The Rivals

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False Identities and Artifice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Sheridan and His World Theme Icon
False Identities and Artifice Theme Icon
Language and Pretension Theme Icon
The Role of Women Theme Icon
Courtship and Generational Conflict Theme Icon
Gentlemanly Honor and Dueling Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Rivals, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
False Identities and Artifice Theme Icon

Confusion about who is who drives the plot of The Rivals. Several of the characters invent entirely new people in order to delude others and gain their goals. Other characters merely pretend to be people they are not, often by affecting to be more intelligent or fashionable than they truly are.

The most pressing question for the plot of The Rivals is whenAbsolute’s created identityof Ensign Beverley will be unmasked as a falsehood, and whether Lydia will still love him once she realizes she has fallen in love with him under false pretenses. And it is the outcome of this this unmasking which shows that the play does not view the many acts of artifice or deception that it portrays as necessarily bad.

After all, Captain Absolute is never punished for his trickery. Despite being caught in his lie instead of getting to break the secret of his true identity to Lydia gently, Absolute still eventually gets the girl. And, since he is the most charming character in the play, his ability to manipulate others to achieve his ends is presented as a sign of his canniness, intelligence, and ability to think on his feet.

Indeed,Sheridan himself was the very type of figure he glorifies through his sympathetic portrayal of Absolute: he was enormously charming and creative in his deceptions and manipulations. He also tended to get away with this bad behavior, because almost no one (except his father) could stay mad at him for long.

But the play does make fun of those characters who aren’t intelligent enough to skillfully use artifice to gain their objectives.Bob Acres and Mrs. Malaprop are constantly pretending, but never think strategically about whom they are trying to manipulate. Their artifice is mere pretense, and although it is supposed to convince others that they are intelligent, brave, or deserving of a high place in the social hierarchy, it is transparent to everyone around them and makes them a source of mockery.

Lydia’s principal act of artifice is likewise a failure to use deception strategically. She sends an anonymous letter to herself claiming to know that Captain Absolute is courting another woman and then shows it to Absolute, hoping to quarrel with him and hear his protestations that she is the only one he loves. Since Lydia already has Absolute’s love and doesn’t actually wish to be separated from him by a fight, her artifice is nothing but an impediment to her own happiness. At the same time, however, Lydia’s capacity for trickeryshows the audience that she is not to pitied for being taken in by Absolute. The two lovers are birds of a feather in their willingness to play games with each other’s emotions.

There is one act of artifice that the play portrays as neither ridiculous nor admirable, though: Faulkland’s lie to Julia when he seeks to test her love for him by suggesting he has killed a man in a duel. Unlike Lydia, Julia has high moral standards, and only uses deceptions to protect Faulkland’s reputation, as when she pretends to be happier than she is. Faulkland already has ample evidence of Julia’s love and so this manipulation is unnecessary for his purposes; his behavior is motivated by an unjustifiable jealousy, making it nothing more than cruel. The play seems to suggest that acts of artifice must be judged both by the skill they display and by the extent to which the target of the deception deserves to be deceived.

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False Identities and Artifice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of False Identities and Artifice appears in each Scene of The Rivals. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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False Identities and Artifice Quotes in The Rivals

Below you will find the important quotes in The Rivals related to the theme of False Identities and Artifice.
Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

[Reads.] Sir—there is often a sudden incentive impulse in love, that has a greater induction than years of domestic combination: such was the commotion I felt at the first superfluous view of Sir Lucius O'Trigger.—Very pretty, upon my word.—Female punctuation forbids me to say more, yet let me add, that it will give me joy infallible to find Sir Lucius worthy the last criterion of my affections. Delia. Upon my conscience! Lucy, your lady is a great mistress of language. Faith, she's quite the queen of the dictionary!—for the devil a word dare refuse coming at her call—though one would think it was quite out of hearing.

