Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358
Captain Jack Absolute
Captain Jack Absolute (Ensign Beverley), a young aristocrat who poses as a penniless ensign to win the love of Lydia Languish. After many problems—among them relatives who oppose his marriage, rivals who challenge him to duels, and misunderstandings with his fiancée—Jack wins fair Lydia.
Lydia Languish, Jack Absolute’s beloved, a girl whose head is so stuffed with the fantastic adventures of popular fictional people that she cannot bear to marry anyone in her own class. She spurns Jack Absolute when she learns that he is not the penniless Ensign Beverley, but she is greatly impressed when she learns that he is to fight a duel because of her, and he wins her hand.
Sir Anthony Absolute
Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack’s strong-willed father, who insists that Jack marry the woman Sir Anthony selects. Jack refuses to obey his father’s edict until he learns that Sir Anthony has chosen Lydia to be his son’s wife.
Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia’s aunt, whose eccentric treatment of the English language spawned the word “malapropism.” She opposes Lydia’s intention to marry Jack, but she drops her objections at last to bask in the high spirits of those whose problems have found happy solutions.
Bob Acres, an affable country squire who challenges Ensign Beverley to a duel. When he learns that Beverley and his friend Jack are the same person, the timid squire is greatly relieved that no duel will be necessary.
Sir Lucius O’Trigger
Sir Lucius O’Trigger, a brash Irishman who is hoodwinked into believing that he is corresponding with Lydia when, actually, Mrs. Malaprop and he are exchanging letters. He challenges Jack to a duel but withdraws when he learns that Lydia never has been interested in him.
Faulkland, Jack’s friend, who is in love with Julia Melville, Lydia’s cousin. Faulkland’s avocation is worrying about the welfare of his suit for Julia, thus creating obstacles where there are none. Finally, however, he banishes care and generously accepts Julia’s love.
Julia Melville, Lydia’s cousin, who marries Faulkland.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2431
Sir Anthony Absolute
This spluttering, domineering baronet rules his son (Jack Absolute), and anyone else who gets in his way, with an iron fist. As Fag describes him at the very beginning of the play, Sir Anthony is ‘‘hasty in everything.’’ His method of raising Jack has consisted of issuing commands to the boy—‘‘Jack do this’’—and if Jack demurred, Anthony ‘‘knocked him down.’’ Now that Jack is a grown man, Sir Anthony announces his intention to bestow his £3,000 annual income on his son, only on the condition that Jack accept the bride of Anthony’s choice, prior to meeting her. His ultimatum is a test of his son’s obedience to his will. Sir Anthony gives the young man a mere six and one-half hours to decide. When Jack balks, Sir Anthony insists that his son not only must marry the woman, who is hideously ugly, but also that Jack will be forced to ‘‘ogle her all day’’ and ‘‘write sonnets to her beauty.’’ If Jack disobeys, Sir Anthony will strip him of his commission. Confident in his methods and oblivious to their actual effect, Sir Anthony advises Mrs. Malaprop to lock Lydia in her room and withhold her supper until she accepts the arranged marriage. Of course, things were different when Sir Anthony courted—he eloped with his beloved. Sir Absolute is a comic figure in the play. His blustering anger is offset by the ridiculousness of some of his commands and assertions, the irony of which he fails to see; he assures Jack, ‘‘I am compliance itself, when I am not thwarted.’’ At the end of the play, however, he has mellowed, becoming a more considerate father.
Captain Jack Absolute
Jack is Sir Anthony’s son, and a captain in the army. His father had prepared him for this career by enlisting him into a marching regiment at age twelve. Jack resents his father’s manner with him, but dares not resist the forceful old man. Instead, he vents his frustration on his servant, Fag. The rank of captain carries with it a reasonable commission (pay) and a great deal of prestige. It is precisely this prestige that gets in the way of his amorous intentions with Lydia, whose romantic dream is to fall in love with someone beneath her class. Therefore, Jack, a practical man at heart, woos her as Ensign Beverley, masquerading as someone with half the pay and prestige he actually has. When Lydia falls for his ruse, Jack is delighted. But he is calculating, too. He realizes that he will have to let her in on the trick gradually, so that he will win both the girl and the fortune she seems so intent on giving up for love. Jack is sophisticated in the ways of love, as compared to his friend Faulkland. Jack assures him that although he is a romantic, he does not fall victim to the ‘‘doubts, fears, hopes, wishes, and all the flimsy furniture of a country miss’s brains.’’ His friend Faulkland accuses Jack of treating love as a game, of having no particular stake in whether he wins Lydia or loses her. Just as he might recover from losing at dice, Faulkland suggests, Jack would merely, ‘‘throw again’’ and find another lover. However, once faced with the real prospect of losing Lydia, who becomes incensed when his charade is exposed, Jack falls properly in love with her.
