Richard Brinsley Sheridan Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The Rivals

This commentary on Sheridan’s The Rivals aims to make it as accessible and enjoyable as possible, at the same time containing rigorous analysis of the writing and stagecraft. As a commentary, it is simply one person’s response to the play, which other readers may entirely disagree with.

I have worked from various editions of The Rivals. The New Mermaids edition, edited by Tiffany Stern and published by Methuen / A C Black Publishers Limited, 2004. The Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Michael Cordner, Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Student Texts, edited by Diane Maybank, Oxford University Press, 2012. Broadview Editions, 2012, edited by David A Brewer,.The Oxford English Dictionary online is of course another excellent resource. I have been much helped by the proof-reading of Anabel Donald and by the technical expertise of Cezary Wasowski.

I teach English at Tudor Hall School, Banbury, Oxon OX16 9UR, England. Should you have any feedback to give, or corrections, then please contact me at:

Rivals Act I scene i

Background to The Rivals

Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals was first performed on 17th January, 1775, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London. Sheridan was 23, The Rivals was his first play, and it was a disaster. The public and the critics condemned it as being far too long, too bawdy (mentions of cucumbers and such), containing too many oaths, and for the fact that the actors did not know their parts. The actor playing Sir Lucius O’Trigger was hit by an apple during the performance. He stopped and said to the audience, ‘By the pow’rs, is it personal? – is it me, or the matter (what he was saying)?’ Sheridan withdrew the play and rewrote the script, making it less vulgar and an hour shorter. The second version of The Rivals was performed eleven days later on 28th January and was far more popular.

Sheridan’s response to the criticism of the first performance was this: ‘For my own part, I see no reason why the author of a play should not regard a first night’s audience as a candid and judicious friend attending, in behalf of the public, at his last rehearsal. If he can dispense with flattery, he is sure at least of sincerity, and even though the annotation be rude, he may rely upon the justness of the comment.’
Sheridan also apologized for any impression that O’Trigger was intended as an insult to Ireland. When the play reopened on 28th January, a new actor took the part of Sir Lucius.

Much of the criticism of the first performance of The Rivals was in the papers. The 1770s was the decade when newspapers first started to print reviews of plays. By the end of the 1770s ‘hardly one of the larger newspapers failed to carry paragraphs on (London) performances.’ A new play ‘was sure to be reported in about a dozen newspapers.’

There would have been a large audience in the theatre in Sheridan’s time – the theatre seated perhaps two thousand people. They sat on backless benches; only the very rich sat in raised boxes, but still on backless benches. The theatre would have been lit throughout the performance by oil lamps and candles. The evening’s entertainment was long, because in addition to the play, there would be music, singing, dancing, and an afterpiece.

Comedy of Manners

The Rivals is a comedy of manners. Going back a bit, to the late 1590s and early 1600s, Shakespeare was writing tragedies, history plays and wonderful romantic comedies. At the same time a contemporary of his, Ben Jonson, was writing comedy that was much harder-hitting. It brutally satirized (criticized by exaggerating) the vices and corruption of society. During the English Civil War and while Oliver Cromwell presided over the Commonwealth, the theatres were closed. When Charles II came back to England in 1660 (a time known as the Restoration, because the monarchy was restored) the theatres opened again, and lots of comedies were written and performed. They are known as Restoration Comedies. They were very bawdy, and savagely satirized and exposed corruption and depravity and vice. That was roughly 1660 – 1710.

By the time you get to Sheridan, writing in 1775, you have left Restoration Comedy behind and something gentler has taken its place: comedy of manners.

This is more entertainingly laughter-provoking. It pokes fun at the foolishness (foibles, follies) of people in upper middle class and high society rather than savagely criticizing corruption. You have a small cast of exaggerated types with amusing idiosyncrasies. They represent general aspects of human nature. Lydia’s emotional conflicts, for example, are resolved by a change of mind in the last scene, not because her character has developed. At the same time there was a taste for sentimental comedy (hence Faulkland; also Lydia and her taste for sentimental novels). In sentimental comedy, the audience expected to be in tears at the emotional climax of the play. There was no humour. Sheridan nods at the style of these plays with Faulkland and Lydia, but mostly he gently satirizes them. The Rivals is a comedy of manners not a savage satire.

In a comedy of manners you can look for recognizable types – stereotypical characters – like the handsome male lead and his friend; a rival for the heroine’s love; the heavy-handed father; the country fool; the beautiful female lead and her friend; a strict guardian; a scheming servant.

The comedy will make fun of high society and its conventions. There will be contrasts between sophisticated town dweller and simple country folk; between common sense and learning; between honesty and deceit. Overly romantic notions about love will be made fun of; the power of money is made fun of. The age-old tensions between the older generation and the younger generation are highlighted. Wit and detachment are essential. You know there will be a happy ending. A lot of the elements of a modern sitcom are to be found in The Rivals, but it contains a gentle satire on society that is largely lacking in sitcom.

Names of characters that highlight the comic stereotype

The characters’ names mostly tell you about the character. In other words, these are types, who will behave as you would expect such types to behave.

Absolute: imperious, authoritarian, controlling
Acres: owners of an estate, provincial, the country fool in a fashionable town
O’Trigger: addicted to fighting
Fag: a drudge, a servant
Malaprop: from French mal a propos, inappropriate (verbally accident-prone)
Languish: pining away with love-sickness

Many of the characters are types: the old father, the miles gloriosus (the glamorous, glorious soldier), the amorous dowager, the country bumpkin.

Bath, a fashionable spa town

The play is set in Bath 1775. Bath was ‘queen of the spas’ and ‘the most fashionable of all provincial towns’. It was a ‘consumer’s paradise, with an expanding number and variety of fine craftsmen and retailers.’ A spa is a town that has mineral springs whose water, drunk or bathed in, is good for the health. Thus Sir Anthony goes there in hopes of curing his attack of gout. But Bath was also famous for its social life and this is its chief importance in The Rivals. Writing to Anne Dewes in 1760, Mary Delany described Bath as ‘the busiest idle place in the world.’ David Garrick, the famous actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer, wrote to Hannah More (poet and playwright in the circle of Johnson, Reynolds and Garrick, writer on moral and religious subjects, and a practical philanthropist) in May 1775 about what it was like being in Bath. ‘I do that, do that, do Nothing, I go here and go there and go nowhere – Such is ye life of Bath such the Effects of this place upon me – I forget my Cares, my large family in London, Every thing …’.

Specifically, Bath was a marriage market for the upper middle class and for aristocrats and thus is the perfect setting for The Rivals.

The British Library’s ‘Texts in Context: Taking the Waters’ section provides this information.

’Changing times

During the 18th and 19th centuries, spa towns like Bath were expanding rapidly. Thatched cottages were disappearing, replaced by classical style, sash-windowed residences. Elegant public buildings also appeared such as the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms which were soon buzzing with fashionable life. Bath became one of the chic places to be in the season, a place where visitors could bathe, drink the famous waters, gamble, eat, drink, dance, do business and broker marriages. The social mix encompassed all sorts of characters: aristocrats, merchants, bluestockings, respectable matrons, servants, chancers and fraudsters.

’Precious waters

‘…Bath’s most precious commodity (was) – the water. In Thomas Guidott’s Register, the case of William Howard, Viscount Stafford, cured of the ‘Universal Palsey’, is only one of many. George Cheyne (forced to publish for fear his work would be pirated by devious booksellers) blames rich diets and lazy lifestyles for the high incidence of gout amongst 18th century’s rich Englishmen. The waters of Bath provide the cure.’
© The British Library Board

You can find out more about Bath at and the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, There is some fascinating information to be had at

There’s an interesting article, ‘Artists’ Picture Rooms in Eighteenth-Century Bath’ by Susan Legouix Sloman which you can find online.

Below are some late 18th century prints of Bath, so that you can picture the newly built and very fashionable places that are mentioned in the play.

Lansdown Place by Archibald Robertson, print, late 18th century, at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath. Permission given by the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, and Bath & North East Somerset Council. Collection number 1933.453

Lansdown Place by Archibald Robertson, print, late 18th century, at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath. Permission given by the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, and Bath North East Somerset Council. Collection number 1933.453


The North Parade at Bath, print by James Gandon, late 18th century, at Victoria Arts Gallery, Bath. Permission given by Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, and Bath North East Somerset Council.
Collection number 2000.83


A View of the Old Rooms, the Walks and part of the Parade, drawing by Benjamin Morris, late 18th century, at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath. Permission given by Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, and Bath North East Somerset Council.
Collection number 1918.460

ACT I scene i

A street in Bath

[Enter THOMAS; he crosses the stage; FAG follows, looking after him.]

An in-joke: Sheridan disguised himself as a coachman in order to be with his forbidden love, Elizabeth Linley – later his wife. Sheridan’s experience of a long difficult courtship, filled with rivals, family quarrels and jealousy (plus eloping to France with his beloved and two duels with another of his beloved’s suitors) is part of this play’s background.

Fag is Captain Absolute’s servant; Thomas is Sir Anthony Absolute’s coachman.

(calls) What! Thomas! (aside) sure ‘tis he?— (calls) What! Thomas! Thomas!

The aside to us, the audience, makes sure that we are involved. There are to be plenty of these asides in the play. It’s a bit like ‘Miranda’ (Hart) speaking straight to camera.

Hey!–Odd’s life! Mr. Fag!–give us your hand, my old fellow-servant.

Excuse my glove, Thomas:–I’m devilish glad to see you, my lad. Why, my prince of charioteers, you look as hearty!–but who the deuce (the devil) thought of seeing you in Bath?

Thomas is Sir Anthony’s old country coachman. He is old-fashioned. Fag is very up to the minute (like his fashionable young master). ‘Excuse my glove’ – Fag is drawing attention to the fact that a fashionable man wears gloves out of doors. ‘Devilish’ and ‘the deuce’ are examples of fashionable swearing. ‘My prince of charioteers’ is a fashionable (and patronizing) way of saying that Thomas is only a country coachman and quite the opposite of a prince of charioteers.
Thomas greets Fag as ‘my old fellow-servant’ and Fag spends the rest of the scene trying to make it clear to Thomas that he is not a ‘fellow-servant’ but infinitely superior to Thomas. Fag patronises Thomas by calling him Thomas (his first name) whereas Thomas greets Fag as Mr Fag. On the other hand, the very fact that Fag’s name means a drudge or a servant undermines his pretensions to fashion and superiority. The theme of the country clown in the sophisticated city is introduced through the servants. We will see it illustrated again when we meet Bob Acres.

Sure, master, Madam Julia, Harry, Mrs. Kate, and the postillion (man riding the leading nearside horse pulling the carriage / coach), be all come.

‘Be all come’ means ‘have all arrived here.’ Thomas speaks in country idiom and dialect.


Ay, master thought another fit of the gout was coming to make him a visit;–so he’d a mind to gi’t the slip, and whip! we were all off at an hour’s warning.

This gives us a foretaste of Sir Anthony’s impulsive, impatient character. Upon suspecting that he might be about to suffer another attack of gout, Sir Anthony has immediately come to Bath so that he can drink the spa water and cure his gout.

Ay, ay, hasty in every thing, or it would not be Sir Anthony Absolute!

But tell us, Mr. Fag, how does young master? Odd! Sir Anthony will stare (be astonished) to see the Captain here!

I do not serve Captain Absolute now.

Why sure!

At present I am employed by Ensign Beverley.

I doubt (fear), Mr. Fag, you ha’n’t changed for the better.
Because the rank of an ensign is lower than that of a captain.

I have not changed, Thomas.

No! Why didn’t you say you had left young master?

No.–Well, honest Thomas, I must puzzle you no farther:–briefly then–Captain Absolute and Ensign Beverley are one and the same person.

The play’s big secret. So we (the audience) are to know more than some of the characters on stage. And the interest will be in what happens and how it happens, not in any mystery. An ensign was a commissioned officer of the lowest grade in the infantry (foot soldiers as opposed to mounted soldiers). Nowadays we call an ensign a sub-lieutenant.

The devil they are!

So it is indeed, Thomas; and the ensign half of my master being on guard at present–the captain has nothing to do with me.

So, so!–What, this is some freak (sudden idea), I warrant!–Do tell us, Mr. Fag, the
meaning o’t–you know I ha’ trusted you.

You’ll be secret, Thomas?

As a coach-horse.

Why then the cause of all this is–L.O.V.E,–Love, Thomas, who (as you may
get read to you) has been a masquerader ever since the days of Jupiter.

Fag spells this out to Thomas: LOVE. Evidently Thomas can’t read and Fag is enjoying his own literacy and superiority. In the Bristol Old Vic production of 2004, Thomas rolled his eyes at the thought that it was all about love, thus highlighting an important theme in the play and indicating clearly to the audience that it will be treated entertainingly.

Ay, ay;–I guessed there was a lady in the case:–but pray, why does your master pass only for ensign?–Now if he had shammed (pretended to be) general indeed—-
A general is of a much higher rank than a captain.

Ah! Thomas, there lies the mystery o’ the matter. Hark’ee, Thomas, my master is in love with a lady of a very singular (unusual) taste: a lady who likes him better as a half pay ensign than if she knew he was son and heir to Sir Anthony Absolute, a baronet of three thousand a year.

How ridiculous sentimental novels are: Lydia is determined to fall in love with a penniless ensign because it seems much more romantic. Sheridan is gently satirizing sentimental novels. Sheridan is also showing us that people are primarily interested in money. Fag speaks of Lydia’s tastes in terms of money – she prefers a half pay ensign to a young man who will inherit £3,000 a year. Thomas asks ‘Has she got the stuff?’

That is an odd taste indeed!–But has she got the stuff (money), Mr. Fag? Is she rich, hey?

Rich!–Why, I believe she owns half the stocks! Zounds! Thomas, she could pay the national debt as easily as I could my washerwoman! She has a lapdog that eats out of gold,–she feeds her parrot with small pearls,–and all her thread-papers are made of bank-notes!

Exaggeration for effect: Lydia has a huge fortune that she will come into when she is 21. But to say she could pay the national debt is a bit much. Thread papers are rolled up bits of paper that you roll embroidery thread around. Is Fag trying to impress Thomas here in exaggerating the wealth of young ladies in high society with whom his master consorts?

Bravo, faith!–Odd! I warrant she has a set of (team of horses) thousands at least:–but does she draw (pull the carriage) kindly with the captain?

All Thomas’s vocabulary is to do with horses. To describe romantic love in terms of coach-horses is very funny because it’s so very unromantic! On the other hand, the countrified coachman Thomas can evidently only imagine how rich an heiress like Lydia is if he pictures it in terms of horses.

As fond as pigeons.
Pigeons – turtle doves, very like pigeons, are symbols of true love.

May one hear her name?

Miss Lydia Languish.–But there is an old tough aunt in the way; though, by-the-by, she has never seen my master–for we got acquainted with miss while on a visit in Gloucestershire.

This is a very important detail for the plot. Mrs Malaprop has never seen Jack Absolute. Again, in the Bristol Old Vic production, Thomas rolled his eyes at Languish, underlining the stereotyping signalled by the names.

Well–I wish they were once harnessed together in matrimony.–But pray,

Mr. Fag, what kind of a place is this Bath?–I ha’ heard a deal of it–here’s a mort o’ merrymaking, hey?

Thomas uses country dialect vocabulary. A mort o’ means a lot of. This highlights the contrast between fashionable Bath (of which Fag, with his smart gloves, is aiming to be a representative) and ordinary unfashionable country clothes, speech and behaviour as exempified by Thomas. Thomas’s good wishes for the couple in love, hoping for their marriage, are characteristically expressed in stable terminology: ‘harnessed together in matrimony.’

Pretty well, Thomas, pretty well–’tis a good lounge (place for lounging about); in the morning we go to the pump-room (though neither my master nor I drink the waters); after breakfast we saunter on the parades, or play a game at billiards; at night we dance; but damn the place, I’m tired of it: their regular hours stupefy me–not a fiddle (violin – i.e. dance music) nor a card after eleven!–However, Mr. Faulkland’s gentleman and I keep it up a little in private parties;–I’ll introduce you there, Thomas–you’ll like him much.

The Pump Room is the room where people took the waters from the hot springs which had made Bath famous as a spa. The waters were supposed to be good for your health – here, they would have supposedly helped Sir Anthony’s gout. The Pump Room was also a place where people went to meet up. The North and South Parades were built in the 1740s and ‘soon became the principal place of public resort in the city.’
Beau Nash was Master of Ceremonies at Bath and instituted lots of regulations about when places and parties had to stop, hence ‘not a fiddle nor a card after eleven.’
Fag has learned the fashionable boredom with this fashionable city and its social habits: he speaks of Bath as ‘a good lounge’ and mentions ‘saunter(ing) on the parades’, playing billiards, dancing and playing cards.

Sure I know Mr. Du-Peigne–you know his master is to marry Madam Julia.

Mr Du-Peigne translates as Mr (of-the-) Comb – it was very fashionable to have a French valet and the name Du-Peigne suggests that much attention is paid to the hair style of his employer, Faulkland.

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.

Until the 1770s it was essential (socially) to wear a wig. Then suddenly even a fashionable servant, let alone a man about town, would not be seen dead wearing one. See how French words are used for fashionable effect – ‘ton’ means style in French. Other fashionable words, such as ‘whip’ for a coachman, should make Thomas feel countrified and inferior.

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.
The Box is the seat on top of the coach where the driver sits.

Well, Thomas, we’ll not quarrel about that.

Why, bless you, the gentlemen of the professions ben’t all of a mind–for in our village now, thoff Jack Gauge, the exciseman (customs official), has ta’en to his carrots(his own red hair, rather than wearing a wig), there’s little Dick the farrier (blacksmith) swears he’ll never forsake his bob, though all the college (all the farriers) should appear with their own heads!
A bob is a close-cropped wig with curls at the bottom.

Indeed! well said, Dick!–But hold–mark! mark! Thomas.

Zooks! ‘tis the captain.–Is that the Lady with him?

Servants of fashionable employers in Bath are dressed so finely that to country eyes they can be mistaken for their employers. We are invited to laugh at Thomas’s rural lack of sophistication. Yet again, the ‘superior’ Mr Fag has to enlighten the country yokel, Thomas.
Zooks is Gad zooks, or God’s hooks (the nails that fixed Jesus to the cross), a mild or minced oath. A minced oath is a euphemistic/polite way of saying something offensive, as nowadays we say sugar or shoot for shit. At first there were felt to be too many oaths in the play. Sheridan included oaths as entertainment: new-fangled oaths (together with Bob Acres’ ridiculous versions) versus outdated oaths (Thomas). These oaths are one of the ways Sheridan shows the distance between generations. Using oaths nobody can understand, or using one that is too modern for someone old-fashioned to understand blocks communication. (Failing to communicate clearly, or communicating in order to deceive is one of the themes of the play.) For the reviewers of The Rivals in 1775, however, it was a violation of decorum.

No, no, that is Madam Lucy, my master’s mistress’s maid. They lodge at that house–but I must after him to tell him the news.

Odd! he’s giving her money!–Well, Mr. Fag—-

Good-bye, Thomas. I have an appointment in Gyde’s porch this evening at eight; meet me there, and we’ll make a little party.

Gyde’s Porch: Gyde kept the Lower Assembly Rooms on the Lower Walks. There was a walk along the river there. The rooms had been redecorated in the early 1770s to keep up with current fashion.

Commentary on Act I scene i

Bath is described as a fashionable city of sudden arrivals. Sir Anthony arrives at a moment’s notice to take the waters because he has ‘another fit of the gout.’ It’s obvious that there are lots of love intrigues amongst the members of high society: Captain Absolute is giving Lydia’s servant, Lucy, a note (to take to Lydia). We are also told that Captain Absolute is disguising himself as Ensign Beverley to attract Lydia’s attention. It’s also clear that social status, money (fortune) and inheritance are very important: Lydia is heiress to a fortune. There’s a question of identity (Jack Absolute / Beverley) and intrigue, so these are going to be important in the play. The topic of social superiority is flagged up: the sophisticated fashionable world of the city is set against the world of the country yokel. The world of Bath, when not a cure for the gout, is a world of leisure, of dancing, gambling, promenading. This short first scene is a perfect exposition – it introduces us to the main characters through their servants. We’ll meet these characters in the new few scenes. The first scene also introduces us to the basics of the plot that we need to know in order to enjoy ourselves.

Commentary on The Bristol Old Vic production of 2004
I hadn’t expected Fag to be so countrified – it made him seem not nearly so fashionable as he thought he was – so it undermined his being so patronising to Thomas, and made it funny that he was speaking in a countrified way and wearing such fashionable clothes – comic mismatch between appearance and reality. The opening music (which continued between scenes) was bouncy and cheerful, making the play obviously a comedy.
Fag’s function was to introduce the events (plot) and the characters. He made it very clear, when he exaggerated the word LANGUISH ‘Miss Lydia Languish’ doing a mime of languishing for love, and Thomas in response made a languishing sort of face to the audience, so it was clear that her name signalled a stereotypical character and the generally comic tone of the play. Also, Fag had spelled out L, O, V, E very exaggeratedly to Thomas, so it was obvious what one of the main themes was to be and the fact that there would be lots of disguise ‘Love … who has been a masquerader’ (masquerade means going about in disguise). The cheerful music signalled that this would be a comedy.

Vocabulary for students

When you write about comedy you need to look for what is funny and why. You also need lots of words to do with what is funny. Here are some: amusing, humorous, witty, comic, hilarious, hysterical, entertaining, diverting, ridiculous, ludicrous.

Sometimes something is amusing because it is absurd (ridiculous).

Something is often funny because there is a gap (a discrepancy) between what is intended and what actually happens (e.g. important politician stopping for photo opportunity on the way into No 10 Downing Street slips on banana skin). Also because something is incongruous – in other words, inappropriate, or doesn’t fit in, like wearing wellingtons to a party at Buckingham Palace.

Rivals Act I scene ii

Circulating Libraries

Circulating libraries in the 18th and 19th century were used by those with plenty of leisure time. They were as much of an attraction in wealthy resorts, where people came to relax and look after their health, as in cities and small towns, like Basingstoke, where Jane Austen subscribed to Mrs. Martin’s circulating library.

There were lots of book shops but, as in 1815 a 3-volume novel cost the equivalent of $100 (about £70) today, circulating libraries offered the possibility of borrowing a book much more cheaply. A price tag of £70 placed a novel beyond the reach of most people. Worried about a second edition for Mansfield Park, Jane Austen wrote in 1814:
“People are more ready to borrow and praise, than to buy –which I cannot wonder at.”

Circulating libraries made books accessible to many more people at an affordable price. You could subscribe for a year, or for just a quarter (three months) and read as much of the library’s collection as you wanted. Alternatively, you could rent one volume for a week for only a small sum of money. By 1800, most copies of a novel’s edition were sold to the libraries. The libraries created a market for the publishers and encouraged readers. They were also places for fashionable people to “hang out” and meet others; also, you could check who was in town by reading the list of names of subscribers. In resorts such as Bath, the circulating libraries became fashionable daytime venues where ladies could see others and be seen, where raffles were held and games were played, and where expensive merchandise could be purchased.
Lee Erickson’s article ‘The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library’, is full of fascinating information on this topic. You can find it in Studies in English Literature 1500 – 1900, 1990, vol 30 no 4, pp 573-590.

Bookplate of Heath’s Circulating Library, courtesy of the Heath-Caldwell Family Archive

Bookplate of Heath’s Circulating Library, courtesy of the Heath-Caldwell Family Archive


The Heath’s Circulating Library bookplate came from this copy of Romeo and Juliet.


Tennent’s Circulating Library advertisement Published circa 1780, Bath, Somerset

This image comes from the British Library’s collection. You can find out more at
As you can see, stationery was spelt differently in the late eighteenth century.
Tennent’s was at the top of Milsom Street. The subscribers in the 1790s included the Prince of Wales, 5 dukes, 7 earls, an archbishop, 6 bishops and 114 clerics.

Read more
Lydia’s servant, Lucy, went to Bull’s to find the books Lydia wanted to read. Bull’s was the successor to Leake’s, and the novelist and printer Samuel Richardson married Elizabeth Leake in 1732. Thus a direct link was formed between Bath’s first circulating library and the writer who was so effecive in promoting the popularity of circulating libraries in the second half of the 1700s. Richardson’s Pamela initiated what has been called the ‘epidemic of feminine reading’, in the sentimental novel. Although Sir Anthony defined a circulating library as ‘an ever-green tree of diabological knowledge’, Robert Southey, in remembering his time in Bath, wrote, ‘Bull’s circulating library was then to me what the Bodleian would be now’.

Reading rooms, separate from the library, appeared probably just after the date of The Rivals. In 1784, Hazard advertised in the Bath Journal that he ‘respectfully acquaints his subscribers and the company resorting to this city that in order to render his library as agreeable as possible he has opened a large room up one pair of stairs… where they may amuse themselves with the newspapers and the new publications during the intervals of drinking the Bath waters. …It is covered with a carpet and a good fire will be kept.’
There is much fascinating material in the article, ‘Circulating Libraries in Eighteenth-Century Bath’ by V J Kite. You can find it on

Of course, as with any library, you could only borrow books if you adhered to certain conditions.



Beauty in Search of Knowledge, December 1782 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Fashionable young woman pausing at the door of a circulating library, facing forward with arm on an umbrella. 30 December 1782 Hand-coloured mezzotint
Printed for R.Sayer J.Bennett, Map, Chart Printsellers, No.53 Fleet Street, 30th December 1782. It is derived from a print by John Raphael Smith, published in 1781.
The title, Beauty in Search of Knowledge, seems ironic, as if it is impossible that a young woman should do anything as sensible as acquiring knowledge. As Sir Anthony says: ‘all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read.’


The circulating library: three women in a library, one of whom looks through the catalogue discussing the titles that interest her with the man behind the counter.
1 October 1804, hand-coloured etching by Laurie Whittle from a print by John Raphael Smith published in 1781. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
In the British Museum, this is listed as a satirical print.

The text of the woman’s discussion runs thus:
‘Pray, my dear Mr Page,’ cried a pretty lisper, looking over a Catalogue, ‘will you let me have that dear Man of Feeling I have so long waited for. Well, this will do for one, No 1889, Cruel Disappointment, for another. Reuben, or Suicide, higho! No1746, I suppose he killed himself for love. Seduction, yes, I want that more than anything. Unguarded Moments, oh we all have our unguarded moments. True Delicacy. No, that would be a silly thing by the title. School of Virtue, heaven knowes mamma gives me enough of that. Test of Filial Duty, at any rate she puts me to that test pretty often. Mental Pleasurers, worse worse! I’ll look no longer. Oh! stop a moment – Mutual Attachment, The Assignation, Frederick or the Libertine, just add those, Mr Page, I shall not have to come again until the day after to-morrow.”
The Assignation: A Sentimental Novel (1774) contains sentiments such as vowing to ‘indulge this luxury of grief.’


Here are two young ladies reading novels – or, at least, one of them is.
From Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion, 1794, plate 1 Vol. I, no. 6., figures 23 24. Morning dresses, September, 1794. Photo by David Brass Rare Books, Inc

Act I scene ii

A dressing-room in Mrs. MALAPROP’s lodgings

The first scene took place out of doors. Fag and Thomas introduced us to the names of the main characters, and now we are ready to meet them in person. The following scene takes place indoors in Mrs Malaprop’s lodging, and shows us Lydia with her maid Lucy; then with her friend Julia; then with Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute. Then the maid, Lucy, has the stage to herself while she tells us what she is really doing.

Lydia pictures herself as the heroine of a sentimental novel and Jack Absolute has had to pretend he is the penniless Ensign Beverley to please her and engage her interest. Mrs Malaprop is carrying on a clandestine relationship with Sir Lucius O’Trigger, pretending that she is a young woman called Delia. Lucy is pretending to be a simpleton, but is actually exploiting everybody for money. So it’s a whole series of deceptions.

[LYDIA sitting on a sofa, with a book in her hand. Lucy, as just returned from a message.]

In the Bristol Old Vic 2004 production, Lydia Languish was lying languishing on the sofa, acting out the part of the heroine of a sentimental novel. To add to the series of deceptions that unfolds in this scene, is the fact that, as we soon discover, she is deceiving herself. She is not really in the least languid.

Indeed, ma’am, I traversed (crossed – but Sheridan originally wrote traips’d which means walk wearily) half the town in search of it: I don’t believe there’s a circulating library in Bath I ha’n’t been at.

And could not you get The Reward of Constancy?

No, indeed, ma’am.

Nor The Fatal Connexion ?

No, indeed, ma’am.

Nor The Mistakes of the Heart ?

Ma’am, as ill luck would have it, Mr. Bull said Miss Sukey Saunter had just fetched it away.

Heigh-ho!–Did you inquire for The Delicate Distress?

Or, The Memoirs of Lady Woodford? Yes, indeed, ma’am. I asked every
where for it; and I might have brought it from Mr. Frederick’s, but
Lady Slattern Lounger, who had just sent it home, had so soiled and
dog’s-eared it, it wa’n’t fit for a Christian to read.

Mr Bull sold books and knick-knacks. His shop was opposite Gyde’s Rooms on the Lower Walks, Bath. Mr Frederick’s was a bookshop at 18 The Grove, Bath.

By the time of The Rivals, novels were very popular. Some people viewed them with suspicion. For example, Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler, March 1750, described them as ‘The Works of Fiction, with which the present Generation seems more particularly delighted…’. Later in the same article, we read: ‘These Books are written chiefly to the Young, the Ignorant, and the Idle …’. James Fordyce, writing in 1766, claims: ‘We consider the general run of Novels as utterly unfit for you.’ (Sermons to Young Women)

The titles Lydia asks for are all those of a particular genre, sentimental novels, which were all the rage in the later half of the eighteenth century. They were characterized by extreme emotion. You can tell this even from the titles, with words such as The Tears of Sensibility, The Delicate Distress, The Mistakes of the Heart, The Fatal Connexion, The Reward of Constancy.

Sentimental novels relied on an emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They featured scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot advanced emotions rather than action. The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations. An article in The Monthly Review of July 1773 notes ‘most of them (sentimental novels)… are calculated to inflame the passions of youth, while the chief purpose of education should be to moderate them.’ The article goes on to note: ‘The expectations of extraordinary adventures, … and the admiration of extravagant passions and absurd conduct, are some of the usual fruits of this kind of reading.’ (This is certainly true of Lydia!)

A review of a novel published in 1775, although not on Lydia’s list, gives you an idea of the plot of a sentimental novel. The Morning Ramble was reviewed in the Monthly Review thus. ‘A young lady in love with her supposed uncle. An old dotard in love with this same young lady, his supposed grand-daughter. These amours made honest by the help of a gypsey, whose child the loved and loving fair one is said to be. Her virgin chastity attempted by the ancient lover, and rescued by the younger. Her virgin chastity again attempted by the friend of her beloved … and again rescued by a mad adventurer. The rescued fair conducted by her new inamorato to the mouth of a dismal cave (in which he threatens instantly to end his life before her eyes, unless she consents to repay his services with those charms which he had preserved) and there terrified into a promise of marriage. A third ravishment, and a murder, introduced for the sake of variety and entertainment, into the husband’s story of himself. The wife, unmindful of her holy vow, on a sudden suffering her first passion to rekindle. Her husband in a fit of jealousy, encountering his innocent rival. The hapless fair rushing between their swords. Wounded. Expiring. Lamented.
‘This is a true bill of fare of the Morning’s Ramble. A very pretty, romantic, sentimental morning’s entertainment for Miss in her Teens.’

