The Construction of Ethos as a Central Theme

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In 1780, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s father, Thomas Sheridan, saw his much-awaited pronouncing dictionary, ten years in the making, come to print. The idea had come from Thomas Sheridan’s godfather, the satirist Jonathan Swift, who had dreamt of a British counterpart to the language standards of the French Academy. After Swift died, Thomas took on the task. As Swift had anticipated, this work found an immediate audience, and ran to eleven printings in its first year. Buyers wanted a reliable pronunciation guide that would help them move into a higher social class, by adopting an ethos of intellectual prowess. Ethos is the Greek term for ‘‘character.’’

Aristotle had written that to be a credible person, one essentially must create the person others will see, in order to earn their respect and trust, through a combination of ethos (character), logos (vocabulary), and pathos (emotional appeal). Sheridan, a talented orator who would pursue a thirty-year career in the British Parliament, knew the importance of a person’s way of speaking in establishing credibility.

One of the most hilarious characters in The Rivals is Mrs. Malaprop, whose name has become synonymous with failed attempts at using big words correctly. The character of Mrs. Malaprop is a showcase role for talented actresses with a flair for oratory and style. Mark Auburn in his 1977 Sheridan’s Comedies recommends that ‘‘[t]he actress playing Malaprop is well-advised to emphasize each malapropism with self-satisfaction, vain pluming and preening, and conscious stress: in this way the incredible vanity will provide absurd contrast to [her] learned ignorance.’’ Despite her protestations that she would not want her daughter to be a ‘‘progeny of learning,’’ or to study the ‘‘inflammatory branches of learning’’ such as ‘‘Greek, Hebrew, or Algebra,’’ Mrs. Malaprop herself takes pride in her ‘‘oracular tongue,’’ her ability to speak in what she comically refers to as ‘‘a nice derangement of epitaphs.’’

Mrs. Malaprop professes to Sir Anthony that a young girl should strive to be what she calls ‘‘mistress of orthodoxy’’ so that she will not ‘‘miss-spell and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do.’’ She does not want them to learn too much, so she disapproves of their reading novels, which she and Sir Anthony agree would corrupt them, as it has Lydia. Therefore, Mrs. Malaprop asserts, a girl’s education should be limited: ‘‘the extent of her erudition should consist in her knowing her simple letters, without their mischievous combinations.’’ Her own endeavor to appear educated is compromised by the very method she proposes, for her education is incomplete: she knows only enough to pronounce big words, not how to use them correctly. Her mistakes are comic, and her ethos is comic because her desires are fueled by vanity. Vanity prevents her from recognizing that Jack Absolute is reading his own letter aloud to her, and that he authored its numerous insults aimed at her ‘‘ridiculous vanity which makes her dress up her course features, and deck her dull chat with hard words—which she don’t understand.’’

The letter goes on to state outright that her blindness ‘‘does lay her open to the grossest deceptions from flattery and pretended admiration.’’ She is duped by her own ego, and she is the only one who fails to get the joke. Mrs. Malaprop thinks that girls should attend school only to acquire ‘‘a little ingenuity and artifice,’’ but her own artifice is as shallow as make-up. Her attempted ethos fails because she does not fully understand the power of oration, as though she has bought the pronouncing dictionary and stopped there. She tries to get by with the surface features, never comprehending what she lacks, yet all-too-ready to prescribe her method to others. The ironies of her absurd linguistic errors and her blindness to the impression she makes is a powerful reminder of the importance of verbal skills in establishing credibility.

Bob Acres offers another role for talented comic actors. Bob exhausts every opportunity to create for himself the ethos of the country gentleman. However, it is apparent to everyone from his valet to his dueling partner that no gentrified silk purse will emerge from this country sow’s ear. From ‘‘training’’ his hair for the latest style and capering ridiculously across the stage as he rehearses fencing moves, to practicing his own style of ‘‘referential oaths,’’ Bob cuts not a suave figure, but a ridiculous and pathetic one. He rues his gracelessness, saying that although he can dance a country dance well enough, his English legs ‘‘don’t understand their curst French lingo!’’

