James Sheridan Knowles Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

James Sheridan Knowles was born on May 12, 1784, in the city of Cork, Ireland. His father, James Knowles, a somewhat well-known Protestant schoolmaster and lexicographer, was also a first cousin of the great playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for whom he named his son. Knowles was such a frail child that his parents frequently feared for his life, until he finally recovered his health at about the age of six. When he was twelve years old, he made his first visit to the theater; it was at that point that he resolved to be a dramatist.

Knowles’s parents had originally intended that he study medicine, but, when his mother died in 1800, his father remarried, and young James, who disliked his stepmother, left home. When he finally did begin to study medicine in 1806, his heart was not in it. Instead, he became interested in the ministry and spent considerable time listening to sermons and yearning to preach to vagrants in the streets of London. Knowles still longed to be a dramatist, and the moral and didactic fervor that he had inherited from his father found expression in the plays that he soon began to write. After receiving his medical degree and practicing for three years, Knowles abandoned his medical career and joined a professional acting company in 1808.

Knowles’s acting debut, in which he ill-advisedly attempted the demanding role of Hamlet, was a total failure, and he soon joined another company at Wexford. There, in July of 1809, he met Catherine Charteris, a young Edinburgh actress, whom he married, after a rather tempestuous courtship, on October 15 of the same year. The newlyweds moved to Waterford and joined Cherry’s acting company. At Waterford, Knowles first met the as yet unknown actor Edmund Kean, who encouraged him to complete a play entitled Leo: Or, The Gypsy, which became a minor hit. Knowles was also improving as an actor, and by the time he and his wife moved to Swansea in 1811, he had acted successfully in operas, comedies, and tragedies. His first child, James, was born the same year, and the young family moved to Belfast.

At this point, Knowles’s budding stage career was temporarily halted when his depleted finances forced him to accept a teaching position. Knowles enjoyed teaching, and his love of oratory made him so successful at it that he opened his own school in Belfast. A short time later he joined his father, who was then headmaster at the Belfast Academical Institution, as his assistant. When the two quarreled violently over the son’s theory of elocution, the father was fired and the son resigned his post. Then, in 1815, the success of Knowles’s first mature play, the tragedy Caius Gracchus, rekindled his theatrical ambitions, and the family moved to Glasgow, where Knowles was teaching in 1820...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)