The Fatal Connexion (1773) was described by The London Magazine as ‘Romantic nonsense, as usual’ and by The Monthly Review: ‘Surely Mrs Fogerty (the author) was begotten, born, nursed, and educated in a circulating library, and sucked in the spirit of romance with her mother’s milk.’ Of The Mistakes of the Heart (1769) or, Memoirs of Lady Caroline Pelham and Lady Victoria Nevil, Town and Country Magazine wrote, ‘we might commend it to the ladies if there were not some scenes too luxuriant for the eye of delicacy.’ It was written by a Frenchman, Pierre Henri Treyssac de Vergy, a prolofic writer of sentimental novels that were sometimes condemned as ‘licentious.’ The Tears of Sensibility (1773) was translated from the French. The review in the Monthly Review read: ‘the author aims … to keep his readers on the rack. … a novel, which in every page (aims) to harrow up the soul, (but) leaves it in great quietness.’ The Memoirs of Lady Woodford, written by Herself. The novelist Richardson judged them to be ‘the very bad story of a wicked woman.’ However, The Monthly Review described it as containing ‘tenderness and simplicity … the principal characteristics of this innocent novel.’

To give you a taste of the kind of stuff Lydia is reading and modelling herself on, I’ll quote briefly from The Memoirs of Lady Woodford, which had been written four years earlier. Lydia wanted to read it but Lady Slattern Lounger had ‘soiled and dog’s-eared it’ so it wasn’t in good enough condition for Lydia to read. No doubt she would get hold of it as soon as possible. The Critical Review of 1771 described these Memoirs thus: ‘Lady Woodford tells her tale in a decent manner, and does not surfeit her readers with those violent egotisms, by which the majority of memoir-writers render their narrations extremely disgusting… we will venture to recommend her (the heroine’s) mode of behaviour to every young lady who finds herself in similar circumstances.’

At this point in The Memoirs, the heroine is watching a play. ‘I felt her exquisite distress the more strongly, by considering that I might have been in the same dangerous situation, by living with the man whom I loved. The performance of this play made me shudder to think of what had passed relating to myself. I wept myself almost blind, regardless of everybody about me tho’ the gentleman who had taken so much pains to place me, seemed to attach himself entirely to me. He applauded my sensibility … he discovered some fears left I should, by giving way to my tears, make my head ache. I assured him, though I had shed a great many tears in my life, I had never perfectly known till then what was meant by a luxury of sorrow.’ And so on.

And here is an extract from The Tears of Sensibility by François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’ Arnaud, from the section entitled ‘The Cruel Father.’
‘Of these truths the story of Lady Harriet Somerset exhibits a striking instance; and it ought to be an eternal monitor to parents. To the advantages of birth, and the prospect of an ample fortune, Lady Harriet joined the most engaging accomplishments. Her every look and gesture breathed a charm, which even beauty cannot impart, a sensibility, which is more frequently the source of pain than of pleasure, and which, though delightful to the objects of it, is yet generally fatal to those who possess it. Her heart was formed for love; and she had so happily blended the graces of the mind with those of sentiment and figure, that she was considered as the model of perfection. She was as yet in her cradle when she lost a mother, by whom she was idolized. Fathers are strangers to the refinements of maternal love; and to the death of the Countess of Somerset, the misfortunes of Lady Harriet may, in a great measure, be attributed.’

The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality (1751) was an independent story published anonymously but known to be by Lady Vane in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett. Lady Vane was famous for her extra-marital relationships and Horace Walpole wrote: ‘My Lady Vane has literally published the memoirs of her own life, onl suppressing part of her lovers, no part of the success of the others with her: a deree of profligacy not to be accounted for; she does not want money, none of her stallions will raise her credit, and the number, all she had to brag of, concealed.’

Some passages in The Mistakes of the Heart were considered too indelicate for a lady to read, so you might wonder why Lydia wants to read it? Presumably for the same reason that any young woman wants to read a book or watch a film that her parents have banned.

However, George Henry Nettleton finds a wonderful contemporary attack on Sheridan. He quotes it in his article ‘The Books of Lydia Languish’s Circulating Library’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Oct., 1905), pp. 492-50.

’A communication to the London Morning Post, of February 3, 1775, begins with these words: ‘Mr Editor, I desire you will inform the Author of The Rivals that his attack upon Circulating Libaries in his first act is unjust, and very impertinent: Besides his sentiments are so inconsistent – He pretends to make such fine speeches in his play about love, and to pay such a compliment in the Epilogue to the Ladies, yet would decry novels, which formt he very food of sustenance of love. I should be glad to know what are most of the modern comedies but dialogue novels? Are the two Play-houses better than circulating libraries?’

Heigh-ho!–Yes, I always know when Lady Slattern has been before me. She has a most observing thumb; and, I believe, cherishes her nails for the convenience of making marginal notes.–Well, child, what have you brought me?

Oh! here, ma’am.–[Taking books from under her cloak, and from her pockets.] This is The Gordian Knot,–and this Peregrine Pickle. Here are The Tears of Sensibility, and Humphrey Clinker. This is The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, written by herself, and here the second volume of The Sentimental Journey.

Heigh-ho!–What are those books by the glass (mirror)?

The great one is only The Whole Duty of Man, where I press a few blonds (silk lace), ma’am.

Lucy and Lydia use the really pious books (huge great volumes like The Whole Duty of Man) for pressing silk lace (blonds) or, later on, for hiding sentimental novels. The reviewers described The Whole Duty of Man as being ‘necessary for all families, with private devotions for several occasions.’ This religious book had been reproduced frequently since its publication and a new and revised edition had come out just before the production of The Rivals.

Very well–give me the sal volatile.

Is it in a blue cover, ma’am?

My smelling-bottle, you simpleton!

Oh, the drops!–here, ma’am.

Sal volatile is smelling salts, which of course the heroine of a sentimental novel would always be needing to use in key emotional moments to revive her when she had fainted. Lydia is having a lovely time fancying herself the heroine of such a novel. Lucy provides down to earth bathos because she thinks sal volatile is the name of a book! It’s a complete anticlimax. ‘My smelling bottle, you simpleton’ doesn’t sound quite so sentimentally uplifting and noble as Lydia could have wished. In fact, it shows us that the whole sentimental business of languishing for love is an affected pose. The real Lydia is briskly down to earth.

Lydia regards herself as superior to Lucy; she calls Lucy ‘child’ and ‘you simpleton.’ But, as we learn at the end of the scene, Lydia actually depends on Lucy to help her in arranging assignations with Ensign Beverley.

Hold!–here’s some one coming–quick, see who it is.—-[Exit LUCY.]
Surely I heard my cousin Julia’s voice.

[Re-enter LUCY.]

LUCY Lud! ma’am, here is Miss Melville.

Is it possible!—- [Exit LUCY.]

[Enter JULIA.]

Julia is Lydia’s great friend. The actress, Mary Bulkley, played the original Julia from 1775 until the play moved to Drury Lane in 1777. She was a dancer as well as an actress and had a somewhat exciting love-life. Apparently she was very beautiful.

My dearest Julia, how delighted am I!–[Embrace.] How unexpected was this happiness!

True, Lydia–and our pleasure is the greater.–But what has been the matter?–you were denied to me at first! (the servants told me you were not in)

Ah, Julia, I have a thousand things to tell you!–But first inform me what has conjured you to Bath?–Is Sir Anthony here?

He is–we are arrived within this hour–and I suppose he will be here to wait on (visit) Mrs. Malaprop as soon as he is dressed (changed out of his travelling clothes).

Then before we are interrupted, let me impart to you some of my distress!–I know your gentle nature will sympathize with me, though your prudence may condemn me! My letters have informed you of my whole connection with Beverley; but I have lost him, Julia! My aunt has discovered our intercourse by a note she intercepted, and has confined me ever since! Yet, would you believe it? she has absolutely fallen in love with a tall Irish baronet she met one night since we have been here, at Lady Macshuffle’s rout (large evening party).

Exaggeratedly sentimental words like ‘distress’ and ‘I have lost him’ suggest Lydia is thoroughly enjoying playing the part of the heroine of a sentimental novel. She uses the balanced sentence structure typical of the eighteenth century, with its interest in symmetry.
‘I know your gentle nature will sympathize with me, though your prudence may condemn me!’
Lydia appeals to Julia’s gentle nature, a characteristic of the ideal young woman in a sentimental novel. Julia’s moderation will highlight Lydia’s more exaggeratedly sentimental behaviour. But every now and again, Lydia suddenly forgets her pose and speaks in a very forthright, down to earth way. Julia, however, as she shows in her long speech later in the scene, really does feel all the emotions that Lydia pretends to feel, ‘distress’, ‘constancy’, ‘sensibility.’ Julia uses a great deal of language of feeling in her description of her love for Faulkland. Her language suggests that she suffers far more in Faulkland’s capricious and irrational treatment of her than Lydia suffers (Lydia is actually enjoying every moment). For example, Julia speaks of experiencing ‘many unhappy hours’. However, Julia’s language is more consistent; there are at this point in the play fewer peaks and troughs in what she says than there are in Lydia’s speech. She really is a ‘long-suffering sentimental heroine’ (Diane Maybank in The Rivals OUP p 135)

Lydia’s pose of ‘I have lost him (Beverley)’ is undermined by her immediate interest in retailing Mrs Malaprop’s ridiculous non-love-affair with Sir Lucius.

You jest, Lydia!

No, upon my word.–She really carries on a kind of correspondence with him, under a feigned name though, till she chooses to be known to him:–but it is a Delia or a Celia, I assure you.

There are parallel ridiculous non-relationships in the play: Lydia with Beverley (who is really Jack Absolute). And Mrs Malaprop calling herself by the name of Delia or Celia, typical names for a lover, sending notes to Sir Lucius O’Trigger. (Could the name Sir Lucius be a play on salacious, meaning risky, bawdy?) And, as we’re about to find out, Faulkland is being ridiculously neurotic about Julia and inventing difficulties which do not exist – inventing a troubled relationship, just as Lydia is, when he has a perfectly good one in real fact, just as Lydia has. Another little detail for those in the know: Sheridan called his beloved Elizabeth Linley ‘Delia’ in poetry he wrote to her while their parents kept them apart. It is an extra twist to the joke of Mrs Malaprop masquerading as Delia.

Then, surely, she is now more indulgent to her niece.

Quite the contrary. Since she has discovered her own frailty, she is become more suspicious of mine. Then I must inform you of another plague! (annoyance) –That odious Acres is to be in Bath to-day; so that I protest I shall be teased (tormented) out of all spirits (good spirits, happiness)!

The mention of Acres prepares us for his appearance in the next scene.

Come, come, Lydia, hope for the best–Sir Anthony shall use his interest (influence) with Mrs. Malaprop.

But you have not heard the worst. Unfortunately I had quarrelled with my poor Beverley, just before my aunt made the discovery, and I have not seen him since, to make it up.

What was his offence?

Nothing at all!–But, I don’t know how it was, as often as we had been together, we had never had a quarrel, and, somehow, I was afraid he would never give me an opportunity. So, last Thursday, I wrote a letter to myself, to inform myself that Beverley was at that time paying his addresses to (courting, making love to) another woman. I signed it your friend unknown, showed it to Beverley, charged him with his falsehood, put myself in a violent passion, and vowed I’d never see him more.

And you let him depart so, and have not seen him since?

‘Twas the next day my aunt found the matter out. I intended only to
have teased him three days and a half, and now I’ve lost him for ever.

There is an absurd mix of emotions here to entertain us. Lydia is playing at being the heroine of a sentimental novel: ‘put myself in a violent passion’ because she and Beverley were getting on too well so she had to invent an upset. She intended to be in control of this invention ‘intended only to have teased him three days and a half’ but her plan has gone wrong because Mrs Malaprop intercepted her letter to Beverley and banned the correspondence. Sheridan emphasises the exaggeration of the emotions here through the alliteration of ‘put’ and ‘passion’, ‘violent’ and ‘vowed’. There are also a mass of verbs increasing the sense of intense passion: ‘signed’, ‘showed’, ‘charged’, ‘put myself’, ‘vowed’, ‘never see’.

Part of the entertainment of the play will stem from the ridiculous situations that characters put themselves in, and part from seeing whether they will eventually come to know themselves better. At the moment, Lydia is too busy being the centrepiece of a sentimental novel to spend any time listening to and acting in accordance with her true feelings. We also know that ‘Beverley’ will not be taken in by this wilful behaviour, because he doesn’t exist, so we can enjoy Lydia’s ridiculous behaviour, knowing that she is safe.

If he is as deserving and sincere as you have represented him to me, he will never give you up so. Yet consider, Lydia, you tell me he is but an ensign, and you have thirty thousand pounds.

But you know I lose most of my fortune if I marry without my aunt’s consent, till of age; and that is what I have determined to do, ever since I knew the penalty. Nor could I love the man who would wish to wait a day for the alternative.

Again, Lydia is inventing drama for herself as if she were living out a sentimental novel. The language is completely over the top: ‘Nor could I love the man who would wish to wait a day …’ It shows you how idiotic sentimentality is – Sheridan is poking fun at it through the exaggerated sentiments, showing it to be mere folly. This is gentle satire, though, and entertaining, not scathing vitriolic criticism of corruption and vice.

Nay, this is caprice (a whim)!

What, does Julia tax (accuse) me with caprice?–I thought her lover Faulkland
had inured (hardened) her to it.

I do not love even his faults.

(Faulkland is very capricious.) Sheridan signals this characteristic so that we can enjoy it when we meet Faulkland in the next scene.

But apropos (thinking of which)–you have sent to him (let him know you are in Bath), I suppose?

Not yet, upon my word–nor has he the least idea of my being in Bath. Sir Anthony’s resolution (decision) was so sudden, I could not inform him of it.

Well, Julia, you are your own mistress, (though under the protection of Sir Anthony), yet have you, for this long year, been a slave to the caprice, the whim, the jealousy of this ungrateful Faulkland, who will ever delay assuming the right of a husband, while you suffer (allow) him to be equally imperious (demanding, authoritative) as a lover.

Nay, you are wrong entirely. We were contracted (engaged to be married) before my father’s death. That, and some consequent embarrassments, have delayed what
I know to be my Faulkland’s most ardent wish. He is too generous to trifle on such a point:–and for his character, you wrong him there, too. No, Lydia, he is too proud, too noble to be jealous; if he is captious, ‘tis without dissembling; if fretful, without rudeness.
Unused to the fopperies (what you should do if you are in love) of love, he is negligent of the little duties expected from a lover–but being unhackneyed (inexperienced) in the passion, his affection is ardent and sincere; and as it engrosses his whole soul, he expects every thought and emotion of his mistress to move in unison with his. Yet, though his pride calls for this full return, his humility makes him undervalue those qualities in him which would entitle him to it; and not feeling why he should be loved to the degree he wishes, he still suspects that he is not loved enough. This temper (temperament), I must own (admit), has cost me many unhappy hours; but I have learned to think myself his debtor, for those imperfections which arise from the ardour of his attachment.

In 1787, 12 years after the first performance of The Rivals, Sheridan came across a shortened version of his play in which this speech had been cut by the person carrying out the abridgement. He is reputed to have written in the margin: ‘The only speech in the play that cannot be omitted. The pruning-knife, Damme, the Axe, the Hatchet.’ If true, this suggests that Sheridan considered Julia’s speech essential to the core meaning of the play. If this speech now seems to us over-long, sententious and undramatic in a play where wit reigns supreme, it may be worth re-considering it.

Julia’s speech follows recognisable patterns. These patterns convey the depth of her feeling and her readiness to understand and excuse Faulkland. They also show that her feelings, though deep, are not extreme; she expresses herself in a balanced way (unlike Lydia and Faulkland whose vast egos do not allow for balance but only for self-indulgence!). The last sentence of this long speech shows her capacity for self-discipline (‘I have learned …’). Faulkland and Lydia have no time for this sort of self-discipline: the comedy arises from their lack of self-knowledge and the ridiculous situations it leads them into.

This very long speech is more like an extract from a sentimental novel than a dramatic speech. It is typical of late eighteenth century style. It is full of feeling, but these feelings are expressed through abstract nouns (‘humility’, ‘imperfections’, ‘ardour’, ‘attachment’), and plenty of beautifully balanced, antithetical sentences, to show balance and moderation in Julia’s feeling. I’ve set out the antithetical bits of the sentences on two sides, like a seesaw so that you can see how they balance each other. The eighteenth century prized balance and moderation in all things.

if he is captious,

’tis without dissembling;

if fretful,

without rudeness.

Unused to the fopperies of love,

he is negligent of …..

being unhackneyed in the passion,

his affection is

as it engrosses his whole soul,

he expects ….

though his pride calls for ……

his humility makes him …

not feeling why …..

he still suspects

This long speech is made up of a series of statements (as opposed to questions, orders or exclamations). For example, ‘You are wrong entirely.’ Julia refers to Faulkland as ‘My Faulkland’ which I think shows her loving defence of him. She says, twice, ‘You wrong him’, which emphasises her defence. Repetitions within a sentence also emphasise her defence: he is ‘too proud, too noble to be jealous.’ The speech is full of feeling, but typically of 18th century, most of words connected with feeling are abstract nouns, which makes them sound more moderate. Because Julia loves Faulkland so much, she paints him as more perfect than he is. This is a contrast to the self-indulgent extremes that Lydia and Faulkland go to in their depiction of their lovers.

Julia is defending Faulkland against Lydia’s accusation ‘this ungrateful Faulkland’. She sets out an understanding and loving explanation of his difficult behaviour. She’s very calm and is therefore a foil to Lydia who invents drama for herself. Some of the words may cause difficulties to a modern audience:
embarrassments – difficulties, obstacles, problems
trifle – play with my feelings
captious – finding fault, dreaming up ridiculous, petty objections
without dissembling – without pretending to be so
fretful – irritated
fopperies – the fashionable, elegant manners to be expected from a lover
unhackneyed – not used to being in love, inexperienced
aredent – passionate
temper – temperament, way of responding to things, natural disposition

Sheridan never invites us to laugh at true love such as this. And the sincerity of Julia’s feelings makes a perfect foil to show up the self-indulgent fantasy of Lydia’s. The so-called love between Lydia and Jack Absolute / Beverley is funny because it is in fact a power struggle. In the first half of the play, they’re tricking each other instead of loving each other (or, in Lydia’s case, tricking herself into thinking she wants to enact a sentimental novel). The funniest Faulkland sections are when he’s on stage by himself. Also, Lydia is shooting herself in the foot, because the man she refuses to marry is the man she loves. Faulkland, similarly, is inventing reasons not to marry the girl he loves. Sheridan invites us to laugh at Lydia and Faulkland’s fantastic and nonsensical notions of love, not at true love. Indeed, Faulkland’s neurotic behaviour causes the loving Julia considerable pain – she struggles to be truly close to the diffficult Faulkland. Julia admits: ‘This temper, I must own, has cost me many unhappy hours.’ The ‘many unhappy hours’, the ‘cost’ of her love for Faulkland, form a contrast with Lydia, enjoying her ‘distress!’ because ‘I have lost him’ and ‘now I’ve lost him for ever.’ Lydia’s choice of the word ‘distress’ comes straight from one of her favourite sentimental novels, The Delicate Distress. In addition, the word ‘cost’ as used by Julia, for once in this play does not refer to money but to the emotional pain that Faulkland’s behaviour causes her.

Well, I cannot blame you for defending him. But tell me candidly, Julia, had he never saved your life, do you think you should have been attached to him as you are?–Believe me, the rude blast (rough wind) that overset (overturned, capsized) your boat was a prosperous gale of love (a wind that brought him success in winning Julia’s love) to him.

This is a thoroughly sentimental notion.

Gratitude may have strengthened my attachment to Mr. Faulkland, but I loved him before he had preserved me; yet surely that alone were an obligation sufficient (the fact that he saved me from drowning is enough to make me love him).

Obligation! why a water spaniel (a gun dog that retrieves game) would have done as much!–Well, I should never think of giving my heart to a man because he could swim.

This is funny because of the sudden change from sentimental mode to severely practical: from ‘a prosperous gale of love’ to ‘a water spaniel would have done as much!’ and Lydia’s deflating Julia’s ‘he had preserved me’ with ‘because he could swim.’ The abrupt change of tone shows that Lydia’s sentimental pose is only an affectation, so we can laugh at it, knowing it’s superficial nonsense. In addition, Lydia’s speech, ‘Well, I cannot blame you for defending him. But tell me candidly, Julia, had he never saved your life, do you think you should have been attached to him as you are?’ is a completely straightforward, unaffected speech. There are no high-flown, ridiculous sentimental metaphors in it. She only adds those at the end, when she suddenly remembers the sentimental pose she has adopted: ‘rude blast … prosperous gale of love’. Julia’s reply is full of the abstract nouns that were typical of late 18th century prose: ‘gratitude,’ attachment’, ‘obligation.’ The abstract nouns (all about feelings) give a sense of considered depth to her speech, and a moderation that contrasts with Lydia’s self-indulgent and exaggerated sentimental pose.

When Lydia compares Faulkland’s swimming to save Julia from the capsized boat, to a water spaniel fetching the birds its master has shot, it shows you what she really thinks of sentimentality and of the feats of the lover in this drama. She can see perfectly well that it is all nonsense. But she loves to indulge in it herself.

This section has introduced us to the two love relationships in the play, that between Julia and Faulkland, and between Lydia and Absolute / Beverley. It has also introduced us to a different aspect of Lydia – the true Lydia, who will actually suit practical energetic Jack Absolute very well.

Come, Lydia, you are too inconsiderate.

Nay, I do but jest.–What’s here?

[Re-enter LUCY in a hurry.]

O ma’am, here is Sir Anthony Absolute just come home with your aunt.

They’ll not come here.–Lucy, do you watch (look out and let me know what’s happening).

[Exit LUCY.]

Yet I must go. Sir Anthony does not know I am here, and if we meet, he’ll detain me, to show me the town. I’ll take another opportunity of paying my respects to Mrs Malaprop, when she shall treat me, as long as she chooses, with her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.

Sheridan is giving the audience a cue to enjoy itself listening to all the words Mrs Malaprop uses wrongly, while imagining herself to be, as Sir Lucius later describes her, ‘queen of the dictionary’.

[Re-enter LUCY.]

O Lud! ma’am, they are both coming up stairs.

Well, I’ll not detain you, coz.–Adieu, my dear Julia. I’m sure you are in haste to send to Faulkland.–There–through my room you’ll find another staircase.

So it’s not going to be a tragedy; there is (literally in this case, with ‘another staircase’) a way out of any situation she is forced into.

Adieu! [Embraces LYDIA, and exit.]

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.

Lydia presents herself in yet another pose: as an obedient young woman reading an improving book. She constructs a self for her aunt to see, and controls what her aunt sees of her. Fordyce’s Sermons (which Mr Collins reads to the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice) were ‘Sermons to Young Women’ and he warned against the reading of novels. There is lots of energy in Lydia’s words here: ‘hide’, ‘fling’, ‘throw’, ‘thrust’. Languishing is another of her poses. The real Lydia is a lively, resourceful young woman.

The Innocent Adultery was a French novel and was ‘thoroughly indecent’. And it is hidden in the middle of The Whole Duty of Man – evidently Sheridan didn’t take all the bawdy jokes out of The Rivals when he recast it in a more acceptable form after its first performance. It seems that The Whole Duty of Man, a most improving and popular book on religious conduct, written in 1659, is only used by Lydia to hide indecent novels and to provide paper for ‘curl-papers’ to curl her hair with. Mrs Chapone; Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. Addressed to a young Lady (1773) were addressed from an aunt to her niece, which may be why Lydia thinks they would appeal to Mrs Malaprop. They were written in ‘the language of the heart.’ On the other hand, the contents seem unlikely to appeal to Lydia. The first five letters are: 1. On the first principles of religion. 2, 3 On the study of the Holy Scriptures. 4,5 On the regulation of the heart and affections.

Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his son (1774) by the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, were said by Dr Johnson to ‘teach the morals of a whore.’ However, they insisted on absolute parental authority, so they should be very acceptable to Mrs Malaprop. The inside of Lydia’s mind is obviously entirely filled with fantasy and overwrought sentimental romance. Maybe it’s funny to see how unlikely it is that any of the books Mrs Malaprop thinks Lydia should read will ever be used for anything other than curling her hair or hiding indecent novels in.

[Exit LUCY.]


There, Sir Anthony, there sits the deliberate simpleton who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling.

So that’s how this society values a person: how rich are they? Sheridan is satirising the priorities of late 18th century high society.
In pointing out Lydia with repeated ‘there’, Mrs Malaprop is making Lydia the focus of this part of the scene. ‘There, Sir Anthony, there sits the deliberate simpleton …’ Mrs Malaprop does not address Lydia directly, nor give her her name, but simply a degrading label, ‘the deliberate simpleton.’

Madam, I thought you once—-

You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all–thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow–to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

In interrupting Lydia so peremptorily, Mrs Malaprop is demonstrating her power over Lydia. Lydia is not even allowed to speak. Mrs Malaprop also issues a magisterial and incontrovertible-sounding statement: ‘thought does not become a young woman.’ She follows this up with another statement, though she calls it a request: ‘you will promise to forget this fellow’ – the alliterating fs of forget and fellow emphasising his worthlessness.

‘Illiterate’ (unable to read or write) is funny because it’s ironic. Mrs Malaprop thinks she is particularly literate. She also manages to misuse it as a verb when actually it is properly an adjective or a noun. The word obliterate that she intended is a verb. ‘Thought does not become a young woman’ shows what young women were for: mindless decoration (and money, if they were, like Lydia, an heiress).

Ah, madam! our memories are independent of our wills. It is not so easy to forget.

An exaggeratedly sentimental notion from a Lydia who had to invent a glitch in her perfect romance with Beverley so that it was sufficiently sentimental.

Lydia’s phrasing here is full of feeling, a contrast to Mrs Malaprop’s unfeeling commands. ‘Ah, madam!….’ She counters Mrs Malaprop’s statements with two of her own; they sound sentimental and they come from the world of the sentimental novel, but none the less, they are statements. ‘…our memories are independent of our wills. It is not so easy to forget.’

But I say it is, miss; there is nothing on earth so easy as to forget, if a person chooses to set about it. I’m sure I have as much forgot your poor dear uncle as if he had never existed–and I thought it my duty so to do; and let me tell you, Lydia, these violent memories don’t become a young woman.

Joke: Mrs Malaprop, the guardian of Lydia’s heart, is trying to instruct her in proper behaviour. She gives a most unfortunate example of her ability to forget! She claims to have forgotten her life’s partner ‘as if he had never existed.’

Why sure she won’t pretend to remember what she’s ordered not!–ay, this comes of her reading!

Another example of the mindlessness expected in a young woman. This is a patriarchal society, where the men have all the power, so they don’t want any threat to their supremacy from an educated woman. Sir Anthony does not even bother to address her personally; he refers to Lydia as ‘she’, rather as if she was not even present.

What crime, madam, have I committed, to be treated thus?

Now don’t attempt to extirpate (destroy, eradicate; she means, extricate) yourself from the matter; you know I have proof controvertible of it.–But tell me, will you promise to do as you’re bid? Will you take a husband of your friends’ choosing?

Madam, I must tell you plainly, that had I no preferment for any one else, the choice you have made would be my aversion.

Lydia’s language here shows us her total opposition to Mrs Malaprop’s authority. ‘I’ (Lydia) is set against ‘you’ (Mrs Malaprop) and ‘preferment’ is set against ‘aversion’. The contrasting words point up the conflict between Mrs Malaprop and Lydia. ‘I’ and ‘you’ are words concerned with personalities and ‘preferment’ and ‘aversion’ are words concerned with feelings, which kind of sums it all up. We are building towards Lydia’s exit line which soon follows.

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 (aware) what a wife I made!–and when it pleased Heaven to release me from him, ‘tis unknown what tears I shed!–But suppose we were going to give you another choice, will you promise us to give up this Beverley?

Mrs Malaprop’s ideas about what ‘becomes’ (is fitting, appropriate for) a young woman to feel seem as ridiculous as the ideas Lydia has got hold of in her sentimental novels.
Ironically, Mrs Malaprop tells Lydia she should have nothing to do with aversion (dislike) and then claims that she hated her husband! (The husband she has just triumphantly told us she has managed to forget!)

The words Sheridan gives Mrs Malaprop point up her highlighting of Lydia for a little timely instruction. ‘What business have you, miss …? They don’t become a young woman…’ She follows ‘you’ with ‘miss’ thus stressing Lydia’s lack of experience, and then underlines Lydia’s youth by calling her ‘young woman.’ First she attacks Lydia with a question, ‘What business have you …?’ then she produces an authoritative statement of fact, ‘They don’t become a young woman’, and finally she follows all this up with a pronouncement apparently born of experience but which sounds either ludicrous or cynical when applied to marriage.
The tone of what Mrs Malaprop says here, and the way she addresses Lydia as ‘miss’, is reminiscent of Dr Samuel Johnson, who died 9 years after the first performance of The Rivals, and who was much given to making magisterial statements. The manner of Mrs Malaprop’s statements is magisterial, but the content is not – it’s bathetic! Here’s Dr Johnson on the subject of women: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
from Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The plot is ironic too. Julia may marry Faulkland but Faulkland keeps inventing difficulties of a sentimental novel variety. Lydia is not allowed to marry Beverley (essence of a sentimental novel hero) but he is actually the man Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony want her to marry.

Could I belie my thoughts so far as to give that promise, my actions would certainly as far belie (contradict) my words.

Take yourself to your room.–You are fit company for nothing but your own ill-humours.

Willingly, ma’am–I cannot change for the worse. [Exit.]

Sheridan writes terrific exit lines for his actors.

There’s a little intricate hussy for you!

It is not to be wondered at, ma’am,–all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art (witchcraft) as their alphabet!

In the Bristol Old Vic production, Sir Anthony emphasised ‘the natural consequence of teaching girls to read’ by waving his arms to make the point in time with his stressing of the appropriate syllables. The exaggeration / hyperbole in ‘a thousand daughters … the black art as their alphabet!’ is very entertaining. But it also illustrates that the play is set in a time when women were not considered worthy of education; men alone were rational enough to be educated. Today, with our emphasis on the equality of men and women, this seems a serious point. On the other hand, Sir Anthony has not a grain of reason in him, so Sheridan is poking fun at patriarchal assumptions.

