The Rivals revolves around two engaged couples: Lydia and Captain Absolute, and Faulkland and Julia. But in the play getting married isn’t as simple as falling in love, because the older generation take an active role in approving or seeking to block matches dictated by the heart.
Sheridan, still in his early twenties when he wrote The Rivals, mocks the control the older generation seeks to exert over the young. Although Sir Antony and Mrs. Malaprop clearly see themselves as acting in Captain Absolute and Lydia’s best interests, they are too hasty to condemn every independent idea either of the young people have.
Sir Antony shows that his priority is to test whether Captain Absolute will obey him when he demands that Captain Absolute agree unconditionally to marry the woman he chooses. He not only refuses to tell his son that he would like for him to marry Lydia, but also stresses that Captain Absolute should obey him even if the match he intended were ugly and humpbacked (which Lydia, of course, is not). It is only because Captain Absolute sneakily figures out who his father intends for him to marry that Captain Absolute agrees to marry whomever his father chooses. Even in voicing his agreement, though, Captain Absolute mocks his father’s ridiculous demand that he sacrifice all control over his own future—saying he would happily marry Mrs. Malaprop if his father should so command.
At the same time, the play also mocks young people who are more preoccupied with rebellion against the older generation than with ensuring their own future is happy. Lydia is not only willing to oppose her aunt in the name of a great love, but seeks to oppose her for the sake of opposition itself. When her aunt tells her that she has dropped the idea to marry Lydia to Squire Acres and has a new suitor in mind, Lydia replies, “had I no preferment for any one else, the choice you have made would be my aversion.”
In the happy world of the play, the two pairs turn out to have both love and the approval of their elders. In each pair, though, one member naively demands that love be entirely pure and have nothing to do with duty to the older generation. Lydia would have preferred to marry purely out of love and in defiance of the older generation, while Faulkland, who rescued Julia from drowning and was approved of as a son-in-law by Julia’s father before his death, doubts Julia’s love because he can see it is not only based on love, but also supported by her sense of duty, and that it does not, as the sentimental notions of the time dictated, make Julia suffer.
By mocking both the older and the younger generation, the play seems to take what might be described as a “comedic long view,” in which it sees humor in the fact that both the older and younger generations are playing roles of meddling controllers and rebellious youth without realizing that the older and younger generations have always played such roles, and likely always will. Even as it makes fun of both the young and old, then, the play indicates a conservative acceptance that this is just the way things are.
Courtship and Generational Conflict ThemeTracker
Courtship and Generational Conflict Quotes in The Rivals
Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books. Quick, quick!—Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty of Man—thrust Lord Aimworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man of Feeling into your pocket—so, so—now lay Mrs. Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce's Sermons open on the table.
O burn it, ma'am! the hair-dresser has torn away as far as Proper Pride.
Never mind—open at Sobriety.—Fling me Lord Chesterfield’s Letters.—Now for 'em.
What business have you, miss, with preference and aversion? They don't become a young woman; and you ought to know, that as both always wear off, 'tis safest in matrimony to begin with a little aversion. I am sure I hated your poor dear uncle before marriage as if he'd been a blackamoor—and yet, miss, you are sensible what a wife I made!—and when it pleased Heaven to release me from him, 'tis unknown what tears I shed!—
What, sir, promise to link myself to some mass of ugliness! to——
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.
This is reason and moderation indeed!
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.
I do not mean to distress you. If I loved you less I should never give you an uneasy moment. But hear me. All my fretful doubts arise from this. Women are not used to weigh and separate the motives of their affections: the cold dictates of prudence, gratitude, or filial duty, may sometimes be mistaken for the pleadings of the heart. I would not boast—yet let me say, that I have neither age, person, nor character, to found dislike on; my fortune such as few ladies could be charged with indiscretion in the match. O Julia! when love receives such countenance from prudence, nice minds will be suspicious of its birth.
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.
Then he's so well bred;—so full of alacrity, and adulation!—and has so much to say for himself:—in such good language, too! His physiognomy so grammatical! Then his presence is so noble! I protest, when I saw him, I thought of what Hamlet says in the play:— "Hesperian curls—the front of Job himself!— An eye, like March, to threaten at command!— A station, like Harry Mercury, new——" Something about kissing—on a hill—however, the similitude struck me directly.
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.]
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.
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!
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!
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!