The Rivals Themes

In The Rivals, what is the theme?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The role of women in eighteenth century England is another important theme of The Rivals. At the time the play was written, women in polite society were regarded as mere objects, property to be bought and sold as part of a business transaction with prospective husbands. It wasn't called the marriage market for nothing. The play, then, can be seen as exploring the possibility of women retaining a sense of freedom in a society in which they are regarded as inherently unequal.

In its complex subplot of gender politics, it's clear that The Rivals intends to challenge (and ever so moderately subvert) prevailing relations between the sexes. The theme is developed extensively throughout, before culminating in the Epilogue, in which Julia speaks the following lines:

"Man’s social happiness all rests on us: Through all the drama—whether d-n’d or not—Love gilds the scene and women guide the plot."

Women find what little freedom they have in love. It's love that adds luster to both the play and to life, in this time period, itself. And it's the love of women that drives the plot in both. A woman's love subtly undermines the status-conscious society and its marriage conventions. Sheridan is, however, limited in his presentation; he wants to satirize society without turning it upside-down. This ambiguity is reflected in the character of Lydia. Her notion of love is thoroughly romantic; she's prepared to marry Captain Absolute, even though she's been falsely led to believe that he's her social inferior.

At the same time, however, Lydia's often far from being a sympathetic character. There's an element of stereotyping about her as the willful bluestocking capriciously cocking a snook at society's most cherished conventions. Nevertheless, she is fully and delightfully human, for all her evident faults. There is no doubt that she's a witty, confident, feisty woman who is considerably more grounded than the stock of absurd male characters in the play.

The role of Julia is to act as the moral core of the play. She's almost like a Greek chorus, providing a running commentary on the ludicrous moral standards of her class and social environment. Though formally subordinate to Faulkland she still has some sense of freedom, which lies in her being true to herself and the genuine love that she feels for her intended. As with her sister, love is freedom. And her love wins out in the end, overcoming Faulkland's unreasonable doubts and also the suspicions of society towards an intelligent woman who knows her own heart and mind.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most prominent themes of The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is that of artifice, defined as the practice of appearing genuine, sincere and innocent while all the while looking out for your own selfish interests at others' expense, subterfuge. Artifice is practiced throughout the play and by every character.

Lucy lies about the author of the love letters to Sir Lucius. David acts a pretense to make himself appear more socially acceptable than he is. Jack impersonates Ensign Beverley. Fag lies to Sir Anthony. Mrs. Malaprop slaughters language in an action of pretense to appear more worldly wise than she is. Jack asks Fag to lie. Faulkland tries to trick Julia. And Julia is the only who does not practice artifice.

Another prominent theme is that of the 18th century opposition between courtship's means and objective: falling in love and marriage. Falling in love was not necessarily valued by the marriage makers, the parents. But marriage without love was spurned by those who would wed, the children, who were often forced into marriages without love to gain financial or social advantage, which was particularly painful is the individuals being wedded were--one or both--in love with someone else.

A third theme is the importance of education and language, which give one social importance or rob one of social importance. This is a relevant issue in today's world as well and one that garners hot debate within the ranks of sociolinguists and educators. The higher your education, the higher your language attainments; the higher your language attainments, the higher your social standing; the higher your social standing, the higher your potential for financial success.