Related Characters: Sir Lucius O’Trigger (speaker), Mrs. Malaprop / Delia, Lucy
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Lucy has just delivered a letter from “Delia” to Sir Lucius, whom she has deceived to believe that Delia is Lydia’s pseudonym, when it is actually Mrs. Malaprop’s. The situation provides a perfect study of the ease with which a practiced deceiver like Lucy can manipulate two people who are not perceptive about the world around them. Mrs. Malaprop, besides being unaware that she makes a fool of herself through her scrambled use of language, does not realize that the pseudonym “Delia” is actually a scrambled version of the name “Lydia,” which will lead Sir Lucius to assume he is corresponding with the niece, not the aunt.

Sir Lucius, on the other hand, puts no effort into trying to understand the letter he has received. Although it is garbled, her meaning can be sussed out. Mrs. Malaprop compares her current feelings to Sir Lucius to her feelings during her “years of domestic combination,” by which she means the years of her marriage. Although the language is unconventional, it is only because Sir Lucius is determined to understand the letter as he wants to and not for what it actually says that he fails to understand this clear evidence that he is not corresponding with a young girl who has never been married before, but with her older, widowed aunt.


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Nay, Sir Lucius, I thought you wa'n't rich enough to be so nice!
Upon my word, young woman, you have hit it:—I am so poor, that I can't afford to do a dirty action.—If I did not want money, I'd steal your mistress and her fortune with a great deal of pleasure.—However, my pretty girl, [Gives her money] here's a little something to buy you a ribbon; and meet me in the evening, and I'll give you an answer to this. So, hussy, take a kiss beforehand to put you in mind. [Kisses her.]

Related Characters: Sir Lucius O’Trigger (speaker), Lucy (speaker), Lydia Languish
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Lucy is pretending to be naïve to gain Sir Lucius’s trust and get information from him that might prove useful to her in the future. She understands that he wants to think of her as a simple girl who trusts and likes him enough to flirt with him. She also pretends to be surprised that he is such a gentleman and will not run off with Lydia without getting Mrs. Malaprop’s permission first. Of course, she understands that Lydia loses part of her fortune if she marries without her aunt’s permission, but she pretends that such matters are over her head. She succeeds in tricking him, and gets him to reveal his motivations in courting Lydia. He shows that, far from being disinterested in Lydia’s money, it is an important reason for his courtship of her.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

Sir, I repeat it—if I please you in this affair, 'tis all I desire. Not that I think a woman the worse for being handsome; but, sir, if you please to recollect, you before hinted something about a hump or two, one eye, and a few more graces of that kind—now, without being very nice, I own I should rather choose a wife of mine to have the usual number of limbs, and a limited quantity of back: and though one eye may be very agreeable, yet as the prejudice has always run in favour of two, I would not wish to affect a singularity in that article.

Related Characters: Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley (speaker), Lydia Languish, Sir Anthony Absolute
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Absolute has told his father that he will marry any girl his father chooses for him, as Sir Anthony had previously demanded. He does not reveal that he knows that his father wants to arrange for him to marry Lydia, the girl he is already courting, because he is determined to make his father feel how ridiculous was his demand that Absolute show him perfect obedience and surrender any control over his own future. This conflict between the generations has an easy solution, but Absolute is still determined to win a point against his father as a comeuppance for the bullying way Sir Anthony tried to control him. Sheridan was likely also trying to send a message to his own father, who had tried and failed to control his son’s choice of a wife.

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

Well, but Mrs. Malaprop, as the girl seems so infatuated by this fellow, suppose you were to wink at her corresponding with him for a little time—let her even plot an elopement with him—then do you connive at her escape—while I, just in the nick, will have the fellow laid by the heels, and fairly contrive to carry her off in his stead.

Related Characters: Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley (speaker), Lydia Languish, Mrs. Malaprop / Delia
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Absolute has just met and utterly charmed Mrs. Malaprop. He has led her to believe that he knows about Lydia and Beverley, but sees himself as Mrs. Malaprop’s ally in trying to break that couple up. Of course, he is tricking Mrs. Malaprop, because he is Beverley, but he also wins Mrs. Malaprop’s trust completely by suggesting they should be co-conspirators in a plan to deceive Lydia. Thus Absolute further entangles himself in deception and trickery here, and Mrs. Malaprop further allows herself to be taken in by any who wish to manipulate her. In his own life, Sheridan himself carried out a complicated elopement involving many separate deceptions, so the process of scheming before an elopement would have been a familiar one to him.

