The Rivals


Richard Sheridan

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on The Rivals makes teaching easy.

The Rivals: Irony 6 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—A Progeny of Learning:

During Act 1, Scene 2, Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony debate the components that should make up a woman’s education. The conversation serves as an example of situational irony, as Mrs. Malaprop tries to argue that education isn't all that important even though, in making this point, she makes mistake after mistake—a fact that effectively contradicts her main argument. She says:

Mrs. Malaprop: I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning[...] Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts; and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries; [...] she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not misspell [...]; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know; and I don’t think there is a superstitious article in it.

In the same breath that Mrs. Malaprop decrees she would not wish any daughter of her own to be a “progeny of learning,” she proves her own point moot, ironically demonstrating the need for women to receive a proper education. Where Mrs. Malaprop meant to say “prodigy,” she flubs the phrase in an example of a malapropism (named after her own character), thus providing a perfect example of how learning is actually very useful and necessary for women as well as men, lest they make the many mistakes she does in the passage above. She continues to list a series of subjects women should know, proceeding to make even more blunders that reveal her own lack of refinement: in her speech, geography becomes “geometry,” contiguous becomes “contagious,” orthography turns into “orthodoxy,” and superficial is rendered as “superstitious.” With every misspoken word, Mrs. Malaprop in fact becomes an unwitting advocate for the cause of strengthening women's education.

Act 2, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—A Worse Rival:

In Act 2, Scene 2, Lucy tells the servant named Fag to tell his master, Ensign Beverley, that Beverley has a new rival for his lady’s affections—but Lucy doesn't know that this supposed rival is Jack Absolute, who is actually Ensign Beverly himself! Fag, however, does know this, so the conversation between him and Lucy is a textbook example of dramatic irony:

Fag: Any message to my master?

Lucy: Sad news! Mr Fag. A worse rival than Acres! Sir Anthony Absolute has proposed his son. 

Fag: What, Captain Absolute? 

Lucy: Even so – I overheard it all. 

Fag: Ha! ha! ha! – very good, faith. Goodbye, Lucy, I must away with this news. 

Lucy: Well – you may laugh – but it is true, I assure you. [Going.] But, Mr Fag, tell your master not to be cast down by this. 

Fag: Oh, he’ll be so disconsolate! 

Lucy: And charge him not to think of quarrelling with young Absolute. 

Fag: Never fear! – never fear!

Knowing that Lydia’s beloved Ensign Beverley and the “young Absolute” Lucy laments are in fact one and the same person, Fag can barely contain his laughter at the current situation. Duty-bound to keep his master’s secret, as Lucy entreats Fag to give Beverley encouragement in the face of his impending competition, Fag can only respond by emphatically declaring that Beverley will be heartbroken. Although Fag and the audience know that Beverley and Absolute are the same person, Lucy and Lydia do not, making Lucy’s expression of distress at this situation both genuine and deeply ironic.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 3, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—I Think I Do Recollect:

In an example of dramatic irony, during Act 3, Scene 1 Absolute learns that his father wishes to betroth him to the very woman he is already in the process of courting: Lydia Languish. In this scene, Absolute must deceive all involved by pretending to never have heard of the women he (and the audience) knows he loves:

Sir Anthony: Prepare, Jack, for wonder and rapture – prepare. What think you of Miss Lydia Languish? 

Absolute: Languish! What, the Languishes of Worcestershire? 

Sir Anthony: Worcestershire! No. Did you never meet Mrs Malaprop and her niece, Miss Languish, who came into our country just before you were last ordered to your regiment? 

Absolute: Malaprop! Languish! I don’t remember ever to have heard the names before. Yet, stay – I think I do recollect something. – Languish! Languish! She squints, don’t she? A little, red-haired girl?

Absolute’s manufactured confusion and shock upon hearing his father ask if he has any prior knowledge of Lydia is extremely comical. His speech is deliberately energetic—note the exclamation points concluding five of his 10 sentences. Another three of Absolute’s remarks are phrased as questions, and even his two statements that end with a period contain language laced with doubt (“I don’t remember” and “I think I do recollect”). Absolute’s bald-faced lie to his father is deeply ironic considering the fact that he is already engaged in a different form of deception when it comes to his actual courtship of Lydia, who thinks he is nothing more than a poor ensign. From this moment on, Absolute must maintain two lies at once, fooling both the woman he intends to court and his own father, all whilst knowing that his secret must eventually come out if he ever does intend to really marry her.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 3, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—The She-Dragon:

In Act 3, Scene 3, Mrs. Malaprop reads aloud to Absolute a letter in which Mrs. Malaprop herself is compared to an “old weather-beaten she-dragon.” This metaphor is a clear insult that demonstrates how the younger generation in the play views the attempts of the older characters (like Mrs. Malaprop and Absolute’s father) to meddle in their affairs: 

Absolute: As for the old weather-beaten she-dragon who guards you – who can he mean by that? 

