Other Literary Forms

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Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s other literary efforts, all minor, include the early poems “Clio’s Protest” and “The Ridotto of Bath,” published in The Bath Chronicle (1771); a youthful translation, Love Epistles of Aristaenetus (1771), in collaboration with Nathaniel Brassey Halhed; and later occasional verses in connection with the theater—such as prologues and epilogues to other writers’ plays—the most important being “Verses to the Memory of Garrick, Spoken as a Monody” (1779). Of far greater significance, especially to biographers and historians, are Sheridan’s speeches in Parliament, collected in five volumes (1816), and his letters, collected in three volumes, entitled The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1966). Unfortunately, his speeches are preserved only in summary or imperfect transcript.

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Achievements

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Richard Brinsley Sheridan was the best playwright of eighteenth century England, a time of great actors rather than great playwrights. Judged on theatrical rather than strictly literary merit, Sheridan also ranks with the best English writers of comedy: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw. Until the era of Wilde and Shaw, only Shakespeare’s plays had held the stage better than Sheridan’s.

Of Sheridan’s plays, The School for Scandal, a comedy of manners, is universally acclaimed as his masterpiece. Also applauded are The Rivals, another comedy of manners; The Duenna, a comic opera; and The Critic, a burlesque. The two comedies of manners have fared better over time than have the two more specialized works, perhaps because their attractions are apparent even in printed form and perhaps because changes of taste have gone against the specialized works. The topical allusions in The Critic are mostly lost on modern audiences, and The Duenna affronts modern sensibilities with episodes of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. In Sheridan’s own opinion, his best piece of work was act 1 of The Critic.

In recent times, Sheridan’s reputation has waned: His “artificial” comedies lack the high seriousness that the modern age demands. Yet the basis of his appeal remains: effective theater embodied in smooth traditional plots, stock characters fleshed out by Sheridan’s observations of his time, and some of the wittiest dialogue ever written. Sheridan has never been known for the originality of his plots and characters, some of which can be traced through Shakespeare and Jonson all the way back to Roman comedy, but—like Shakespeare and Jonson—he had the assimilative genius to transform the old into something lively and new. Revolving around a trickery motif, chronicling the age-old battles of the sexes or the generations, culminating in a marriage or marriages, his plots still entertain with their well-paced intrigues and discoveries. Onto the old stocks he grafted such memorable characters as Mrs. Malaprop, Joseph Surface, Lady Teazle, and Sir Fretful Plagiary. One reason why Sheridan does not seem dated is his language, a distinctly modern prose idiom, supple, utilitarian, informal, expressing the hopeful coherence of the early modern era.

Sheridan’s achievement is even more impressive when one considers that he wrote all of his plays (except for the adaptation of Pizarro) during a period of five years when he was in his mid-twenties and during a period of severe restrictions on the theater. The upper-and upper-middle-class establishment controlled the theater with an iron grip through limitations on the number of theaters, official censorship, and the unofficial censorship of its tastes. No play could be presented that did not satisfy the political and social assumptions of the ruling classes. It is remarkable that, under these restrictions, Sheridan could get away with saying as much as he did.

Bibliography

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Ayling, Stanley. A Portrait of Sheridan. London: Constable, 1985. More than two hundred pages on Sheridan’s life and work. Ayling offers glimpses of Sheridan’s true nature, including the unflattering views on the theater expressed in his letters. The treatment of the early plays is rather brief. Includes some comments on the management of the Drury Lane in later chapters.

Hare, Arnold. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Windsor, England: Profile Books, 1981. This thin volume sketches the major details of Sheridan’s life, family, and career. Pays brief attention to the theatrical milieu but analyzes the plays, including some relatively minor ones. Includes a select bibliography.

Kelly, Linda. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. The biography looks at Sheridan as both dramatist and legislator. Bibliography and index.

Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977. This authoritative volume examines Sheridan’s relationships with his dramatic predecessors, then analyzes extensively Sheridan’s plays. The bibliography is divided into editions, biographies, critical studies, and background studies. Includes a lengthy index.

Morwood, James. The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985. Norwood attempts a lengthy biographical study in which extensive discussion of the writing career appears. Makes an effort to evaluate Sheridan’s political career and to create a balanced assessment of his thirty-two years as manager of the Drury Lane. Includes several illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.

Morwood, James, and David Crane, eds. Sheridan Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A collection of essays on Sheridan as a dramatist and member of Parliament. Includes a bibliography and index.

O’Toole, Fintan. A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Smith, Dane F., and M. L. Lawhon. Plays About the Theatre in England, 1737-1800. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979. Interprets The Critic as an attack on the sentimentalism of the contemporary comedy and of the writers and critics who supported it. Also sees parts of The School for Scandal and The Rivals as attacks on sentimentalism. Some comparisons are made with Oliver Goldsmith’s comedies.

Worth, Katharine. Sheridan and Goldsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The commentary emphasizes performance and dramaturgy.

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Critical Essays