The best comedy in the play is a result of the witty dialogue and rhetorical tricks that Sheridan employs. The characters in the play whom Sheridan portrays with respect – Captain Absolute, Julia, even Lydia – all have a mastery of language, while those he holds up for mockery lack such skill and, therefore, their use of language betrays their vain attempts to appear better than they are. This quality of the play makes it a comedy of manners, in which the pretensions of society people are skewered and satirized, largely when their use of language betrays those pretentions.
In particular, Bob Acres and Mrs. Malaprop try to communicate their own sophistication, intelligence, and good breeding through the words that they choose to use. But these efforts only end up revealing how little they actually know, and how little mastery of language they have. Indeed, the term “malapropism,” which means the accidental substitution of a similar-sounding but altogether different word for the word intended, is named after Mrs. Malaprop because she is such a good – and funny – example of this comedic trait. Her speech is so full of malapropisms that most of what she says is either the opposite of what she means or utterly zany, unintelligible, or unrelated to the topic at hand.
Mrs. Malaprop is especially sensitive to being teased about the way she speaks, and especially susceptible to flattery about it, because she believes that her large vocabulary displays her superior intellect. Malapropisms, then, are a sure sign of pretension. Like the old joke about Groucho Marx who would never want to belong to any club that would be so unselective as to allow him to join, Mrs. Malaprop views any word she knows well enough to use correctly as too common to impress her listeners. So she instead tries to use big words that she believes she knows, but actually mixes up to great comic effect.
Acres is Mrs. Malaprop’s male counterpart for silliness in speech. He peppers his speech with swears, employing what he thinks is a fashionable new form of oath that specifies the topic being exclaimed about. He thinks this slang will make him look sophisticated and impress his listeners, but it is clear from Captain Absolute’s reaction that Acres is the only person he has ever heard speak this way, and that rather than showing himself to be on the cutting-edge of fashion, Acres makes himself ridiculous.
Finally, neither Acres nor Mrs. Malaprop can tell when Captain Absolute is humoring them, speaking sarcastically, or subtly mocking them to their faces. They are so preoccupied with their attempts to impress with their “refined” speech and manners that they fail to pick up on his actual reactions to them. In a play that portrays a well-crafted deception positively, failing to notice how your words are being taken by your listener is the ultimate sin against the intelligent use of language.
Language and Pretension ThemeTracker
Language and Pretension Quotes in The Rivals
I had forgot.—But, Thomas, you must polish a little—indeed you
must.—Here now—this wig!—What the devil do you do with a wig,
Thomas?—None of the London whips of any degree of ton wear wigs now.
More's the pity! more's the pity! I say.—Odd's life! when I heard how the lawyers and doctors had took to their own hair, I thought how 'twould go next:—odd rabbit it! when the fashion had got foot on the bar, I guessed 'twould mount to the box!—but 'tis all out of character, believe me, Mr. Fag: and look'ee, I'll never gi' up mine—the lawyers and doctors may do as they will.
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!—
I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; 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.
Well, well, Mrs. Malaprop, I will dispute the point no further with you; though I must confess, that you are a truly moderate and polite arguer, for almost every third word you say is on my side of the question.
Ha! ha! you've taken notice of it—'tis genteel, isn't it!—I didn't invent it myself though; but a commander in our militia, a great scholar, I assure you, says that there is no meaning in the common oaths, and that nothing but their antiquity makes them respectable;—because, he says, the ancients would never stick to an oath or two, but would say, by Jove! or by Bacchus! or by Mars! or by Venus! or by Pallas, according to the sentiment: so that to swear with propriety, says my little major, the oath should be an echo to the sense; and this we call the oath referential, or sentimental swearing—ha! ha! 'tis genteel, isn't it?
Very genteel, and very new, indeed!—and I dare say will supplant all other figures of imprecation.
[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.
Ah! my soul, what a life will we then live! Love shall be our idol and support! we will worship him with a monastic strictness; abjuring all worldly toys, to centre every thought and action there. Proud of calamity, we will enjoy the wreck of wealth; while the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our pure love show doubly bright. By Heavens! I would fling all goods of fortune from me with a prodigal hand, to enjoy the scene where I might clasp my Lydia to my bosom, and say, the world affords no smile to me but here—[Embracing her.] [Aside.] If she holds out now, the devil is in it!
[Aside.] Now could I fly with him to the antipodes! but my persecution is not yet come to a crisis.
But he has given me no provocation.
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.
Breach of friendship! ay, ay; but I have no acquaintance with this man.
I never saw him in my life.
That's no argument at all—he has the less right then to take such a liberty.
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!
I say then, it would be but civil in honour never to risk the loss of a gentleman.—Look'ee, master, this honour seems to me to be a marvellous false friend: ay, truly, a very courtier-like servant.—Put the case, I was a gentleman (which, thank God, no one can say of me;) well—my honour makes me quarrel with another gentleman of my acquaintance.—So—we fight. (Pleasant enough that!) Boh!—I kill him—(the more's my luck!) now, pray who gets the profit of it?—Why, my honour. But put the case that he kills me!—by the mass! I go to the worms, and my honour whips over to my enemy.
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.
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!
Upon my conscience, Mr. Acres, your valour has oozed away with a vengeance!
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.
Pho! pho! you are little better than a coward.
Mind, gentlemen, he calls me a coward; coward was the word, by my valour!
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——
I should have thought you a very ill-bred man.
Pho! you are beneath my notice.