When Sir Anthony exclaims that, even if he had a thousand daughters, he would as soon have them taught witchcraft as reading, he is, of course, exaggerating. (Both the thousand daughters and the witchcraft are hyperbolic.) However, this comes a little nearer the truth than we can imagine in the twenty-first century. The father of Frances Sheridan, Sheridan’s mother, was only ‘with difficulty prevailed on to allow his daughter to learn to read; and to write, he affirmed to be perfectly superfluous in the education of a feamle.’ He ‘considered the possession of this art (writing), as tending to nothing but the multiplication of love letters, or the scarcely less dangerous interchange of sentiment in the confidential effusions of female correspondence.’ (Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs Frances Sheridan by Alicia LeFanu, 1824; Alicia LeFanu was Sheridan’s niece.)

Nay, nay, Sir Anthony, you are an absolute misanthropy.

This is a play on the words Anthony Absolute as well as being yet another example of Mrs Malaprop using the wrong words and thinking that she is showing off her intellectuality.

In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece’s maid coming forth from a circulating library!–She had a book in each hand–they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!–From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

Books from circulating libraries were usually ‘Half-bound volumes (books) with marble covers’ (leather spines and marbled paper boards), which is why Sir Anthony is able to identify them so easily. As circulating libraries were known to stock little but fiction, Sir Anthony can guess what Lydia reads – not books ‘full of duty’!

Those are vile places, indeed!

Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!–And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.

Sir Anthony is playing on the two meanings of ‘leaves’: leaves of a tree, such as the tree of diabolical knowledge – an allusion to the book of Genesis, Chapter 2, in the Bible. God told Adam and Eve: ‘of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ Eve ate the fruit of the tree and then gave it to Adam to eat, hence Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise. Sir Anthony means that Lydia and young women like here who read the books from a circulating library, will long for the fruit; they will be prompted to lustful desires and unladylike wishes. The other meaning of leaf is a page of a book, so as Lydia turns over the pages of sentimental novels, she will learn to long for sex.

Fy, fy, Sir Anthony! you surely speak laconically.

Why, Mrs. Malaprop, in moderation now, what would you have a woman

Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning; I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or simony, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning–neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolical instruments.–But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. 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;–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.

Lydia has no need of instruction in the art of ‘a little ingenuity and artifice’! Sheridan adds to our enjoyment of Mrs Malaprop’s misfiring vocabulary by making it – ironically enough – true!

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. But, Mrs. Malaprop, to the more important point in
debate–you say you have no objection to my proposal?

None, I assure you. I am under no positive engagement with Mr. Acres,
and as Lydia is so obstinate against him, perhaps your son may have
better success.

It seems that Mrs Malaprop has considered Acres as a husband for Lydia, but has not made any such arrangement official.
Sir Anthony’s proposal is evidently that his son Jack (whom Lydia knows as Beverley) should marry Mrs Malaprop’s niece, Lydia.

Well, madam, I will write for the boy directly. He knows not a syllable
of this yet, though I have for some time had the proposal in my head.
He is at present with his regiment.

We have never seen your son, Sir Anthony; but I hope no objection on his side.

It’s important to remember this: Mrs Malaprop has never seen Jack Absolute, which is why the Act III trick works. The servants know much more than their employers; their young employers know less than the servants but more than Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony. Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony think they are in control and behave tyrannically and in a most exaggerated way, but they know less than anyone else. The audience know more than everybody else, which means that they can really enjoy the awkward situations that people get into.

Objection!–let him object if he dare!–No, no, Mrs. Malaprop, Jack
knows that the least demur puts me in a frenzy directly. My process was
always very simple–in their younger days, ‘twas “Jack, do this”;–if
he demurred, I knocked him down–and if he grumbled at that, I always
sent him out of the room.

Sir Anthony’s idea of how to communicate with somebody: ‘I knocked him down … I sent him out of the room.’ Typically ‘absolute,’ meaning inflexible.

Ay, and the properest way, o’ my conscience!–nothing is so
conciliating to young people as severity.–Well, Sir Anthony, I shall
give Mr. Acres his discharge, and prepare Lydia to receive your son’s
invocations;–and I hope you will represent her to the captain as an
object not altogether illegible.

Madam, I will handle the subject prudently.–Well, I must leave you; and let me beg you, Mrs. Malaprop, to enforce this matter roundly to the girl.–Take my advice–keep a tight hand: if she rejects this proposal, clap her under lock and key; and if you were just to let the servants forget to bring her dinner for three or four days, you can’t conceive how she’d come about. [Exit.]

More of Sir Anthony’s very absolute ideas on how to interrelate with somebody: ‘clap her under lock and key…. you can’t conceive how she’d come about’ (how quickly she’d obey you). It’s a good exit line, too. Sheridan always writes terrific exit lines for his actors.

Well, at any rate, I shall be glad to get her from under my intuition. She has somehow discovered my partiality for Sir Lucius O’Trigger–sure, Lucy can’t have betrayed me!–No, the girl is such a simpleton, I should have made her confess it.–Lucy!–Lucy!–[Calls.] Had she been one of your artificial ones, I should never have trusted her.

[Re-enter LUCY.]

Did you call, ma’am?

Yes, girl.–Did you see Sir Lucius while you was out?

No, indeed, ma’am, not a glimpse of him.

You are sure, Lucy, that you never mentioned—-

Oh gemini! I’d sooner cut my tongue out.

Gemini is the star sign of the twins. Perhaps Lucy so often says ‘oh, gemini’ because she behaves like two different people, saying one thing to one person and quite another thing to another person. It may be a contraction of Jesu domine (Lord Jesus), an oath.

Well, don’t let your simplicity be imposed on.

Ironic: it’s Mrs Malaprop’s simplicity, or gullibility, that is being imposed on. And, to make it funnier, Mrs Malaprop thinks she is in charge. And she is asking Lucy about Sir Lucius, with whom she is carrying on a secret correspondence, while at the same time she has disrupted Lydia’s romance with Ensign Beverley. If this were a serious play, she would be exposed as a corrupt hypocrite. As it’s a comedy, we laugh at her lack of self-knowledge, or at the fact that she herself is engaged in the very activity that she condemns in Lydia. Sheridan presents her double standards as foolishness, not as vice.

No, ma’am.

So, come to me presently, and I’ll give you another letter to Sir Lucius; but mind, Lucy–if ever you betray what you are entrusted with (unless it be other people’s secrets to me), you forfeit my malevolence for ever; and your being a simpleton shall be no excuse for your locality. [Exit.]

Ha! ha! ha!–So, my dear Simplicity, let me give you a little
respite.–[Altering her manner.] Let girls in my station be as fond as
they please of appearing expert, and knowing in their trusts; commend
me to a mask of silliness, and a pair of sharp eyes for my own interest
under it!–Let me see to what account have I turned my simplicity
lately.–[Looks at a paper.] For abetting Miss Lydia Languish in a
design of running away with an ensign!–in money, sundry times, twelve
pound twelve; gowns, five; hats, ruffles, caps, c., c.,
numberless!–From the said ensign, within this last month, six guineas
and a half .–About a quarter’s pay!–Item, from Mrs. Malaprop, for
betraying the young people to her –when I found matters were likely to
be discovered– two guineas, and a black paduasoy. –Item, from Mr.
Acres, for carrying divers letters –which I never delivered– two
guineas, and a pair of buckles. –Item, from Sir Lucius O’Trigger,
three crowns, two gold pocket-pieces, and a silver snuff-box! –Well
done, Simplicity!–Yet I was forced to make my Hibernian believe, that
he was corresponding, not with the aunt, but with the niece; for though
not over rich, I found he had too much pride and delicacy to sacrifice
the feelings of a gentleman to the necessities of his fortune. [Exit.]

Lucy’s soliloquy (speaking alone on stage) means that she can develop a relationship with the audience as she takes us into her confidence. So we know more than the main characters do. We realize that Lucy is really very bright, and is pretending to be ‘simple’ and then making lots of money out of socially superior people whom she’s actually deceiving very successfully. So how superior are the people who think they are superior? What makes somebody superior? Money? Cleverness? Sheridan poses plenty of questions.

Money is of supreme interest to many of the characters in the play. In her speech here, Lucy is delighted by her ability to deceive her social superiors, and the considerable amount of money and items of fashion they have paid her – frequently, to deceive them. The word ‘account’ introduces this list of acquisitions. Lucy uses the phrase ‘to what account’ in its sense of accounting for the money she’s received (usually it also refers to money paid out, but in Lucy’s case it seems all to have been income!). The phrase is very similar to ‘to good account’ which refers to something that has turned out remarkably well or, in Lucy’s terms, profitably. The society of The Rivals is a very acquisitive one.
Amongst the list of items Lucy has been paid is a ‘paduasoy’ which is a dress made of rich silk. The pocket piece will probably be a coin or good luck charm.

A lot of the characters are acting a part. Lucy is acting the part of being ‘simple’ in order to deceive her social superiors. She knows exactly what she is doing. Lydia is acting the part of a heroine in a sentimental novel and deceiving herself. Jack Absolutely is acting the part of Ensign Beverley in order to attract Lydia who thinks she could never love an eligible young man. He knows exactly what he is doing. Mrs Malaprop is pretending to be Delia, a young woman, and she has rather fallen for Sir Lucius. In the Bristol Old Vic 2004 production, Mrs Malaprop wore dresses that were too young for her, and had a love lock curling down her shoulders. Unfortunately, the love lock was grey. She obviously had not come to terms with her age. Mrs Malaprop is also under the impression that she is effective in controlling her niece – which she is not. She also flatters herself that she is an articulate intellectual – again, she deceives no-one but herself.

The deceptions have different purposes. Lucy is deceiving her various employers for money. Lydia and Mrs Malaprop think that they can control other people, but in fact their deceptions are self-deceptions. They do not know themselves. Sheridan demonstrates this in Lydia, for example, by contrasting Lydia’s fancied and self-regarding romance with Beverley with Julia’s genuine love for Faulkland. Jack Absolute, whom we shall meet in the next scene, really is controlling Lydia but he is playing a risky and ultimately self-defeating game because Beverley stands in Absolute’s way. He has no illusions about the difficulty of making the transition from Beverley to Absolute.

The actress playing Lydia in the Bristol Old Vic 2004 production signalled, through the change in her voice, when she was being a sentimental heroine’ (asking for the sal volatile) and then, when her maid thought sal volatile was a book, asking in a completely normal, unaffected voice, for the ‘smelling-bottle’. She did this again when she was talking to Julia. ‘I have lost him’ (sentimental novel voice) and ‘I wrote a letter to myself’ (normal voice).

The contrast between Lydia and Julia was made very clear. Lydia has invented Beverley’s wrongdoing in order to liven up her romance and make it run along sentimental novel lines. ‘I wrote a letter to myself.’ Julia, in contrast, defends Faulkland energetically: ‘As for his character, you wrong him there, too.’ The similarities between Lydia and Faulkland, and between Julia and Jack, appear in the next scene.

It appears that Mrs Malaprop is carrying on a correspondence with Sir Lucius, a younger man (though not that much younger in this production). Is this satirising the foolish hopes of the older woman who refuses to recognise that she is no longer attractive? Mrs Malaprop scolds Lydia for falling in love with a young man ‘not worth a shilling’ (5p) so in this society you are only valued if you are well off or of good social status.

When Sir Anthony Absolute appears, we hear the extremes of patriarchal views on young women, and the exaggeration is comic. ‘This is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read.’ And ‘a circulating library … is a tree of diabolical knowledge.’ Mrs Malaprop comes out with some extraordinary remarks. Funny because she thinks she is airing her education and intelligence and ironically she is revealing her lack of education, and ignorance. She says that girls should ‘learn ingenuity and artifice’ which is of course precisely what Lydia has learned. In this production Mrs Malaprop was not overplayed; she was rather serious.

It is obvious that both Mrs Malaprop and Lydia have misused their reading. Lydia has used it to fill her head with fanciful notions about love, and Mrs Malaprop has used to it fill her head with the wrong words. In the next scene, it becomes clear that Jack Absolute is using Lydia’s sentimental novels to his own advantage in wooing her as the penniless Beverley. Sir Anthony turns Mrs Malaprop’s ludicrous boasting through her misuse of vocabulary to his own advantage by pretending not to notice her mangling of the English language and thus flattering her. Neither her reading nor Mrs Malaprop’s experience of life have led her to make any sensible suggestions to Lydia, and Sir Anthony’s experience of life simply serves to fuel his extreme views. Neither Mrs Malaprop nor Sir Anthony has any self knowledge, and this is a source of humour.
In this scene we have seen Lydia languishing, Mrs Malaprop making remarks that were mal a propos and Sir Anthony being absolute. We have seen the stereotypes in action. The exaggeration of the words showed up the stereotypical nature of the characters, so we were able to be detached and entertained.

It is, however, possible to play Mrs Malaprop as more than simply for laughs. Geraldine McEwan played Mrs Malaprop in the acclaimed production at the National Theatre in 1983. Benedict Nightingale reviewed the performance:

Geraldine McEwan’s Malaprop is neither bumbling lady brontosaurus nor dyslexic Lady Bracknell, but a woman whose pride is her intellect and whose weakness is to set it challenges it has never been trained to meet. She is like Sisyphus with his stone, forever flexing her mental muscles, seizing on intransigent words and trying to shove them into impossible places. It is a task that, understandably enough, brings her moments of self-doubt, even pain; and, when she thinks she’s accomplished it, the relief on that solemn, superior face of hers is marvellous to see. But it is also an obsession, and compulsive need to prove and reassure herself: so much so that Miss McEwan can get away with increasing the numer of malapropisms provided by her author. Her last sentence, ‘Men are all barbarians’ quite plausibly becomes ‘Men are all Bavarians’, and off she stalks, nostrils quivering, to find new words to conquer.’

Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman, 22 April 1983

Rivals Act II scene i

Captain Absolute’s lodgings

At last we meet the hero, Captain Jack Absolute. We heard about him in Act I scene i and scene ii and now we meet him. We will see him control quite a lot of the action (we know he does that because he has already become Ensign Beverley in order to pander to Lydia’s sentimental tastes). Here he will, for example, feed Bob Acres questions to fuel Faulkland’s ridiculous anxieties about whether Julia really loves him. On the other hand, we and his servant Fag already know more than he does. We know that Fag revealed his secret to Thomas in scene i. So Jack is not quite as much in control as he thinks he is. Our knowledge undermines Jack’s self-confidence.

This scene is almost the exact counterpart of the previous one (Act I scene ii). In that scene, we met the women and in this scene we meet all the men except for Sir Lucius. In that scene, we were in Mrs Malaprop’s lodgings, and various people came to see her niece, the heroine, Lydia. First Lydia was with her maid, Lucy, then she saw her friend, Julia, then her aunt Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute arrived and the scene closed with Lucy’s soliloquy to the audience. In this scene, we are in Jack Absolute’s lodgings. The people we see him with follow the same pattern as in Act I scene ii. First he is with his servant, Fag (as Lydia was with her maid, Lucy); then he sees his friend Faulkland, (as Lydia saw her friend, Julia). Then Bob Acres, the country bumpkin arrives and Jack gets him to make Faulkland jealous. Then Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute, appears (as Lydia’s guardian, Mrs Malprop did), and finally, Jack is left with his servant Fag, tells him off and Fag tells his subordinate off – whereas, Lucy was on stage alone in Act I scene ii.

In both Act I scene ii and in Act II scene i, Sheridan reveals character through contrast, and this contrast also produces entertainment. Both Lucy the maid and Fag the servant know more than Lydia and Jack Absolute, their employers. Lydia talks to her great friend Julia who is her opposite, and Jack Absolute talks to his friend Faulkland, who is his opposite. Both Julia and Faulkland take themselves and their feelings seriously, whereas Lydia and Jack Absolute are more down to earth – even though Lydia is enjoying the pretence of being the heroine of a sentimental novel. Then we see Lydia with Mrs Malaprop and Jack Absolute with his father; both Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony make outrageous demands of their niece and son, while imagining that they are behaving reasonably.

Both scenes predominantly feature two characters on stage at a time. When there are three characters (Mrs Malaprop, Sir Anthony and Lydia in Act I scene ii; Jack Absolute, Faulkland and Acres in Act II scene i) they share a similar pattern. Lydia is protesting her love for a man who doesn’t exist, and is being told off by her elders, one of whom (Mrs Malaprop) is a figure of fun. In the next scene, Faulkland is upset for a reason that exists only in his imagination and Acres is the figure of fun. Both scenes are concerned with love, primarily in ways that entertain, but also contain elements of seriousness.


Sir, while I was there Sir Anthony came in: I told him you had sent me
to inquire after his health, and to know if he was at leisure to see you.

And what did he say, on hearing I was at Bath?

Sir, in my life I never saw an elderly gentleman more astonished! He started back two or three paces, rapped out a dozen interjectural (abrupt) oaths, and asked, what the devil had brought you here.

Well, sir, and what did you say?

Oh, I lied, sir–I forgot the precise lie; but you may depend on’t, he got no truth from me. Yet, with submission (being submissive, obedient), for fear of blunders (mistakes) in future, I should be glad to fix what has brought us to Bath; in order that we may lie a little consistently. Sir Anthony’s servants were curious, sir, very curious indeed.

There are layers of deception here. Jack Absolute and Fag are deceiving Sir Anthony with the same story – singing from the same hymn sheet. In addition, Fag is deceiving Jack, as he has told Sir Anthony’s coachman, Thomas, what is going on. We, the audience, know more than Jack. It’s ironic that the servants know more than their employers do, and that the younger generation know more than their tyrannical elders do (Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony).

You have said nothing to them?

Oh, not a word, sir,–not a word! Mr. Thomas, indeed, the coachman
(whom I take to be the discreetest of whips)—-

‘Sdeath!–you rascal! you have not trusted him!

Oh, no, sir–no–no–not a syllable, upon my veracity (truth, word) !–He was, indeed,
a little inquisitive; but I was sly, sir–devilish sly! My master (said I), honest Thomas (you know, sir, one says honest to one’s inferiors,) is come to Bath to recruit–Yes, sir, I said to recruit–and whether for men, money, or constitution, you know, sir, is nothing to him, nor any one else.

Well, recruit will do–let it be so.

There’s a play on words here. ‘Recruit’ can mean Jack is in Bath to drum up new recruits for the army. It can mean to find a new supply of money (by marrying an heiress). Or it can mean, as in Sir Anthony’s case, to restore your health (Sir Anthony’s gout). The play on words reflects the layers of deception that are being played off on everyone by everyone else. Because the audience knows more than Jack Absolute does, it gives us a privileged point of view, entertainment-wise. We can look forward to all sorts of difficult situations that will arise as people misunderstand each other and deceive each other.

When Fag says, ‘Oh, I lied, sir,’ Jack does not tell him off for lying. But he is worried that they will be found out. This is how Sheridan signals to us that his play is not going to explore the moral aspect of deceiving, but is going to treat lying at the much more superficial level of whether or not the tricksters will be found out.

Oh, sir, recruit will do surprisingly–indeed, to give the thing an air (make the lie sound good), I told Thomas, that your honour had already enlisted five disbanded chairmen (unemployed carriers of sedan-chairs), seven minority (very young) waiters, and thirteen billiard-markers (people who keep the score at billiards).

You blockhead, never say more than is necessary.

I beg pardon, sir–I beg pardon–but, with submission, a lie is nothing unless one supports it. Sir, whenever I draw on my invention for a good current lie, I always forge endorsements as well as the bill. (Fag means that when he tells a lie he likes to have plenty of fake stories to support it, like a forged cheque with fake signatures. Again, money and cheating are at the front of his mind.)

Well, take care you don’t hurt your credit, by offering too much security.–Is Mr. Faulkland returned?

The words ‘credit’ and ‘security’ have two meanings: credit meaning reputation and credit / security meaning money. The double meaning reveals the characters’ principal interest: money.

He is above, sir, changing his dress (clothes.)

Faulkland is changing from travelling clothes to clothes suitable for a very fashionable city. He has been away on business in Bristol.

Can you tell whether he has been informed of Sir Anthony and Miss Melville’s arrival?

I fancy not, sir; he has seen no one since he came in but hisgentleman, who was with him at Bristol.–I think, sir, I hear Mr. Faulkland coming down—-

Go, tell him I am here.

Yes, sir.–[Going.] I beg pardon, sir, but should Sir Anthony call, you will do me the favour to remember that we are recruiting, if you please.

Well, well.

And, in tenderness (out of consideration for) to my character (reputation), if your honour could bring in (mention the story about recruiting the chair carriers and out of work waiters) the chairmen and waiters, I should esteem it as an obligation (something I would be grateful for); for though I never scruple a lie (hesitate to lie) to serve my master, yet it hurts one’s conscience to be found out. [Exit.]

Although Fag expresses himself in a subservient way, ‘with submission’ and keeps addressing Absolute as ‘sir’, and ‘your honour,’ he is in fact giving his master orders, and telling him how to keep up the deception as effectively as possible.

Now for my whimsical friend–if he does not know that his mistress (fiancée) is
here, I’ll tease him a little before I tell him—-

Sheridan encourages the audience to enjoy themselves, by signalling clearly what is going to happen in the next few lines; the audience’s anticipation is part of their enjoyment. Here we are alerted to the fact that Faulkland is ‘whimsical’ (prompted by whim or caprice, fancy, having nothing to do with common sense) and that Jack is going to tease Faulkland for a while before telling him that Julia is in Bath.


Faulkland, you’re welcome to Bath again; you are punctual in your return.

Yes; I had nothing to detain me, when I had finished the business I went on. Well, what news since I left you? how stand matters between you and Lydia?

Faith, much as they were; I have not seen her since our quarrel; however, I expect to be recalled every hour.

So Jack is well aware of what Lydia is playing at, inventing letters to herself and so on. Does this make you feel he really loves her and is allowing her to play at being a sentimental heroine, or does it make you feel he is being patronizing? He is breezily confident: ‘I have not seen her since our quarrel; however, I expect to be recalled every hour.’

Why don’t you persuade her to go off with you at once?

What, and lose two-thirds of her fortune? you forget that, my friend.–No, no, I could have brought her to that long ago.

Money is evidently quite as important as love to Jack. Or even more important? He has calculated exactly how much of her fortune he will lose if he elopes with Lydia before she is of age, at 21. This is a hundred years or so before the Married Women’s Property Act, and Lydia’s very considerable fortune becomes Jack’s as soon as they are married. And, entertainingly, his wishes (to marry her and her fortune, as himself therefore and not as Ensign Beverley) are directly in conflict with Lydia’s wishes. This will make for audience entertainment. Who will win the conflict and how? The entertainment will be in the how. Jack is quite controlling, or maybe you think he is simply confident that he is in control of the situation: ‘I could have brought her to that long ago.’

Nay then, you trifle too long–if you are sure of her, propose to the aunt in your own character, and write to Sir Anthony for his consent.

Ironic. It’s Faulkland who trifles with Julia (trifle with means play with), perceiving (inventing, or fancying) behaviour in her that means she doesn’t love him, when in fact she really does.

Softly, softly; for though I am convinced my little Lydia would elope with me as Ensign Beverley, yet am I by no means certain that she would take me with the impediment of our friends’ consent, a regular humdrum wedding, and the reversion of a good fortune on my side: no, no; I must prepare her gradually for the discovery, and make myself necessary to her, before I risk it.–Well, but Faulkland, you’ll dine with us to-day at the hotel?

The fun here is in the paradox (self-contradictory, absurd, or intrinsically unreasonable nature) of ‘consent’, ‘wedding’ and ‘good fortune’ (‘fortune’ here means money, so, not good luck but lots of money) being an ‘impediment’ (obstacle) and a risk. It shows how ridiculous Lydia’s notions are, all got from sentimental novels. The absurd nature of Lydia’s ideas is highlighted by the formal 18th century construction of Jack’s sentence, where one half is set against the other:

‘though I am convinced my little Lydia would elope with me as Ensign Beverley,’ set against ‘yet am I by no means certain that she would take me with the impediment of our friends’ consent, a regular humdrum wedding, and the reversion of a good fortune on my side.’

‘Though’ matches ‘yet’; ‘I am convinced’ matches ‘am I by no means certain’; ‘Lydia would elope with me’ matches ‘that she would take me.’
This build up prepares us for the final burst of hilarity: ‘as Ensign Beverley’ Jack is safe, but as Jack he is uncertain, and he sets against himself the longish list of all the aspects in favour of the marriage, which in Lydia’s book-filled mind are drawbacks – ‘our friends’ consent, a regular humdrum wedding, and the reversion of a good fortune on my side.’
The way Jack speaks reflects his awareness of the stages involved in his preparing Lydia for the revelation that he is Jack Absolute. Each stage has a different verb, linked with a different conjunction, before the final, short, rather tense clause: ‘I risk it.’

I must prepare her gradually for the discovery,
and make myself necessary to her,
before I risk it.

Indeed I cannot; I am not in spirits to be of such a party.

By heavens! I shall forswear your company. You are the most teasing, captious, incorrigible lover!–Do love like a man.

‘I shall forswear your company’ means I shall have to give up seeing you if you’re going to behave like that. ‘Do love like a man’ means man up. ‘Captious’ means disposed to find fault, cavil, or raise objections; fault-finding, cavilling, carping. Jack is saying, You’re impossible to please. If Lydia is playing at being the heroine of a sentimental novel, Faulkland is certainly playing at being the hero. Absolute’s energetic nature is contrasted to Faulkland’s romantic pose: ‘Do love like a man,’ contrasts with ‘I am not in spirits to be of such a party,’ and ‘I own I am unfit for company.’ Faulkland’s speech is full of the word ‘I’; he is very self-absorbed.

I own I am unfit for company.

An exaggerated (‘unfit’) fashionable melancholia. In the Bristol Old Vic production of 2004, this fashionable melancholia is emphasised by Faulkland’s clothes: he is clad in black in order to reflect his fashionable misery while he is separated from Julia.

Am I not a lover; ay, and a romantic one too? Yet do I carry every where with me such a confounded farrago of doubts, fears, hopes, wishes, and all the flimsy furniture of a country miss’s brain!

’Confounded’ is a mild swear word, meaning, damned, sent to hell; ‘farrago’ means a confused mixture. ‘doubts, fears, hopes ….’ – these words are the language of sentimental novels. It’s not very complimentary to Faulkland to say that the inside of his brain resembles that of a country miss. The repeated fs of ‘confounded’, ‘farrago,’ and ‘flimsy furniture’ especially in the theatre, where alliteration is easy to hear, is equally dismissive of Falkland’s neurosis. The fs link the words ‘confounded’, ‘farrago’, and ‘flimsy furniture’ so that we can easily understand Absolute’s contempt and exasperation for such lack of manliness. Sheridan points up the comedy by making the character of Faulkland a complete contrast to that of Jack Absolute.

Ah! Jack, your heart and soul are not, like mine, fixed immutably (unchangeably) on
one only object. You throw for a large stake, but losing, you could stake and throw again;–but I have set my sum of happiness on this cast, and not to succeed, were to be stripped of all.

‘Stake’, ‘throw’ and ‘cast’ are words associated with gambling which makes it sound as if winning the girl you love is a matter of luck. Jack does indeed throw his dice for a large stake – Lydia’s fortune is £30,000. Faulkland uses words associated both with love and with money ‘sum’ when he describes what he is playing for: ‘heart and soul’ and also ‘my sum of happiness.’ As so often with Faulkland, his speech is perfectly set out, contrasting Jack’s situation with his own:
You throw for a large stake, but losing, you could stake and throw again;
–but I have set my sum of happiness on this cast, and not to succeed, were to be stripped of all.
Here, Faulkland describes Jack’s future as being in Jack’s own hands; he uses the active mood of the verb: ‘you could stake and throw again.’ He describes his own possible future as being imposed upon him, as if he has no say in the matter. ‘Not to succeed, were to be stripped of all,’ is in the passive mood.
Faulkland is very stylish: he has a servant called Du Peigne (French for ‘of the comb’). Not only is his servant French – very modish – but surely the aptronym (name that suggests a characteristic) suggests a concern with fashion. Equally, Faulkland speaks in a very stylish way; his neurosis may be culled from fashionable sentiment, but the way his speeches are constructed is very elegant. Perhaps rather self-consciously elegant? Their elegance is heightened by Jack’s exasperated down-to-earth expression: ‘But, for heaven’s sake! what grounds for apprehension can your whimsical brain conjure up at present?’

But, for heaven’s sake! what grounds for apprehension (anxiety) can your
whimsical brain conjure up at present?

What grounds for apprehension, did you say? Heavens! are there not a thousand! I fear for her spirits–her health–her life!–My absence may fret her; her anxiety for my return, her fears for me may oppress her gentle temper: and for her health, does not every hour bring me cause to be alarmed? If it rains, some shower may even then have chilled her delicate frame! If the wind be keen, some rude blast may have affected her! The heat of noon, the dews of the evening, may endanger the life of her, for whom only I value mine. O Jack! when delicate and feeling souls are separated, there is not a feature in the sky, not a movement of the elements, not an aspiration (breath, movement) of the breeze, but hints some cause for a lover’s apprehension!

Everything ‘may’ bring about something that will ‘oppress’ Julia or ‘chill her’, ‘affect her’, ‘endanger the life of her’. The exaggerated effect of ‘are there not a thousand!’ is increased by further repetition and patterning later in his speech: ‘not a feature … not a movement … not an …. but…’ Later in the speech, there is the repetition of ‘If …may. If …may….’All his examples are listed in rhetorically effective threesomes: ‘not a feature in the sky, not a movement of the elements, not an aspiration (breath) of the breeze.’ It’s all invention, garnered from sentimental novels and rendered ridiculous here because it’s all so exaggerated. (And therefore laughable and entertaining.) Also, more seriously, Faulkland is very preoccupied with himself: ‘my absence’, ‘my return’, ‘fears for me’, ‘bring me cause to be alarmed’. He sees himself as ‘a lover’ not as Faulkland who loves Julia. His language is very high-flown and poetic with its exclamations ‘Oh Jack!’ and its phrasing. ‘The heat of noon, the dews of the evening, may endanger the life of her, for whom only I value mine. Oh Jack!’ His behaviour is, as he sees it, appropriate for ‘a lover’. Of course, it’s ironically this behaviour that makes Julia break away from him.
Since Faulkland’s entry, the topics have been first Faulkland asking Jack about his love affair with Lydia, and then Jack asking Faulkland about his love affair with Julia. Jack is entirely sanguine about Lydia having quarrelled with him: ‘I expect to be recalled every hour.’ Faulkland, with no cause at all to be worried about Julia who loves him sincerely and faithfully, is neurotic to the point of desperation. The contrast between the two men increases the comedy of Faulkland’s behaviour. Julia’s long speech about the sincerity of her love in Act I scene ii makes Faulkland all the more ludicrous here.
Faulkland speaks at much great length than Jack does, which matches the imaginary nature of his distress. Jack’s feet are planted on the ground; even his deception of Lydia is grounded on the fact that she won’t consider marrying someone unromantically well off and approved of by her aunt.

Ay, but we may choose whether we will take the hint or not.–So, then,
Faulkland, if you were convinced that Julia were well and in spirits,
you would be entirely content?

I should be happy beyond measure–I am anxious only for that.

Then to cure your anxiety at once–Miss Melville is in perfect health,
and is at this moment in Bath.

More amusement: Jack knows that this won’t cure Faulkland’s anxiety in the least. Faulkland is sure to imagine more disasters.

