversial question. There is an example of dramatic irony in the third act. ‘The christenings, sir! Is that not somewhat premature?
‘ In this situation the audience is aware of the situation, but the character on stage (Lady Bracknell) is not. This creates humour as the character that is not aware of what is going on is made to look foolish. Much of the humour in the third act is evoked by satire. The most common victim of Wilde’s mockery is the upper class. This play was written in 1895, when class boundaries divided society very distinctly. This means that the jokes that mock the upper class would have been more relevant when it was first performed. However, these jokes are still appreciated in theatres today.
Another example of this mockery occurs in the third act. One way the mockery is shown is in the speech of the characters. Most speech is over-exaggerated and not true to how the upper class would have spoken at that time. Wilde also mocks the manner of the upper class. At the beginning of the third Act, Gwendolen and Cecily are talking of their predicament. They are in a ridiculous situation, yet they masquerade their torment and anguish beneath a restrictive etiquette. Gwendolen: ‘Let us preserve a dignified silence’. Cecily: ‘ Certainly, it’s the only thing to do now’.
Gwendolen and Cecily are remaining polite despite their distressing situation. Lady Bracknell talks of a typical convention displayed by upper class women. ‘London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty five for years. ‘ Wilde is clearly mocking the tendency for upper class women to lie about their age. As well as the speech of the characters providing humour it is also generated by their actions on stage. After the misunderstandings between Cecily, Gwendolen, Alegernon and Jack have been resolved, they are embraced in their separate pairs.
Lady Bracknell’s entrance at this point provides humour, as she dramatically changes the tone and atmosphere of the scene. Her initial line ‘Gwendolen! What does this mean? ‘ Brings the audience back to the theme of conflict that has been established in the play. Wilde has used stage direction wisely to add humour to the play. One example of this is in the third act, when Jack goes upstairs to collect the handbag he had been left in as a baby. (Another preposterous addition to the storyline) At this point there is a large amount of crashing and banging heard on stage as he smashes the bag from its glass case.
It is amusing to watch the characters on stage become baffled and bemused by Jack’s actions, as he is seen as a calm, respectable man. This unexpected behaviour provides a contrast from the polite and reserved nature displayed by most of the interactions during the play. Typically, a comedy has a happy ending. The Importance of Being Earnest reflects this convention, with Jack’s epigrammatic utterance; ‘I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest. ‘