The Rivals

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The Rivals Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Richard Sheridan's The Rivals. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Richard Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, but was brought to England at the age of eight, never to return. He was educated at a British boarding school, where his classmates teased him because his father had the ungentlemanly profession of actor. He came from a literary family: his mother was also a successful playwright and novelist, while his grandfather had been a good friend of Jonathan Swift. Not long after leaving his boarding school, Sheridan moved with his family to Bath, where he fell in love with Elizabeth Linley, the famous and beautiful young singer he was to marry after fighting a series of a scandalous duels that captivated British society. In desperate need of money, he wrote The Rivals in 1775. After a poor initial reception, the play was revised and went on to become enormously successful. On the strength of this work, Sheridan was offered a job managing the historic Drury Lane Theater, which he went on to own. His father later served as the theater’s manager. Sheridan had ambitions to be a true gentleman, however, which meant escaping the world of the theater. After writing a few other plays, including his other masterpiece The School for Scandal (1777), he used money earned from the theater to purchase a seat in parliament. He would serve in a variety of governmental roles over the next thirty-two years and become one of the most respected orators of his time. He was always extravagant with money, however, and in 1808, when the Drury Lane Theater burned down in a fire, he was bankrupted and removed from parliament. He spent his final years hounded by his creditors.
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Historical Context of The Rivals

The city of Bath in England was founded by the ancient Romans as a town of spas, but underwent a revival in the 18th century and became a meeting point, sometimes an uncomfortable one, for members of the upper class and the aspiring middle classes. At the time that Sheridan wrote his play, Bath was already beginning to fall out of favor with members of the true upper class, as there were too many members of a rising middle class without a respectable pedigree that flocked there in search of high fashion.

Other Books Related to The Rivals

Sheridan lived a century after the heyday ofthe Restoration comedy of manners, a period in theater history which saw the first female actors on the British stage and explored sexual themes with unprecedented openness. One of the famous plays of this period is Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677). While Sheridan’s comedies were less sexually explicit than Restoration comedies of manners, he drew inspiration from these playwrights, and even staged Restoration Comedies in his capacity as manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, prompting revived interest in these works. He was given the nickname “the modern Congreve,” after William Congreve (1670-1729), the celebrated Restoration playwright of witty comedies, including The Way of the World, about relationships between men and women and high-society affectation.In contrast to the bawdy works of the Restoration, though, Sheridan and his contemporaries wrote “genteel” comedies, which could be instructive for an audience drawn from both the middle and upper classes looking to cultivate good manners and a genteel aspect. Sheridan’s comedies were also considered to be “laughing comedies,” as separated from the crying comedies which were extremely moralistic and known to provoke tears. Later literary scholars would compare his plays to comedies of manners by Oscar Wilde, who skewered the affectations and aspirations of upper class Brits of the 1890s in witty and satirical plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband.
Key Facts about The Rivals
  • Full Title:The Rivals
  • When Written:1775
  • Where Written:London, England
  • When Published:1775
  • Literary Period:Georgian comedy, “new” Comedy of Manners, Genteel Comedy or Laughing Comedy
  • Genre:Comedy
  • Setting:Bath, Somerset, England
  • Climax:Absolute is forced to admit to Lydia, Sir Anthony, and Mrs. Malaprop that Ensign Beverley is a false identity he created.
  • Antagonist:Sir Lucius O’Trigger

Extra Credit for The Rivals

Pronunciation was paramount.Sheridan’s father Thomas became a leading force in the elocutionary movement, a trend in education that emphasized the importance of correct pronunciation and good delivery. Sheridan even worked for a time at the school his father founded in in Bath, teaching men like Squire Acres how to sound more genteel.

Biopics galore.There had already been a play written about the love life of Elizabeth Linley. Samuel Foote’s 1771 The Maid of Bath, which was based on Elizabeth’s broken engagement to the rich and elderly Walter Long, was still being staged when The Rivals first appeared.