Of course, dancing is a form of communication, and one that his country bumpkin body cannot speak. Sir Lucius O’Trigger easily feeds into Bob’s pretensions and persuades him to challenge his rival for Lydia’s hand to a duel. But O’Trigger has to dictate the letter for him, because Bob lacks the decorum necessary to set the right tone of selfrighteous politeness. Bob knows that words can help create an external ethos of ruthlessness to frighten his opponent. Therefore, he asks his friend Captain Absolute—actually Bob’s would-be opponent in the guise of Ensign Beverley—to refer to him as ‘‘Fighting Bob,’’ a ruthless opponent who ‘‘generally kills a man a week’’ and now is in ‘‘a devouring rage.’’ Bob supplies the epitaphs, but out of cowardice, he asks Jack to deliver them. Bob doesn’t trust himself to project his new ethos in person.

Bob’s valet David provides a useful foil to his master. David refuses to join in Bob’s mania, instead reminding his master that honor holds no value in the grave. David’s speech, in contrast to that of Bob Acres or Mrs. Malaprop, is simple and lacks artifice. He represents the sober voice of reason in this play of inflated egos, providing a sane view of the characters’s folly that the audience can use as a measure.

Bob desires the status of the gentry, but his ethos lacks depth, just like Mrs. Malaprop’s, because his adopted style of speech cannot mask his true state of mind at the time—fear, just as Mrs. Malaprop cannot mask her lack of education. Because they speak from a fantasy idea of themselves and not from the heart, their projects of ethos-creation fail, making them comic figures.

Unlike Mrs. Malaprop and Bob Acres, Julia always speaks from her heart. There is no disconnect between her words and her essential person, therefore, she has no need to manufacture an external ethos. Not surprisingly, Julia is a good orator. She chooses her words with care, in order to represent the truth as she sees it, not the fantasy she wishes were true. She patiently explains to Lydia that Faulkand’s lack of trust stems from his inexperience at love. Her speech, a sermon on the topic of honest love, rings with truth. Her diction and wording portray her natural ethos of impeccable moral character. Furthermore, never do her words contradict her true feelings. Her true character shines through, and she is credible to everyone—except for Faulkland. Faulkland suffers from a ‘‘fear of ethos’’ engendered by living in a world full of social climbers who present an artificial exterior. Faulkland wrongly accuses Julia of not loving him but merely esteeming him, of not feeling sad enough when he is away. Not until he has tested her beyond the limits of her patient endurance does Faulkland realize his mistake. His failure to recognize a true character when he sees one is understandable, given that he is surrounded by those who present a false ethos whenever they can.

In The Rivals as in eighteenth-century society, ethos-creation goes on amongst the servant class as well, although they focus mostly on matters of dress. They seem to forget, as the audience cannot fail to do, that their language gives them away. The fashion facade of Sir Anthony’s coachman Thomas is as transparent as Bob Acres’s heroic ethos. Thomas sports a wig, that symbol of strained image construction, but as Fag quickly points out, wigs are now hopelessly passé.

With or without the wig, the audience recognizes Thomas’s lower-class status as soon as they hear his heavy brogue, filled with such linguistic giveaways as ‘‘look’ee’’ and ‘‘Odd rabbit it.’’ They appear in the first act in the play, setting the stage for the series of ethos-manufacturing characters to come, whose fragile constructions also will be rent asunder as the plot unfolds. Fag dons gloves like a nobleman and generally dresses better than does Thomas, but, it is his more formal speech, and his ability to control his language when surprised, that marks him as higher in the servant pecking order than Thomas. Fag maintains his cool with a ‘‘hold— mark! mark!’’ in contrast to Thomas’s simplistic outburst, ‘‘Zooks!’’ Like their masters, these servants wish to convey an ethos of social superiority, but their failure to change their style of speaking makes it impossible for them to rise above the level of the servant class.