Nay, Jack–don’t trifle (play) with me.

She is arrived here with my father within this hour.

Can you be serious?

I thought you knew Sir Anthony better than to be surprised at a sudden whim of this kind.–Seriously, then, it is as I tell you–upon my honour.

My dear friend!–Hollo, Du-Peigne! my hat.–My dear Jack–now nothing
on earth can give me a moment’s uneasiness.

Obviously, this cues some more fun for the audience. Jack will wind up Bob Acres, the country bumpkin who is just about to appear, and he will thus make Faulkland unhappy ‘uneasy’ again (which is his default position). Faulkland continues to talk in hyperbole: ’nothing on earth can give me a moment’s uneasiness.’

[Re-enter FAG.]

Sir, Mr. Acres, just arrived, is below.

Stay, Faulkland, this Acres lives within a mile of Sir Anthony, and he
shall tell you how your mistress has been ever since you left her.–
Fag, show this gentleman up.

[Exit FAG.]

What, is he much acquainted in the family?

Oh, very intimate: I insist on your not going: besides, his character
will divert you.

’Divert you’ means amuse you. Cue to audience to be amused. You can see how Jack controls much of what happens: ‘Stay, Faulkland’, and ‘I insist on your not going.’

Well, I should like to ask him a few questions.

He is likewise a rival of mine–that is, of my other self’s, for he does not think his friend Captain Absolute ever saw the lady in question; and it is ridiculous enough to hear him complain to me of one Beverley, a concealed skulking rival, who—-

One source of our entertainment is flagged up.

Hush!–he’s here.

[Enter ACRES.]

John Quick was the original Bob Acres (and had been the original Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer in 1773, the part of the country bumpkin equivalent to that of Acres.). He is described as having a ‘squeak like a Bart’lemew fiddle,’ which I imagine means a squeaky voice similar to a violin you might buy at St Bartholomew’s Fair. This was a fair held every year on 24th August (St Bartholomew’s Day) at West Smithfield, from 1133 – 1855. John Quick was ‘a pleasant little fellow’ but he was minute; he was called ‘the smart tiny Quick.’ Thus his pretensions to be a man of fashion form instant visual comedy. His hair refuses to be fashionable, his attempt at modish speech is a disaster and, as played by John Quick, he was knee-high to a daisy and squeaked.

Ha! my dear friend, noble captain, and honest Jack, how do’st thou?
just arrived, faith, as you see.–Sir, your humble servant.–Warm work
on the roads, Jack!–Odds whips and wheels! I’ve travelled like a
comet, with a tail of dust all the way as long as the Mall.

Ah! Bob, you are indeed an eccentric planet, but we know your
attraction hither.–Give me leave to introduce Mr. Faulkland to you; Mr.
Faulkland, Mr. Acres.

’Odds whips and wheels’ is the first example of Acres’ ludicrous newly-invented way of swearing in order to be very fashionable. He only succeeds in being very peculiar, as Jack points out (by calling him an eccentric planet, in reference to Acres having travelled like a ‘comet’). Acres has come to Bath to woo Lydia. Acres also makes out that he knows London, when he says that the dust his carriage raised stretched out ‘as long as the Mall’ – the road leading up to Buckingham Palace (which was in those days Buckingham House).

Sir, I am most heartily glad to see you: sir, I solicit your connections.–Hey, Jack–what, this is Mr. Faulkland, who—-

Ay, Bob, Miss Melville’s Mr. Faulkland.

Odso! she and your father can be but just arrived before me:–I suppose
you have seen them. Ah! Mr. Faulkland, you are indeed a happy man.

So it will be all the more amusing when we see the way Faulkland invents his own unhappiness out of nothing, just as Lydia had to manufacture her own crisis in her relationship with Beverley in the previous scene.

In the Bristol Old Vic production of 2004, Jack managed to talk to Faulkland and Acres separately and kept the two of them apart, so that the way he stage managed their responses and controlled them appeared more obvious.

I have not seen Miss Melville yet, sir;–I hope she enjoyed full health
and spirits in Devonshire?

Never knew her better in my life, sir,–never better. Odds blushes and
blooms! she has been as healthy as the German Spa.

Acres’s idea of a comparison is scarcely very feminine. He compares Julia’s recent health to that of a spa town in Germany where people go to take the waters and become more healthy – as they do in Bath. A comparison straight from a map or a geography lesson is hardly very flattering. Bob Acres is not very articulate.

Indeed! I did hear that she had been a little indisposed (unwell).

False, false, sir–only said to vex you: quite the reverse, I assure you.

Tactless of Bob Acres.

There, Jack, you see she has the advantage of me; I had almost fretted
myself ill.

Now are you angry with your mistress for not having been sick?

Absolute keeps spelling out how ridiculous Faulkland’s reactions are. Faulkland is mainly concerned with himself: ‘… advantage of me; I had almost fretted myself ill.’

No, no, you misunderstand me: yet surely a little trifling
indisposition is not an unnatural consequence of absence from those we
love.–Now confess–isn’t there something unkind in this violent,
robust, unfeeling health?

Oh, it was very unkind of her to be well in your absence, to be sure!

Absolute spells out Faulkland’s idiocy again.

Good apartments, Jack.

Well, sir, but you was saying that Miss Melville has been so
exceedingly well–what then she has been merry and gay (cheerful, jolly), I
suppose?–Always in spirits–hey?

Merry, odds crickets! she has been the belle and spirit of the company
wherever she has been–so lively and entertaining! so full of wit and

There, Jack, there.–Oh, by my soul! there is an innate levity (lightness, lack of seriousness) in woman, that nothing can overcome.–What! happy, and I away!

Have done.–How foolish this is! just now you were only apprehensive
for your mistress’ spirits.

Jack reminds Faulkland, in a thoroughly down to earth way, of what he said moments ago. The high-wrought generalisation about women, ‘there is an innate levity in woman,’ and the down to earth, robust tones of Jack, ‘Have done,’ form an amusing contrast that highlights Faulkland’s neurosis.

Why, Jack, have I been the joy and spirit of the company?

No, indeed, you have not.

Have I been lively and entertaining?

Oh, upon my word, I acquit you.

Have I been full of wit and humour?

No, faith, to do you justice, you have been confoundedly stupid indeed.

Jack insults Faulkland, as Faulkland puts question after question designed to prove his tragically heroic misery when separated from Julia. And Acres unwittingly adds to the fun: ‘What’s the matter with the gentleman?’

What’s the matter with the gentleman?

He is only expressing his great satisfaction at hearing that Julia has
been so well and happy–that’s all–hey, Faulkland?

Oh! I am rejoiced to hear it–yes, yes, she has a happy disposition!

That she has indeed–then she is so accomplished–so sweet a voice–so
expert at her harpsichord–such a mistress of flat and sharp, squallante, rumblante, and quiverante!–There was this time month–odds minims and crotchets! how she did chirrup at Mrs. Piano’s concert!

Acres produces made up pseudo-French words, meaning to be fashionable and failing miserably.

There again, what say you to this? you see she has been all mirth and
song–not a thought of me!

Pho! man, is not music the food of love?

Well, well, it may be so.–Pray, Mr.–, what’s his damned name?–Do you
remember what songs Miss Melville sung?

Not I indeed.

Stay, now, they were some pretty melancholy purling-stream airs, I warrant (I bet); perhaps you may recollect;–did she sing, When absent from my soul’s delight ?

Sentimental words, ‘melancholy’, ‘absent from my soul’s delight.’ Jack is deliberately winding Faulkland up by prompting Acres to say things that will upset Faulkland. ‘Purling-stream airs’ means tunes (airs) to songs about swirling streams, a cliche’d phrase often found in love poetry.

No, that wa’n’t it.

Or, Go, gentle gales ! [Sings.]

Oh, no! nothing like it. Odds! now I recollect one of them– My heart’s my own, my will is free . [Sings.]

This is precisely what is going to upset Faulkland – he thinks Julia’s heart is his.

Fool! fool that I am! to fix all my happiness on such a trifler! ‘Sdeath! to make herself the pipe and ballad-monger of a circle! to soothe her light heart with catches and glees!–What can you say to this, sir?

Why, that I should be glad to hear my mistress had been so merry, sir.

Faulkland gives way to exaggerated rhetoric: ‘Fool! fool that I am!’ Jack deflates and exposes the ridiculous rhetoric with a realistic, down-to-earth response: ‘I should be glad to hear my mistress had been so merry.’ A ballad-monger is someone who writes cheap verse that deals in slander, so presumably this is Faulkland’s description of the lyrics of the song Julia has sung.

Nay, nay, nay–I’m not sorry that she has been happy–no, no, I am glad of that–I would not have had her sad or sick–yet surely a sympathetic heart would have shown itself even in the choice of a song–she might have been temperately healthy, and somehow, plaintively gay (sadly cheerful);–but she has been dancing too, I doubt not!

‘Plaintively gay’ is a nonsensical combination of words.

What does the gentleman say about dancing?

He says the lady we speak of dances as well as she sings.

Absolute is feeding Acres ideas to upset Faulkland with. In addition to the singing, Acres will now describe Julia’s dancing.

Ay, truly, does she–there was at our last race ball—-

Hell and the devil! There!–there–I told you so! I told you so! Oh! she thrives in my absence!–Dancing! but her whole feelings have been in opposition with mine;–I have been anxious, silent, pensive, sedentary–my days have been hours of care, my nights of watchfulness.–She has been all health! spirit! laugh! song! dance!–Oh! damned, damned levity!

Again the high-flown contrast is typical of Faulkland’s self-regarding, sentimental pose. He contrasts Julia’s supposed happiness with his own anxiety: ‘I have been anxious, silent, pensive, sedentary (presumably the opposite of Julia’s dancing, but an odd adjective for a lover?). – my days have been hours of care, my nights of watchfulness (keeping awake).’ His speech has a formal perfection – could anyone express themselves naturally like this, or does the perfect construction betray his play-acting just as the naturally energetic Lydia is pretending to languish?
I have been anxious, silent, pensive, sedentary – the underlined words are all trochees (a falling sound), adjectives
She has been all health! spirit! laugh! song! dance! mostly energetic
monosyllables, nouns
And another perfectly constructed element in his sentence:
my days have been hours of care,
my nights of watchfulness.

For Heaven’s sake, Faulkland, don’t expose yourself so!–Suppose she
has danced, what then?–does not the ceremony of society often oblige–

’Suppose she has danced, what then?’ Absolute’s down to earth vigour is a contrast to and satire on Faulkland’s languishing.

Well, well, I’ll contain myself–perhaps as you say–for form sake.–What, Mr. Acres, you were praising Miss Melville’s manner of dancing a minuet–hey?

Oh, I dare insure her for that–but what I was going to speak of was
her country-dancing. Odds swimmings! she has such an air with her!

Now disappointment on her!–Defend this, Absolute; why don’t you defend this?–Country-dances! jigs and reels! am I to blame now? A minuet I could have forgiven–I should not have minded that–I say I should not have regarded a minuet–but country-dances!–Zounds! had she made one in a cotillion–I believe I could have forgiven even that–but to be monkey-led for a night!–to run the gauntlet through a string of amorous palming puppies!–to show paces like a managed filly!–Oh, Jack, there never can be but one man in the world whom a truly modest and delicate woman ought to pair with in a country-dance; and, even then, the rest of the couples should be her great-uncles and aunts!

In the Bristol Old Vic production, Faulkland produced the word ‘country-dances’ as if it was behaviour in the last stages of debauchery and depravity. To hear him say the word, you might have thought Julia might have at the very least taken 10 lovers in a night. This ridiculous overreaction underlined the true innocence of Julia’s behaviour.
However, there is an old-established pun on country. The Oxford English Dictionary says: ‘in the early modern period, sexual punning on the first syllable of country (cf. cunt n.) may sometimes be present in compounds such as country matters, country pleasures, etc’. The famous example of this pun is Hamlet’s insult to Ophelia, ‘Did you think I meant country matters?’ In which case, Faulkland’s hysteria is much more understandable.

‘Monkey-led’ means led by dandies and fops, apes of fashion (Oxford World’s Classics ed); ‘palming’ means touching palms, possibly a sign of too-great closeness; it can also mean deceitful. A managed filly is a well-trained young female horse, so Julia is, in Faulkland’s overheated imagination, making her way down the lines of dancers (‘run the gauntlet’) being pawed at and controlled (like a managed filly) by these ‘puppies’ (insolent young men). Faulkland shows his disgust of the young men at the dances Julia has attended when he speaks of them as monkeys and puppies. His disgust reaches even Julia, whom he describes as a filly. What does this tell us of his perception of women?

Ay, to be sure!–grandfathers and grandmothers!

If there be but one vicious mind in the set, ‘twill spread like a
contagion–the action of their pulse beats to the lascivious movement
of the jig–their quivering, warm-breathed sighs impregnate the very
air–the atmosphere becomes electrical to love, and each amorous spark
darts through every link of the chain!–I must leave you–I own I am
somewhat flurried–and that confounded looby has perceived it. [Going.]

Faulkland’s overheated melodramatic imagination now sees a pandemic of lust in a country dance ‘set’. The infectious ‘contagion’ will spread lust everywhere. Suggestive words are: ‘lascivious’, ‘quivering’, ‘warm-breathed’, ‘electrical to love’, ‘each amorous spark …’

Nay, but stay, Faulkland, and thank Mr. Acres for his good news.

Damn his news! [Exit.]

Absolute has prompted Faulkland to say this. ‘Nay, but stay, Faulkland …’ And ‘Damn his news’ is a terrific exit line, something Sheridan often provides for his actors.

Ha! ha! ha! poor Faulkland five minutes since–“nothing on earth could
give him a moment’s uneasiness!”

Absolute reminds us of the instant change of feelings on Faulkland’s part.

The gentleman wa’n’t angry at my praising his mistress, was he?

A little jealous, I believe, Bob.

Now Absolute starts to control Bob Acres. He makes Acres believe he is enough of a rival to make Faulkland jealous, when in fact he is so ridiculous nobody could possibly be jealous of him. The comedy here is all to do with the discrepancy (gap) between how Acres sees himself and how he really is (which is how we see him).

You don’t say so? Ha! ha! jealous of me–that’s a good joke.

There’s nothing strange in that, Bob; let me tell you, that sprightly
grace and insinuating manner of yours will do some mischief among the
girls here.

Ah! you joke–ha! ha! mischief–ha! ha! but you know I am not my own
property, my dear Lydia has forestalled me. She could never abide me in
the country, because I used to dress so badly–but odds frogs and
tambours! I shan’t take matters so here, now ancient madam has no voice
in it: I’ll make my old clothes know who’s master. I shall straightway
cashier the hunting-frock, and render my leather breeches incapable. My
hair has been in training some time.

‘Ancient madam’ is the ancient mother who rules him with a rod of iron. This was often part of the country fool stereotype. The detail about getting rid of his old clothes prepares us to see him in ridiculously inappropriate and very fashionable clothes next time he appears.

Acres is part of the play’s visual humour, and he looks ludicrous. The actor John Quick who performed Acres in the first production was tiny. So Acres’ small stature will have provided another joke as he tries to become a fashionable beau. And at the end of the play, Lydia will tower over him, when they eventually meet. He is the clown of the play, and when he says ‘I’ll make myself small enough’ (Act V scene iii) it’s additionally funny.

More visual humour: Acres says, proudly, ‘My hair has been in training some time’ (and his hair is an absolute disaster, falling lankly across his cheeks) it’s really funny. You also realize that what the servants are doing is the same as what their employers are doing: aiming to be really fashionable and genteel and failing horribly. Fag did this to Thomas in Act I scene i, and now Bob Acres, like Fag, is trying to be fashionable and failing. Because what the upper middle classes are doing is the same as their servants are doing, it further punctures their pretensions. They think they are much grander than their servants but they’re doing exactly the same thing.


Ay–and tho’ff the side curls are a little restive, my hind-part takes it very kindly.

‘Restive’ and ‘hind-part’ are words associated with horses; Acres applies them to his hair. This underlines what a country bumpkin he is – his idea of fashionable hair is described in terms used of horses. He is as fashionable as a horse. Sir Anthony’s coachman, Thomas, also expressed himself in terms of horses, so this links Acres linguistically with a country coachman rather than a fashionable young man in Bath as he supposes himself to be.

Ah, you’ll polish, I doubt not.

Absolutely I propose so–then if I can find out this Ensign Beverley,
odds triggers and flints! I’ll make him know the difference o’t.

‘If I can find out this Ensign Beverley’ – who is of course actually standing in front of him.
‘Triggers and flints! I’ll make him know the difference.’ Triggers and flints are two of the parts of duelling pistols. This reference prepares the audience for the duel later in the play. More fun anticipated.

Spoke like a man! But pray, Bob, I observe you have got an odd kind of a new method of swearing—-

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?

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) said, of his poetry, that ‘the sound should be an echo to the sense.’ Acres’ clodhopping version of Pope’s words certainly fits his clownish version of swearing: ‘the oath should be an echo to the sense.’

Very genteel, and very new, indeed!–and I dare say will supplant all other figures of imprecation (swearing).

Ay, ay, the best terms will grow obsolete (out of date).–Damns have had their day.

[Re-enter FAG.]

Sir, there is a gentleman below desires to see you.–Shall I show him into the parlour?

Fashionable prevarication on the part of servants, until they know whether their employer wishes to see the person who has arrived. This is completely inappropriate because it’s Jack’s father, and Jack most certainly has to say yes to seeing his father. That’s why he says to Fag: You puppy, why didn’t you show him up directly?
It’s the equivalent to Lucy not knowing what sal volatile is.

Ay–you may.

Well, I must be gone—-

Stay; who is it, Fag?

Your father, sir.

You puppy (foolish, impertinent young man), why didn’t you show him up directly?
[Exit FAG.]

You have business with Sir Anthony.–I expect a message from Mrs.
Malaprop at my lodgings. I have sent also to my dear friend Sir Lucius
O’Trigger. Adieu, Jack! we must meet at night, when you shall give me a
dozen bumpers (full glasses of wine to toast Lydia) to little Lydia.

That I will with all my heart.—-

[Exit ACRES.]

Now for a parental lecture–I hope he has heard nothing of the business that brought me here–I wish the gout had held him fast in Devonshire, with all my soul!

Sir Anthony arrives on the scene, heralded by ‘Now for a parental lecture’, so we know exactly what to expect and enjoy.


Sir I am delighted to see you here; looking so well! your sudden arrival at Bath made me apprehensive for your health.

Comedy: what Jack thinks and what he says are complete opposites. The difference between them is not condemned as hypocrisy, however, but flagged up for our entertainment. For Jack and his father, conversation is not a means of communication but of control.

Very apprehensive, I dare say, Jack.–What, you are recruiting here, hey?

Yes, sir, I am on duty.

Well, Jack, I am glad to see you, though I did not expect it, for I was going to write to you on a little matter of business.–Jack, I have been considering that I grow old and infirm, and shall probably not trouble you long.

‘A little matter of business’ is marriage!

Pardon me, sir, I never saw you look more strong and hearty; and I pray frequently that you may continue so.

I hope your prayers may be heard, with all my heart. Well, then, Jack, I have been considering that I am so strong and hearty I may continue to plague you a long time. Now, Jack, I am sensible that the income of your commission (what Jack earns in the army), and what I have hitherto allowed you, is but a small pittance (very small amount of money) for a lad of your spirit.

Sir Anthony is wonderfully inconsistent. One moment he is ‘old and infirm’ and not long for this world ‘shall probably not trouble you long.’ The very next thing he says is ‘I am so strong and hearty I may continue to plague you a long time.’ ‘Sensible’ means aware.

Sir, you are very good.

And it is my wish, while yet I live, to have my boy make some figure in the world. I have resolved, therefore, to fix you at once in a noble independence (provide money for you).

Apparently the money (and wife to provide it) are merely so that Sir Anthony’s son can be a person of some importance (‘figure’) in the world. The marriage – as it turns out to involve – is not for love but for money.

Sir, your kindness overpowers me–such generosity makes the gratitude
of reason more lively than the sensations even of filial affection.

Jack is really laying it on thick with all this stuffy discourse that sounds as if it has come straight out of the pages of a manual on ideal filial behaviour (the behaviour of the ideal son towards his father). Stacks of abstract nouns (kindness, generosity, gratitude, reason, affection), eighteenth century balance and moderation, unaffected by wayward passion (as exhibited a little later by his unreasonable father). It’s very different from the way he normally speaks which is why it is funny.

Lydia is unreasonable because she is living in the world of sentimental novels and extreme emotion. Faulkland is unreasonable because he is playing the part (as he sees it) of a ‘lover’. Acres is unreasonable because he is trying to be a gentleman of fashion when really he is a (small) country bumpkin. Sir Anthony is unreasonable because if his son doesn’t immediately accept his big new idea he flies off the handle and cannot talk it over. Sheridan seems to be exposing to ridicule human beings’ lack of reason when we are supposed to be homo sapiens ‘wise man’.

I am glad you are so sensible of my attention–and you shall be master of a large estate in a few weeks.

Let my future life, sir, speak my gratitude; I cannot express the sense I have of your munificence (generosity).–Yet, sir, I presume you would not wish me to quit the army?

Oh, that shall be as your wife chooses.

My wife, sir!

Ay, ay, settle that between you–settle that between you.

A wife, sir, did you say?

Ay, a wife–why, did not I mention her before?

Not a word of her, sir.

Odd so!–I mustn’t forget her though.–Yes, Jack, the independence I was talking of is by marriage–the fortune is saddled with a wife–but I suppose that makes no difference.

Sir! sir!–you amaze me!

Why, what the devil’s the matter with the fool? Just now you were all gratitude and duty.

What’s funny is the sudden change in Jack, from being over the moon with the money that’s coming his way, and horror that ‘The fortune I spoke of is saddled with a wife.’ Sir Anthony mentions ‘the livestock on it’ which illustrates a shockingly patriarchal attitude to women – they are possessions, mere ‘livestock’ like cows on a farm – but it’s put in a very amusing way.,

I was, sir,–you talked to me of independence and a fortune, but not a word of a wife.

Why–what difference does that make? Odds life, sir! if you have the estate, you must take it with the livestock on it, as it stands.

Is this funny? Referring to a wife as livestock (cattle). Are we invited to laugh at Sir Anthony’s attitude to women? Or is it appalling, since it reveals that Sir Anthony regards women in a totally demeaning way, simply as possessions, animals?

If my happiness is to be the price, I must beg leave to decline the purchase.–Pray, sir, who is the lady?

Although Jack is speaking of his happiness, he still uses words to do with money, ‘price’ and ‘purchase.’

What’s that to you, sir?–Come, give me your promise to love, and to marry her directly.

Sir Anthony’s requirement is the opposite of Faulkland’s and Lydia’s sentimental poses, and just as unreasonable. Now we see where Jack inherited his love of control.

Sure, sir, this is not very reasonable, to summon my affections for a lady I know nothing of!

Joke: we know that the lady is the very young woman that he wants to marry, Lydia. Temporarily, he is in the same situation as Lydia, who wants to marry the very man that her aunt wants her to marry, but doesn’t know it.

I am sure, sir, ‘tis more unreasonable in you to object to a lady you know nothing of.

The joke lies in the structure of the sentences. Jack’s sentence begins:
‘Sure, sir, this is not very reasonable…’ and Sir Anthony raises the stakes
‘I am sure, sir, ‘tis more unreasonable in you…’
The sentences are almost identical but Sir Anthony augments key words. Jack’s ‘Sure, sir,’ becomes his father’s, ‘I am sure ….’. Jack’s ‘this is not very reasonable…’ becomes his father’s,’’tis more unreasonable …’. From that point onwards, the sentences are the same: Jack, ‘a lady I know nothing of’ and his father’s ‘a lady you know nothing of.’ The very similarities point up the important differences, and show how Sir Anthony is outmanoeuvring his clever son. This is the age-old clash of the generations, father and son. In Romeo and Juliet this clash led inexorably to tragedy. In The Rivals it is obviously going to lead to a happy ending somehow or another so, since we are not worried about the outcome, we can enjoy the duel.

Then, sir, I must tell you plainly that my inclinations are fixed on another–my heart is engaged to an angel.

When Jack says ‘Engaged to an angel’ he means I love an angel. Sir Anthony takes ‘engaged’ as meaning, have accepted an invitation to see someone, or to go to a party. That’s why he says, “Send an excuse. Busy. Overtaken by unforeseen events.”

Then pray let it send an excuse. It is very sorry–but business prevents its waiting on her.

But my vows are pledged to her.

Jack continues his side of the conversation with the word ‘pledged’, meaning promised to marry her. His is the language of love. For him, a vow is a solemn promise of fidelity or faithful attachment and a pledge is another word meaning solemnly promised. He has vowed that his love will be constant. This is quite a sudden change from the mercenary language he has used up to now. Sir Anthony’s is the language of business, commerce. For him, ‘pledged’ means something given as security on a loan which can be forfeited if the thing ends in failure. That’s why he says, ‘let her foreclose; they are not worth redeeming.’ Sir Anthony has taken pledge in a commercial sense; Jack’s constancy will fail so Lydia will foreclose, like a moneylender, and take possession of the vows. Sir Anthony’s idea is that as Jack and his angel have dealt in vows, not money, neither of them will lose (money) if one forecloses.

Let her foreclose, Jack; let her foreclose; they are not worth redeeming; besides, you have the angel’s vows in exchange, I suppose;
so there can be no loss there.

Foreclose – end the agreement (a commercial word). Another commercial word, redeem, means repay, or regain possession of. Or pay the money needed to clear a debt. That’s why Sir Anthony thinks that if Jack has the angel’s vows in exchange there won’t be any loss (money wise); they’ll be quits.

You must excuse me, sir, if I tell you, once for all, that in this point I cannot obey you.

Hark’ee, Jack;–I have heard you for some time with patience–I have been cool–quite cool; but take care–you know I am compliance itself–when I am not thwarted;–no one more easily led–when I have my own way;–but don’t put me in a frenzy.

Sir, I must repeat it–in this I cannot obey you.

Jack literally repeats himself: ‘I cannot obey you.’ To an absolute father, this is dynamite.

Now damn me! if ever I call you Jack again while I live!

Nay, sir, but hear me.

Sir, I won’t hear a word–not a word! not one word! so give me your promise by a nod–and I’ll tell you what, Jack–I mean, you dog–if you don’t, by—-

Sir Anthony has promised never to call Jack by his name again, and when he immediately does so, so he has to correct himself. This is a lot funnier played very fast on stage.

There was a much-praised production of The Rivals by Peter Woods at the National Theatre in 1983. Michael Hordern (playing Sir Anthony) was eating his breakfast egg while all this was happening in Act II scene i and kept banging his egg for emphasis, like a two year old in a high chair which undermined his parental authority nicely. As he issued orders of absolute authority to his son, his behaviour showed that in fact he was behaving like a toddler.

Reviews and appreciations of Michael Hordern’s Sir Anthony
The obituary in The Independent describes Michael Hordern’s performance. ‘Then in 1983 came one of Hordern’s finest hours as the limping, expostulating and resentful old 18th-century blue-coated blackguardly parent, Sir Anthony Absolute, in The Rivals (National Theatre), humming nostalgically for this amatory youth, groaning enviously at his offspring’s follies, thwacking all and sundry with his paternal cane and expressively attacking at breakfast, with a spoon that spoke volumes more than Sheridan ever wrote, a humble boiled egg. Hordern was here at his exuberantly, sunny best.’
The New York Times review of this production is glowing.
LONDON, June 19 — Michael Hordern doesn’t wait for his first line to get his first laugh in the National Theater’s new revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s ‘’Rivals.’’ He sets the audience to giggling the moment he enters in the period costume and wig of Sir Anthony Absolute. And the giggle builds into a roar when the frazzled, gouty Mr. Hordern swivels on his cane to get a better view of the backside of the young maid who’s just escorted him into Mrs. Malaprop’s drawing room: the actor lets loose with a long, low, rumbling growl of unbridled lechery that is as close to poetry as an aural leer can be. Then the leer becomes a mournful sigh: this fellow is all too keenly aware that sex is behind him in his declining years.
Once the lines do come, Mr. Hordern continues to work hilarious variations on his theme of frustrated randiness. In the scene that requires the matchmaking Sir Anthony to sell his errant son, Jack, on the physical charms of young Lydia Languish, Mr. Hordern devours eggs as he talks, soon turning his breakfast into a frenzied eruption of vicarious lust for his son’s intended bride. Indeed, Mr. Hordern’s basset-hound face – tugged upward by raised eyebrows, downward by palpitating jowls – is itself something of a runny egg. It is surely the funniest sight in the English theater right now.
If Mr. Hordern looks as if he’s having the time of his life, that may be because he is. A 50-year veteran of the stage, he was knighted in January. His Anthony Absolute has been widely acclaimed as his richest star turn since his memorable creation of the addled philosopher in Tom Stoppard’s ‘’Jumpers’’ at the Old Vic more than a decade ago. But Mr. Hordern is in no danger of curbing his devilish comic attack and becoming a grand old man. If anything, his performance in ‘’The Rivals’’ is an uninhibited expansion of the lascivious old coot he played in the film version of ‘’A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’’ in the 1960’s. The production surrounding him in the National’s large thrust-stage house, the Olivier, has also received high local praise – much, if not all, of it deserved. John Gunter has designed an extraordinary set that seems to place all of Sheridan’s 18th-century Bath in view, the four-story Georgian facades of the town’s Royal Crescent included. Peter Wood, the director, devotes a lot of energy to choreographing the wondrous scenic changes, but he is less inclined to move his actors once the scenes begin.
The mostly exemplary cast usually props up the sags in the direction -even if it can’t always redeem the endless plotting that comes with Sheridan’s otherwise acute post-Restoration comedy of manners. Tim Curry, as the country bumpkin Bob Acres, transforms a buffoonish oaf into a touching loser. Wearing a sly, sheepish grin and a ridiculously Baroque powdered wig, he is at once a vulnerable seeker of unobtainable romance and a clownish martyr to his society’s empty, foppish fashions.
Mr. Hordern’s prime foil, however, is Geraldine McEwan’s Mrs. Malaprop. A bit too young and handsome for the role, the actress can’t persuade us that she is, as the text has it, an ‘’old weatherbeaten she-dragon.’’ But that’s a small price to pay, given the rest of her brilliant characterization. Her outrageous turns of phrase are all somberly and bitingly delivered after intense deliberation, leaving no doubt that Mrs. Malaprop regards herself as an intellectual giant among pygmies. The gap between her lofty pretensions and her actual brainpower is so vast and pathetic that the others can only greet her bloopers with stunned silence. Mr. Hordern responds with a series of sly double takes that turn his encounters with Miss McEwan into the classiest imaginable George Burns and Gracie Allen routines. Richardson in ‘Voices’.

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.