Bob Acres is a country squire who has been wooing Lydia without success. At the beginning of the play, Acres has just been rebuffed, told by Mrs. Malaprop to discontinue his attentions to Lydia. Acres is an oddball and simpleton who has invented his own form of swearing oaths that are ‘‘an echo to the sense,’’ an idea he seems to have picked up from the Shakespeare line in Hamlet, to ‘‘suit the action to the word, the word to the action.’’ To make himself more attractive to women, Acres takes dancing lessons from a Mr. DeLaGrace, and foolishly prances around the stage practicing his moves. Innocent and easily influenced, he is persuaded, against his fears and better judgment, to challenge Beverley to a duel over Lydia. Sir Lucius rouses his ‘‘valor’’ and courage to the point where he relishes the battle. However, with the duel close at hand, he feels his valor ‘‘oozing out.’’ Wavering between false hopes and dismal fear, he hopes to be able to prove his ‘‘honor’’ before a shot is fired, so that he will not be hurt. When he realizes that his opponent is in actuality his good friend Jack Absolute, he declines to fight and says he will ‘‘bear his disappointment like a Christian.’’
See Captain Jack Absolute
Servant to Acres, David values life over honor and tries to dissuade his master from going forward with the duel. David’s homespun language is atrocious, indicating his lack of education; however, he has far more common sense than his master. David refuses even to touch the challenge letter, and he whimpers at the thought of Acres dying at the hand of his opponent.
Fag is Captain Jack Absolute’s servant. Lucy, Julia’s maid, knows him as Ensign Beverley’s servant. Fag boasts about his master to his friend and fellow servant, David, Sir Anthony’s coachman. Jack treats Fag nearly as an equal, confiding in him about his double identity and allowing Fag to make up the lies explaining his presence in Bath. Fag is like a member of the Absolute family; when Jack vents his anger at his father upon Fag, Fag in turn vents his upon an errand-boy. As a trusted manservant, Fag has a secure spot in the elaborate social caste system of the British upper class.
Faulkland, with his overanxious heart, is a foil for Jack Absolute. Faulkland is in love with Julia, but his worries about her constancy nearly ruin their relationship. First he fears for her life and health, then when told that she is well, he grows petulant at the fact that he has worried in vain. He resents her ‘‘robust health’’ and calls her ‘‘unkind’’ and ‘‘unfeeling’’ as though she should have made herself ill with missing him. When in fact he learns that she has been happy enough to sing at a party, he grows jealous. And when he hears she has also participated in country dances, where he insists she must have ‘‘run the gauntlet through a string of amorous palming puppies,’’ he is beside himself. However, his fears are completely unfounded; he is projecting his own fickleness onto her. Jack Absolute calls him a ‘‘teasing, captious, incorrigible lover’’ and a ‘‘slave to fretfulness and whim’’ because Faulkland cannot accept that he has found a true love. Only when Julia gives up trying to reassure him, and in frustration leaves him, does Faulkland realize his grave error of judgment. Given one last chance, he is ready to embrace a trusting love.
Lydia is a provincial young lady who lives in the fantasy world of romance novels. The titles that she lists out for Lucy to procure for her at the lending library are actual titles of popular romances of the period. While enamored of the works of fancy, however, Lydia realizes that society disapproves of them, so she ferrets away the novels when she has visitors, and poses with Lady Chesterfield’s Letters. Having fallen under the influence of fictional love stories, she has taken a fancy to marrying beneath her station, a deliciously forbidden act that her aunt will not approve. She does not care that without Mrs. Malaprop’s approval she will lose her inheritance of 30,000 pounds. In fact, she enjoys going against her aunt’s wishes, and she disdains money as ‘‘that burden on the wings of love.’’ Lydia wants love in the most romantic terms, passionate scenes like the ones in her novels. To that end, she hopes to intensify her romance with Beverley, which has seen no quarrels, with a bit of subterfuge.
She sends a false letter to herself exposing Beverley’s involvement with another woman. Lydia confronts Beverley with his supposed falsehood to start a fight, just so that they can make up, and thereby keep their love at the fever pitch portrayed by romance novels. Her ruse fails, since Beverley does not rush to her side for forgiveness, but waits to be recalled by her. Beverley/Jack probably would have run away with her, but his father intervenes with a plot to force him to marry the wealthy young lady. Lydia is the last to know that Jack and Beverley are one and the same man. When his masquerade is exposed, and she learns that their affair is not only accepted but promoted by both Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop, her ardor diminishes. She grows as sullen as a spoiled child and rebuffs Jack’s avowals of love. Finally, though, Lydia comes to her senses when she sees Jack in danger of being killed in the duel. Her romantic notions are stripped away in the face of losing her lover, and she finds true love with him, presumably dropping her infatuation with sentimental love.