Not all of the characters gear their ethos toward social advancement. Lydia and Jack have an entirely different purpose in mind—they seek the higher purpose of love. Lydia’s purpose adopts the ethos of the woman who falls in love beneath her class, an idea she has gleaned from the sentimental novels that she consumes by the dozens. She also dreams of marrying against her aunt’s wishes and being forced to relinquish her 30,000 pound annuity, thus ridding herself of ‘‘burden on the wings of love.’’

Unfortunately, her ethos becomes as static and fixed in her mind and heart as the print from which it derives. She is trapped in a rigid fantasy and therefore unable to respond spontaneously when Jack deviates from the script. Instead of being happy that Ensign Beverley and Captain Absolute are the same man, and that he has her aunt’s approval, Lydia sulks. In her frustration, she cannot even reply to him, but instead seems to address her internal life script when she says, ‘‘So!—there will be no elopement after all!’’ Mrs. Malaprop declares that ‘‘her brain’s turned by reading,’’ expressing a concern common in eighteenth-century society. As the reviewer for the January 27, 1775, Morning Chronicle of London exclaimed, ‘‘almost every genteel family now presents us a Lydia Languish!’’ The fear was growing that sentimental novels would transform impressionable young ladies into weepy maidens languishing for love.

Jack Absolute is the hero because he portrays someone who can convert a lost young lady back to proper behavior. He does so by pretending to go along with her sentimental script, masquerading as Ensign Beverley, who fits Lydia’s bill for an impoverished lover. Jack does not share Lydia’s fantasy, but he constructs an ethos that fits the mold. Of course, the imposter Beverley excels at oratory, speaking sentimental language even better than the lovers in her books. He waxes poetic as he assures Lydia that the ‘‘gloom of adversity shall make the flame of [their] pure love show doubly bright.’’

He intends eventually to tell her the truth, but his plans go awry when he must appear as a ‘‘new’’ suitor, Jack Absolute. After calling upon ‘‘Ye Powers of Impudence’’—an apostrophe to the god of imposters—he can barely croak out a few words in a froggy voice. It is an ethos crisis, and his oratorical skills desert him. He cannot utter words that will undo the damage his masquerade has caused. Jack’s ethos fails under pressure because his constructed ethos cannot adapt to the changing situation and because it does not represent his true heart.

Julia alone can speak intelligently and effectively under the pressure of changing situations. It is no coincidence that the character with the truest heart also has the best oratorical skill. Each of her speeches is an oratory worthy of a British Parliamentarian, which her creator would soon become. A good orator not only projects a credible character and speaks with eloquence, he or she also can do so spontaneously, responding to the new information while drawing on a storehouse of knowledge and wisdom. Those who masquerade under a manufactured ethos cannot do so, skewed as they are by their blind faith in their inflated, false egos.

Sheridan seems to have created Julia and her comic peers as an experiment to explore how best to create a credible ethos. Sheridan himself was a newcomer to the London theatrical world, with no credibility as of yet, but with a remarkable eye for identifying imposters around him. His success lay in his ability to hold a mirror up to the society that he wanted to join, and to convince it of his own credible ethos in the process.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Critical Essay on The Rivals, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private college preparatory school in Cary, North Carolina.

Absolute Sense in Sheridan’s The Rivals

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Sheridan has frequently been accused of trying to revive a moribund dramatic tradition, namely Restoration comedy. In these terms, he becomes a kind of second-hand Congreve, and not a very good one at that. Other critics, pointing to the sentiment in his plays, accuse him of being the very thing he supposedly ridicules, a sentimentalist. Neither of these accusations, which in effect try to put Sheridan’s comedies snugly into one of two camps, takes into account what is now starting to become a critical commonplace: the Georgian period had its own view of comedy and, in its own way, developed the laughing tradition. Sheridan is no exception. At his best, he adapted the conventions of the past to his own comic ends.