Sir Anthony gives a demonstration of how to be ‘absolute’, that’s to say, completely inflexible and intransigent (uncompromising, obstinate). It is because it is obvious that Sir Anthony loves his son that we can safely enjoy the outrageous things he insists on. He repeats the word ‘shall’ time and again, insisting on having absolute control over who it is that shall be Jack’s wife.The exaggerations are emphasised through alliteration and repeated sounds: ‘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…’ This hyperbole, is what makes it amusing (‘a skin like a mummy and the beard of a Jew’). In 1775, when The Rivals was first performed, this was perfectly acceptable. Nowadays it poses problems of racism and the hump on each shoulder poses problems of discrimination against people who are disabled. However, although notions change about what is and is not an acceptable thing to say, the basic human values remain unchanged: values of respect and love. So although Sir Anthony says he will never call his son Jack again (that is, not treat him as his son), the very fact that he immediately calls him Jack shows that he loves his son, whatever he says.

This is reason and moderation indeed!

None of your sneering, puppy! no grinning, jackanapes (impertinent young man but also a play on Jack’s name)!

Indeed, sir, I never was in a worse humour for mirth in my life.

Jack is now very far from laughing ‘mirth’, just as Faulkland was earlier, but for a very different reason. Faulkland’s engagement to Julia was approved by her father; Jack is horrified by what his father insists on for him. Faulkland is inventing and wallowing in his neurotic misery; Jack is appalled by his father’s plans. However, the twist to the plot is that we know the young lady in question is precisely the woman Jack wishes to marry. In a sense, then, he is behaving like Faulkland; refusing to marry the young woman his father approves of. But it’s a variation on the theme of wanting / not wanting to marry the young woman your father has chosen for you.

What is funny about the scene with Jack and his father is that, moments earlier, Jack was controlling Faulkland, and laughing at him; now he’s being controlled by his father and the laugh is on him. Lack of self-knowledge can be very funny, as when Sir Anthony says, ‘Can’t you be cool like me?’ (and Mrs Malaprop thinking she is queen of the dictionary).

‘Tis false, sir, I know you are laughing in your sleeve; I know you’ll grin when I am gone, sirrah!

Sir Anthony has lots of derogatory words for Jack, such as ‘sirrah’, instead of calling him by his name.

Sir, I hope I know my duty better.

None of your passion, sir! none of your violence, if you please!–It won’t do with me, I promise you.

Ironically, it is Sir Anthony who is being passionate and violent and Jack who is being quite sober. This is role reversal: the old gentleman is passionate and violent; the young man acts as if he were quiet and dutiful, ‘cool’ as he calls it.

Indeed, sir, I never was cooler in my life.

‘Tis a confounded lie!–I know you are in a passion in your heart; I know you are, you hypocritical young dog! but it won’t do.

Nay, sir, upon my word—-

So you will fly out! can’t you be cool like me? What the devil good can passion do?–Passion is of no service, you impudent, insolent, overbearing reprobate!–There, you sneer again! don’t provoke me!–but you rely upon the mildness of my temper–you do, you dog! you play upon the meekness of my disposition!–Yet take care–the patience of a saint may be overcome at last!–but mark! I give you six hours and a half to consider of this: if you then agree, without any condition, to do every thing on earth that I choose, why–confound you! I may in time forgive you.–If not, zounds! don’t enter the same hemisphere with me! don’t dare to breathe the same air, or use the same light with me; but get an atmosphere and a sun of your own! I’ll strip you of your commission; I’ll lodge a five-and-threepence in the hands of trustees, and you shall live on the interest.–I’ll disown you, I’ll disinherit you, I’ll unget you! and damn me! if ever I call you Jack again! [Exit.]

This is a terrific exit line for Sir Anthony. Through this speech, the pace increases and increases in a crescendo of passion; the sentences get shorter and shorter; there’s lots of repetition in the bits I’ve highlighted – ‘disown… disinherit’ – and it all gets more and more ridiculous: how can Sir Anthony ‘unget’ (un-conceive) Jack? (It’s almost as good as Faulkland wanting Julia to be ‘plaintively gay’.) In addition, you can see that the authoritative father, speaking with the voice of experience that is to be respected and obeyed, is in fact behaving like a two-year-old in his high-chair throwing a tantrum. Every sentence is either an outraged question or ends in an enraged exclamation mark. This is role reversal and therefore funny: the two year old in a tantrum telling off his son. The speech is richly ironic: ‘can’t you be cool like me?’; ‘you … overbearing reprobate’ (reprobate means someone with no principles); ‘the mildness of my temper’; ‘the meekness of my disposition.’

Mild, gentle, considerate father–I kiss your hands!–What a tender method of giving his opinion in these matters Sir Anthony has! I dare not trust him with the truth.–I wonder what old wealthy hag it is that he wants to bestow on me!–Yet he married himself for love! and was in his youth a bold intriguer, and a gay (cheerful, jolly) companion!

This is where the strength of Sheridan’s intricate plot becomes clear. We, the audience, can enjoy the fact that know-all Jack Absolute doesn’t realize what we know: that his father plans adorable beautiful Lydia for him.

[Re-enter FAG.]

Assuredly, sir, your father is wrath (angry) to a degree; he comes down stairs eight or ten steps at a time–muttering, growling, and thumping the banisters all the way: I and the cook’s dog stand bowing at the door–rap! he gives me a stroke on the head with his cane; bids me carry that to my master; then kicking the poor turnspit into the area, damns us all, for a puppy triumvirate!–Upon my credit, sir, were I in your place, and found my father such very bad company, I should certainly drop his acquaintance.

Cease your impertinence, sir, at present.–Did you come in for nothing
more?–Stand out of the way! [Pushes him aside, and exit.]

So! Sir Anthony trims my master; he is afraid to reply to his father–then vents his spleen on poor Fag!–When one is vexed by one person, to revenge one’s self on another, who happens to come in the way, is the vilest injustice! Ah! it shows the worst temper–the basest—-

‘trims’ means to tell someone off in no uncertain terms

[Enter BOY.]

Mr. Fag! Mr. Fag! your master calls you.

Well, you little dirty puppy, you need not bawl so!–The meanest disposition! the—-

Quick, quick, Mr. Fag!

Quick! quick! you impudent jackanapes! am I to be commanded by you too?
you little impertinent, insolent, kitchen-bred—- [Exit kicking and beating him.]

* * * * * *

So, at the end of this long scene, Jack takes his anger out on Fag, and Fag on Boy! So much for the pose of reason and calm that Jack has been assuming in front of his father.

Henri Bergson writes: ‘This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.’ A useful view on what makes this scene comic? Faulkland is rigidly sentimental and determined to be upset. Acres is rigidly fashionable. Sir Anthony is rigid in his plans for Jack. Laughter is its corrective – a corrective is designed to correct something harmful or undesirable. Does our laughter at these characters go some way to correcting their foibles and follies (which are exaggerated to make them clearer to us).

There are constant references to very recent and contemporary buildings and places in Bath. The fashionable London audience at Covent Garden would have felt very much a part of events and in the know about all the references to fashionable new places in Bath. So we have ‘the Crescent’ – the Royal Crescent in Bath, which was begun in 1767 and was finished in 1774, the year before the play was first performed. There are other reference points for a London audience. We have the ‘bull’s in Cox’s Museum’ – Cox had an exhibition of mechanical toys and oddities that he showed in Spring Garden, London, between 1772 and 1775.

Mr Pritchard’s Coffee House on North Parade. List of Bath residents in 1791 gives PRITCHARD, Meshach, Wine-merchant Coffee-house Proprietor of Spring Gardens, North Parade. The New Bath Guide tells us: ‘The principal Coffee-Houses here are kept by Mr Frappel, Mr Pritchard and Mr Derham. Mr Pritchard’s, the Parade Coffee-House, front the North Parade, and is thought to be one of the pleasantest in England, commanding a most delightful view of the country.

Coffee houses really got going in Restoration London and were soon imitated elsewhere. Bath certainly had one by 1679, probably at the sign of the Turk’s Head in the Marketplace. Under Robert Sheyler this moved c.1694 to new premises at the upper corner of Cheap Street, where it continued under Elizabeth and Robert Sheyler junior until sometime after 1718. By then a second coffee-house – Benjoy’s/Bengy’s (after its proprietor Benjamin Jellicot) – had arisen at the south end of Terrace Walk, usefully adjacent to the bowling green, but this eventually fell victim to Wood’s redevelopment scheme c.1728. In 1720-1 Thomas Sheyler gave a fresh fillip to Bath’s fashionable quarter near Gravel Walks, the future Orange Grove, by opening a coffee-house on a strategic corner site at the exit of an intended pedestrian way (Wade’s Passage) from Abbey Churchyard. In a short time it was an indispensable institution.

As genteel places to eat and drink, and to catch up on news, coffee-houses met several needs at once, and did so by charging a subscription for their use. This distanced them from public taverns and kept the company reasonably select. Equally it allowed them to provide a congenial milieu, a range of current newspapers and other publications, and free use of writing materials. Licensed to sell alcohol as well as hot drinks and snacks (rolls, Bath buns, soups, savoury jellies, syllabubs), and often indeed run by ex-wine-and-brandy merchants, coffee-houses above all did duty as male clubs. In London particular interest groups tended to congregate at particular coffee-houses. At Bath, with far fewer such institutions, all parties mingled. The majority of subscribers would be visiting gentry, for the coffee-house offered a temporary headquarters, acceptable company, and certain basic facilities – such as a place to eat breakfast for those staying in lodgings. The Grove Coffee-house, where Charles Morgan succeeded Thomas Sheyler c.1731, enjoyed a virtual 20-year monopoly once Benjoy’s, its only rival, had gone, and in 1733 it managed to thwart John Wood’s plan to extend the Pump Room on the grounds that this might damage the coffee-house trade. Several hundred subscribed each season, including many notabilities. Viscount Percival, for example, mentions in his diary taking part in various instructive debates on political, religious and literary topics at the Grove in 1730 in the company of the Speaker of the House of Commons, a high court judge (Sir Edmund Probyn), the Dean of Exeter, and others.


Customers sit outside the coffee-house in Terrace Walk. Detail from a painting c.1780 (private collection).

As the numbers of affluent spa visitors built up and the season steadiliy lengthened, a second coffee-house opened in 1750 close to the old site of Benjoy’s, at the busy pedestrian junction of Terrace Walk and North Parade. The building belonged to the silk mercers J P Ferry, who shared the premises with the coffee-house for another year or two before removing. It may have been then that the billiard room was added and a ‘marker’ appointed to keep the score, advantages that the Grove Coffee-house apparently never had and which may have cost it custom. A wine-merchant, Richard Stephens, held the Parade Coffee-house 1755-67, followed in fairly quick succession by Robert Boulter, William Mackclary and Peter Temple, before Meshach Pritchard, another local wine merchant, took control 1776-99 – during part of which time he also managed Spring Gardens. At the Grove Coffee-house this long tenure was matched by George Frappell, master 1771-96, who died just as he branched out into a new venture, George’s Coffee-house near the Pump Room.
Competition stepped up noticeably in the last third of the century. In the upper town the provision of a coffee room at the new York House hotel in 1769 was followed in 1771 by another at the Upper Assembly Rooms, which was capped within a year by the decision to build on an annexe coffee room beside the front entrance to the Rooms. These amenities serving the population of lower Lansdown were supplemented in 1796 by St James’s Coffee-house behind Royal Crescent. In the same way the Argyle coffee-house and tavern (near Pulteney Bridge, from 1790) and the coffee room at Sydney Gardens (by 1798) catered to the needs of developing Bathwick. The fast-expanding local economy of these years also ushered in a subtly different style of coffee-room more geared to business interests and commercial travellers, examples being the rooms opened at the Christopher, Angel and Castle inns (1763, 1782 and 1799 respectively), the Bath Coffee-house in Stall Street (1770-79), City Coffee-house in the Marketplace (1799-1800) and the coffee room for ‘respectable tradesmen’ at Spring Gardens in 1795.

The Ladies’ Coffee-house was far more unusual, a phenomenon possibly unique to Bath, certainly in its longevity. It may have started with a toyshop offering its female customers refreshments and newspapers – sometime before 1740 when the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu complained of having to hear about everyone’s ailments there. By 1755 it seems to have stood on the east side of the Pump Room forecourt, managed by Elizabeth Taylor (of the adjoining jeweller’s) and Clementine Ford. In the 1760s and 1770s it was on the opposite side, next-but-one to the Pump Room. Lydia Melford in Smollett’s tongue-in-cheek fiction Humphrey Clinker remarks that young women like her were banned from attending because ‘the conversation turns upon politics, scandal, philosophy, and other subjects above our capacity.’ A lecture on the art of speaking was given there in June 1773 at the time of Richard and Ann Immins’ short occupancy, but the room was then let once more and this intriguing institution may not have survived much longer – though a certain Mary Hamilton, lodging in May 1774 in Milsom Street, does record taking breakfast at a coffee-house, perhaps this one.

From Trevor Fawcett, Bath Entertain’d: amusements, recreations and gambling at the 18th-century spa (1998).

Act II scene i overview

Jack tells the audience that Faulkland is a ‘whimsical friend’ so we know what to expect and we can enjoy it when Faulkland is whimsical. He behaves according to type: he is the lover of the sentimental novel. A little later in the scene, Jack says ‘Now for a parental lecture’ and again he’s preparing us for what’s coming so that we can enjoy it all the more. Partly we enjoy it because it’s so predictable that fathers lecture their sons; partly we enjoy it because Jack thinks he knows what’s coming and discovers he doesn’t. First his father offers him a fortune; then, horribly, the fact that the fortune is saddled with a wife. To add to the comedy, we know, but Jack doesn’t, who the wife is: the very girl that he loves.

Jack also thinks he can control Lydia’s emotions (he can make her fall in love with him until she depends on him enough to reveal that he really is Absolute, not Beverley) just as Lydia thought earlier that she could control Beverley and summon him again after three and a half days. In the Bristol Old Vic production of 2004, Jack and Faulkland were performed as opposites: Jack was played as very down-to-earth and in control; Faulkland was played as over the top and in a neurotic state. We could see Jack controlling Faulkland and ensuring that he meets Acres. When Acres is announced: ‘You must stay.’ Jack thinks it will be fun to get Faulkland into even more of a state by priming Acres to say irritating things to Faulkland. He engineers a meeting that will upset Faulkland. Does this make us feel Jack is heartless or does it encourage us to join him in being entertained by Faulkland’s neurosis? It does mean that we probably are going to feel entertained when Jack himself eventually gets his come-uppance in Act IV scene ii when he is discovered to be Beverley / Absolute and Lydia is furious.

I expected Faulkland to be the serious part of the play, but in the Bristol Old Vic production, Martin Hutson exaggerated his neurosis and made it extremely funny. We could see Jack fuelling Faulkland’s misery by jogging Acres’ memory for the songs that Julia might have sung, or the dances she might have danced. It made the play much funnier but it also made Julia’s love for him seem very unlikely and made her character rather dead. (Not helped by the fact that she moved like a clockwork doll.) Bob Acres was presented as being farcical, so when he said, on Faulkland’s exit, ‘Jealous of me – that’s a good joke!’ it really was a good joke.

The play is much funnier when you see it than when you read the text in a book. So when Acres says, proudly, ‘My hair has been in training some time’ (and his hair is an absolute disaster, falling lankly across his cheeks) it’s really funny. You also realize that what the servants are doing is the same as what their employers are doing: aiming to be really fashionable and genteel and failing horribly. Fag did this to Thomas in Act I scene i, and now Bob Acres, like Fag, is trying to be fashionable and failing. Because what the upper middle classes are doing is the same as their servants are doing, it further punctures the pretensions of the upper middle classes. They think they are much grander than their servants but they’re doing exactly the same thing.

Sir Anthony arrives on the scene, heralded by ‘Now for a parental lecture’. What’s funny is the sudden change in Jack, from being over the moon with the money that’s coming his way, and horror that ‘The fortune I spoke of is saddled with a wife.’ Sir Anthony mentions ‘the livestock on it’ which illustrates a shockingly patriarchal attitude to women – possessions, mere ‘livestock’ like cows on a farm – but it’s put in a very amusing way.

What is funny about the scene with Jack and his father is that, moments earlier, Jack was controlling Faulkland, and laughing at him; now he’s being controlled by his father and the laugh is on him. Lack of self-knowledge can be very funny, as when Sir Anthony says, ‘Can’t you be cool like me?’ (and Mrs Malaprop thinking she is queen of the dictionary).
Just as Jack prepared us for what was coming, so that we could enjoy it more (with Faulkland, his whimsical friend), so Lucy points up the way Sir Lucius speaks, pronouncing Delia, Dahlia, so we enjoy it all the more when he does say ‘Dahlia’.

Faulkland seems to us nowadays to border on cruelty in the way he treats Julia – he treats her worse as the play develops, and he continues to be obsessed by himself. However, Sheridan himself thought, ‘the character will improve on the audience the more it is understood,’ (The Morning Chronicle, 29 Jan – 1 Feb 1775). Elizabeth Inchbald, in Sheridan: Comedies Casebook Series, edited by Davison, writes, ‘It is supposed, by the author’s most intimate friends, that, in delineating Faulkland, he took a discerning view of his own disposition, in all the anxious tenderness of a youthful lover’. In Memoirs of Mrs Siddons (1827) we find this opinion: ‘Faulkland expresses … the captious alarms of the author’s own passion for Miss Linley.’ The Morning Chronicle of 27 January 1775 (just after the second, revised, performance of The Rivals) contained this observation: ‘the exquisite refinement in (Faulkland’s) disposition, opposed to the noble simplicity, tenderness, and candour of Julia’s, give rise to some of the most affecting sentimental scenes I ever remember to have met with.’

In Act II scene ii we meet Sir Lucius. Sir Lucius says of Mrs Malaprop, ‘she’s quite the queen of the dictionary.’ Mrs Malaprop is sending Sir Lucius love letters and pretending to be Delia aged 17. (Which Sir Lucius, with his Irish accent, pronounces Dahlia.) Delia is the conventional name for a mistress in pastoral and love poetry, so Mrs Malaprop is being a bit hopeful here.

This short scene shows us that events are moving swiftly – Bob Acres has been dismissed by Lydia, and a new lover has turned up, called Captain Absolute. Lucy, acting as being very simple, gives Sir Lucius his latest love letter from Delia. When he reads the letter aloud, the audience can enjoy recognizing its true author. Lucy’s ‘simpleton’ disguise is helped along when she uses phrases like ‘I never seed such a gemman’ (saw such a gentleman).

Act III scene i

The North Parade.


‘Tis just as Fag told me, indeed. Whimsical enough, faith! My father wants to force me to marry the very girl I am plotting to run away with! He must not know of my connection with her yet awhile. He has too summary a method of proceeding in these matters. However, I’ll read my recantation (I’ll take back everything I said to him earlier) instantly. My conversion is something sudden, indeed–but I can assure him it is very sincere. So, so–here he comes. He looks plaguy (damnably) gruff. [Steps aside.]

Fag has told Jack who it is that Sir Anthony wants him to marry. So Jack has to calm his father down as soon as possible. When Jack says, ‘I’ll read my recantation instantly,’ the audience knows exactly what sort of entertainment to anticipate. The alliteration in ‘read my recantation’ and in ‘something sudden .. very sincere’ increases the exaggeration in it, and therefore makes it funnier.

When his father enters still vowing to disown his son, Jack plays the dutiful son to comic extremes. (Incidentally, in doing this, he gets his own back for being bullied into being married). As soon as Jack’s name is restored to him, Sir Anthony reveals Lydia’s identity.


No–I’ll die sooner than forgive him. Die, did I say? I’ll live these fifty years to plague (annoy) him. At our last meeting, his impudence had almost put me out of temper. An obstinate, passionate, self-willed boy! Who can he take after? This is my return for getting (conceiving) him before all his brothers and sisters!–for putting him, at twelve years old, into a marching regiment (infantry regiment rather than mounted), and allowing him fifty pounds a year, besides his pay, ever since! But I have done with him; he’s anybody’s son for me. I never will see him more, never–never–never.

And Sir Anthony immediately sees Jack! ‘Never, never, never, never’ is a parody of the lament of King Lear over his daughter Cordelia’s body. Lear’s other two daughters were cruel and ungrateful towards him, and Cordelia loved him but he didn’t understand her. That is the extreme of tragedy, the irreversible nature of tragedy and of death. The parody here (a parody is a comic copy) is funny, (a) because Sir A immediately sees Jack and (b) because King Lear thought Cordelia was ungrateful and Sir Antony thinks Jack is ungrateful. Both Lear and Sir Anthony are stubbornly irrational but to compare them is to make Sir Anthony seem comic and lightweight and pompous beside the true tragedy of Lear.

Lack of self-knowledge can be comic or tragic. Here, Sir Anthony’s lack of self-knowledge is funny: he has no idea that he is ‘obstinate, passionate, self-willed’ and asks, ‘Who can he (Jack) take after?’
The ‘marching regiment’ that Sir Anthony refers to somewhat undermines Sir Anthony’s pretensions to superior social status. Cavalry (mounted) regiments were always the elite; infantry (marching) regiments were less glamorous (partly because, in battle, they took the brunt of the enemy attack). Added to which, Sir Anthony had evidently bought a military commission for Jack, which would have enabled the boy to attain early promotion. If Sir Anthony had been a member of the social elite, he would have been able to ensure his son’s promotion through influence. Just as Mrs Malaprop’s misapplied vocabulary undermines her pretensions to being an articulate intellectual, Sir Anthony’s reference to all that he has done for Jack undermines his pretensions to social superiority.

[Aside, coming forward.] Now for a penitential face.

The aside, to the audience, involves the audience in the entertainment of this scene – we’re colluding with Jack in trying to control his father and wondering whether it will work.

Fellow, get out of my way!

Sir, you see a penitent before you.

I see an impudent scoundrel (dishonest unscrupulous villain) before me.

The similarity of the sentences brings out the differences between the two. Which is true? Is Jack penitent or a scoundrel? Can he be branded a scoundrel because he would not obey his father’s peremptory and irrational demands? Sir Anthony has just said ‘I never will see him more…’ and he immediately does: ‘you see’, ‘I see’.

A sincere penitent. I am come, sir, to acknowledge my error, and to submit entirely to your will.

What’s that?

I have been revolving, and reflecting, and considering on your past goodness, and kindness, and condescension to me.

Lots of long-winded words all meaning roughly the same thing, to give the impression of hours of deep thought on his conduct: ‘revolving, and reflecting, and considering.’ Stacks of abstract nouns, ‘like goodness’ and ‘kindness’ and ‘condescension’, and in Jack’s next sentence, ‘duty’, ‘obedience’, ‘authority’. All sounding like something out of the handbook on how to be the ideal son.
Sir Anthony’s replies, by contrast, are extremely brief.

Well, sir?

I have been likewise weighing and balancing what you were pleased to
mention concerning duty, and obedience, and authority.

More synonyms: ‘weighing and balancing’, again giving the impression of profound reflection on his behaviour.

Well, puppy?

Why then, sir, the result of my reflections is–a resolution to sacrifice every inclination of my own to your satisfaction.

Jack is controlling his father. He is pandering to his father’s desire for power. He continues to describe his intended actions in terms of moderate abstract nouns: ‘resolution’, ‘inclination’.

Why now you talk sense–absolute sense–I never heard anything more sensible in my life. Confound you! (confound – damn, blast, may you go to Hell, a mild swear word) you shall be Jack again.

‘Absolute sense’ is word play on ‘absolute’, Sir Anthony’s name. Sir Anthony means, you are talking the sort of sense that an Absolute understands.

I am happy in the appellation.

Why then, Jack, my dear Jack, I will now inform you who the lady really is. Nothing but your passion and violence, you silly fellow, prevented my telling you at first. Prepare, Jack, for wonder and rapture–prepare. What think you of Miss Lydia Languish?

Irony. It was Sir Anthony’s passion and violence that prevented him from telling Jack who his bride was to be. When Sir Anthony builds up the excitement, ‘Prepare Jack, for wonder and rapture,’ Jack ensures that it falls completely flat by failing to react as his father expects. He is foiling his father here, and controlling him.

Languish! What, the Languishes of Worcestershire?

Worcestershire! no. Did you never meet Mrs. Malaprop and her niece, Miss Languish, who came into our country just before you were last ordered to your regiment?

Malaprop! Languish! I don’t remember ever to have heard the names before. Yet, stay–I think I do recollect something. Languish! Languish! She squints, don’t she? A little red-haired girl?

Lydia certainly doesn’t see straight (she squints) in matters of love when she refuses to marry the man she loves because everyone approves of the match.

Squints! A red-haired girl! Zounds! no.

Then I must have forgot; it can’t be the same person.

Jack! Jack! what think you of blooming, love-breathing seventeen?

As to that, sir, I am quite indifferent. If I can please you in the matter, ‘tis all I desire.
Winding his father up!

Nay, but Jack, such eyes! such eyes! so innocently wild! so bashfully irresolute! not a glance but speaks and kindles some thought of love! Then, Jack, her cheeks! her cheeks, Jack! so deeply blushing at the insinuations of her tell-tale eyes! Then, Jack, her lips! O, Jack, lips smiling at their own discretion; and if not smiling, more sweetly pouting; more lovely in sullenness!

Sir Anthony’s rapturous description is all about Lydia’s appearance – and as we know from the play so far, appearances can be deceptive. Also, look at the contrast in registers: Sir Anthony’s is very colloquial, hardly any sentences with a finite verb, all exclamations and excitement. Jack’s, by contrast, is very stately and formal and without feeling. ‘As to that, sir, I am quite indifferent. If I can please you in the matter, ‘tis all I desire.’ The difference in the registers adds to the comic effect.

Michael Hordern, in the 1983 production at the National Theatre, played this speech as an old rake looking back nostalgically at the loveliness of young girls. The review in The Sunday Times of April 1983 reads: ‘The familiar stammering rumble with which Michael Hordern introduced himself as Sir Anthony Absolute became, in this performance, the completely convincing echo of Sir Anthony’s own misspent youth, an extension of the character for which there is almost no call in the text, but which fills him out from the caricature he might otherwise be…. His evocation of the sad longings of a retired rake as he extols the beauties of Lydia to his bold son Jack ‘love-breathing, blooming, seventeen.’ (Robert Hewison in The Sunday Times) Nowadays, with sexual scandal involving older men and under-age girls (which Lydia is, at 17), we tend to see Sir Anthony’s enthusiasm for her charms as verging on the unpleasantly inappropriate. However, it seems that in Sheridan’s day the contrast between the extremely appreciative Sir Anthony and the ultra-cool young man, with its unexpected role-reversal, was simply a source of amusement.

ABSOLUTE [Aside.] That’s she, indeed. Well done, old gentleman.

Again, the aside involves the audience in the comedy.

Then, Jack, her neck (Lydia’s head down to her bust)! O Jack! Jack!

And which is to be mine, sir, the niece, or the aunt?

The juxtaposition of old Sir Anthony, breathless and dribbling with delight and Jack being so cool is comic.

Why, you unfeeling, insensible puppy, I despise you! When I was of your age, such a description would have made me fly like a rocket! The aunt indeed! Odds life! when I ran away with your mother, I would not have touched anything old or ugly to gain an empire.

This puts what Sir Anthony said a scene or two ago in a different light – forcing Jack to write poems to an old hag just because his father said so. ‘She shall have a skin like a mummy; and the beard of a Jew. Yet I’ll make you ogle her all day, and sit up all night to write sonnets on her beauty.’ ( Act II scene i) Ironic. Comic.
It also shows us that presumably Sir Anthony didn’t do as his father wished, when he ran away with Jack’s mother. It’s also a nod, for those in the know, to the latest gossip, as Sheridan had run away with Miss Linley.
Role reversal: young Jack is cool; old Sir Anthony is passionate. It makes for comedy.

Not to please your father, sir?

To please my father! zounds! not to please–Oh, my father–odd so!–yes–yes; if my father indeed had desired–that’s quite another matter. Though he wa’n’t the indulgent father that I am, Jack.

I dare say not, sir.

But, Jack, you are not sorry to find your mistress is so beautiful?

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 (fussy), 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 maybe very agreeable, yet as the prejudice has always run in favour of two, I would not wish to affect a singularity in that article.

What a phlegmatic sot (fool) it is! Why, sirrah, you’re an anchorite!–a vile, insensible stock. You a soldier!–you’re a walking block, fit only to dust the company’s regimentals on! Odds life! I have a great mind to marry the girl myself!

An anchorite is a religious recluse, hermit who obviously would not be inerested in a beautiful young woman; a stock is tree trunk or woody stem, equally uninterested in Lydia. Sir Anthony wants Jack to show that he is thoroughly manly.

I am entirely at your disposal, sir: if you should think of addressing Miss Languish yourself, I suppose you would have me marry the aunt; or if you should change your mind, and take the old lady–’tis the same to me–I’ll marry the niece.

Upon my word, Jack, thou’rt either a very great hypocrite, or–but, come, I know your indifference on such a subject must be all a lie–I’m sure it must–come, now–damn your demure face!–come, confess Jack–you have been lying, ha’n’t you? You have been playing the hypocrite, hey!–I’ll never forgive you, if you ha’n’t been lying and playing the hypocrite.

Which is true. But Jack sticks to his guns, determined to defeat his father.

I’m sorry, sir, that the respect and duty which I bear to you should be so mistaken.

Hang your respect and duty! But come along with me, I’ll write a note to Mrs. Malaprop, and you shall visit the lady directly. Her eyes shall be the Promethean torch to you–come along, I’ll never forgive you, if you don’t come back stark mad with rapture and impatience–if you don’t, egad, I will marry the girl myself!

Another terrific exit line. Comic role reversal here: Sir Anthony full of Lydia’s loveliness; Jack speaking of respect and duty. Sheridan makes sure that Sir Anthony isn’t drooling lustfully over Lydia. Sir Anthony is enjoying her loveliness and wanting his son to show himself to be thoroughly virile, like his father, like a true Absolute.

Incidentally, Jack has got his father to do exactly what he (Jack) wanted him to. At the same time, he has let his father think that he (Sir Anthony) is in control of events, when he is not. Comic.

This scene turns Act II scene i on its head. There Sir Anthony made impossible demands of Jack which Jack resisted; in this scene, Jack knows who it is that his father intends him to marry, and he suddenly becomes the model obedient son. However, he does so in a way that continues to frustrate his father. In Act II scene i he frustrated his father by refusing to obey him; in this scene he frustrates his father by being insufficiently passionate.

Sheridan presents the clash between the generations in an entertaining way. It is a battle for power, and neither Sir Anthony nor Jack will give way. Sir Anthony calls Jack names such as ‘puppy’ that demonstrate Sir Anthony’s power, and yet Jack plays his father and exposes his father’s weaknesses in a way that demonstrate Sir Anthony’s lack of power.

Sheridan turns our expectations upside down by giving us a childishly passionate father and an apparently rational son – a further source of entertainment in role reversal, which he takes to extremes (for example when Jack asks whether he is to marry the niece or the aunt).

Bristol Old Vic Production 2004

Jack prepares us for his recantation to his father: ‘Now for a penitential face.’
Sir Anthony says, ‘I see an impudent scoundrel before me’ – which indeed he does, and we know how true that is.

As Sir Anthony is describing how beautiful Lydia is, he pouts – which Lydia does, too, but when Sir Anthony does it he looks nothing like Lydia, so it looks very funny. And Sir Anthony keeps contradicting himself, which is also funny, since he thinks he is the voice of parental reason.

