Study Guide

The Rivals

by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The Rivals Themes

Themes

Artifice
With the exception of Julia, each of the characters in The Rivals practices artifice, or lying, to get what he or she wants from the other characters. Beginning with David’s wig, his vain attempt to pass as a member of a higher society that has already dropped the wig from fashionable dress, and ending with Faulkland’s last attempt to trick Julia into admitting base motives for loving him, no one willingly presents things as they really are. In fact, many of the characters lie outright. Fag lies to Sir Anthony for Jack about the son’s reasons for being in Bath, and Lucy lies to Sir Lucius about who is writing love letters to him. Other characters simply misrepresent themselves. Jack masquerades as Ensign Beverley in order to win Lydia’s love, while Mrs. Malaprop tries to appear more sophisticated by peppering her speech with fancy vocabulary that she neither understands nor can pronounce.

Of all the characters, Lucy stands to profit the most from her artifice, and that is because she serves as a go-between for the intrigues of the others. She tells the audience in a soliloquy, ‘‘commend me to a mask of silliness and a pair of sharp eyes for my own interest under it.’’ Her comment amounts to a definition of artifice: appearing innocent enough to fool others, while actively seeking one’s own selfish interests through their trust.

Courtship
The Rivals puts the two common avenues to courtship—arranged marriage and falling in love— into opposition. Marriages were one important means for wealthy families to maintain or increase their dynastic power. For ambitious members of the middle class, an ‘‘advantageous’’ marriage of a daughter offered a means of securing a foothold into the next level of society. Girls were protected, therefore, as a kind of investment, and thus were not allowed to choose their own mates, and their public appearances were carefully planned and guarded. Places like Bath and certain public areas of London as well as parlor gatherings offered arenas for young people to view and parlay...

(The entire section is 859 words.)