What happens in The Rivals?

In The Rivals, Lydia Languish reads too many romance novels. She wants to marry penniless ensign Beverley, but doesn't realize that in fact he is the wealthy Jack Absolute. Though she initially refuses to marry him, she later changes her mind.

  • Lydia's aunt Lady Malaprop doesn't approve of Lydia's suitor Beverley, because he's poor. Lady Malaprop has fallen in love with Sir Lucius O'Toole, who mistakenly believes that the love letters he receives from her are actually from Lydia.

  • It turns out that ensign Beverley is in fact Captain Jack Absolute, the son of the wealthy Sir Anthony Absolute. He has been pretending to be poor because he knows that Lydia has a romantic idea about marrying a poor man from a lower social station.

  • Unbeknownst to Jack and Lydia, his father and Lady Malaprop have arranged for them to be married. Upon realizing that Jack isn't poor, Lydia wants nothing to do with him, then changes her mind when she hears that he has gallantly entered a duel.

Download The Rivals Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 1,063 words.)