Act III scene ii

Julia’s dressing-room

Jeremy Rowe comments: ‘This is the first Faulkland / Julia scene. Sheridan has left it quite late in the play to start exploring their relationship.’ (The Rivals, Macmillan Master Guides p 40)

FAULKLAND discovered (revealed, shown on stage) alone They told me Julia would return directly (at once); I wonder she is not yet come ! How mean does this captious (fault-finding), unsatisfied temper of mine appear to my cooler judgment ! Yet I know not that I indulge it in any other point ; but on this one subject, and to this one subject, whom I think I love beyond my life, I am ever ungenerously fretful and madly capricious (experiencing sudden changes of feeling)! I am conscious (aware) of it yet I cannot correct myself ! What tender, honest joy sparkled in her eyes when we met ! how delicate was the warmth (affection) of her expressions ! I was ashamed to appear less happy though I had come resolved (determined) to wear a face (expression) of coolness and upbraiding (criticism). Sir Anthony’s presence prevented my proposed expostulations (complaints); yet I must be satisfied that she has not been so very happy in my absence. She is coming ! Yes ! I know the nimbleness of her tread (footsteps), when she thinks her impatient Faulkland counts the moments of her stay.

This is a soliloquy, so we get Faulkland’s true thoughts and feelings. He is not having to deceive anyone or put on a display for anyone. Yet he analyses his thoughts and feelings to such an extent that they resist his attempts to identify them; in fact, they almost disappear. At one moment he is ‘captious’ and ‘unsatisfied’, at the next he is ‘ashamed to appear less happy’ than Julia is when she sees him after an absence. When he inspects his feelings for Julia, he says ‘I think I love (her) beyond my life’ – he does not seem certain. He tells himself that ‘he must be satisfied.’ He claims that he ‘cannot correct (him)self,’ so presumably he is controlled by his captious temper. Although he speaks of Julia, he speaks even more of himself: the word ‘I’ occurs again and again.

Presumably, since this is a comedy of manners, Sheridan intends the audience to find Faulkland’s neurotic self-examination entertaining. He is the hero of a sentimental novel but without any disastrous crises in his love-story, so he has to invent them. Lydia has no disastrous crises in her love-story either (as we know) so she has to invent them, too. However, the two characters are very different: Lydia is far too energetic and capable to succumb to her fiction, whereas Faulkland is on self-destruct, and might wreck his own happiness and Julia’s at any moment. Jack Absolute knows exactly what Lydia is playing at, but Julia, being a heroine from a sentimental novel herself, all goodness and no witty detachment, believes Faulkland’s nonsense.

Enter JULIA.

JULIA I had not hoped to see you again so soon.

FAULKLAND Could I, Julia, be contented with my first welcome, restrained as we were by the presence of a third person ?

JULIA O Faulkland, when your kindness can make me thus happy, let me not think that I discovered some-thing of coldness in your first salutation (greeting).

FAULKLAND. Twas but your fancy, Julia. I was rejoiced to see you to see you in such health. Sure I had no cause for coldness ?

JULIA Nay, then, I see you have taken something ill (you have taken offence at something I’ve done). You must not conceal from me what it is.

FAULKLAND Well, then shall 1 own (admit) to you that my joy at hearing of your health and arrival here, by your neighbour Acres, was somewhat damped by his dwelling much on the high spirits you had enjoyed in Devon-shire on your mirth your singing dancing, and I know not what ! For such is my temper, Julia, that I should regard every mirthful moment in your absence as a treason to constancy (betrayal of faithfulness). The mutual tear (the tears than run down the cheeks of both lovers when they part) that steals down the cheek of parting lovers is a compact (promise) that no smile shall live there (on their faces) till they meet again.

JULIA Must I never cease to tax my Faulkland with this teasing minute caprice? Can the idle (silly) reports of a silly boor (country bumpkin) weigh (matter) in your breast against my tried (tested, proved) Affection ?

FAULKLAND They have no weight with me, Julia. No, no: I am happy if you have been so – yet only say that you did not sing with mirth, say that you thought of Faulkland in the dance.

JULIA I never can be happy in your absence. If I wear a countenance (facial expression) of content, it is to show that my mind holds no doubt of my Faulkland’s truth. If I seemed sad, it were to make malice triumph, and say that I had fixed my heart on one who left me to lament his roving (infidelity) and my own credulity (being taken in by my lover). Believe me, Faulkland, I mean not to upbraid (criticise) you when I say that I have often dressed sorrow in smiles, lest my friends should guess whose unkindness had caused my tears.

FAULKLAND You were ever all goodness to me. Oh, I am a brute when I but admit a doubt of your true constancy !

This is all very high-flown, over-the-top stuff: ‘I can never be happy in your absence’ and ‘You were ever all goodness to me. Oh, I am a brute …’ . Julia (‘I can never …’) and Faulkland (‘You were ever all goodness…’) speak in superlatives. Faulkland emphasises his powerful (?) feelings with the intensifier, ‘Oh….’. Julia’s speech contains effective rhetorical patterning which increases the effect of her faithfulness as she explains and defends her behaviour in Faulkland’s absence. Her sentences are constructed with repeated ‘if’ and ‘it is’; ‘If I wear … it is to show … If I seemed sad, it were to make …’. She begs Faulkland to believe her: ‘Believe me, Faulkland ….’

JULIA If ever without such cause from you, as I will not suppose possible, you find my affections veering but a point (minute amount), may I become a proverbial scoff (may people feel contempt for me) for levity (lack of seriousness) and base (cheap, ignoble) ingratitude.

FAULKLAND Ah ! Julia, that last word is grating (painful, like the physical pain of a graze) to me. I would I had no title to your gratitude ! Search your heart, Julia ; perhaps what you have mistaken for love is but the warm effusion of a too thankful heart.

Just when Julia has vowed that she cannot ‘suppose (it) possible’ that her affections should change, Faulkland focuses on himself again, managing to find fault in her avowal of her love. ‘Ah! Julia, that last word is grating to me.’ Surely there’s a play on ‘grating’ / ‘gratitude’ here; Julia’s gratitude is grating (physically and emotionally painful) to Faulkland. Again, Faulkland subjects Julia’s feelings to examination under a microscope and, in so doing, manages to convince himself that her love is only a ‘warm effusion (a pouring out)’.

JULIA For what quality must I love you ?

FAULKLAND For no quality ! To regard me for any quality of mind or understanding were only to esteem me. And for person I have often wished myself deformed, to be convinced that I owed no obligation there for any part of your affection.

JULIA Where nature has bestowed a show of nice attention in the features of a man, he should laugh at it as misplaced. I have seen men, who in this vain article, perhaps, might rank above you ; but my heart has never asked my eyes if it were so or not.

FAULKLAND Now this is not well from you, Julia I despise person (appearance) in a man yet if you loved me as I wish, though I were an Ethiop (even if I had a different coloured skin), you’d think none so fair.

JULIA I see you are determined to be unkind ! The contract (engagement) which my poor father bound us in gives you more than a lover’s privilege.

FAULKLAND Again, Julia, you raise ideas that feed and justify my doubts. I would not have been more free. No ! I am proud of my restraint. Yet perhaps your high respect alone for this solemn compact has fettered your inclinations, which else had made a worthier choice. How shall I be sure, had you remained unbound in thought and promise, that I should still have been the object of your persevering love?

Apparently, in Faulkland’s twisted mind, it is Julia’s fault that he has doubts: ‘you raise ideas that feed and justify my doubts.’ If you look at his last three speeches, they are all about himself.

JULIA Then try me now. Let us be free as strangers as to what is past. My heart will not feel more liberty !

FAULKLAND There now ! so hasty, Julia ! so anxious to be free ! If your love for me were fixed and ardent, you would not lose your hold, even though I wished it !

JULIA Oh ! you torture me to the heart ! I cannot bear it.

Probably nowadays we would take this cry from the heart seriously, and think that Faulkland is submitting Julia to mental cruelty. I suspect that Sheridan intended it to be entertaining, demonstrating the ludicrous lengths to which a sentimental lover could go. It’s called shooting yourself in the foot.

FAULKLAND 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.

JULIA I know not whither your insinuations would tend ; but as they seem pressing to insult me, I will spare you the regret of having done so. I have given you no cause for this ! [Exit in tears.

FAULKLAND In tears ! Stay, Julia ; stay but for a moment. The door is fastened ! Julia ! my soul ! but for one moment ! I hear her sobbing ! ‘Sdeath ! what coming now. How little resolution there is in woman ! How a few soft words can turn them ! No, faith ! she is not coming either. Why, Julia, my love, say but (only) that you forgive me come but to tell me that now this is being too resentful. Stay ! she is coming too. I thought she would: no steadiness in anything : her going away must have been a mere trick; then she sha’n’t see that I was hurt by it. I’ll affect indifference (not caring). [Hums a tune : then listens.] No zounds ! she’s not coming ! nor don’t intend it, I suppose. This is not steadiness, but obstinacy ! Yet I deserve it. What, after so long an absence to quarrel with her tenderness ! ‘Twas barbarous and unmanly ! I should be ashamed to see her now. I’ll wait till her just resentment is abated ; and when I distress her so again, may I lose her whose (he means his) gnawing passions and long-hoarded spleen (irritable temper) shall make me curse my folly half the day and all the night.

When he does next see Julia, Faulkland does distress her so again and nearly does lose her. Sheridan both cues Act V scene i, and points up the irony in Faulkland’s behaviour – or, perhaps, the uncontrollably obsessive nature of it.

In his Macmillan Master Guides commentary, Jeremy Rowe observes that this scene is difficult to play because nowadays we would expect Julia to stand up for herself robustly in the face of Faulkland’s unreasonable outbursts. She allows herself to be mentally tortured, and this cruel treatment of her raises questions as to Faulkland’s good-nature. Rowe notes: ‘Faulkland should be an infuriating, yet endearing sight, as he twists and turns in the grip of his own obsession.’ (The Rivals, Sheridan, OUP p 148)

Martin Hutson, who plays Faulkland in the Bristol Old Vic production of 2004, made this extremely funny, and sent himself up. He was a mass of contradictions: one moment Julia has ‘no steadiness in anything’, the next ‘This is not steadiness, but obstinacy’, then he accuses himself of behaviour that is ‘barbarous and unmanly !’ This comic performance made it clear that the neurosis of these ultra-refined emotional sentiments actually had the capacity to destroy Julia’s true love through Faulkland’s doubts, and Faulkland’s own love for Julia through over-thorough inspection. But since the performance was so entertaining, the audience was obviously safe, and true love would win the day, whatever the obstacles.

The scenes involving Faulkland and Julia were popular with Sheridan’s audiences, who admired them for their strong emotions and delicacy of feeling. They are much less popular now. Do you feel that Julia and Faulkland (whose scenes together are separated from the other scenes) have a world of great love mixed with private torture? Or do you think that the Julia / Faulkland subplot is a sop to the sentimentalists who would have made up most of Sheridan’s audience? Is Faulkland’s neurosis an effective foil to the much more robust relationship of Lydia and Jack? (A foil is something that provides a contrast that enhances and shows off something else to advantage.) Is Sheridan satirising sentimentalism – is Faulkland’s high-flown rhetoric (‘pluck the thorn from compunction, Act V scene i) burlesque or very serious? (Burlesque is an absurdly exaggerated version.)

Sentimental comedy was very popular in the 1770s. It was about intense feelings that were noble. Almost all the characters were good, generous and had no sense of humour. They uttered fine emotional sentiments. There was no comedy, no mocking of folly. Religious and philosophical thinking of the time held that people were naturally good but easily corrupted, so sentimental comedy was supposedly reconnecting people to their better natures. Sheridan and his contemporary Goldsmith thought these comedies were dull, and wanted to reintroduce ‘laughing comedy’.

Here is an extract from ‘A conversation with Peter Wood’ in Sheridan Studies edited by James Morwood, David Crane (CUP 1995). Peter Wood directed one of the most famous productions of The Rivals at the National Theatre in 1983, and later Sheridan’s second play, The School for Scandal.

’The Rivals is graced by four great egos, obviously Malaprop, obviously Sir Anthony, so utterly unabashable, but more importantly Faulkland and of course Lydia. Those two are so hell-bent on their own romantic problems that they destroy absolutely everything in their path. They will not be diverted from their thinking. ‘So! – there will be no elopement after all!’ says Lydia (IV ii) and Faulkland can reduce Julia to tears … simply because it is the romantic ego which is driving him forward. And it is very interesting that the romantic ego should manifest itself there in that form just ahead of the Byronic notions which are still in the future, still thirty years away.’

Act III scene iii

Mrs. Malaprop’s lodgings

MRS. MALAPROP, with a letter in her hand, and CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE.

MRS. MALAPROP Your being Sir Anthony’s son, captain, would itself be a sufficient accommodation (she means recommendation) ; but from the ingenuity (she means ingenuousness, frankness and openness) of your appearance, I am convinced you deserve the character (reputation) here given of you.

ABSOLUTE Permit me to say, madam, that as I never yet have had the pleasure of seeing Miss Languish, my principal inducement in this affair at present is the honour of being allied to Mrs. Malaprop, of whose intellectual accomplishments, elegant manners, and unaffected learning, no tongue is silent.

Ridiculous flattery, all taken at face value by Mrs Malaprop. This makes us laugh at Mrs Malaprop’s vanity / pride, lack of self-knowledge. Sheridan presents these as follies, for our amusement and entertainment, not as vices to be scathingly condemned by vicious satire. That’s why this is a comedy of manners – it is light-hearted and good tempered. It enjoys people’s foibles. When Mrs Malaprop comments on the ‘ingenuity of your appearance’ she means ingenuousness or openness, which is of course the opposite of the truth and is therefore entertaining.

MRS. MALAPROP Sir, you do me infinite honour ! I beg, captain, you’ll be seated. [They sit.] Ah ! few gentlemen nowadays know how to value the ineffectual (she means intellectual) qualities in a woman ! Few think how a little knowledge becomes a gentlewoman ! Men have no sense now but for the worthless flower of beauty !

As so often, Mrs Malaprop uses one word when she means another. Here, it is ineffectual (no threat to anyone, not having much effect) when she means intellectual. So one joke is that she is not intellectual enough to use the right word, though she is deluded enough to think that she is the queen of the dictionary. However, a second joke, is that ineffectual is probably exactly the right word, as in a patriarchal society where a fortune comes with a wife attached (Act II scene i), men value the ineffectual qualities in a woman, which leaves the men in sole control.

In the Bristol Old Vic production of 2004, Mrs Malaprop’s apparent lack of interest in women’s beauty ‘the worthless flower of beauty’ was belied by her hopeful but un-lustrous and greying lovelock. She obviously still had faith in her charms.

ABSOLUTE It is but too true, indeed, ma’am ; yet I fear our ladies should share the blame. They think our admiration of beauty so great, that knowledge in them would be superfluous. Thus, like garden trees, they seldom show fruit, till time has robbed them of the more specious blossom. Few, like Mrs. Malaprop and the orange-tree, are rich in both at once !

MRS. MALAPROP Sir, you overpower me with good breeding. He is the very pine-apple of politeness ! You are not ignorant, captain, that this giddy girl has somehow contrived to fix her affections on a beggarly, strolling (poor, wandering/itinerant), eavesdropping ensign, whom none of us have seen, and nobody knows anything of.

He’s sitting right in front of her. And he knows all about Beverley.

ABSOLUTE Oh, I have heard the silly affair before. I’m not at all prejudiced against her on that account.

MRS. MALAPROP You are very good and very considerate, captain. I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded (ie exposed) the affair ; long ago I laid my positive conjunctions (ie injunctions, orders) on her never to think on the fellow again. I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition (ie proposition, plan) before her ; but, I am sorry to say, she seems resolved to decline (refuse) every particle (ie article or particular or detail) that I enjoin (command) her.

The joke here is that Mrs Malaprop, who claims her command of grammar to be so comprehensive, has unwittingly selected words to do with grammar as her attempts at other words. A conjunction is a joining word; a preposition is a word coming before a noun, such as under or through; decline is the grammatical term for working with a noun and a particle is a short word that doesn’t have a regular part-of-speech slot.

ABSOLUTE It must be very distressing indeed, ma’am.

MRS. MALAPROP Oh ! it gives me the hydrostatics (she means hysterics) to such a degree. I thought she had persisted (she means desisted) from corresponding with him; but behold, this very day, I have interceded (she means intercepted) another letter from the fellow! I believe I have it in my pocket.

Another wrong word here that is right. Mrs Malaprop means desisted, not persisted, but in fact, Lydia has persisted in corresponding with Beverley/Absolute.

ABSOLUTE Oh, the devil ! my last note. [Aside.

Jack takes the audience into his confidence so that we can enjoy the conversation all the more, and also so that we can anticipate the difficulties (when he is exposed as Beverly) in what he has written about Mrs Malaprop, which is the opposite of what he has just said to her!

So the fun for the audience is: how’s he going to wriggle out of this one?

MRS. MALAPROP Ay, here it is.

ABSOLUTE Ay, my note indeed ! Oh, the little traitress Lucy. [Aside)

MRS. MALAPROP There, perhaps you may know the writing. {Gives him the letter.)

ABSOLUTE I think I have seen the hand (handwriting) before yes, I certainly must have seen this hand before.

Well, as it’s his own handwriting ….

MRS. MALAPROP Nay, but read it, captain.

Oh dear.

ABSOLUTE [Reads.] ‘My soul’s idol, my adored Lydia.’ Very tender indeed.

MRS. MALAPROP Tender ; ay, and profane too, o’ my conscience.

Profane means not respecting spiritual matters, and Mrs Malaprop says that ‘My soul’s idol, my adored Lydia’ is profane because Jack’s soul should adore God, not Lydia.

ABSOLUTE [Reads.] I am excessively alarmed at the intelligence (news, information) you send me, the more so as my new rival

MRS. MALAPROP That’s you, sir.

ABSOLUTE [Reads.] has universally the character of being an accomplished gentleman and a man of honour. Well, that’s handsome (courteous, gracious) enough.

MRS. MALAPROP Oh, the fellow has some design (plan) in writing so.

ABSOLUTE That he had, I’ll answer for him, ma’am.
Jack is the very person who can answer for Beverley; he is Beverley.

MRS. MALAPROP But go on, sir you’ll see presently.

ABSOLUTE [Reads.] ‘As for the old weather-beaten she-dragon who guards you..’ Who can he mean by that?

This description ‘the old weather-beaten she-dragon’ contrasts nicely with what Jack has just said to Mrs Malaprop: ‘of whose intellectual accomplishments, elegant manners, and unaffected learning, no tongue is silent.’ In a more biting satire, this would be flagrant hypocrisy: in a comedy of manners such as The Rivals, it is an entertaining discrepancy between the truth and what it is acceptable to say in high society.

MRS. MALAPROP Me, sir ! me ! he means me ! There what do you think now? But go on a little further.

ABSOLUTE Impudent scoundrel ! [Reads.] it shall go hard, but I will elude her vigilance, as I am told that the same ridiculous vanity which makes her dress up her coarse features, and deck her dull chat with hard words which she don’t understand

MRS. MALAPROP There, sir, an attack upon my language ! What do you think of that? an aspersion (criticism) upon my parts of speech ! was ever such a brute ! Sure, if I reprehend (rebuke, deplore, despise; she means apprehend – understand) anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular (she means vernacular – speaking in her own language) tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs ! (arrangement of epithets)

Her speech a short while ago showed that she has no idea of parts of speech – she misused the words conjunction, preposition, decline and particles.

ABSOLUTE He deserves to be hanged and quartered ! Let me see. [Reads.’] same ridiculous vanity…

Jack goes, apparently in all innocence, back to the part of his letter that criticised Mrs Malaprop, and he repeats it, to the confusion of Mrs Malaprop.

MRS. MALAPROP You need not read it again, sir.

ABSOLUTE I beg pardon, ma’am. (Reads) does also lay her open to the grossest deceptions from flattery and pretended admiration an impudent coxcomb (conceited young man)! so that I have a scheme to see you shortly with the old harridan’s (bossy, belligerent old woman) consent, and even to make her a go-between in our interview. Was ever such assurance !

MRS. MALAPROP Did you ever hear anything like it? He’ll elude my vigilance, will he ? Yes, yes ! ha ! ha ! he’s very likely to enter these doors ! We’ll try who can plot best !

This is visual comedy. Mrs Malaprop declares, laughing at the idea, ‘he’s very likely to enter these doors’ when he is sitting in front of her and she’s talking to him.

ABSOLUTE So we will, ma’am so we will ! Ha ! ha ! ha ! a conceited puppy, ha ! ha! ha ! Well, but Mrs. Malaprop, as the girl seems so infatuated by this fellow, suppose you were to wink (pretend not to notice) 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.

As usual, Jack is telling people what to do; this time, it’s Mrs Malaprop he is controlling. He hopes that, like a puppet, she will dance to his tune so that he can further his courtship of Lydia. The audience can’t help enjoying Jack’s quick wits.

MRS. MALAPROP I am delighted with the scheme ; never was anything better perpetrated !

ABSOLUTE But, pray, could not I see the lady for a few minutes now ? I should like to try her temper a little.

MRS. MALAPROP Why, I don’t know I doubt she is not prepared for a visit of this kind. There is a decorum in these matters.

ABSOLUTE O Lord ! she won’t mind me. Only tell her Beverley –



ABSOLUTE (Aside) Gently, good tongue.

MRS. MALAPROP What did you say of Beverley ?

ABSOLUTE Oh, I was going to propose that you should tell her, by way of jest, that it was Beverley who was below. She’d come down fast enough then ha ! ha ! ha !

Wow! That was very witty clever quick thinking to get him out of that hole.

MRS. MALAPROP ‘Twould be a trick she well deserves ; besides, you know, the fellow tells her he’ll get my consent to see her ha ! ha ! Let him if he can, I say again. Lydia, come down here ! [Calling.] He’ll make me a go-between in their interviews ! ha ! ha ! ha ! Come down, I say, Lydia ! I don’t wonder at your laughing ha ! ha ! ha ! His impudence is truly ridiculous.

Yes, Jack’s impudence certainly is astonishing. Without realizing it, Mrs Malaprop provides a commentary on what is happening. Jack is controlling events again, but the situation will eventually blow up on him, which is all part of the audience’s fun.

ABSOLUTE Tis very ridiculous, upon my soul, ma’am ha ha ! ha !

MRS. MALAPROP The little hussy (badly-behaved young woman) won’t hear. Well, I’ll go and tell her at once who it is she shall know that Captain Absolute is come to wait on her. And I’ll make her behave as becomes a young woman.

ABSOLUTE As you please, ma’am.

MRS. MALAPROP For the present, captain, your servant. Ah ! you’ve not done laughing yet, I see elude my vigilance ; yes, yes ; ha ! ha ! ha ! [Exit.

ABSOLUTE Ha ! ha ! ha ! one would think now that I might throw off all disguise at once, and seize my prize with security ; but such is Lydia’s caprice, that to un-deceive were probably to lose her. I’ll see whether she knows me.

(Walks aside, and seems engaged in looking at the pictures.)

This is the first time we have seen Lydia and Jack together. Except, that we don’t precisely see them together because Lydia thinks that Jack is Beverley and doesn’t know that he is pretending. She is infatuated by a fiction: a fictional idea of love and an imaginary person. So, in one sense, their relationship doesn’t really exist. In another sense, Jack’s father and Lydia’s aunt would like them to marry, so this real possibility of a real relationship exists beyond the fiction. But it can only take place if Lydia relinquishes her attachment to a fictional relationship, and at this stage, she shows no signs of doing so. Sheridan shows us how ridiculous Lydia’s fictional notion of love is when Jack, as Beverley, launches into high-flown speeches for her benefit. They make no sense at all.

Enter LYDIA.

LYDIA What a scene am I now to go through ! Surely nothing can be more dreadful than to be obliged to listen to the loathsome addresses of a stranger to one’s heart. I have heard of girls persecuted as I am, who have appealed in behalf of their favoured lover to the generosity of his rival : suppose I were to try it. There stands the hated rival an officer, too ! but oh, how unlike my Beverley ! I wonder he don’t begin ; truly he seems a very negligent wooer ! quite at his ease, upon my word ! I’ll speak first. Mr. Absolute

(Turns round.)

LYDIA O heavens ! Beverley !

ABSOLUTE Hush ! hush, my life ! softly ! be not surprised !

LYDIA I am so astonished, and so terrified, and so overjoyed ! For Heaven’s sake ! how came you here?

ABSOLUTE Briefly, I have deceived your aunt. I was informed that my new rival was to visit here this evening, and contriving to have him kept away, have passed myself on her for Captain Absolute.

LYDIA Oh, charming! And she really takes you for young Absolute ?

ABSOLUTE Oh, she’s convinced of it.

LYDIA Ha ! ha ! ha ! I can’t forbear laughing to think how her sagacity is overreached

ABSOLUTE But we trifle with (are wasting) our precious moments– such another opportunity may not occur ; then let me now conjure my kind, my condescending (graciously obliging) angel, to fix the time when I may rescue her from undeserving persecution, and with a licensed warmth (because they will be married, so that warmth – sexual intimacy – will be allowed – licensed) plead for my reward.

LYDIA Will you, then, Beverley, consent to forfeit that portion of my paltry (small; Lydia means that the fortune her husband would forfeit if she marries without her guardians’ consent before she is 21 is of no value to her) wealth ? that burden on the wings of love ?

To Lydia, the large fortune which will belong to her husband when she is married, is a burden, a heavy load for the wings of love to carry. Love should not be weighed down by any practical considerations of money; it should fly freely.

ABSOLUTE Oh, come to me rich only thus in loveliness ! Bring no portion to me but thy love. ‘Twill be generous-in you, Lydia for well you know, it is the only dower your poor Beverley can repay.

The Jack who says to Lydia, ‘Oh, come to me rich only thus in loveliness ! Bring no portion to me but thy love,’ is the man who said, in horror, at Faulkland’s suggestion of eloping, ‘What, and lose two thirds of her fortune?’ (Act II scene i)

Jack answers Lydia by taking up the metaphor she had used, thus giving her the impression that their two hearts beat as one: her beauty and her love will be riches / wealth / portion enough for him when they are married. The two sentences follow the same pattern:
Oh, come to me rich only thus in loveliness !
Bring no portion to me but thy love.
He begins with ‘Oh’ which intensifies the emotion. Then both sentences contain the verbs, ‘come’, ‘bring’ followed by ‘to me’ and words about riches ‘rich’, ‘portion’ followed by ‘only in loveliness,’ ‘no… but they love.’ It’s all very fanciful and poetic and not at all sensible. They will live without money on the riches of beauty and love. It is the language of sentimental novels, and Lydia loves it.

LYDIA (Aside) How persuasive are his words ! how charming will poverty be with him!

This is, of course, nonsense. Poverty is not charming; Lydia is charmed by the dream of living out a sentimental novel.

ABSOLUTE Ah ! my soul, what a life will we then live ! Love shall be our idol and support I 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.] If she holds out now, the devil is in it ! [Aside.

Jack’s – and of course, Lydia’s – language is that of high-flown sentimental novels. Sheridan shows us how idiotic / ridiculous it is when Lydia says, ‘how charming will poverty be with him.’ She has no conception of the truth of poverty. She continues in this overblown vein with, ‘Now could I fly with him to the antipodes! but my persecution is not yet come to a crisis.’ ‘Persecution’ and ‘crisis’ are extremes of emotion; and betray the fact that Lydia is indulging in a fiction. She wants to wait until things get even ‘worse’ in a sentimental fashion. ‘Fly’ (elope) ‘to the antipodes’ is an extreme first of action – eloping rather than marrying in the conventional way – and then of geography. The Antipodes are Australia and New Zealand; in other words, the opposite ends of the earth; the furthest distance she and her lover could possibly travel.

Jack is very clever at adopting different registers. He adopted the manual of behaviour register to be a dutiful son to his angry father. He now adopts the sentimental novel register because that is what Lydia likes to hear: ‘the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our pure love show doubly bright’. When he says, ‘Love shall be our idol and support! we will worship him with a monastic strictness,’ it is pure nonsense. Monks take a vow of chastity, so that would be a very bad start to their mutual love. He is picturing love as a religion – ‘Ah! my soul’ and ‘Love shall be our idol’. However, the word ‘idol’ is a giveaway; it reveals that love will not be a true religion, but a false one. It also, if you want to take a serious view of the speech, reveals that his picture of their love as a religion is blasphemous.

Then there is Jack’s own way of speaking which is fun for the audience because it is so different, so unsentimental and unpoetic, and because it’s directed at us, the audience: ‘If she holds out now, the devil is in it!’ Whereas Lydia doesn’t seem to realize that she is playing at being the heroine of a sentimental novel, Jack does know that he is playing at being the hero of a sentimental novel. And we know that Lydia is playing, adopting a pose, because of the water spaniel episode when she denounced Faulkland saving Julia as being something even a water spaniel could do. Lydia doesn’t have self-knowledge. Jack does. (His father and Mrs Malaprop don’t.)

Jack really piles on the sentimental nonsense here. Starting with ‘Ah! my soul …’ which is high-flown rhetorical gushing, he exclaims, ‘what a life will we then live!’ The alliterating ws lend strength to the dream intended for Lydia’s ears. Jack describes Love as the god of their married life: ‘Love shall be our idol and support! We will worship him …’ It is true that God is the God of Love, but this isn’t the love that Jack is referring to. He’s referring to a sentimental notion of love between a man and his wife that is the centre of their every thought and action. This is, actually, idolatry, specifically forbidden in the second of the ten commandments. However, since this is a comedy of manners, Sheridan is inviting us to be entertained by Jack’s pandering to Lydia’s folly, rather than condemning its secular nature.

If you look more closely at Jack’s speech, you can see with every sentence how ridiculous the picture he is painting for Lydia’s benefit is. If they worship Love with ‘a monastic strictness,’ that will mean total chastity (one of the vows monks make). He fills his speech with exaggeratedly dramatic words, such as ‘calamity’, ‘wreck’, ‘gloom of adversity’ and ‘prodigal’ that will be music to her ears and imagination. Everything he speaks about is exaggerated by superlatives and often by alliteration: ‘’all worldly toys … every thought and action … the wreck of wealth … our pure love show doubly bright,’ … ‘I would fling all goods of fortune from me’ … ‘the world affords no smile to me but here…’.

Sheridan ups the drama by giving Jack sentences constructed in an ultra-stirring fashion. He has terrific beginnings to his sentences: ‘Ah! my soul, … By Heavens! I would….’. He uses the most absolute future forms: ‘’Love shall be … we will worship him ….’ rather than the simple future of Love will be and we shall worship. He constructs sentences with sensational subordinate clauses, withholding the main part of the sentence for maximum dramatic effect : ‘proud of calamity, we …’. He uses compelling contrasts: ‘the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our love show doubly bright.’ He pictures his actions for Lydia, in a yearning conditional tense of the verbs: ‘ 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, excitingly, he matches action to words.

Sheridan spells out for us what nonsense all this is, as Jack turns to the audience with the aside that brings us down to earth with a bump: ‘If she holds out now, the devil is in it !’ So there is an element of uncertainty: will he continue to control Lydia or will she realise what he is up to?