Lucy is Julia’s maid, and her opposite in every respect. Lucy serves as the go-between for Mrs. Malaprop (posing as Delia) and Sir Lucius O’Trigger, between Acres and Lydia, and between Beverley and Lydia. In every case, she plays upon the sweetheart’s anxieties to increase the number of letters she can deliver—into the wrong hands. In her very first scene, she cites a long list of tangible rewards she has earned for her duplicity: money, hats, ruf- fles, caps, buckles, snuff boxes, and so on. Lucy represents the worst of the stereotype of the clever, acquisitive servant, who betrays her master’s confi- dences for personal gain.
Mrs. Malaprop was probably based on Henry Fielding’s Mrs. Slipslop from his 1742 novel Joseph Andrews. Mrs. Slipslop, in turn, may have roots in the character Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Her literary pedigree aside, Mrs. Malaprop is one of the most memorable characters in the play, if not in eighteenth-century drama. She is the epitome of middle-class longing to be acceptable amongst the upper class, and her means of achieving this status is through language. She criticizes the improper language and protocol of her niece and other sentimental girls, yet she herself presents a comic representation of a failed attempt to adopt a sophisticated style of speaking. Her ‘‘nice derangement of epitaphs’’ reveals that she may have a passing knowledge of high-sounding words, but no idea of how to use them. Thus her name has evolved to mean words that are misused or as Julia aptly says, ‘‘select words . . . ingeniously misapplied without being mispronounced.’’ Some of her malapropisms take on an ironic second meaning due to her innocent misuse. For example, Mrs. Malaprop assures Sir Anthony that girls ‘‘should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts,’’ which subtly implies the kind of snobbery Mrs. Malaprop desires, and she agrees with him, too, that in child-rearing, there is ‘‘nothing so conciliating to young people as severity.’’ In the latter utterance, she inadvertently underscores the fact that severity often has little effect. Mrs. Malaprop tries to dissuade Lydia from her affair with Captain Beverley, and she joins with Sir Anthony to arrange a marriage for her niece with Jack Absolute instead. She is partly motivated by her own budding relationship with Sir Lucius O’Trigger, who has been corresponding with her, foolishly thinking her letters are from the niece.
Julia plays the role of the ideal female lover. She remains true, tender, and steadfast to Faulkland, despite his ridiculous and unfounded fears that she does not love him adequately or for the right reasons. Her language, fitting to her quality, is precise, fluent, and rich. In each of her speeches, Julia demonstrates patient thoughtfulness and intelligence, taking a balanced viewpoint. She chides Lydia against treating Beverley capriciously, and she patiently protests that she loves Faulkland, in spite of himself. She even defends his poor behavior as stemming from his lack of experience in love; she overlooks his faults, not naively but with a true generosity of spirit. When she finally loses her confidence in him, her eloquent speech requesting that he reflect upon his ‘‘infirmity’’ and realize what he has lost, finally breaks through to him, making him realize the effect of his own lack of faith. She further adds to her credibility and dignity when she warmly takes him back, once he expresses true penitence.
Sir Lucius O’Trigger
Sir Lucius is an older Irish gentleman, and a devious fop and trigger-happy ex-soldier who foolishly believes his letters are going to Lydia, and that it is this seventeen-year-old beauty who writes back lovingly, not her aging aunt. He knows his correspondent as ‘‘Delia,’’ whose imprecision in language only endears her to him as his ‘‘queen of the dictionary.’’ He is too old to be playing love games. While waiting for Lucy to deliver a letter, he falls asleep in a coffeehouse and nearly misses her. He is also ridiculous in his amorous overtures with Lucy, with whom he flirts openly, not realizing that she encourages this behavior simply to increase his generosity. Sir Lucius was also a soldier, and it is his Irish propensity for quarrelling that leads him to pressure Acres into dueling Absolute. Taking no risk upon himself (for he claims to have other duties that evening), he has no compunctions against putting Acres at risk. It is he who has to tell Acres how to pace out the dueling field, and he patiently explains why Acres should not stand sideways (because of the greater likelihood that a bullet would hit his internal organs), but should face his opponent squarely. Despite, or because of, his common sense about the physics of dueling, Sir Lucius skillfully avoids having a duel with Acres by muttering, ‘‘Pho! You are beneath my notice.’’ Then, when a duel with Jack seems unavoidable, he rises to the occasion, but leaps at the chance of reconciliation the moment Jack makes a gesture of apology.
Thomas is Sir Anthony Absolute’s coachman. He sports a wig, hoping to look like a lawyer or doctor. Thomas has the same odd manner of talking as the country squire, Bob Acres; he uses oaths such as ‘‘odds life’’ and ‘‘odds rabbit it,’’ which belie his pretensions and reveal his humble social standing.