The Rivals Summary

The Rivals is a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in which Lydia Languish courts penniless ensign Beverley to satisfy her romantic ideals, not realizing that Beverley is secretly wealthy.

  • Lydia's aunt doesn't approve of Lydia's suitor Beverley, because he's poor.

  • Beverley is actually the wealthy Captain Jack Absolute. He is pretending to be poor to woo Lydia, who maintains a romantic notion about marrying a poor man.

  • Unbeknownst to Jack and Lydia, their parents have arranged for them to be married. Upon realizing that Jack isn't poor, Lydia rejects him, but she changes her mind when he gallantly enters a duel.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1063

To beautiful and wealthy young Lydia Languish, who has been brought up on romantic novels, the only lover worth considering is one whose position in life is in complete contrast to her own. To this end she has fallen in love with a penniless young ensign named Beverley. To this...

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To beautiful and wealthy young Lydia Languish, who has been brought up on romantic novels, the only lover worth considering is one whose position in life is in complete contrast to her own. To this end she has fallen in love with a penniless young ensign named Beverley. To this same Beverley, her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, raises serious objections. Her antipathy to young Mr. Beverley is partly aroused by letters that the ensign has written to Lydia, letters in which he has made uncomplimentary references to her aunt’s age and appearance. Mrs. Malaprop has had some moments of extreme discomfiture as she has wondered whether she does resemble the she-dragon to which Beverley has compared her.

Mrs. Malaprop herself has fallen hopelessly in love with a quixotic Irishman named Sir Lucius O’Trigger, who presumably returns her affection. Sir Lucius, who has never seen Mrs. Malaprop, has been hoodwinked by a maidservant into believing that the romantic creature with whom he has been exchanging love letters is Lydia.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Beverley is in reality young Captain Jack Absolute, the son of Sir Anthony Absolute, and as wealthy and aristocratic as Lydia herself. Jack very early sensed that he would get nowhere if he wooed the romantic Lydia in his own person, and so he assumed a character more nearly resembling the heroes of the novels that Lydia enjoys.

Jack’s friend Faulkland has not fared any better than Jack in his own romantic pursuit of Lydia’s cousin, Julia Melville. In fact, it might be thought that he has fared worse, for, unlike Jack, he is forever placing imaginary obstacles between himself and his beloved. Whenever they are separated, Faulkland imagines all kinds of horrible catastrophes that might have befallen her, and when he finds that she is alive and well he torments himself with the thought that she cannot be in love and remain so happy. At last Jack loses patience with his friend’s ridiculous behavior, and even Julia becomes a little tired of her lover’s unfounded jealousy.

Jack’s curious love tangle reaches a crisis when Sir Anthony Absolute informs his son that he has selected the woman for him to marry, threatening that if Jack refuses, he will cut the young man off without a penny. Not having the faintest idea as to the identity of the woman his father has picked out for him, and conjuring up pictures of some homely heir his father intends to force on him against his will, Jack rebels. He declares that, whatever the consequences, he will have nothing to do with the woman his father has chosen.

Having been quite a connoisseur of pretty women in his youth, and being not exactly immune to their charms in his old age, Sir Anthony Absolute is not a man who would saddle his son with an unattractive wife. He has made an agreement with Mrs. Malaprop for the bestowal of her niece’s hand upon his son. Mrs. Malaprop, in turn, is only too glad to save Lydia from a foolish marriage to Beverley. When Jack refuses to marry anyone not of his own choosing, Sir Anthony flies into a rage and insists that the marriage take place regardless of what the lady might be like.

By chance, however, Jack discovers that the woman Sir Anthony has selected as his bride is Lydia Languish, the same woman he has been wooing as Ensign Beverley. He immediately assures his father that he will be willing to marry anyone his father might choose. Sir Anthony, not used to such tractability on Jack’s part, becomes suspicious and a little worried. He nevertheless makes arrangements for his son to meet the bride-to-be, thus placing Jack in a neat dilemma. Jack realizes that Lydia will have none of him as Sir Anthony Absolute’s son. Finally, the supposed Ensign Beverley pretends to Lydia that in order to gain access to her aunt’s house, he will be forced to pose as Jack Absolute.

Lydia has another suitor in the person of Bob Acres, a wealthy country squire and a neighbor of Sir Anthony, who has ambitions to become a man-about-town. Before Sir Anthony proposed his son as a husband for her niece, Mrs. Malaprop had favored Bob Acres as a likely candidate for Lydia’s hand. When Acres discovers he has a rival in Ensign Beverley, he is disheartened. Encouraged by his friend Sir Lucius O’Trigger, he challenges Beverley to a duel. Never having seen young Beverley, he is forced to give the challenge to the ensign’s friend, Jack Absolute, to deliver.

The great crisis in Jack’s love affairs comes when he is forced to face Lydia in the company of his father. With his true identity revealed, Lydia’s dreams of a romantic elopement with a penniless ensign vanish, and she dismisses Jack from her life forever. Chagrined by his abrupt dismissal, Jack accepts with positive gusto another challenge to a duel from Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Sir Lucius names the place as King’s Mead Fields at six o’clock that very evening, when he has an appointment to act as a second to his friend, Acres, in a duel with a certain Ensign Beverley.

When Lydia learns that Jack has involved himself in a duel on her account, he becomes a different person in her eyes, and she hurries with her aunt to King’s Mead Fields in an effort to halt the duel. Meanwhile, Sir Lucius O’Trigger has alarmed Acres with his bloodthirsty stories of dueling, so that when Acres recognizes his opponent as his old friend Jack Absolute, he heaves a sigh of relief.

With the arrival of Lydia and Mrs. Malaprop, the whole situation is quickly explained. Sir Lucius, much to his chagrin, is forced to realize that the writer of tender love letters to whom he has addressed his own impassioned correspondence is not Lydia but Mrs. Malaprop. Faulkland is content to accept Julia’s love for the wholehearted thing it is. Lydia at last sees Ensign Beverley and Jack Absolute as the same person with whom she is in love. Bob Acres, happy because he will not be forced to fight a duel with anyone, ordered fiddles and entertainment for all in the fashionable parlors of Bath.

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