Jack is deceiving Lydia by pretending to be Beverley and pretending to believe in the sentimental novel version of love. But at the same time he assures us that he knows this is all make-believe. He is deceiving Mrs Malaprop by telling her that he will help her catch Beverley. He has, however, had his eyes opened as to the deception that Lucy has perpetrated, in pretending to deliver his note straight to Lydia.

LYDIA (Aside) Now could I fly with him to the antipodes (Australia and New Zealand, at the opposite side of the world from England) ! but my persecution (oppression and ill-treatment endured as a consequence of ones beliefs) is not yet come to a crisis.

Seeing herself as the heroine of this great drama, Lydia uses emotive words to describe her situation, like ‘persecution’ and ‘crisis’. She would like the drama to become yet more intense ‘come to a crisis.’ This language reveals the fantasy world she is living in. She, like Faulkland, is playing at being in love. It is not until reality impinges, when she realises that Beverley does not exist, that she has to face what she really wants from life. Similarly, it is not until he loses Julia with his playacting at love, that Faulkland faces the prospect of life without her.

Re-enter MRS. MALAPROP, listening.

MRS. MALAPROP (Aside) I am impatient to know how the little hussy deports (behaves) herself.

ABSOLUTE So pensive, Lydia ! Is, then, your warmth (your warm feelings for me) abated (grown less strong) ?

MRS. MALAPROP Warmth abated ! so ! she has been in a passion, I suppose. [Aside.

More entertaining confusion: Mrs Malaprop misunderstands ‘warmth’, which in Jack’s mouth means ‘love’, and thinks that it means ‘ill-tempered rage’.

LYDIA No nor ever can while I have life.

MRS. MALAPROP An ill-tempered little devil ! She’ll be in a passion all her life, will she? [Aside.

LYDIA Think not the idle threats of my ridiculous aunt can ever have any weight with me.

MRS. MALAPROP Very dutiful, upon my word ! [Aside.

LYDIA Let her choice be Captain Absolute, but Beverley is mine.

MRS. MALAPROP(Aside) I am astonished at her assurance ! to his face this is to his face !

ABSOLUTE Thus, then, let me enforce my suit (trying to gain a woman’s love). (Kneeling)

Jack’s kneeling to Lydia is the stuff of sentimental novels.

MRS. MALAPROP [Aside.] Ay, poor young man! Down on his knees entreating for pity ! I can contain no longer. [Coming forward.] Why, thou vixen ! I have overheard you.

ABSOLUTE Oh, confound her vigilance (damn her keeping watch / eavesdropping)! [Aside.

MBS. MAL. Captain Absolute, I know not how to apologise for her shocking rudeness.

ABSOLUTE [Aside.] So all’s safe, I find. [Aloud.] I have hopes, madam, that time will bring the young lady …

Audience entertainment. We thought he’d been exposed but, no, he’s still OK.

MRS. MALAPROP Oh, there’s nothing to be hoped for from her ! She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.

This is one of Mrs Malaprop’s most famous misfirings. She means an alligator, something impossibly different and foreign, and lethally wilful (an alligator is similar to a crocodile. In fact, they do not exist in Africa.). An allegory is a story that can be understood to have a moral or political meaning, like Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm.

This remark: ‘She is as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’ deflates the tension in the scene. Dramatically it works well because The Rivals is a comedy of manners, and the aim is entertainingly to point out the follies of high society not to involve the audience in the drama of high-wrought scenes of love

LYDIA Nay, madam, what do you charge me with (say that I have done) now ?

MRS. MALAPROP Why, thou unblushing rebel didn’t you tell this gentleman to his face that you loved another better ? Didn’t you say you never would be his ?

LYDIA No, madam, I did not.

MRS. MALAPROP Good Heavens ! what assurance ! Lydia, Lydia, you ought to know that lying don’t become a young woman ! Didn’t you boast that Beverley, that stroller Beverley, possessed your heart? Tell me that, I say.

LYDIA ‘Tis true, ma’am, and none but Beverley

MRS. MALAPROP Hold ! hold, Assurance ! you shall not be so rude.

ABSOLUTE Nay, pray, Mrs. Malaprop, don’t stop the young lady’s speech ; she’s very welcome to talk thus it does not hurt me in the least, I assure you.

MBS. MAL. You are too good, captain too amiably patient but come with me, miss. Let us see you again soon, captain. Remember what we have fixed.

ABSOLUTE I shall, ma’am.

MRS. MALAPROP Come, take a graceful leave of the gentleman.

LYDIA May every blessing wait on my Beverley, my loved Bev …..

MRS. MALAPROP Hussy ! I’ll choke the word in your throat ! come along come along.
[Exeunt severally ; CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE kissing his hand to LYDIA; MRS. MALAPROP stopping her from speaking.

So Jack has managed to deceive both women and they have each kept stubbornly to their own version of reality. Which has nothing to do with reality.

The entertainment in this scene stems largely from the fact that Jack has to juggle his two identities. To Mrs Malaprop, he has to be Captain Absolute; to Lydia he has to be Beverley. Can he sustain the deception? At the same time, he amuses himself by telling the truth in a way that deceives his listeners: ‘Nay, pray, Mrs. Malaprop, don’t stop the young lady’s speech ; she’s very welcome to talk thus it does not hurt me in the least, I assure you.’ Sooner or later, he’s going to be found out.

Modern audiences probably wonder how much Jack does love Lydia. Is he playing along with her fantasy of Beverley in order to see more of her? He knows that as the approved suitor, Captain Absolute, he would have no chance of seeing her. He certainly wants her money: he said to Faulkland, ‘What, and lose two-thirds of her fortune?’ (Act II scene i). On the other hand, later in the same scene, he refused point blank to marry the wife that came with the fortune his father proposed for him: ‘I cannot obey you.’ So perhaps he does love Lydia?

Meanwhile, Lydia is in love with the idea of the sentimental hero. The same young man, once proved to be accepted by her guardian, would have no charm for her. So Jack is on the horns of a dilemma. Once he lets Lydia know who he really is – once reality enters her fantasy world – she won’t want him. So what does he do? He perpetuates the fantasy for as long as possible.

Act III scene iv

Acres’ lodgings

[ACRES, as just dressed, and DAVID.]

Indeed, David–do you think I become it so?

You are quite another creature, believe me, master, by the mass! an’ (if) we’ve any luck we shall see the Devon monkerony (macaroni) in all the print-shops in Bath!

A macaroni was a dandy, so called in the second half of the 18th century. He would probably be a well-travelled young man who was extravagantly imitating Continental fashions. Unfortunately, David gets the word wrong, and gives the impression of Acres fashionably dressed looking rather like a monkey in smart clothes. He, either loyally or satirically, says that with any luck, the Bath print shops (which sold prints of famous people) will soon contain prints of Acres.

Dress does make a difference, David.

‘Tis all in all, I think.–Difference! why, an’ you were to go now to Clod-Hall, I am certain the old lady wouldn’t know you: Master Butler wouldn’t believe his own eyes, and Mrs. Pickle would cry, Lard presarve me! our dairy-maid would come giggling to the door, and I warrant Dolly Tester, your honour’s favourite, would blush like my waistcoat.–Oons! I’ll hold a gallon, there ain’t a dog in the house but would bark, and I question whether Phillis would wag a hair of her tail!

Bob Acres’ servant, David, says that no-one at home would recognise Bob as he looks now. His way of saying this perfectly describes Bob’s agricultural life at Clod Hall. The cook has a broad Devonshire accent, ‘Lard presarve me!’ Dolly Tester is presumably a chambermaid. However, Dolly means an attractive young woman, and can also mean a whore (remember Shakespeare’s Doll Tearsheet). Sheridan’s equivalent of Tearsheet is Tester, which is the canopy over a bed (where Bob pays Dolly sixpence for her activities with him. Tester was slang for sixpence.). His other sweetheart at Clod Hall is his dog Phillis. Phillis was the name for a pretty country sweetheart.

Lydia and Absolute / Beverley, Julia and Faulkland are the two most important pairs of lovers. However, Bob has his countrified version of sweethearts, the chambermaid and his adoring dog. They make his ridiculous appearance as a dandy all the more laughable.
Ringing the changes on lovers, Sheridan has Sir Lucius and Delia who, unbeknownst to him is actually Mrs Malaprop. Not only is this another non-starter (like Bob and his dog, the nearest Bob will get to true love), but it is a variation on the theme of deception, such as Beverley’s. Whereas Lydia will not, at first, have Jack when she discovers who he really is, so Sir Lucius will not have anything to do with Mrs Malaprop at all when he discovers her identity. However, we see too little of this putative romance of Sir Lucius’s to be moved by it.

Act IV scene ii

Mrs. Malaprop’s Lodgings


Jeremy Rowe writes, in the Macmillan Master Guides study of The Rivals, ‘At Mrs Malaprop’s lodgings, the Absolute / Lydia seam of the plot erupts from fantasy into truth.’

Why, thou perverse one!–tell me what you can object to him? Isn’t he a
handsome man?–tell me that. A genteel man? a pretty figure of a man?

[Aside.] She little thinks whom she is praising!–[Aloud.] So is Beverley, ma’am.

Irony: Mrs Malaprop really is praising Jack Absolute. It’s Lydia who doesn’t realise.

No caparisons, miss, if you please. Caparisons (she means comparisons) don’t become a young woman. No! Captain Absolute is indeed a fine gentleman!

[Aside.] Ay, the Captain Absolute you have seen.

Then he’s so well bred;–so full of alacrity, and adulation (she means admiration)!–and has so much to say for himself:–in such good language, too! His physiognomy (she means phraseology) so grammatical! Then his presence is so noble! I protest, when I saw him, I thought of what Hamlet says in the play:–

“Hesperian (should be Hyperion’s) curls–the front of Job (should be Jove) himself!-
An eye, like March (should be Mars), to threaten at command!–
A station, like Harry (should be herald) Mercury, new—-“

Something about kissing–on a hill–however, the similitude struck me

Mrs Malaprop completely mangles the quotation from Hamlet and makes it not complimentary at all, but just rubbish.

[Aside.] How enraged she’ll be presently, when she discovers her mistake!

Irony: it will be Lydia who is enraged.

[Enter SERVANT.]

Sir Anthony and Captain Absolute are below, ma’am.

Show them up here.—-


Now, Lydia, I insist on your behaving as becomes a young woman. Show
your good breeding, at least, though you have forgot your duty.

Madam, I have told you my resolution!–I shall not only give him no
encouragement, but I won’t even speak to, or look at him. [Flings herself into a chair, with her face (away) from the door.]

’I won’t even speak to, or look at him’ shows us that Lydia is deliberately blind; she deliberately lives in a world of fantasy and refuses to look at reality (Jack Absolute).
From a practical point of view, Sheridan has to find a way whereby Lydia doe not immediately realise that Beverley is in fact Jack Absolute, so he makes her refuse to look at the suitor her aunt recommends.


Here we are, Mrs. Malaprop; come to mitigate (make less severe) the frowns of unrelenting beauty,–and difficulty enough I had to bring this fellow.–I don’t know what’s the matter; but if I had not held him by force, he’d have given me the slip.

You have infinite trouble, Sir Anthony, in the affair. I am ashamed for the cause!–[Aside to LYDIA.] Lydia, Lydia, rise, I beseech you!–pay your respects!

I hope, madam, that Miss Languish has reflected on the worth of this gentleman, and the regard due to her aunt’s choice, and my alliance.–[Aside to CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE.] Now, Jack, speak to her.

[Aside.] What the devil shall I do!–[Aside to Sir ANTHONY.] You see, sir, she won’t even look at me whilst you are here. I knew she wouldn’t! I told you so. Let me entreat you, sir, to leave us together!
[Seems to expostulate with his father.]

Funny, because, with his aside, ‘What the devil shall I do!’ he involves us, the audience, in his dilemma. The cocksure Jack, always in control of the situation, is now caught out and floundering.

[Aside.] I wonder I ha’n’t heard my aunt exclaim yet! sure she can’t have looked at him!–perhaps the regimentals are alike, and she is something blind.

Irony: it’s Lydia who is ‘something blind’.

I say, sir, I won’t stir a foot yet!

I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence (she means influence) over my niece is very small.–[Aside to LYDIA.] Turn round, Lydia: I blush for you!

May I not flatter myself, that Miss Languish will assign (point out, make clear) what cause of dislike she can have to my son!–[Aside to CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE.] Why don’t you begin, Jack?–Speak, you puppy–speak!

It is impossible, Sir Anthony, she can have any. She will not say she has.–[Aside to LYDIA.] Answer, hussy! why don’t you answer?

Then, madam, I trust that a childish and hasty predilection will be no bar to Jack’s happiness.–[Aside to CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE.] Zounds! sirrah! why don’t you speak?

[Aside.] I think my lover seems as little inclined to conversation as myself.–How strangely blind my aunt must be!

Lydia is blind; she wishes only to see a sentimental hero, not the real man. She refuses even to look at the real man.

Hem! hem! madam–hem!–[Attempts to speak, then returns to Sir ANTHONY.] Faith! sir, I am so confounded!–and–so–so–confused!–I told you I should be so, sir–I knew it.–The–the–tremor of my passion entirely takes away my presence of mind.

The audience can enjoy the sight of the articulate Jack reduced to speechlessness and his efforts to explain to his father the reason for his silence.

But it don’t take away your voice, fool, does it?–Go up, and speak to her directly!

[CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE makes signs to Mrs. MALAPROP to leave them together.]

Sir Anthony, shall we leave them together?–[Aside to LYDIA.] Ah! you stubborn little vixen!

The audience can also enjoy Mrs Malaprop’s two contradictory poses: the prospective romantic situation which must be encouraged, ‘Shall we leave them together?’ and the juxtaposed rage with Lydia, ‘you stubborn little vixen.’

Not yet, ma’am, not yet!–[Aside to CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE.] What the devil
are you at? unlock your jaws, sirrah, or—-

[Aside.] Now Heaven send (make her) she may be too sullen to look round!–I must disguise my voice.–[Draws near LYDIA, and speaks in a low hoarse tone.] Will not Miss Languish lend an ear to the mild accents of true love? Will not—-

What the devil ails the fellow? why don’t you speak out?–not stand croaking like a frog in a quinsy!

I think this is a really hilarious description. As you know, frogs croak, and a quinsy is an inflamed throat.
Jack has been such an assured lover up to now. And now reality has overtaken Beverley’s and Lydia’s love, in the form of consent and approval from his father and Lydia’s guardian, Jack can’t speak and doesn’t know what to say and Lydia won’t even look at him.

The–the–excess of my awe, and my–my–my modesty, quite choke me!

Ah! your modesty again!–I’ll tell you what, Jack; if you don’t speak out directly, and glibly too, I shall be in such a rage!–Mrs. Malaprop, I wish the lady would favour us with something more than a side-front (profile) CHECK.

Anything less like a lovers’ rapturous union would be hard to imagine!

[Mrs. MALAPROP seems to chide LYDIA.]

[Aside.] So all will out, I see!–[Goes up to LYDIA, speaks softly.] Be not surprised, my Lydia, suppress all surprise at present.

Jack is still trying to control the situation, but fails. The alliteration and consonance of ‘suppress … surprise’ are clever but in this case ineffective.

[Aside.] Heavens! ‘tis Beverley’s voice! Sure he can’t have imposed on Sir Anthony too!–[Looks round by degrees, then starts up.] Is this possible!–my Beverley!–how can this be?–my Beverley?

[Aside.] Ah! ‘tis all over.

Now he really is in for it. His deception has been exposed both to Mrs Malaprop and to Lydia. The amusing irony is stressed by Jack calling Lydia ‘my Lydia’ and Lydia calling him ‘my Beverley.’ He is not Beverley any longer and, as soon as she realises this, she will not be his Lydia.

Beverley!–the devil–Beverley!–What can the girl mean?–this is my son, Jack Absolute.

For shame, hussy! for shame! your head runs so on that fellow, that you have him always in your eyes!–beg Captain Absolute’s pardon directly.

I see no Captain Absolute, but my loved Beverley!

Zounds! the girl’s mad!–her brain’s turned by reading.

Sir Anthony means, Lydia’s brain has been affected by reading too many sentimental novels – which in a sense, it has. She prefers fiction to reality.

O’ my conscience, I believe so!–What do you mean by Beverley, hussy?–You saw Captain Absolute before to-day; there he is–your husband that shall be.

With all my soul, ma’am–when I refuse my Beverley—-

Oh! she’s as mad as Bedlam! (a lunatic asylum in London)–or has this fellow been playing us a rogue’s trick!–Come here, sirrah, who the devil are you?

As regards the situation comedy aspect of The Rivals, Who the devil are you? is a question at the core of the play.

Faith, sir, I am not quite clear myself; but I’ll endeavour to recollect.

Are you my son or not?–answer for your mother, you dog, if you won’t for me.

Here we have the usual misogynistic language employed as a joke by men in a patriarchal society: your mother must have had an affair with someone else. You’re obviously not who I thought you were, you’re not my son.
‘Who the devil are you?’ directly addresses in an entertaining way, a theme that runs throughout the play: appearance (deception) and reality. This links to the question of finding out who a person really is and what their feelings really are, when everything is masked by the polite manners of Georgian high society. A great many of the characters in The Rivals play games with identity. Jack presents himself to Lydia as Beverley. Sir Lucius and Bob Acres also think they are going to fight duels with Beverley. Mrs Malaprop pretends to Sir Lucius that she is Delia; Bob Acres affects to be a dandified fop, a pose constantly undermined by his name and that of his home; Lucy pretends to be dear simplicity and, at one point, Faulkland pretends he is about to be exiled for his part in a duel.

Ay, sir, who are you? O mercy! I begin to suspect!—-

[Aside.] Ye powers of impudence, befriend me!–[Aloud.] Sir Anthony, most assuredly I am your wife’s son: and that I sincerely believe myself to be yours also, I hope my duty has always shown.–Mrs. Malaprop, I am your most respectful admirer, and shall be proud to add affectionate nephew.–I need not tell my Lydia, that she sees her faithful Beverley, who, knowing the singular generosity of her temper (unusually generous temperament in that she is not interested in marrying someone rich), assumed that name and station (army rank), which has proved a test of the most disinterested love, which he now hopes to enjoy in a more elevated character (his real self, who is not a penniless ensign).

Jack’s opening aside to the audience involves us in his dilemma. How is he going to get out of this one? He tries flattering Mrs Malaprop, ‘I am your most respectful admirer…’, which is rather optimistic, considering the insults to her in his letters to Lydia. He makes Lydia’s fantasy sound like a very special quality of generosity in her, and reminds his father of how dutiful a son he has always been.

[Sullenly.] So!–there will be no elopement after all!

And Lydia had set her heart on eloping with a penniless ensign, preferring fiction to real life. Funny, because real life has delivered her exactly the man she wanted, but because he isn’t the penniless lover of a sentimental novel, she wants to turn him down.
We could always see this crunch coming, because Lydia wanted to marry a penniless ensign, and Jack wanted to marry her (and her money), so they were set on a direct collision course with each other.

Upon my soul, Jack, thou art a very impudent fellow! to do you justice, I think I never saw a piece of more consummate assurance!

Oh, you flatter me, sir–you compliment–’tis my modesty, you know, sir,–my modesty that has stood in my way.

Well, I am glad you are not the dull, insensible varlet (rogue) you pretended to be, however!–I’m glad you have made a fool of your father, you dog–I am. So this was your penitence , your duty and obedience! –I thought it was damned sudden!– You never heard their names before , not you!– what, the Languishes of Worcestershire , hey?– if you could please me in the affair it was all you desired! –Ah! you dissembling villain!–What!–[Pointing to Lydia] She squints, don’t she?–a little red-haired girl! –hey?–Why, you hypocritical young rascal!–I wonder you ain’t ashamed to hold up your head!

Sir Anthony is obviously delighted by what his son has done!

‘Tis with difficulty, sir.–I am confused–very much confused, as you must perceive.

O Lud! Sir Anthony!–a new light breaks in upon me!–hey!–how! what! captain, did you write the letters then?–What–am I to thank you for the elegant compilation of an old weather-beaten she-dragon –hey!–O mercy!–was it you that reflected on my parts of speech?

When Mrs Malaprop says ‘A new light breaks in upon me’ we’ve been waiting for her to realize that Jack wrote the insulting things about Mrs Malaprop in his letters as Beverley, so we enjoy it all the more. Half the fun is in the anticipation. There has been a long build-up in anticipation for the moment when Jack’s deceit is rumbled and in this scene we can enjoy it. Sheridan makes Mrs Malaprop’s slow brain the reason she speaks to Jack after his father has finished. She has only just worked out who really wrote the insulting letter she intercepted.

But Sheridan has also staged a build up to Lydia and Jack flying into each other’s arms and they do no such thing. Lydia is too fond of her picture of love drawn from sentimental novels to accept her lover when he is deemed acceptable. Jack has to resort to acting again: ‘I must try what a little spirit will do.’ How sad is Lydia’s ‘I am the only dupe at last.’

Dear sir! my modesty will be overpowered at last, if you don’t assist me–I shall certainly not be able to stand it!

Come, come, Mrs. Malaprop, we must forget and forgive;–odds life! matters have taken so clever a turn all of a sudden, that I could find in my heart to be so good-humoured! and so gallant! hey! Mrs. Malaprop!

Well, Sir Anthony, since you desire it, we will not anticipate (she means exacerbate – make the past worse by dwelling on it) the past!–so mind, young people–our retrospection will be all to the future.

Come, we must leave them together; Mrs. Malaprop, they long to fly into each other’s arms, I warrant!–Jack–isn’t the cheek as I said, hey?– and the eye, you rogue!–and the lip–hey? Come, Mrs. Malaprop, we’ll not disturb their tenderness–theirs is the time of life for happiness!– Youth’s the season made for joy –[Sings.]–hey!–Odds life! I’m in such spirits,–I don’t know what I could not do!–Permit me, ma’am–[Gives his hand to Mrs. MALAPROP.] Tol-de-rol–’gad, I should like to have a little fooling myself–Tol-de-rol! de-rol.

[Exit, singing and handing Mrs. MALAPROP.–LYDIA sits sullenly in her chair.]

The contrast is funny: Sir Anthony gambolling like a spring lamb with a lover’s delight. Lydia and Jack cast into gloom that everything has come right.
Sheridan cues the audience for the ‘tenderness’ and ‘happiness’ we should expect, so that the resulting coldness from Lydia and desperation of Jack are all the more entertaining. Or you could see the difficulties that arise once the lovers are free to speak to each other as making Jack face reality, rather than simply playing a game. In a sense, Lydia has been playing with the idea of love and marriage (or, at least, elopement), rather than understanding what it really entails. Similarly, Faulkland plays with the idea of love.
Lydia has been silent for some time at this point in the scene. She clings to her fictional ideas about love until the duel in King’s Mead Fields forces her to come to her senses and realise that she does love Jack.

[Aside.] So much thought bodes me no good.–[Aloud.] So grave, Lydia!


[Aside.] So!–egad! I thought as much!–that damned monosyllable has froze me!–[Aloud.] What, Lydia, now that we are as happy in our friends’ consent, as in our mutual vows—-

[Peevishly.] Friends’ consent indeed!

Come, come, we must lay aside some of our romance–a little wealth and comfort may be endured after all. And for your fortune, the lawyers shall make such settlements as—-

Lawyers! I hate lawyers!

Nay, then, we will not wait for their lingering forms, but instantly procure the licence, and—-

A licence for a marriage means that you do not need to wait to have the banns of marriage read out in church on three consecutive weeks. You can get married at once. Jack thinks that getting a licence for an immediate marriage may appeal to Lydia. It sounds as if he is the impatient lover who cannot ‘wait for their lingering forms.’ But Lydia interrupts him.

The licence!–I hate licence!

Oh my love! be not so unkind!–thus let me entreat—- [Kneeling.]

Jack plays the sentimental lover in the hope that this will appeal to Lydia. Or you may think he really means it. Perhaps she really will refuse to have anything to do with him?

Psha!–what signifies kneeling, when you know I must have you?

Lydia knows that, however delightfully it is dressed up (by Jack kneeling to her in assumed entreaty or claiming that he cannot wait while the banns are read), the brutal truth is that this is the match everybody wants and has arranged for her. There is no romance in it.

[Rising.] Nay, madam, there shall be no constraint upon your inclinations, I promise you.–If I have lost your heart–I resign the rest–[Aside.] ‘Gad, I must try what a little spirit will do.

[Rising.] Then, sir, let me tell you, the interest you had there was acquired by a mean, unmanly imposition, and deserves the punishment of fraud.–What, you have been treating me like a child!–humouring my romance! and laughing, I suppose, at your success!

You can understand her feelings in this speech. She feels as if Jack has been playing with her fantasies of romance, as if she were a child. It is true that she is speaking rather like a child in a tantrum. ‘Lawyers! I hate lawyers!’ ‘The licence!–I hate licence!’ ‘Psha!–what signifies kneeling?’ Is she revealing how childish her notions of love are?

Does she deserve to feel like this? Has she been behaving like a child, rather than a young woman choosing her partner for life and the father of her children? Or is this a serious moment, signalling the beginnings of self-knowledge? Other comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing, have famous moments of self-knowledge. But Much Ado is not a comedy of manners. Pride and Prejudice, although written some decades later than The Rivals, is a comedy of manners and also contains Elizabeth Bennet’s moment of self-discovery, when reality breaks in upon fantasy. So the fact that The Rivals is a comedy of manners need not preclude serious moments. Perhaps more serious passages such as this one highlight the entertainment of the general comic tone. Psychologically, Lydia’s reaction rings true. She is frightened and angry that her perception of life turns out to be a fiction. She has not deceived and outwitted her aunt, the man she loves is not Beverley. Is Sheridan here presenting Lydia’s moment of realisation as being comic or serious? (There are several other similar moments to come, such as Bob Acres’.)

Peter Wood, the director of the famous National Theatre production, thought that Lydia was one of the ‘four great egos’ in the play. He says, ‘Those two (Lydia and Faulkland) are so hell-bent on their own romantic problems that they destroy absolutely everything in their path. They will not be diverted from their thinking. ‘So! – there will be no elopement after all!’ says Lydia (IV ii).’

You wrong me, Lydia, you wrong me–only hear—-

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.] But here, sir, here is the picture–Beverley’s picture! [taking a miniature from her bosom] which I have worn, night and day, in spite of threats and entreaties!–There, sir [Flings it to him.]; and be assured I throw the original from my heart as easily.

Funny paradox: ‘my hopes are to be crushed … by my aunt’s consent and approbation.’
With the exposure of Beverley’s true identity, and the bubble burst of being the heroine of her own sentimental novel, Lydia faces a much more unpleasant emotional truth. She is ‘the only dupe at last.’ Even in a comedy of manners, the truth can be very unpleasant.

Nay, nay, ma’am, we will not differ as to that.–Here [taking out a picture], here is Miss Lydia Languish.–What a difference!–ay, there is the heavenly assenting smile that first gave soul and spirit to my hopes!–those are the lips which sealed a vow, as yet scarce dry in Cupid’s calendar! and there the half-resentful blush, that would have checked the ardour of my thanks!–Well, all that’s past!–all over indeed!–There, madam–in beauty, that copy is not equal to you, but in my mind its merit over the original, in being still the same, is such–that–I cannot find in my heart to part with it. [Puts it up again.]

Jack is still speaking a la sentimental novel lover mode. This works quite well on Lydia who softens as she hears it.

[Softening.] ‘Tis your own doing, sir–I, I, I suppose you are perfectly satisfied.

O, most certainly–sure, now, this is much better than being in love!–ha! ha! ha!–there’s some spirit in this!–What signifies breaking some scores of solemn promises:–all that’s of no consequence, you know. To be sure people will say, that miss don’t know her own mind–but never mind that! Or, perhaps, they may be ill-natured enough to hint, that the gentleman grew tired of the lady and forsook her–but don’t let that fret you.

Jack tells her what society will say if she dumps him.

There is no bearing his insolence (rude, disrespectful behaviour). [Bursts into tears.]

Lydia doesn’t like being pressurised by the thought of the solemn promises she will be breaking if she rejects Beverley / Absolute, and the fact that society will think less of her. She cries because she can’t have her own way.


Come, we must interrupt your billing and cooing awhile.

This is worse than your treachery and deceit, you base ingrate!

What the devil’s the matter now?–Zounds! Mrs. Malaprop, this is the oddest billing and cooing I ever heard!–but what the deuce is the meaning of it?–I am quite astonished!

Ask the lady, sir.

O mercy!–I’m quite analyzed (she means paralysed) for my part!–Why, Lydia, what is the reason of this?

Ask the gentleman, ma’am.

Zounds! I shall be in a frenzy!–Why, Jack, you are not come out to be any one else, are you?

Ay, sir, there’s no more trick, is there?–you are not like Cerberus, three gentlemen at once, are you?

Cerberus is the three-headed monster-dog who guarded the gates of the Underworld in Greek mythology. Mrs Malaprop wonders if Jack has a third identity (like a third head, as if the head were the identity).

You’ll not let me speak–I say the lady can account for this much much better than I can.

Ma’am, you once commanded me never to think of Beverley again–there is
the man–I now obey you: for, from this moment, I renounce him for ever. [Exit.]

Terrific exit line.

O mercy! and miracles! what a turn here is–why, sure, captain, you haven’t behaved disrespectfully to my niece.

Ha! ha! ha!–ha! ha! ha!–now I see it. Ha! ha! ha!–now I see it–you have been too lively, Jack.

Sir Anthony is delighted. Jack has obviously behaved too passionately towards Lydia and frightened her. Jack is a true Absolute, Sir Anthony thinks, and is thrilled.

Nay, sir, upon my word—-

Come, no lying, Jack–I’m sure ‘twas so.

O Lud! Sir Anthony!–O fy, captain!

Upon my soul, ma’am—-

Come, no excuses, Jack; why, your father, you rogue, was so before you:–the blood of the Absolutes was always impatient.–Ha! ha! ha! poor little Lydia! why, you’ve frightened her, you dog, you have.

By all that’s good, sir—-

Zounds! say no more, I tell you–Mrs. Malaprop shall make your peace. You must make his peace, Mrs. Malaprop:–you must tell her ‘tis Jack’s way–tell her ‘tis all our ways–it runs in the blood of our family! Come away, Jack–Ha! ha! ha!–Mrs. Malaprop–a young villain! [Pushing him out.]

O! Sir Anthony!–O fy, captain!

[Exeunt severally.]

* * * * * * *

So, Sheridan leaves his audience in a state of suspense. For three acts, Lydia and Jack have been the play’s most important lovers, and now Lydia refuses to have Jack. They will obviously be reconciled, because this is a comedy, and comedies always end in marriage. But how?

Act IV scene iii

The North Parade


I wonder where this Captain Absolute hides himself! Upon my conscience!
these officers are always in one’s way in love affairs:–I remember I might have married Lady Dorothy Carmine, if it had not been for alittle rogue of a major, who ran away with her before she could get a sight of me!
[Steps aside.]