Unlike what the Scotchman (in Sheridan’s fragment of the same name) calls ‘‘Grave Comedy’’, which strives to inculcate a serious moral, Sheridan’s plays reflect folly and seek to mend it. More than that, like the Restoration comedies of the past, his plays deal with artifice, though in Sheridan’s case the artifice is the sentimental pose. Comedy for Sheridan has a corrective function, directed not just at folly, which takes many forms, but also at sentimental excess. Those ‘‘things that shadow and conceal’’ man’s true nature can, in Sheridan’s terms, as easily be ‘‘witty’’ as they can be ‘‘sentimental.’’

What Sheridan attempts to do in his plays is to create a balance between mirth and sentiment; he is at once benevolent and critical. What to the Restoration dramatist is a tension between the private and the public self, between appearance and reality, becomes to the sentimental dramatist an identification. Eighteenth-century dramatists like Sheridan once again show the discrepancy between what is shown and what is concealed, but Sheridan does so by writing what Loftis calls ‘‘benign comedies with a satirical bite.’’

Sheridan achieves this balance by his introduction of ‘‘absolute sense,’’ common sense tempered by mirth and softened by good nature. In this, he is very much a part of the eighteenth-century tradition. Auburn, in his study of Sheridan’s comedies, mentions the importance of common sense to Georgian comic writers in general. Shirley Strum Kenny also argues convincingly that ‘‘the Charles Surfaces and Captain Absolutes of later eighteenth-century drama’’ owe much to the good sense of earlier heroes.

Therefore, freed from both salaciousness and sententiousness, Sheridan’s best comedies reflect ‘‘flesh and blood.’’ In this respect, his ‘‘mix’d character,’’ as Congreve calls such characters in his Amendments, is a visible mixture of faults and virtues. Sheridan thereby seeks to show man’s undefaced side as well as his more knavish one. His doing so places him firmly within existing dramatic traditions and not within just one camp or another. His doing so also confirms his own stature as a comic dramatist.

In his earliest play, The Rivals (1775), Sheridan develops his comic theme of ‘‘absolute sense’’ and adapts the modes of the past to his own ends. Restoration playwrights dramatize the corrupting influence of the ‘‘way of the world’’ and frequently offer ambiguous resolutions to the struggle of the individual to survive the world and its ways. Sheridan offers the ‘‘better way’’ of sense at the same time that he dramatizes the excesses of the sentimental way. He mocks the absurdities of sentimental distress and delicacy of feeling. To do so, he reconciles the earlier themes of artifice and ‘‘plaindealing’’ with his own treatment of virtue and sense. He reveals the folly of a world where a Puff’s cant can dupe others and where a sentimental pose leads to absurdity.

Faulkland is one such example of absurdity, and Sheridan mocks the delicate lover in the scene where Faulkland hears of Julia’s social activities in the country. Here, Faulkland claims to prize the ‘‘sympathetic heart’’ and the sentimental union of ‘‘delicate and feeling souls.’’ To be absent from his beloved is to endure an agony of mind. So, in Faulkland’s terms, Julia’s ‘‘violent, robust, unfeeling health’’ argues a happiness in his absence. She should be ‘‘temperately healthy’’ and ‘‘plaintively gay.’’ Such paradoxical statements point to Faulkland’s own sentimental absurdity. He wishes Julia to be a pining heroine whose only true joy comes from her soulful union with him and whose absence from him should subdue her whole being.

