Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote The Rivalsat the age of twenty-six, hoping to turn bad publicity into good and make money in the process. Although it is not autobiographical, The Rivalsdrew on Sheridan’s experiences during his scandalous courtship of his own wife. Sheridan used the notoriety that his courtship had received through the rumor mills of British society to spark a widespread interest in his play, fill theater seats, and make his fortune. Much like Captain Absolute, Sheridan’s protagonist in The Rivals,Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a talented wordsmith whose charisma and wit allowed him to succeed in the world. He lacked strong principles, but was willing to pretend to have them to get ahead. What he did seem to value were his desires for pleasure, success, and fame.
At the age of nineteen, Sheridan moved to Bath and soon fell in love with a beautiful sixteen-year-old soprano, Elizabeth Linley, who had nationwide fame as a singer and was known as “the maid of Bath.” Like Captain Absolute’s love interest Lydia Languish in The Rivals, Elizabeth had a number of suitors, including Sheridan’s own brother Charles. Employing stratagems similar to Captain Absolute’s, Sheridan managed to court her secretly, without letting on to his friends and family.
At the time that Sheridan fell in love with Elizabeth, an older, married man named Captain Mathews was attempting to force her to marry him. Sheridan convinced her to run away from this unwanted attention and escape to a convent in France, promising to escort her there as a friend. Once there, he confessed his love and convinced her to marry him, which he said would be the only way to prevent a scandal over their having run away together. Elizabeth, who found that she was already, in fact, in love with the handsome and charming Richard, agreed. The pair’s fathers soon arrived in France and brought the two young people back, perhaps without realizing that the two had been secretly married, or perhaps simply determined to ignore this marriage as illegitimate.
While Richard and Elizabeth were in France, Captain Mathews published a denunciation of Richardin the Bath Chronicle, claiming that the younger man had spread nasty rumors about his treatment of Elizabeth. Upon Richard’s return from France, he fought Mathews in a duel and won, forcing Mathews to print a retraction of his denunciation in the same newspaper. Mathews was then shunned by all his friends for having lost his honor through the embarrassing retraction. Upset at this, Mathews challenged Sheridan to a second duel. By the rules of honor, Richard was under no obligation to accept this challenge, but did, and was severely injured in the ensuing sword fight.
In The Rivalsthe two pairs of combatants set to duel are ridiculous, and neither duel comes to pass. But the behavior of Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O’Trigger echoes that of Captain Mathews. In the first duel Mathews conducted himself as a coward, like Bob Acres, and had to forego his honor. In the second, he challenged Sheridan to fight without providing any real reason, like Sir Lucius O’Trigger. In writing The Rivals, Sheridan surely sought to make the public view of his role in the duels more positive, and to have his final revenge on Mathews, who had almost killed him.
Like Lydia and Absolute in The Rivals, Richard and Elizabethendured a period of separation when their elders barred them from seeing each other. After their fathers returned the two young people to England, Richard was sent away from Bath to a house in the countryside for several months and then forced to get his law degree, and Elizabeth toured England, singing to packed halls and prompting speculation about her possible engagements to some of the most eligible bachelors in England. Eventually, Elizabeth’s father gave up on trying to keep the two apart, perhaps having gethered that they had, in fact, already been married in France. They were officially married in England a year after their clandestine French wedding, and Richard gave up his career as a lawyer after only one week.
After their marriage, the young Sheridans moved to London and lived extravagantly on Elizabeth’s savings. Although they could have been wealthy, given the enormous fees Elizabeth could command as one of the most sought-after singers in the country, she stopped singing publicly after their marriage, because it would have been unsuitable behavior for the wife of a gentleman. Having sacrificed such a fantastic source of wealth to conform to his society’s beliefs about what constituted proper behavior for a lady, Sheridan would have had this topic in mind when he sat down to create Lydia’s character in The Rivals.
Desperate to make money to support his household, Sheridan wrote The Rivals. Itwas first staged a year and a half after the couple’s marriage, when their celebrity was still fresh in the public mind. The play ultimately made Sheridan the great new playwrighting talent of his era. But it is also worth recognizing the way that the play’s origin affected its themes. As a work of art that sought, in part, to define its own author’s exploits in wooing and dueling as heroic, the play naturally accepts the general norms of society that underpin the rules of courtship and honor even as it makes fun of them for comedic effect.
This acceptance of society’s norms was also a consequence of Sheridan’s background as the son of an actor and a playwright. His parentage was looked down upon by his peers at Harrow, the prestigious boarding school he attended. This created in Sheridan a desire to join the ranks of “true” gentlemen, those who had not earned their wealth in undignified ways, but had inherited it. The aspiration to be considered one of the “best” men in England is reflected in the conservative outlook of the play, which does not seek to challenge the prevalent assumptions about the superiority of some people over others. Sheridan did not wish to challenge the establishment. Instead, he wished to be fully accepted by it. As a result, The Rivalsis not critically inclined toward society and instead accepts social norms as ultimately correct and unchanging (or unchangeable), even if they can lead to silliness.
Sheridan and His World ThemeTracker
Sheridan and His World Quotes in The Rivals
As some part of the attack on the piece was begun too early to pass for the sentence of judgment, which is ever tardy in condemning, it has been suggested to me, that much of the disapprobation must have arisen from virulence of malice, rather than severity of criticism: but as I was more apprehensive of there being just grounds to excite the latter than conscious of having deserved the former, I continue not to believe that probable, which I am sure must have been unprovoked. However, if it was so, and I could even mark the quarter from whence it came, it would be ungenerous to retort: for no passion suffers more than malice from disappointment.
Can our light scenes add strength to holy laws!
Such puny patronage but hurts the cause:
Fair virtue scorns our feeble aid to ask;
And moral truth disdains the trickster's mask
For here their favourite stands, whose brow severe
And sad, claims youth's respect, and pity's tear;
Who, when oppress'd by foes her worth creates,
Can point a poniard at the guilt she hates.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
Then let us study to preserve it so: and while Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting.—When hearts deserving happiness would unite their fortunes, Virtue would crown them with an unfading garland of modest hurtless flowers; but ill-judging Passion will force the gaudier rose into the wreath, whose thorn offends them when its leaves are dropped!