Act 4, Scene 2 Quotes

So, while I fondly imagined we were deceiving my relations, and flattered myself that I should outwit and incense them all—behold my hopes are to be crushed at once, by my aunt's consent and approbation—and I am myself the only dupe at last!—[Walking about in a heat.]

Related Characters: Lydia Languish (speaker), Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley , Mrs. Malaprop / Delia
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Absolute’s deception has been uncovered, and Lydia is furious to learn that Beverley was a fictional persona that he made up. She is explicitly angry that her hopes to deceive her relatives will come to naught, and instead she finds that she has been deceived herself. This moment shows that the play has just as satirical a view on the position taken by the young as the old in the conflict surrounding courtship between the older and younger generation. Just as Sir Anthony hopes to control his son Absolute’s future absolutely, Lydia puts an undue emphasis on her desire to rebel against her aunt. By showing that both sides of the generational gap were prone to foolishness when trying to settle the important matter of sons and daughters’ marriages for the best, Sheridan takes a conservative position on whether marriages ought to be arranged or not. Ridiculing both Lydia and Sir Anthony, the play treats the topic humorously, but mounts no real criticism to the social practice of the time.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

You see before you a wretch, whose life is forfeited. Nay, start not!—the infirmity of my temper has drawn all this misery on me. I left you fretful and passionate—an untoward accident drew me into a quarrel—the event is, that I must fly this kingdom instantly. O Julia, had I been so fortunate as to have called you mine entirely, before this mischance had fallen on me, I should not so deeply dread my banishment!

Related Characters: Faulkland (speaker), Julia Melville
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Faulkland has come to test Julia’s love by suggesting to her that he has killed someone in a duel and must flee the country to escape prosecution. Here, he pretends to believe that she will let him go off alone and end their engagement because of this unfortunate turn his life has taken, because they are not yet married. This way, if she offers to elope with him she proves that her love for him is stronger than her sense of the proper behavior for a young, unmarried woman, which would forbid her to travel alone with a man to whom she was not married. At the same time, he also shifts some of the blame for his becoming involved in a duel onto her shoulders, saying he quarreled with someone because he was agitated after having an argument with her. This also supports the traditional idea that it was women’s role to comfort men and influence them to become less aggressive.

Why, is it not provoking? when I thought we were coming to the prettiest distress imaginable, to find myself made a mere Smithfield bargain of at last! There, had I projected one of the most sentimental elopements!—so becoming a disguise!—so amiable a ladder of ropes!—Conscious moon—four horses—Scotch parson—with such surprise to Mrs. Malaprop—and such paragraphs in the newspapers!—Oh, I shall die with disappointment!
I don't wonder at it!
Now—sad reverse!—what have I to expect, but, after a deal of flimsy preparation with a bishop's license, and my aunt's blessing, to go simpering up to the altar; or perhaps be cried three times in a country church, and have an unmannerly fat clerk ask the consent of every butcher in the parish to join John Absolute and Lydia Languish, spinster! Oh that I should live to hear myself called spinster!

Related Characters: Lydia Languish (speaker), Julia Melville (speaker), Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley , Mrs. Malaprop / Delia
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Lydia complains to Julia about her disappointment at finding out that Beverley was a false identity of Absolute’s. The picturesque elements of the elopement that she dreamed of are drawn from the sentimental literature Lydia reads, but also would have been familiar to Sheridan from his own experiencing wooing and eloping with Elizabeth Linley.

Lydia also disparages the trappings of a conventional wedding. She is especially bothered by the idea that her marriage will be approved of by society, which seems to her vulgar and unexciting, and she hates the unromantic idea that there will be a financial component to the arrangement of her marriage. But she dramatizes her situation to the extreme when she says that she never dreamed that she would become a spinster: someone as wealthy, beautiful, and young as Lydia would have had plenty of other opportunities to marry.