But Faulkland fails to see the paradox of both his language and his demands. By wishing her to be temperate and plaintive, he in effect wishes her to be unhealthy and sad. But he does not stop there. A ‘‘truly modest and delicate woman,’’ Faulkland says, would engage in a lively country dance only with her sentimental counterpart. Only then, he argues, can she preserve the sanctity of her delicate soul:

If there be but one vicious mind in the Set, ’twill spread like a contagion—the action of their pulse beats to the lascivious movement of the jigg—their quivering, warm-breath’d sighs impregnate the very air—the atmosphere becomes electrical to love, and each amorous spark darts thro’ every link of the chain!

Faulkland’s sexually charged speech comically undermines his role as the delicate lover.

The object of his ‘‘sentimental’’ ardor, Julia, refuses to play a similar role. Not only is her health robust, but she also seems to enjoy the ‘‘electrical’’ atmosphere of the country dance. Once branded as the ‘‘unequivocal tribute to the sentimental formula’’, Julia does possess a lively spirit which, at times, is critical of the over-refined temper. Faulkland’s jealousy receives a check from Julia, who reminds him: ‘‘If I wear a countenance of content, it is to shew that my mind holds no doubt of my Faulkland’s truth.’’ Unlike Lydia, Julia will not create an artificial sentimental distress.

In contrast, Lydia enjoys scenes of distress. To her, wealth is ‘‘that burthen on the wings of love,’’ so she must create for herself an ‘‘undeserved persecution.’’ She delights in the ‘‘dear delicious shifts’’ her lover must withstand for her sake. Describing one such romantic encounter with him, she uses homely, inappropriate language. Her lover is reduced to ‘‘a dripping statue,’’ sneezing and coughing ‘‘so pathetically’’ as he tries to win her heart. They must exchange vows while the ‘‘freezing blast’’ numbs their joints. Such a scene, told in such language, merely accentuates the falsity and the folly of her pretensions.

In The Rivals, then, Sheridan does indeed mock the aspects of sentimentalism that lead to folly. To expose these absurdities, Sheridan effectively exploits both the witty and the sentimental modes. In contrast to the artifice practised by Lydia, and the distress experienced by Julia and Faulkland, traces of the witty comic mode appear in characters like Acres, the country fop, and Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, examples of ‘‘crabbed age.’’ Acres, like many a fop before him, slavishly attempts to imitate the city gentleman, but captures only the trappings of true gentility and true wit. He, too, becomes a subject for diversion. And like the aging matrons of earlier comedy, Mrs. Malaprop fancies herself to be attractive and desirable, so much so that she is easily duped. The character of Sir Anthony Absolute, who attempts to bully his son into obedience, resembles another conventional character of the past, the obstinate father. At one point, he threatens to disown a son who refuses to capitulate to his wishes.

Foolish pretensions, like Bob Acres’s ‘‘sentimental swearing,’’ represent a comic ‘‘echo to the sense,’’ a hollow imitation of the verbal and social mastery that Captain Absolute more truly embodies. In effect, Acres foppishly distorts both sense and sound, and applies Pope’s injunction with respect to sound to a comic delivery of oaths. His swearing is also a parody of the sentiment. What should exhort others to a moral truth Acres uses to bolster his courage.

Similarly, Lydia’s romantic notions lead to falsity and absurdity, mere ‘‘echoes’’ of the sensibility and sentimental distress that Julia more truly represents. So, too, with Faulkland. His refusal to forgo what he calls his ‘‘exquisite nicety’’ and to follow the more sensible tactics of Captain Absolute also exemplifies an ‘‘echo to the sense,’’ for his nicety is soon found to be caprice. Therefore, both wit and sentiment fall into excess and affectation, a ‘‘Voluntary Disguise’’ which cloaks genuine feeling and genuine wit.

Nearly every character in the play indulges in such excess: Mrs. Malaprop with her ‘‘oracular tongue,’’ Sir Lucius O’Trigger with his distorted view of honor, Bob Acres with his gentlemanly pretensions, Julia with her excessive good nature, Lydia with her absurd romanticism, Faulkland with his captiousness, Sir Anthony Absolute with his penchant to be ‘‘hasty in every thing.’’ These excesses are nonetheless intertwined, and their interrelationship is evident in the play’s title. Contrary to the views expressed by Sen and Sherbo, the play’s dual lines of action are not anomalous, but thematically linked. Here, in his first play, Sheridan does, as Auburn notes in Sheridan’s Comedies, show himself to be a ‘‘master of comic technique.’’

