The ouvre of Gilbert and Sullivan is one which typically runs in a cynical path against classism and structure. Of course, being white guys getting paid to write, in the 1870s, they were bound up with the society at the time that was racist and sexist as we are all now, still, and it reflected in the values they wrote.
Still, there’s gems in their writing, if you look through the facets that aren’t quite so, y’know, then.
Now, this song is basically a parlour trick. You’ll find a range of versions of it, though I like this one a lot. Partly because it isn’t in the Pirates of Penzance, which is cute, but unnecessary. Still, singing this song is one of those things that you do to show off more than you do to advance the plot – even though the song has plot advancement and summary in it.
I like the plot of Ruddigore. Without big spoilers, Ruddigore is a play about a man living under a family rule, bullied by literally the ghosts of his family, eventually coming up with a logical trick that lets him remove the power those ghosts have. It’s about a character who struggles with what he’s been told he is by his family, and instead chooses to be something else. He didn’t commit the sin that dragged his family into the position they’re in, but none of his ancestors tried to fix it either.
The thing that’s great about this song to me, though, is that the first verse, the easiest to listen to, is plot. “I’m going to go do this thing.” The singer is telling the audience that he’s going to – well, okay, literally, he’s going to go tell the ghosts that haunt him he’d rather die than surrender his ideals.
The second verse is basically a shorthand slap at the story trope of The Mad Woman, which unfortunately, modern renditions seem to miss. The Mad Woman doesn’t show up in other G&S stuff, not often. their women tended to either be wide-eyed ingenues whose naivete was a source of comedy (to the most ridiculous levels, like in Patience). The song points out that because Margaret’s been in all the narrative places she needs to be, she is easily the most aware person in the story, and she could solve it all… but it doesn’t matter, because she’s The Mad Woman.
And the third verse…?
The third verse is just saying, in essence patter songs suck.