James Sheridan Knowles Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Though James Sheridan Knowles is now remembered almost exclusively for his drama, he wrote several other works that were highly regarded in his own time. At the beginning of his literary career, he wrote a popular ballad, The Welch Harper (1796), which the critic William Hazlitt praised in his critical volume The Spirit of the Age (1825). In 1810, Knowles published (by subscription) a collection of his best early verses entitled Fugitive Pieces; this work received little acclaim, and Knowles subsequently wrote little nondramatic poetry.

Knowles’s most significant nondramatic writings concerned oratory and theater. The most famous and influential of these was The Elocutionist (1823), a textbook on debate that he wrote for his students while teaching at Belfast. This book expresses Knowles’s view that the effective speaker must avoid artificiality and be in earnest, and it contains one of his most popular model debates, “Was Julius Caesar a Great Man?” The Elocutionist became a very popular textbook in both English and American schools and went through many editions during Knowles’s lifetime. His writings and lectures on poetry were also well received by his contemporaries, and his Lectures on Oratory, Gesture, and Poetry, published posthumously in 1873, considered the adaptability of poetry for elocutionary purposes. Though these discourses often concerned poetry by important writers, such as...

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James Sheridan Knowles Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During the course of the nineteenth century, England’s population quadrupled, and the nation became increasingly democratic. The rapidly growing theater audience of the time was largely uneducated. They had little use for either the poetry of Shakespeare or the numerous imitations of Jacobean drama that writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and a host of lesser talents—inflicted on them. Instead, they favored the melodrama, with its sentimentalized faith in justice and moral purity and its thrilling, often spectacularly staged, plots.

Though James Sheridan Knowles followed the traditional Aristotelian model in writing his tragedies, he consciously tried to write a less ornate poetic language that would be more appealing to his audience. The critic Hazlitt praised Knowles’s avoidance of artificial poetic language, and a reviewer in The London Magazine wrote in June, 1820, that the diction of his play Virginius was “colloquial and high-spirited; in short it is the true language of life.” Though Knowles’s attempt to write tragedy in a more realistic style was not always so well received by more conservative critics, his prosaic blank verse was the product of a conscious attempt to reconceive drama in the realistic terms required by his audience. Furthermore, Knowles’s concern for English domestic, patriarchal values, a theme that recurs frequently in his plays, touched the lives of his audience and contributed significantly to the success of Virginius and that of many of his later dramas. Though critics have complained that Knowles’s anachronisms and stilted verse result in inferior tragedy, his attempt to make his drama more realistic and contemporary suited the tastes of his audience. It also can be seen as a significant transition between the obsolete pseudo-Elizabethan style of the late eighteenth and...

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James Sheridan Knowles Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Davies, Robertson. “Playwrights and Plays.” In The Revels History of Drama in English, 1750-1880. Vol. 6. London: Methuen, 1975. Davies describes and evaluates each of Knowles’s plays in chronological order. He draws attention to the recurring theme of “fatherhood” and focuses on Knowles’s artistic development.

Fletcher, Richard M. English Romantic Drama: 1795-1843. New York: Exposition Press, 1966. Basing his work on previously unavailable materials, Fletcher seeks to correct evaluations previously made about English Romantic drama. He concludes that it is more vibrant, vital, and artistic than has been generally acknowledged. He recognizes Knowles’s success and original approach but laments his lack of savoir faire. Extensive bibliography.

Meeks, Leslie Howard. Sheridan Knowles and the Theatre of His Time. Bloomington, Ind.: The Principia Press, 1933. This classic introduction to Knowles’s plays is based mainly on primary sources. Meeks places the works into historical and literary context and provides a thorough analysis of Virginius, The Hunchback, and William Tell. The other plays are examined only briefly. Bibliography and index.

Parker, Gerald D. “‘I Am Going to America’: James Sheridan Knowles’s Virginius and the Politics of ‘Liberty.’” Theatre Research International 17, no. 1 (Spring, 1992): 15. Contains a profile of Knowles and an examination of the political and moral contents of his work, particularly Virginius.