The Rivals

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Sheridan and His World 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.
Sheridan and His World Theme Icon

Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote The Rivalsat the age of twenty-six, hoping to turn bad publicity into good and make money in the process. Although it is not autobiographical, The Rivalsdrew on Sheridan’s experiences during his scandalous courtship of his own wife. Sheridan used the notoriety that his courtship had received through the rumor mills of British society to spark a widespread interest in his play, fill theater seats, and make his fortune. Much like Captain Absolute, Sheridan’s protagonist in The Rivals,Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a talented wordsmith whose charisma and wit allowed him to succeed in the world. He lacked strong principles, but was willing to pretend to have them to get ahead. What he did seem to value were his desires for pleasure, success, and fame.

At the age of nineteen, Sheridan moved to Bath and soon fell in love with a beautiful sixteen-year-old soprano, Elizabeth Linley, who had nationwide fame as a singer and was known as “the maid of Bath.” Like Captain Absolute’s love interest Lydia Languish in The Rivals, Elizabeth had a number of suitors, including Sheridan’s own brother Charles. Employing stratagems similar to Captain Absolute’s, Sheridan managed to court her secretly, without letting on to his friends and family.

At the time that Sheridan fell in love with Elizabeth, an older, married man named Captain Mathews was attempting to force her to marry him. Sheridan convinced her to run away from this unwanted attention and escape to a convent in France, promising to escort her there as a friend. Once there, he confessed his love and convinced her to marry him, which he said would be the only way to prevent a scandal over their having run away together. Elizabeth, who found that she was already, in fact, in love with the handsome and charming Richard, agreed. The pair’s fathers soon arrived in France and brought the two young people back, perhaps without realizing that the two had been secretly married, or perhaps simply determined to ignore this marriage as illegitimate.

While Richard and Elizabeth were in France, Captain Mathews published a denunciation of Richardin the Bath Chronicle, claiming that the younger man had spread nasty rumors about his treatment of Elizabeth. Upon Richard’s return from France, he fought Mathews in a duel and won, forcing Mathews to print a retraction of his denunciation in the same newspaper. Mathews was then shunned by all his friends for having lost his honor through the embarrassing retraction. Upset at this, Mathews challenged Sheridan to a second duel. By the rules of honor, Richard was under no obligation to accept this challenge, but did, and was severely injured in the ensuing sword fight.

In The Rivalsthe two pairs of combatants set to duel are ridiculous, and neither duel comes to pass. But the behavior of Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O’Trigger echoes that of Captain Mathews. In the first duel Mathews conducted himself as a coward, like Bob Acres, and had to forego his honor. In the second, he challenged Sheridan to fight without providing any real reason, like Sir Lucius O’Trigger. In writing The Rivals, Sheridan surely sought to make the public view of his role in the duels more positive, and to have his final revenge on Mathews, who had almost killed him.

Like Lydia and Absolute in The Rivals, Richard and Elizabethendured a period of separation when their elders barred them from seeing each other. After their fathers returned the two young people to England, Richard was sent away from Bath to a house in the countryside for several months and then forced to get his law degree, and Elizabeth toured England, singing to packed halls and prompting speculation about her possible engagements to some of the most eligible bachelors in England. Eventually, Elizabeth’s father gave up on trying to keep the two apart, perhaps having gethered that they had, in fact, already been married in France. They were officially married in England a year after their clandestine French wedding, and Richard gave up his career as a lawyer after only one week.

After their marriage, the young Sheridans moved to London and lived extravagantly on Elizabeth’s savings. Although they could have been wealthy, given the enormous fees Elizabeth could command as one of the most sought-after singers in the country, she stopped singing publicly after their marriage, because it would have been unsuitable behavior for the wife of a gentleman. Having sacrificed such a fantastic source of wealth to conform to his society’s beliefs about what constituted proper behavior for a lady, Sheridan would have had this topic in mind when he sat down to create Lydia’s character in The Rivals.

Desperate to make money to support his household, Sheridan wrote The Rivals. Itwas first staged a year and a half after the couple’s marriage, when their celebrity was still fresh in the public mind. The play ultimately made Sheridan the great new playwrighting talent of his era. But it is also worth recognizing the way that the play’s origin affected its themes. As a work of art that sought, in part, to define its own author’s exploits in wooing and dueling as heroic, the play naturally accepts the general norms of society that underpin the rules of courtship and honor even as it makes fun of them for comedic effect.

This acceptance of society’s norms was also a consequence of Sheridan’s background as the son of an actor and a playwright. His parentage was looked down upon by his peers at Harrow, the prestigious boarding school he attended. This created in Sheridan a desire to join the ranks of “true” gentlemen, those who had not earned their wealth in undignified ways, but had inherited it. The aspiration to be considered one of the “best” men in England is reflected in the conservative outlook of the play, which does not seek to challenge the prevalent assumptions about the superiority of some people over others. Sheridan did not wish to challenge the establishment. Instead, he wished to be fully accepted by it. As a result, The Rivalsis not critically inclined toward society and instead accepts social norms as ultimately correct and unchanging (or unchangeable), even if they can lead to silliness.

