The Rivals Themes

The three main themes in The Rivals are artifice, courtship, and sentimentality.

  • Artifice: Most of the characters in The Rivals practice artifice, or lying, to get what they want.
  • Courtship: The play contrasts the two common avenues to courtship, arranged marriage and falling in love.
  • Sentimentality: The play examines the cultural fixation on sentimentality prevalent in the eighteenth century.

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With the exception of Julia, each of the characters in The Rivals practices artifice, or lying, to get what he or she wants from the other characters. Beginning with David’s wig, his vain attempt to pass as a member of a higher society that has already dropped the wig from fashionable dress, and ending with Faulkland’s last attempt to trick Julia into admitting base motives for loving him, no one willingly presents things as they really are. In fact, many of the characters lie outright. Fag lies to Sir Anthony for Jack about the son’s reasons for being in Bath, and Lucy lies to Sir Lucius about who is writing love letters to him. Other characters simply misrepresent themselves. Jack masquerades as Ensign Beverley in order to win Lydia’s love, while Mrs. Malaprop tries to appear more sophisticated by peppering her speech with fancy vocabulary that she neither understands nor can pronounce.

Of all the characters, Lucy stands to profit the most from her artifice, and that is because she serves as a go-between for the intrigues of the others. She tells the audience in a soliloquy, ‘‘commend me to a mask of silliness and a pair of sharp eyes for my own interest under it.’’ Her comment amounts to a definition of artifice: appearing innocent enough to fool others, while actively seeking one’s own selfish interests through their trust.


The Rivals puts the two common avenues to courtship—arranged marriage and falling in love— into opposition. Marriages were one important means for wealthy families to maintain or increase their dynastic power. For ambitious members of the middle class, an ‘‘advantageous’’ marriage of a daughter offered a means of securing a foothold into the next level of society. Girls were protected, therefore, as a kind of investment, and thus were not allowed to choose their own mates, and their public appearances were carefully planned and guarded. Places like Bath and certain public areas of London as well as parlor gatherings offered arenas for young people to view and parlay with the opposite sex without the risk of commitment on either side. The actual marriage arrangements were made by parents (usually the father) or by a legal guardian, in the case of orphans. Inevitably, young men and women disagreed with their parents, who often were motivated by other interests than those of their children. The many novels, poems, and plays concerning such conflicts attests to the centrality of courtship issues to eighteenth-century culture.

Sentimentality and Sentimental Novels

Sentiment, or the ability to ‘‘feel,’’ was valued greatly during the eighteenth century. The genre that responded to a rampant interest in feelings— what inspired them and how to control them—was the novel. The European novel was ‘‘invented’’ in Spain during the seventeenth century and, as the newcomer to literary genres, it was looked upon with circumspection if not downright disfavor. In an age that favored formality such that much of the poetry consisted of rhyming couplets, the less structured format of a novel was seen as aimless and prone to corrupt its mostly female readers. Novels rose out of a rich precedent of conduct manuals and travel literature and ultimately grew into the chronicle of a protagonist’s psychological ‘‘coming of age.’’

Sentimental novels were the most popular novel type favored by women. These works described romantic intrigues with bold lovers and winsome, virtuous women who epitomize the feeling heart. When Lydia Languish recites the list of novels she wanted Lucy to procure for her, the titles represent actual works available at the time. Lydia does not buy these books but sends Lucy to borrow them from the lending library, to which its patrons could subscribe for a reasonably small annual fee. The lending library was another new phenomenon, one that put books within reach of every young lady anxious to script her life according to these fictional models. The reading of novels by young, impressionable girls was condemned by the male patriarchy on one hand, and lauded by them as a viable alternative to education on the other.

Education and Language

One of the means to social advancement is education, and the social measure of this education is spoken language. Thus, in The Rivals, it is not the content of the verbal wit that matters, but the relative quality of the rhetoric employed by each of the characters. Oratorical ability is a sign of social competence, and rhetorical blunders symbolize a character’s social inadequacies. Thus, Julia’s formal and intellectually wrought speeches stand in stark contrast to the verbal blunderings of provincial Bob Acres, whose speech is peppered with phrases such as ‘‘odds swimmings’’ and ‘‘odds frogs and tambours.’’

At the same time, those who feign sophistication are brutally satirized. Mrs. Malaprop is a target of ridicule because her sophisticated-sounding words, used in the wrong context, expose her failure to achieve her goal of self-education. A good education would allow her to pass unnoticed among the social class she wishes to enter. Many among the audience would identify with her desire, at the same time that they mocked her inability to satisfy it.

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