The Rivals


Richard Sheridan

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The Rivals: Situational Irony 1 key example

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.