Wit and sentiment are ‘‘rival’’ modes, and the rivalry is established as early as the prologue, where the figure of comedy stands in opposition to the sentimental muse. Julia’s sweet-tempered nature, often regarded as sentimental, can be viewed only in its relation both to her lover’s ‘‘captious, unsatisfied temper’’ and to her cousin’s romantic caprice. As Rose Snider suggests, Julia’s sobriety cannot be treated seriously in the context of her own absurdity. Julia’s fundamental good nature ‘‘rivals,’’ as it were, the more pronounced excess of the other characters.

By pairing these characters, Sheridan strikes a balance between them. Lydia’s romantic indulgences lead to imagined distresses that stand in marked contrast to Julia’s own trials. While Julia’s ‘‘gentle nature’’ will ‘‘sympathize’’ with her cousin’s fanciful torments, her prudence will offer only chastisement. Lydia realizes, too, that ‘‘one lecture from [her] grave Cousin’’ will persuade her to recall her banished lover. Later, Julia says: ‘‘If I were in spirits, Lydia, I should chide you only by laughing heartily at you.’’

Faulkland’s fretfulness also taxes Julia’s good nature and, for the most part, she allows her ‘‘teasing, captious, incorrigible lover’’ to subdue her: ‘‘but I have learn’d to think myself his debtor, for those imperfections which arise from the ardour of his attachment.’’ In this manner, Julia herself becomes the victim of excess. Her exaggerated sense of duty to her morose lover and her belabored justifications of his treatment of her are found to be immoderate.

Even though she would, no doubt, crave just such an incident to befall her, Lydia points out the absurdity of Julia’s own romantic obligation to the man who rescued her from drowning. She tells Julia: ‘‘Obligation!—Why a water-spaniel would have done as much.—Well, I should never think of giving my heart to a man because he could swim!’’ Once again, Lydia’s homely comparison makes the incident more comic than sentimental.

Here, Lydia’s clear-sightedness puts Julia’s sentimental expostulations into perspective. By indulging Faulkland’s every whim and by submitting to his sentimental notions of love, Julia tolerates his fretfulness and fosters her own excess. When Julia introduces the notions of gratitude and filial duty, for example, Faulkland tells her: ‘‘Again, Julia, you raise ideas that feed and justify my doubts.’’ He yearns to be assured that she does in fact love him for himself alone; here she raises doubts even as she tries to remove his fears.

Finally, Julia must bear the consequences. Her indulgence eventually leads Faulkland into mistaking her sincerity for coquetry and hypocrisy. Intent on using the impending duel as ‘‘the touch-stone of Julia’s sincerity and disinterestedness,’’ Faulkland wrongly judges Julia’s love. When she hears of the duel, Julia first responds in sentimental fashion. In terms of Sheridan’s theme of rivalry, the contrast between this scene of tender self-abnegation and the scene in which Captain Absolute plays the selfsacrificing lover is worthy of note.

As Ensign Beverley, the captain makes use of Lydia’s favorite sentimental notions. He will rescue her from her ‘‘undeserved persecution,’’ and he pretends to revel in their anticipated poverty. He comically rhapsodizes: ‘‘Love shall be our idol and support! We will worship him with a monastic strictness; abjuring all worldly toys, to center every thought and action there.’’ His ‘‘licensed warmth,’’ which will ‘‘plead’’ for his ‘‘reward,’’ echoes Julia’s pledge to her fretful lover. She willingly promises to receive ‘‘a legal claim to be the partner of [his] sorrows and tenderest comforter.’’ Jack vows to Lydia that, ‘‘proud of calamity, we will enjoy the wreck of wealth; while the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our pure love show doubly bright.’’ Similarly, Julia promises to Faulkland: ‘‘Then on the bosom of your wedded Julia, you may lull your keen regret to slumbering; while virtuous love, with a Cherub’s hand, shall smooth the brow of upbraiding thought, and pluck the thorn from compunction.’’