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Sheridan and His World ThemeTracker

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Sheridan and His World Quotes in The Rivals

Below you will find the important quotes in The Rivals related to the theme of Sheridan and His World.
Preface Quotes

As some part of the attack on the piece was begun too early to pass for the sentence of judgment, which is ever tardy in condemning, it has been suggested to me, that much of the disapprobation must have arisen from virulence of malice, rather than severity of criticism: but as I was more apprehensive of there being just grounds to excite the latter than conscious of having deserved the former, I continue not to believe that probable, which I am sure must have been unprovoked. However, if it was so, and I could even mark the quarter from whence it came, it would be ungenerous to retort: for no passion suffers more than malice from disappointment.

Page Number: vi
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheridan’s preface to the play is more of a commentary on Sheridan’s reputation than it is an explanation of the play. Sheridan, who had written the play in a bid to make money and improve his social standing, was forced to revise the play after it was poorly received. Here, he is basking in the success of the revised play. He says that he has heard it suggested that the poor reception to the first version of the play may have been the result of enemies of his in the audience who booed and heckled the actors. He also says that he knows of no enemies who would have tried to sabotage his play’s opening, but that if these enemies in fact exist, they are likely very disappointed because the second version of the play was such a smash hit. From this we can see that that the play’s initial bad reception troubles him most if he interprets it as a reflection of his position in society.

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Prologues Quotes

Can our light scenes add strength to holy laws!
Such puny patronage but hurts the cause:
Fair virtue scorns our feeble aid to ask;
And moral truth disdains the trickster's mask
For here their favourite stands, whose brow severe
And sad, claims youth's respect, and pity's tear;
Who, when oppress'd by foes her worth creates,
Can point a poniard at the guilt she hates.

Page Number: xi
Explanation and Analysis:

This prologue compares tragedy and comedy, the theatrical muses who were traditionally used to represent the forces of artistic and imagined as female. At the time that Sheridan wrote, plays were expected to impart a moral lesson to the audience. Sheridan is preparing the audience not to expect this light comedy to teach too grave a lesson. He suggests that in a tragedy, lessons are imparted when the characters die as a punishment for their sins, but that his play will not try to teach lessons in this way. Further he suggests that the forces of morality can find stronger advocates and do not require the support of a light comedy. The focus on the tragic muse also reflects the conservative value that the proper role for a woman is to serve as a society’s moral compass.

Sheridan’s nod to the moral authorities of his society reflects his desire to be accepted into the highest ranks of that society. Since he hopes to be taken seriously, he feels he must explain why he has written a play that is so unserious.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

ABSOLUTE
What, sir, promise to link myself to some mass of ugliness! to——
Sir ANTHONY
Zounds! sirrah! the lady shall be as ugly as I choose: she shall have a hump on each shoulder; she shall be as crooked as the crescent; her one eye shall roll like the bull's in Cox's Museum; she shall have a skin like a mummy, and the beard of a Jew—she shall be all this, sirrah!—yet I will make you ogle her all day, and sit up all night to write sonnets on her beauty.
ABSOLUTE
This is reason and moderation indeed!

Related Characters: Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley (speaker), Sir Anthony Absolute (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Anthony is extreme in his demand of obedience in his son. He wants Absolute to agree unconditionally to marry the woman he chooses even if the match he intended was ugly and humpbacked. This extreme position is meant to be parodied as is signaled by the vivid description Sir Anthony gives of his son’s hypothetical ugly bride-to-be. The play is mocking the view that young people owe it to their parents and guardians to cede control over the direction they choose for their lives. Sheridan had personal reasons to want to mock this position, as his own father had resolutely opposed his marriage to Elizabeth Linley, and had tried to force him to become a lawyer. At the time that Sheridan wrote the play, his father had still not forgiven him for his marriage to Linley.

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 3, Scene 4 Quotes

ACRES
But he has given me no provocation.
Sir LUCIUS
Now, I think he has given you the greatest provocation in the world. Can a man commit a more heinous offence against another than to fall in love with the same woman? Oh, by my soul! it is the most unpardonable breach of friendship.
ACRES
Breach of friendship! ay, ay; but I have no acquaintance with this man.
I never saw him in my life.
Sir LUCIUS
That's no argument at all—he has the less right then to take such a liberty.
ACRES
Gad, that's true—I grow full of anger, Sir Lucius!—I fire apace! Odds hilts and blades! I find a man may have a deal of valour in him, and not know it!