Sir Lucius obviously has no idea why it could be that he is still single. He feels that his marriage with Lady Dorothy Carmine would have been a certainty – despite the fact that she had never seen him!


[Aside.] To what fine purpose I have been plotting! a noble reward for all my schemes, upon my soul!–a little gipsy!–I did not think her romance could have made her so damned absurd either. ‘Sdeath, I never was in a worse humour (mood) in my life!–I could cut my own throat, or any other person’s, with the greatest pleasure in the world!

Jack is in a thoroughly bad temper because Lydia refuses to have anything to do with him. Far from indulging her fantasy, he now sees that it is ‘damned absurd.’

Hark’ee (listen), Sir Lucius; if I had not before known you to be a gentleman,
upon my soul, I should not have discovered it at this interview: for what you can drive at (what you are talking about), unless you mean to quarrel with me, I cannot conceive (imagine)!

I humbly thank you, sir, for the quickness of your apprehension (understanding).–[Bowing.] You have named the very thing I would be at (exactly what I wanted to do).

Very well, sir; I shall certainly not balk (prevent, stop) your inclinations (what you want to do).–But I should be glad you would please to explain your motives (why you want to fight a duel against me).

Pray, sir, be easy; the quarrel is a very pretty quarrel as it stands; we should only spoil it by trying to explain it. However, your memoryis very short, or you could not have forgot an affront (insult) you passed on me within this week. So, no more, but name your time and place.

Sir Lucius is so eager to fight a duel that he can’t even be bothered to remind Jack Absolute the reason for fighting. His name is O’Trigger and he’s going to fight.

Well, sir, since you are so bent (keen) on it, the sooner the better; let it be this evening–here, by the Spring Gardens. We shall scarcely be interrupted.

Faith! that same interruption in affairs of this nature shows very great ill-breeding. I don’t know what’s the reason, but in England if a thing of this kind gets wind (if people discover that two men are going to fight a duel), people make such a pother, that a gentleman can never fight in peace and quietness. However, if it’s the same to you, captain, I should take it as a particular kindness if you’d let us meet in King’s-Mead-Fields, as a little business will call me there about six o’clock, and I may despatch both matters at once.

Sir Lucius, in his desire to fight, talks as nonsensically as Lydia did in her desire to be a sentimental heroine in love. Sir Lucius speaks here of never being allowed to ‘fight in peace and quietness.’ Surely this doesn’t make sense!
The ‘little business’ that Sir Lucius refers to is the duel he has arranged between Beverley and Bob Acres.
The Spring Gardens that Jack refers to had recently been laid out ‘as a public garden … for the summer amusement and reacreation of the inhabitants and company in this city, who are allowed to walk here the whole season on paying a subscription of half a crown (12.5p) ‘. from The New Bath Guide (1771)

‘Tis the same to me exactly. A little after six, then, we will discuss this matter more seriously.

If you please, sir; there will be very pretty small-sword light, though it won’t do for a long shot. So that matter’s settled, and my mind’s at ease! [Exit.]

His mind is at ease at the thought that he’s going to fight a duel! In which he might be killed. A ‘small-sword light’ means that there will still be enough light at that time of the evening to fight a duel with swords, but not good enough light to fire at each other with pistols ‘long shot’.


Well met! I was going to look for you. O Faulkland! all the demons of spite and disappointment have conspired against me! I’m so vex’d, that if I had not the prospect of a resource in being knocked o’ the headby-and-by, I should scarce have spirits to tell you the cause.

Jack’s anger and disappointment at Lydia’s rejection is made clear through the alliterated ‘demons’ and ‘disappointment’ with their plosive ds. There are also plenty of repeated ss, ‘spite’, disappointment’, ‘scarce’, ‘spirits’ and ps in ‘spite, prospect, spirits which are good sounds for venting anger. Whether you think his feelings are distress at losing his love or hurt pride at being rejected is another matter.

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.

The ‘duty and inclination’ that Faulkland refers to, are the fact that Lydia’s aunt wants her to marry Jack, who is exactly the man she is ‘inclined’ to marry having known him as Beverley. It seems that, when he is not talking about himself, Faulkland can be sensible.

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!

The idea of seeing clearly and blindness that has run through the play, is here continued with Jack’s reference to Lydia’s squinting in her views on himself.

But what’s the resource (entertainment) you—-

Oh, to wind up the whole, a good-natured Irishman here has–[Mimicking
Sir LUCIUS] begged leave to have the pleasure of cutting my throat; and
I mean to indulge him (let him do so) –that’s all.

Prithee, be serious!

‘Tis fact, upon my soul! Sir Lucius O’Trigger–you know him by sight–for some affront (insult), which I am sure I never intended, has obliged me to meet him this evening at six o’clock: ‘tis on that account I wished to see you; you must go with me.

Jack wants Faulkland to be his second in his duel against Sir Lucius.

Nay, there must be some mistake, sure. Sir Lucius shall explain himself, and I dare say matters may be accommodated. But this eveningdid you say? I wish it had been any other time.

Why? there will be light enough: there will (as Sir Lucius says) bevery pretty small-sword light, though it will not do for a long shot.Confound (damn) his long shots.

But I am myself a good deal ruffled by a difference I have had with Julia. My vile tormenting temper has made me treat her so cruelly, that I shall not be myself till we are reconciled.

By heavens! Faulkland, you don’t deserve her!

So Faulkland and Jack are in the same boat: both have lost their loves. Faulkland brought it on himself, however, and Jack did not. Or did he, by pretending to be Beverley? As usual, the entertainment will lie in their contrasting reactions to the situation they are both in.

[Enter SERVANT, gives FAULKLAND a letter, and exit.]

Oh, Jack! this is from Julia. I dread to open it! I fear it may be to take a last leave!–perhaps to bid me return her letters, and restore–Oh, how I suffer for my folly!

Typically, Faulkland is dramatising himself, ‘Oh, how I suffer for my folly!’

Here, let me see.–[Takes the letter and opens it.] Ay, a final sentence, indeed!–’tis all over with you, faith!

Nay, Jack, don’t keep me in suspense!

Here then–[Reads.] _As I am convinced that my dear Faulkland’s own reflections have already upbraided (scolded) him for his last unkindness to me, I will not add a word on the subject. I wish to speak with you as soon aspossible. Yours ever and truly, Julia. There’s stubbornness and resentment for you!–[Gives him the letter.] Why, man, you don’t seem one whit (little bit) the happier at this!

O yes, I am; but–but—-

Confound your buts! you never hear any thing that would make another man bless himself, but you immediately damn it with a but!

In other words, Faulkland always creates his own difficulties where they don’t exist. But this remark of Jack’s is a particularly brilliant way of expressing the fact. Because Jack is in a state himself, he is rather more abrupt with Faulkland than usual.

Now, Jack, as you are my friend, own honestly–don’t you think there is
something forward, something indelicate, in this haste to forgive?
Women should never sue for reconciliation: that should always come from
us. They should retain their coldness till wooed to kindness; and their pardon, like their love, should “not unsought be won.”

I have not patience to listen to you! thou’rt incorrigible! so say no more on the subject. I must go to settle a few matters. Let me see youbefore six, remember, at my lodgings. A poor industrious devil like me, who have toiled, and drudged, and plotted to gain my ends, and am at last disappointed by other people’s folly, may in pity be allowed to swear and grumble a little; but a captious sceptic in love, a slave to fretfulness and whim, who has no difficulties but of his own creating,is a subject more fit for ridicule than compassion! [Exit.]

This is an equally good description of Lydia. Just as in the next scene, Julia has not the patience to listen for too long to Lydia’s fantasies, so Jack here is in no mood to listen to Faulkland’s. Sheridan makes the comparison very clear.

I feel his reproaches; yet I would not change this too exquisite nicety for the gross content with which he tramples on the thorns of love! His engaging me in this duel has started an idea in my head, which I will instantly pursue. I’ll use it as the touchstone of Julia’s sincerityand disinterestedness. If her love prove pure and sterling ore, my name will rest on it with honour; and once I’ve stamped it there, I lay aside my doubts for ever! But if the dross of selfishness, the alloy of pride, predominate, ‘twill be best to leave her as a toy (something attractive but worthless) for some less cautious fool to sigh for! [Exit.]

Faulkland’s soliloquy here is, as usual, all about himself and what he intends to do next. His metaphors develop the idea of the difference between true coins and counterfeit, comparing them to true love or insincere love in Julia. The king’s name is stamped on true coins and in the same way, if Julia’s love is genuine and not counterfeit, Faulkland’s name will be stamped on her in their marriage: she will be Mrs Faulkland. A ‘touchstone’ proves the purity of metals; English money is ‘sterling’ because it is pure and is stamped with the name and the portrait of the king / queen; ‘dross’ is what separates out from true metal when it is melted; ‘alloy’ is a mixture of metals that lowers the value of the good metal.

To compare Julia’s genuine love to that of a coin that is not forged seems a slightly odd comparison in the heart of a sentimental lover like Faulkland. It is as if he were comparing her to an acquisition that will make him rich if it is genuine. Is Julia really an acquisition for Faulkland? Just as Sir Anthony said that Jack had to take ‘the fortune … saddled with a wife’. Is Sheridan showing us what a very acquisitive society this is, despite the characters dressing up their discourse in lovey-dovey language? Or is Sheridan showing us the shortcomings of sentimental notions of love?

Act V scene i

Julia’s dressing-room

[JULIA discovered alone.]

Faulkland has decided to test Julia’s love and faithfulness yet again. He comes to her, ‘muffled up in a riding-coat’ with the news that, as he melodramatically puts it, ‘You see before you a wretch, whose life is forfeited.’ Visually, this is very funny as is Faulkland’s over-the-top rendition of his disastrous situation. He pretends that, in a state after their last quarrel, he became involved in a duel and killed his opponent, so he must immediately escape from England.

Julia’s response reveals her total love for him. ‘I now entrust my person to your honour; we will fly together.’ After a few more exaggerated declarations, ‘O Julia, I am bankrupt in gratitude!’, Faulkland tells Julia that he has invented the whole story in order to test her love for him. Julia points out, rightly, that he has done nothing but ‘trifle with my sincerity’ and insulted her by his continued testing of her. She refers to his ‘unhappy temper (temperament)’ and recommends that he ‘reflect upon this infirmity; and when you number up the many true delights it has deprived you of, let it not be your least regret that it lost you the love of one, who would have followed you in beggary throughout the world!’

This scene is the companion piece to Act IV scene ii, where Lydia discovers who Beverley really is, and refuses to have anything to do with Jack Absolute. She seems to be intent on destroying her happiness when she discovers that the man she loves is the man who want to marry her and whom her aunt approves of. Faulkland is intent on destroying his happiness by refusing to believe that Julia really loves him. Neither Lydia nor Faulkland can accept reality, even though reality apparently gives them everything they want. They have distorted what they want, and cannot see clearly.

We join the scene at the point where Faulkland admits that he has made up the whole story.

Julia, I have proved you to the quick! (to the core of your being) and with this useless device I throw away all my doubts. How shall I plead to be forgiven this last (most recent) unworthy effect of my restless, unsatisfied disposition?

Has no such disaster happened as you related?

I am ashamed to own that it was pretended; yet in pity, Julia, do not kill me with resenting a fault which never can be repeated: but sealing, this once, my pardon, let me to-morrow, in the face of Heaven, receive my future guide and monitress, and expiate my past folly by years of tender adoration.

This is the equivalent, for Faulkland, of Act IV scene ii for Jack, when he is obliged to reveal to Lydia that he is Beverley. Faulkland admits that he has not fought a duel and is not forced to flee the kingdom; everything is perfectly all right, he is as eligible as ever and he wants to marry Julia. However, his obsessive actions have ensured that everything is not at all all right: Julia, insulted by his continual testing of her, refuses to have any more to do with him. Similarly, Jack’s actions, when he has to tell Lydia that he is really her eligible suitor, not the ineligible Beverley, meet with her hurt. She feels she has been insulted and treated like a child. However, whereas Lydia sulks and verbally stamps her foot at Jack: ‘The licence! I hate licence!’ Julia speaks lyrically and lovingly.

Hold, Faulkland!–that you are free from a crime, which I before feared to name, Heaven knows how sincerely I rejoice! These are tears of thankfulness for that! But that your cruel doubts should have urged you to an imposition (deception) that has wrung my heart, gives me now a pang (sharp pain) more keen (sharp) than I can express!

Whereas Faulkland exaggerates, Julia speaks with luminous sincerity. Faulkland’s ‘do not kill me’, and his vows of ‘years of tender adoration’ contrast with Julia’s ‘how sincerely I rejoice’ and ‘tears of thankfulness.’
Faulkland speaks of his ‘fault’ and expiation in his usual somewhat melodramatic and self-absorbed fashion. Julia, however, describes her genuine emotional pain: ‘your cruel doubts’, ‘wrung my heart’, ‘a pang more keen than I can express!’ In the twenty-first century, we are probably more aware of the mental cruelty of Faulkland’s actions here, and less likely to see them as an acting out of the role of the sentimental hero. Whether Sheridan was exposing the entertaining shortcomings of such a role, or whether he subscribed to it, is unclear. Remember his outburst in defence of Julia’s speech in Act I scene ii when she vindicates Faulkland’s character: ‘The only speech in the play that cannot be omitted.’
Julia expresses herself beautifully and poetically, with parallel contstructions in her sentences that highlight her meaning. She starts with relief: ‘that you are free from a crime’ … ‘I rejoice’ and goes on to the obstacle: ‘But that your cruel doubts should have urged you to an imposition’ … ‘gives me now a (keen) pang.’ The ‘crime’ that Faulkland has not committed is linked by alliteration to the ‘cruel doubts’ with which he hurts her as keenly as a physical wound would do. Here are the two sentences set out in parallel, showing the contrast that emphasises Julia’s pain.

that you are free from a crime,

But that your cruel doubts should have

urged you, to an imposition

which I before feared to name,

that has wrung my heart

Heaven knows how sincerely I rejoice!

gives me now a pang more keen than I can


By Heavens! Julia—-

Yet hear me,–My father loved you, Faulkland! and you preserved the life that tender parent gave me; in his presence I pledged my hand–joyfully pledged it–where before I had given my heart. When, soon after, I lost that parent, it seemed to me that Providence had, in Faulkland, shown me whither to transfer without a pause, my grateful duty, as well as my affection; hence I have been content to bear from you what pride and delicacy would have forbid me from another. I will not upbraid you, by repeating how you have trifled with my sincerity —-

I confess it all! yet hear—-

After such a year of trial, I might have flattered myself that I should not have been insulted with a new probation (testing) of my sincerity, as cruel as unnecessary! I now see it is not in your nature to be content or confident in love. With this conviction–I never will be yours. While I had hopes that my persevering attention, and unreproaching kindness, might in time reform your temper, I should have been happy to have gained a dearer influence over you; but I will not furnish you with a licensed power (she means, through marriage) to keep alive an incorrigible fault, at the expense of one who never would contend with you.

Twice in this speech Julia moves from past to present to future. ‘After such a year of trial, I might … I now see … I never will be yours …. While I had hopes … I should have been happy … I will not furnish you…’ This repeated sequence stresses her past hopes, her present understanding of the true situation (of Faulkland’s unchanging fault-finding) and the consequences of this understanding for the future.

Nay, but, Julia, by my soul and honour, if after this—-

But one word more.–As my faith has once been given to you, I never will barter it with another.–I shall pray for your happiness with the truest sincerity; and the dearest blessing I can ask of Heaven to send you will be to charm you from that unhappy temper, which alone has prevented the performance of our solemn engagement. All I request of you is, that you will yourself reflect upon this infirmity, and when you number up the many true delights it has deprived you of, let it not be your least regret, that it lost you the love of one who would have followed you in beggary through the world! [Exit.]

Julia, although unbelievably good, is also quite strong-minded. She will not allow Faulkland to interrupt her: ‘But one word more.’ Sheridan gives her a terrific exit line, complete with alliteration and a sustained build-up in the listing of what Faulkland’s ‘infirmity’ has led to: ‘many true delights ..deprived’, ‘lost you the love’ and the superlative in the (alas) conditional tense, ‘one who would have followed you in beggary through the world!’

She’s gone–for ever!–There was an awful resolution in her manner, that riveted me to my place.–O fool!–dolt!–barbarian! Cursed as I am, with more imperfections than my fellow wretches, kind Fortune sent a heaven-gifted cherub to my aid, and, like a ruffian, I have driven her from my side!–I must now haste to my appointment. Well, my mind is tuned for such a scene. I shall wish only to become a principal in it, and reverse the tale my cursed folly put me upon forging here.–O Love!–tormentor!–fiend!–whose influence, like the moon’s, acting on men of dull souls, makes idiots of them, but meeting subtler spirits, betrays their course, and urges sensibility to madness! [Exit.]

At this most unfortunate moment, Lydia enters with her imagined tragedy, expecting sympathy from Julia whose rupture from her lover has been based on much more mature grounds than Lydia’s.

[Enter LYDIA and MAID.]

My mistress, ma’am, I know, was here just now–perhaps she is only in the next room. [Exit.]

Heigh-ho! Though he has used me so, this fellow runs strangely in my head. I believe one lecture from my grave cousin will make me recall him.

Cue to the audience: there will be a happy ending. Lydia knows that she is ready to ‘recall him’ (tell him that she will see him again).

[Re-enter JULIA.]

O Julia, I am come to you with such an appetite for consolation.–Lud! child, what’s the matter with you? You have been crying!–I’ll be hanged if that Faulkland has not been tormenting you.

You mistake the cause of my uneasiness!–Something has flurried me a little. Nothing that you can guess at.–[Aside.] I would not accuse Faulkland to a sister!

In all her distress, Julia’s loyalty to Faulkland will not allow her to blame him publicly.

Ah! whatever vexations you may have, I can assure you mine surpass them. You know who Beverley proves to be?

I will now own (admit) to you, Lydia, that Mr. Faulkland had before informed me of the whole affair. Had young Absolute been the person you took him for, I should not have accepted your confidence on the subject, without a serious endeavour to counteract your caprice.

Lydia’s unanswerable question, ‘You know who Beverley proves to be?’ falls sadly flat. Julia knows exactly who Beverley really is. Lydia’s assumption that her own vexations surpass Julia’s is equally misguided. Although Julia does not let her know this, the audience knows. This, too, helps us to sympathise with Julia’s suffering and to understand that Lydia’s story will come to a happy ending.

So, then, I see I have been deceived by every one! But I don’t care–I’ll never have him.

Nay, Lydia—-

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!

Does Lydia know that she has been indulging in fantasy, picturing herself as the heroine of ‘the prettiest distress imaginable.’ True distress is never pretty, only distress in sentimental novels.
Smithfield was a meat market in London, famous for the hard bargains that were driven. Lydia means here that she is simply the meat in a marriage made for money. It reminds the audience of Sir Anthony’s remark to Jack, regarding the fortune that is coming his way: ‘… if you have the estate, you must take it with the livestock on it …’.

There has been, throughout the play, an emphasis on money as well as on love. Faulkland, in Act IV scene iii, referred to the possibility that Julia’s love would prove ‘sterling ore’. For all her childishness, it is no wonder that Lydia is insulted by the reality of the marriage market. And Bath was the location for the marriage market, just as Smithfield was for the meat. Perhaps the harsh reality of the marriage market, especially for a beautiful young heiress, makes us more sympathetic to Lydia’s devotion to the sentimental novel. There, at least, feelings were valued; in Bath it seems that only money is valued.

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 licence, 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!

When Lydia speaks of being ‘cried three times in a country church’ she refers to the banns of marriage that are called three times before the wedding takes place. She continues the Smithfield metaphor when she pictures every butcher in the parish being present in church on a Sunday to hear the banns being called.

Melancholy indeed!

How mortifying, to remember the dear delicious shifts (plans) I used to be put to, to gain half a minute’s conversation with this fellow! How often have I stole forth, in the coldest night in January, and found him in the garden, stuck like a dripping statue! There would he kneel to me in the snow, and sneeze and cough so pathetically! he shivering with cold and I with apprehension! and while the freezing blast numbed our joints, how warmly would he press me to pity his flame, and glow with mutual ardour (passion)!–Ah, Julia, that was something like being in love.

Lydia looks back over the happy days of sentimental fantasy. Rather than laughing at the memory of Jack sneezing and coughing (unromantically) while he knelt to Lydia in the snow, she contrasts the cold weather to the warmth of Jack’s speech, the flame of his love and the glow of their mutual ardour (passion).

Lydia has, all this while, been playing at love. She is very interested in it, but she has not engaged in true feelings for Jack. Her actions and feelings have been no more real than those in her favourite fictions. The fact that her lover, Beverley, does not even exist, illustrates the superficiality of her actions. She has been thinking of herself, and how she would like to vary the story with a falling-out (as in Act I scene ii when she invented a rival for herself), and how she would undertake ‘dear delicious shifts’ in order to see Beverley.

Perhaps a different way of looking at Lydia’s actions thus far would be to say that Sheridan takes the premise of a sentimental novel and applies it to real life. It doesn’t work – laughably and entertainingly so. The same is true of Faulkland’s behaviour. However, whereas neither Lydia nor Jack is profoundly or lastingly distressed, Julia is much grieved by Faulkland’s behaviour.

If I were in spirits, Lydia, I should chide you only by laughing heartily at you; but it suits more the situation of my mind, at present, earnestly to entreat you not to let a man, who loves you with sincerity, suffer that unhappiness from your caprice, which I know too well caprice can inflict.

Julia is too unhappy to laugh at this ridiculous description of a lover wooing his lady. She can only compare Jack and Lydia’s relationship with that of Faulkland and hers. She sees Jack’s sincerity (similar to hers for Faulkland) and the dangers of capricious behaviour (such as Lydia’s and Faulkland’s). She gives Lydia sincerely good advice, ‘earnestly to entreat you not to let a man, who loves you with sincerity, suffer that unhappiness from your caprice.’ Similarly, Jack, in his unhappiness, stops teasing Faulkland and tells him outright: ‘you never hear any thing that would make another man bless himself, but you immediately damn it with a but!’

O Lud! what has brought my aunt here?

[Enter Mrs. MALAPROP, FAG, and DAVID.]

So! so! here’s fine work!–here’s fine suicide, parricide (which is killing one’s father; she means homicide, killing a man), and simulation (pretence; she means dissimulation or concealment), going on in the fields! and Sir Anthony not to be found to prevent the antistrophe! (she means catastrophe)!

It’s obvious from the nonsense that Mrs Malaprop is talking ‘prevent the antistrophe!’ that this will all end happily. Mrs Malaprop’s entrance provides the bombshell prompting immediate action that will precipitate the happy ending of the play. When she brings the news of the duel in Kings Mead Fields, everyone will rush there, stop pretending and realise what really matters. Mrs Malaprop’s arrival emphasises, by its juxtaposition to the more serious conversation of Julia and Lydia, a change of gear to near-farce.

The final part of Act V scene iii

Kings Mead Fields

The lovers are reconciled when the women fear that their men are in danger and reconsider their hasty decisions.

Gad! sir, how came you to call my son out (challenge him to a duel), without explaining your reasons!

Your son, sir, insulted me in a manner which my honour could not brook (bear, endure).

Zounds! Jack, how durst you insult the gentleman in a manner which his honour could not brook?

Come, come, let’s have no honour (she probably means humour or moodiness) before (in front of) ladies–Captain Absolute, come here–How could you intimidate us so?–Here’s Lydia has been terrified to death for you.

For fear I should be killed, or escape, ma’am?

Nay, no delusions (meaning mistaken beliefs; she means allustions or mentions) to the past–Lydia is convinced; speak, child.

With your leave, ma’am, I must put in a word here: I believe I could interpret the young lady’s silence. Now mark—-

What is it you mean, sir?

Come, come, Delia, we must be serious now–this is no time for trifling.

You have probably forgotten, but Sir Lucius thinks his Delia is Lydia, whereas in fact Mrs Malaprop winkled her way into the correspondence and carried it all on in Delia’s name. So Lydia knows nothing about it.

‘Tis true, sir; and your reproof (blaming me) bids me offer this gentleman (Jack) my hand, and solicit (ask for) the return of his affections.

O! my little angel, say you so?–Sir Lucius–I perceive there must be some mistake here, with regard to the affront which you affirm I have given you. I can only say, that it could not have been intentional. And as you must be convinced, that I should not fear to support a real injury–you shall now see that I am not ashamed to atone for an inadvertency–I ask your pardon.–But for this lady, while honoured with her approbation, I will support my claim (I will fight any man to claim Lydia as my fiancee) against any man whatever.

Well said, Jack, and I’ll stand by you, my boy.

Mind, I give up all my claim–I make no pretensions to any thing in the world; and if I can’t get a wife without fighting for her, by my valour! I’ll live a bachelor.

Captain, give me your hand: an affront handsomely acknowledged becomes an obligation; and as for the lady, if she chooses to deny her own hand-writing, here—- [Takes out letters.]

O, he will dissolve my mystery!–Sir Lucius, perhaps there’s some mistake–perhaps I can illuminate—-

Pray, old gentlewoman, don’t interfere where you have no business.–Miss Languish, are you my Delia, or not?

Indeed, Sir Lucius, I am not. [Walks aside with CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE.]

Sir Lucius O’Trigger–ungrateful as you are–I own the soft impeachment
–pardon my blushes, I am Delia. (Impeachment means accusation; as usual Mrs Malaprop has the wrong word.)

You Delia–pho! pho! be easy.

Why, thou barbarous Vandyke (the portrait painter, Van Dyke; Mrs Malaprop means vandal) –those letters are mine–When you are more sensible (aware) of my benignity (gentleness, kindness) –perhaps I may be brought to encourage your addresses (courtship).

Mrs. Malaprop, I am extremely sensible of your condescension; and whether you or Lucy have put this trick on me, I am equally beholden to you.–And, to show you I am not ungrateful, Captain Absolute, since you have taken that lady from me, I’ll give you my Delia into the bargain.

I am much obliged to you, Sir Lucius; but here’s my friend, Fighting Bob, unprovided for.

Hah! little Valour (Bravery – ironic) –here, will you make your fortune?

Odds wrinkles! No.–But give me your hand, Sir Lucius, forget and forgive; but if ever I give you a chance of pickling me again, say Bob Acres is a dunce, that’s all.

Come, Mrs. Malaprop, don’t be cast down–you are in your bloom yet.

O Sir Anthony–men are all barbarians.

A very sad last line for her. Rather like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night. Sheridan’s original ending was for her to be engaged to Sir Lucius, but the audience preferred a less happy ending for her, which he provided.

In the Bristol Old Vic production, when Mrs Malaprop says to Sir Lucius, ‘Those letters are mine’ the audience was silent. This was not a moment of comedy. Mrs Malaprop was floundering. She was surrounded by couples on stage, and she was alone. The Bristol Old Vic production did lighten this moment by having Sir Anthony and her look for husbands in the audience but it was still a reminder that behind the exposure of the follies lies vulnerability.

[All retire but JULIA and FAULKLAN.]

[Aside.] He seems dejected and unhappy–not sullen; there was some foundation, however, for the tale he told me–O woman! how true should be your judgment, when your resolution is so weak!

Julia!–how can I sue for what I so little deserve? I dare not presume–yet Hope is the child of Penitence.

Oh! Faulkland, you have not been more faulty in your unkind treatment of me, than I am now in wanting (lacking) inclination to resent it. As my heart honestly bids me place my weakness to the account of love, I should be ungenerous not to admit the same plea for yours.

Now I shall be blest indeed!

[Coming forward.] What’s going on here?–So you have been quarrelling too, I warrant! Come, Julia, I never interfered before; but let me have a hand in the matter at last.–All the faults I have ever seen in my friend Faulkland seemed to proceed from what he calls the delicacy and warmth of his affection for you–There, marry him directly, Julia; you’ll find he’ll mend surprisingly!

[The rest come forward.]

Come, now, I hope there is no dissatisfied person, but what is content; for as I have been disappointed myself, it will be very hard if I have not the satisfaction of seeing other people succeed better.

You are right, Sir Lucius.–So Jack, I wish you joy–Mr. Faulkland the same.–Ladies,–come now, to show you I’m neither vexed nor angry, odds tabors and pipes! I’ll order the fiddles (violins, music) in half an hour to the New Rooms–and I insist on your all meeting me there.

‘Gad! sir, I like your spirit; and at night we single lads will drink a health to the young couples, and a husband to Mrs. Malaprop.

Our partners are stolen from us, Jack–I hope to be congratulated by each other–yours for having checked in time the errors of an ill-directed imagination, which might have betrayed an innocent heart; and mine, for having, by her gentleness and candour, reformed the unhappy temper of one, who by it made wretched whom he loved most, and tortured the heart he ought to have adored.

Well, Faulkland, we have both tasted the bitters, as well as the sweets of love; with this difference only, that you always prepared the bitter cup for yourself, while I—-

Was always obliged to me for it, hey! Mr. Modesty?–But come, no more of that–our happiness is now as unalloyed as general.

Lydia’s finishing of Jack’s sentence suggests that she will be well able to stand up to him in the future.

The play ends with an epilogue (a piece that comes after the play). In it, we hear the lines:
Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot.
From every rank obedience is our due.

And they all lived happily ever after.

To ponder: The few serious moments all concern women and their mistreatment in a patriarchal society. Lydia finds out that Absolute has been playing with her as if she were a child; Julia finds out that Faulkland’s dramatic tale was invented simply to test her love, and Mrs Malaprop finds out that none of the men want her.

Perhaps, conditioned by modern thinking, we find this unequal treatment of women more serious than our late eighteenth century forbears would have done. They might well have considered none of this serious, but simply entertaining. Lydia finds out that her version of events was a fantasy; in reality it never existed. Faulkland has invented a story comparable to Lydia’s at the beginning of the play when, in order to inject some drama into their relationship, she claimed that Beverley ‘was paying his addresses to another woman,’ and dismissed him. Faulkland announces melodramatically: ‘I must fly this kingdom instantly,’ only to admit that this is an invention to test Julia’s love for him, at which Julia rejects him. And similarly, Lydia, mortified to find she has been played with, rejects Absolute.

Since this is a comedy of manners – an eighteenth century sitcom if you like – the difficulties are quickly and rather unconvincingly resolved in the last scene and the psychological consequences left unexplored. Lydia suddenly says, ‘… your reproof bids me offer this gentleman (Jack) my hand, and solicit the return of his affections.’ Julia accepts Faulkland, since he seems ‘dejected and unhappy.’ Sir Anthony assures her that, ‘ you’ll find he’ll mend surprisingly!’ which seems unlikely. Only Mrs Malaprop is left, declaring that ‘men are all barbarians.’ Does this suggest that underneath all the carefully acquired (especially in Bob Acres’ case) fashionable polish, men are still savages?

The Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography Vol 2, 1992, provides some interesting ideas.
‘It is a comedy of character, not a comedy of plot. Our satisfaction derives more from the exposures of foibles and absurdities for their own sake … than … truth about human existence.’
The fact that the audience knows more than the characters ‘permits full appreciation of every imposture and self-deception.’ (Imposture means pretending to be someone else.)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan Richard Brinsley Sheridan
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