Both Jack and Julia indicate their willingness to endure hardship for the sake of love. But Julia’s sentiments, prompted by Faulkland’s feigned distress, follow Jack’s, and his scene with Lydia is highly comic. In him, artifice clearly predominates over sensibility. The captain is trying to trick Lydia into matrimony and, after his impassioned speech, he quips in an aside: ‘‘If she holds out now the devil is in it!’’ His sentiments are feigned—merely to utter oaths of devotion does not ensure a disinterested heart. Julia’s sentiments are more sincere and yet, because they do follow Jack’s comic ones, Sheridan here inverts the conventional technique of introducing a comic scene to parody a serious one. In The Rivals, the serious scene ‘‘imitates’’ the comic one, and Sheridan thereby undermines Julia’s sentiments. Faulkland likewise would trick Julia into a confession of love, unqualified by either gratitude or filial duty. Structurally and thematically, Sheridan in this way suggests the kinship between sensibility and artifice.

Soon, Julia’s sensibility itself changes. Once she learns of Faulkland’s deception, she resembles earlier heroines who, in the proviso scene, defend their individuality. Her language retains the syntax of the sentiment, but the content does not deal with a moral truth. Rather, she renounces him and soundly condemns his artifice. Delicate feelings aside, she refuses to bring further distress upon herself. To make his comic point, Sheridan prolongs Julia’s diatribe, which, in its anger, recalls the tirades of the castoff mistress. Nor can Faulkland interrupt the flow of her reproach.

At last, Faulkland’s excess is checked, but not by Julia’s language or her finer feelings. Although in the end he pays tribute to the reforming power of her ‘‘gentleness’’ and ‘‘candour,’’ here the threat of forever losing her stirs his remorse. Julia, in witnessing the extremes to which her lover will go, also comes to realize the dangers of indulgence. Like Honeywood’s in The Good Natur’d Man, Julia’s indiscriminate good nature must be checked and restrained.

The character of Captain Absolute illustrates Sheridan’s comic standard of moderation, the lesson that both Julia and Faulkland must learn. Durant remarks: ‘‘[Jack] is a sensible and practical young man; and the main thrust of the comedy comes of this practical young man’s efforts to achieve sensible aims in an utterly illogical world.’’ Auburn in Sheridan’s Comedies writes that Jack is mildly clever, motivated by honest, not entirely selfish desires, and he is ‘‘warmly human.’’ Unlike the other characters, who are ‘‘absolute’’ in their selfindulgent excess, the captain is ‘‘absolute’’ only in his sense. To Faulkland’s suggestion that he immediately run away with Lydia and thus fulfill her romantic desire for a sentimental elopement, Captain Absolute retorts: ‘‘What, and lose two thirds of her fortune?’’ Like the Restoration hero, he is willing enough to woo a lady with a substantial inheritance, but he is equally unwilling to sacrifice himself to a life of poverty. As he tells Lydia: ‘‘Come, come, we must lay aside some of our romance—a little wealth and comfort may be endur’d after all.’’ To live in an impoverished state may be romantic, but it is also needlessly foolish.

On another level, his moderation offsets Faulkland’s sensibility. At one point, the captain urges Faulkland to ‘‘love like a man,’’ and, at another, he chides his friend even more severely: ‘‘but a captious sceptic in loved—a slave to fretfulness and whim—who has no difficulties but of his own creating—is a subject more fit for ridicule than compassion!’’ Like the balance achieved through the relationship of Lydia and Julia, the Captain’s good sense also balances Faulkland’s excess.