Related Characters: Squire Bob Acres (speaker), Sir Lucius O’Trigger (speaker), Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Acres has told Sir Lucius that the woman he was courting is now being pursued by another man, and Sir Lucius encourages him to challenge his rival for her affection to a duel. Both men have a flawed approach to the institution of dueling. Sir Lucius sees no reason why contradictory arguments should not do equally well to serve as the pretext for fighting a duel. Meanwhile, Acres is shocked at the idea of dueling a rival, which shows that he does not understand the institution of dueling that was expected of a gentleman. Yet because Acres wishes to seem like a gentleman and has no idea how to go about it, he trusts that Sir Lucius will guide him in the right direction. These two characters are meant to stand in for Captain Mathews, with whom Sheridan fought two duels. In one duel, Mathews conducted himself like a coward, and in the other he called for a duel without a sufficient cause and then brutally stabbed Sheridan several times.

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 4, Scene 3 Quotes

FAULKLAND
What can you mean?—Has Lydia changed her mind?—I should have thought her duty and inclination would now have pointed to the same object.
ABSOLUTE
Ay, just as the eyes do of a person who squints: when her love-eye was fixed on me, t'other, her eye of duty, was finely obliqued: but when duty bid her point that the same way, off t'other turned on a swivel, and secured its retreat with a frown!

Related Characters: Captain Jack Absolute / Ensign Beverley (speaker), Faulkland (speaker), Lydia Languish
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Absolute has run into Faulkland and tells him that he has been rejected by Lydia after she found out his true identity. Despite his disappointment, Absolute can still speak with eloquence and wit about his predicament, coming up with a fine and detailed analogy for Lydia’s behavior in the condition of a person with a “lazy eye.” Often, if the two eyes do not work together properly, a person with a lazy eye will close one eye to block out the visual inputs from the eye which is not pointing in the correct direction. Lydia, Absolute contends, similarly cannot simultaneously see both her love for him and her duty to obey her guardians and act as she is expected to as a woman. This fine description is further evidence of Absolute’s command of the situation and his ability to handle his emotions. Sheridan, who wanted his audience to associate the character of Absolute with himself, was likely trying to spread the idea that he kept his own wits about him even when facing difficult moments in his love affair or life.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

LYDIA
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!
JULIA
I don't wonder at it!
LYDIA
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.

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

Sir LUCIUS
Upon my conscience, Mr. Acres, your valour has oozed away with a vengeance!
ACRES
Not in the least! Odds backs and abettors! I'll be your second with all my heart—and if you should get a quietus, you may command me entirely. I'll get you snug lying in the Abbey here; or pickle you, and send you over to Blunderbuss-hall, or anything of the kind, with the greatest pleasure.
Sir LUCIUS
Pho! pho! you are little better than a coward.
ACRES
Mind, gentlemen, he calls me a coward; coward was the word, by my valour!
Sir LUCIUS
Well, sir?
ACRES
Look'ee, Sir Lucius, 'tisn't that I mind the word coward—coward may be said in joke—But if you had called me a poltroon, odds daggers and balls——
Sir LUCIUS
Well, sir?
ACRES
I should have thought you a very ill-bred man.
Sir LUCIUS
Pho! you are beneath my notice.

Related Characters: Squire Bob Acres (speaker), Sir Lucius O’Trigger (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Acres and Sir Lucius, the play’s two ungentlemanly combatants, show the distinct ways each lacks honor. Acres, who truly had been losing his nerve as the time to begin the duel approached, now says that it is not cowardice that keeps him from fighting, but rather the fact that Beverley has not shown up to the duel. In fact, he is perfectly in the right. Sir Lucius wishes for Acres to fight Faulkland without any cause, and it is not cowardice, but sound logic, that makes Acres refuse to do this. At the same time, Acres is a coward. When Sir Lucius insults Acres and calls him a coward, the only way to keep his honor is for Acres to challenge Sir Lucius to a duel, which he declines to do. By lampooning these two characters’ approach to dueling, Sheridan was attempting to shape the popular perception of his own two duels with Captain Mathews, who had behaved first as a coward and then as a man overly eager to fight. Note also that Sheridan includes more of Acres’s humorous oaths to further his ridiculous portrayal of the man.

Then let us study to preserve it so: and while Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting.—When hearts deserving happiness would unite their fortunes, Virtue would crown them with an unfading garland of modest hurtless flowers; but ill-judging Passion will force the gaudier rose into the wreath, whose thorn offends them when its leaves are dropped!

Related Characters: Julia Melville (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheridan presents the moral of The Rivals in this speech of Julia’s, but it seems more likely to fit with Sheridan’s own agenda for his reputation than to truly sum up the message delivered by the play. The play is a light comedy, yet the moral given to it in this final speech of Julia’s is that couples need to appreciate one another not just for their superficial qualities but for their virtues. She suggests that the beauty of youth will disappear with time and a marriage cannot be a happy one unless the partners are both moral and thoughtful—but the play has not given us any example of this behavior at all. Sheridan did not want to be seen as an unserious person, despite the light tone of his play, and so he gives his most morally upright character the play’s last speech, and ends the play with a serious moral precept.