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 when Absolute’s created identity of 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 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.
False Identities and Artifice ThemeTracker
False Identities and Artifice Quotes in The Rivals
[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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.]
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!