Mrs. Malaprop: Me, sir – me – he means me there – what do you think now? But go on a little further.

The letter-writer’s metaphorical comparison of Mrs. Malaprop to a she-dragon is vivid and rich. These creatures of legend are heavily associated with habits of greed and hoarding. By describing Lydia’s guardian in these terms, the letter implies that Mrs. Malaprop is excessive in her efforts to manage her ward’s life and future. 

There is an additional layer of dramatic irony in this letter-reading scene due to the fact that Absolute is the one who wrote this letter. As Mrs. Malaprop reads his insulting words back to him, it becomes clear that Absolute’s many layers of deception are starting to pile up around him to a height that will soon become unmanageable. Later, in Act 4, Scene 2, this very metaphor comes back to haunt him when Mrs. Malaprop realizes who Absolute truly is, and he must answer for yet another of his lies.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 4, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—A Devil of a Fellow:

In Act 4, Scene 1, Squire Bob Acres anxiously frets over his decision to issue Ensign Beverley a challenge to duel for his honor and the hand of Lydia Languish. Summoning Absolute to his aid in sending out the message (unaware that Absolute is, in fact, also Ensign Beverley), Acres asks him to inspire fear in his would-be opponent through the use of metaphors:

Acres: Stay – stay, Jack. If Beverley should ask you what kind of a man your friend Acres is, tell him I am a devil of a fellow – will you, Jack?

Absolute: To be sure I shall. I’ll say you are a determined dog – hey, Bob!

In the quote above, Acres metaphorically refers to himself as a “devil,” while Absolute plays along, comparing him to a “determined dog.” Both metaphors are made with the apparent intent to intimidate Acres’s duel opponent, but instead they only reveal Acres’s lack of gentlemanly honor. Acres’s desire to preemptively scare the man on the receiving end of his challenge before the challenge has even been issued or accepted is supremely unchivalrous, displaying his cowardice and his unwillingness to fight fairly. This scene is also an instance of dramatic irony because the audience knows that Acres’s chosen fearsome messenger is actually the very man he wants to scare off. Therefore, Absolute is agreeing in this scene to deliver Acres’s not-so-intimidating message to himself, and the effect of Acres’s devilish metaphors are thus succinctly nipped in the bud.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 5, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—A Bauble for Lydia:

While on his way to duel for his honor and for Lydia, Absolute encounters his father, whom he attempts to hide from unsuccessfully. The conversation that follows Sir Anthony’s recognition of his son is a perfect example of dramatic irony: 

Sir Anthony: What’s this? – here’s something damned hard!

Absolute: Oh, trinkets, sir! trinkets – a bauble for Lydia! SIR ANTHONY: Nay, let me see your taste. [Pulls his coat open, the sword falls.] Trinkets! – a bauble for Lydia! Zounds! sirrah, you are not going to cut her throat, are you? [...] Sir, I’ll explain to you. You know, sir, Lydia is romantic – devilish romantic, and very absurd of course: now, sir, I intend, if she refuses to forgive me – to unsheath this sword – and swear – I’ll fall upon its point, and expire at her feet! 

Sir Anthony: [... ] Why, I suppose it is the very thing that would please her.

As Absolute tries to prevent his father from discovering that he is heading to the duel, he scrambles to come up with a plausible explanation for his suspicious behavior on the street. Disguise uncovered, Absolute chooses to enact a new form of deception by lying about his intended destination and purpose, claiming he is bringing his betrothed a trinket—only for Sir Anthony to discover his sword. Remember, at the very start of this scene, Absolute enters the stage alone and bemoans to himself (and the listening audience) that Faulkland is “never punctual” and he “shall be obliged to go without him” to the duel. Thus, Absolute’s claim that the sword has a romantic (if suicidal) purpose is a hilarious moment of dramatic irony, for both he and the audience know that the weapon he carries is intended for a very different use.

Unlock with LitCharts A+