Like Faulkland’s, Lydia’s folly must be mended, and by the captain. After Lydia discovers that Captain Absolute and Ensign Beverley are one and the same person, he initially appeals to her sensibility. Meeting with no success, he must then challenge her very pretensions to sensibility. He points out to Lydia how her reputation will suffer in a world where sentiment thrives only in the lending libraries or in whimsical imaginations. It is a point which, although critical of the sentimental mode, also modifies the earlier theme of artifice. Now, sentiment becomes just another form of affectation. Later, of course, in Joseph Surface, Sheridan will personify this kind of sentimental sham. Here, Sheridan indicates that the stage of the world and the world of the stage do not mutually influence each other. Captain Absolute brings into comic focus the illusory and ultimately absurd nature of Lydia’s attempt to transfer the fictional realm of sentimentalism into her own life.

Yet, he is also a lover, ‘‘aye, and a romantic one too,’’ and this aspect of his character exemplifies Sheridan’s use of convention. After his breach with Lydia, the captain agrees to a duel. Indeed, this prospect proves more successful in winning him the hand of Lydia than all his tricks, a reversal of the Restoration practice and an apparent concession to pathos. But it must be stressed that, unlike Steele’s treatment of the duet in The Lying Lover, in The Rivals the duel becomes an effective comic device. For both Captain Absolute and Faulkland, the duel is a gesture of despair, and Sheridan has clearly indicated the absurdity of it by juxtaposing their motives with those of O’Trigger, who would fight ‘‘genteelly’’ and like a Christian over some imagined insult. The captain here momentarily forsakes sense, and he almost meets a romantic end. In a final comic twist, Lydia’s romantic desires are almost realized, and art does indeed almost become life. It is enough to shock all the characters into sense, and pathos is thereby averted.

Therefore, the duel exemplifies the basic rivalry between the sentimental and the witty modes, and the dangers to which both are subject. Lucy capably wears a ‘‘mask of silliness’’ and yet, like the witty servants of the past, she possesses ‘‘a pair of sharp eyes for [her] own interest under it.’’ It is her self-interest that has led to such serious misunderstandings. The fop, too, has contributed. Seeking to master the art of ‘‘sentimental swearing,’’ Acres hopes to prove his courage. A blustering oath, delivered with ‘‘propriety,’’ would then achieve an effect which the cowardly ‘‘fighting Bob’’ could not do otherwise. But the duel shows his courage to be as suspect as his ‘‘sentimental swearing.’’

More important is the dual character of Ensign Beverley/Captain Absolute. His disguise also leads to misunderstandings, but he plays the key role of the man of sense. The comic excesses of the rival modes have been checked, largely through him. The rivalry between the various suitors for Lydia’s hand reaches its climax at King’s-Mead-Field, and the concomitant rivalry between wit and sentiment, represented by the combatants, finally ends. Out of rivalry, balance finally reigns.

The balance is reflected in Julia’s concluding speech. Earlier, the actress who has played the part of Julia has delivered a prologue critical of the sentimental muse. Now, at the end of the play, she delivers a word of caution: ‘‘and while Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future Bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting.’’ Julia’s caution highlights the folly of trusting to appearances, at the same time serving to warn against risible excess. Though couched in sentimental language, this final speech hints at the true nature of things. ‘‘Flesh and blood’’ as mankind is, he indulges himself in the extremes of hope or despair, wit or sentiment. The ‘‘squinting eye’’ of excess swivels either one way or the other.

Julia’s speech, then, is less a testament to a sentimental reconciliation than a plea for moderation. Sheridan has at last shown that only ‘‘absolute sense,’’ freed from excessive wit and sentiment, will ultimately triumph.

Source: Anne Parker, ‘‘‘Absolute Sense’ in Sheridan’s The Rivals,’’ in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 1986, pp. 10–19.

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Critical Overview