“Poor Sherry,” said the prince of Wales, a line echoed by other noble contemporaries of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and even by Sheridan’s admirer Lord Byron. Unhappily, the verdict of the prince of Wales and his crowd still represents the official response to Sheridan, coloring understanding of his plays with an argumentum ad hominem. This official line runs something as follows: “Poor Sherry was motivated by overwhelming vanity and self-interest. That is why he entered the theater and why he left the theater to enter politics. A poor Irish actor’s son, he always wanted to hobnob with the rich and powerful, to be part of le beau monde, whose attitudes he reflects in his plays. There was something calculating, something insincere and insubstantial, about the fellow. Same thing about his plays.” This is the establishment Sheridan safely tucked away in the Poets’ Corner.
There is also, however, an antiestablishment Sheridan—the penniless child suffering at Harrow, the spirited young man dueling for his girl, the member of Parliament sympathizing with the American and French revolutions, whose servants in his plays are smarter than their masters. True, Sheridan’s leading characters are usually gentry or better, and Sheridan usually exhibits the doings of le beau monde. In addition, he does not issue a clarion call for revolution and the institution of a republic. He was working within the restrictions of accepted...
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