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Richard Brinsley Sheridan

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English Literature

Moody, persuasive, witty and charming - the Irish playwright, orator, and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan is remembered chiefly for his comedies of manners. The son of a gentleman actor, he fell in love with the stage, but his oratory skills took him from the intricacies of theatre to the intrigue of politics. He is perhaps most famous for his comedy of manners The School for Scandal (1777), and his works dominated comic theatre until Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. So who was Richard Brinsley Sheridan really?

Sheridan's Timeline:

  • 1751 - Sheridan is born in Dublin to the actor Thomas Sheridan and novelist Frances Chamberlaine.
  • 1762 - Sheridan is sent to Harrow.
  • 1770 - The Sheridans move to Bath; Sheridan meets Elizabeth Linley, a singer.
  • 1773 - Sheridan gives up a career in law and marries Linley.
  • 1775 - The Rivals is performed for the first time at the Covent Garden Theatre.
  • 1776 - Lynley and Sheridan become partners in a share of Dury Lane Theatre.
  • 1777 - The School for Scandal is performed at Drury Lane for the first time.
  • 1779 - The Critic is performed for the first time.
  • 1809 - The Drury Lane Theatre burns down.
  • 1816 - Sheridan dies and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Fun facts :

Sheridan’s sister Alicia later became grandmother to Sheridan Le Fanu.

The Sheridans originally came from Spain and settled in Ireland in the 5th-6th century.

Dr Sheridan, Richard Sheridan's grandfather, was a close friend of Jonathan Swift.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan Biography

Richard Sheridan grew up with a theatrical background. His father, Thomas, turned from teaching to the stage. Thomas was a keen reformer; in his time as an actor-manager in Dublin, actors were better paid and properly rehearsed than they had been before. Half-price tickets were abolished after the third act, which helped reduce the drunken brawling and rioting.

Most plays tended to be five acts long. Half-price tickets were available after the third act, to help fill the seats and make up profit. Unfortunately, this often meant people who bought these tickets had usually eaten and drunk rather a lot beforehand. As a result, outbreaks of drunken behaviour in the audience were common.

Thomas further developed the Dublin theatre to rival the London theatre scene, but fire and debt caused him to move to London. He occasionally performed there, but mostly focused on a new educational system he had devised called ‘British Education’. This system placed emphasis on English language and literature (whereas previously the focus had been on the classics).

Richard Sheridan and his sister Alicia were at first left in Ireland with relatives. Sheridan joined his parents in London at the age of eight. He never returned to Ireland, but maintained a deep and abiding love for it. He grew up in London, where his parents’ circle of friends included Dr Johnson and Samuel Richardson. Mr and Mrs Sheridan clearly felt at home in literary society. As Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell later wrote:

'Mr Sheridan’s well-informed and bustling company never allowed the conversation to stagnate, and Mrs Sheridan was a most agreeable companion to an intellectual man.'

Boswell was a great admirer of Thomas Sheridan, while Johnson was rather disparaging, saying of him:

'Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature.'

(Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

Johnson did admire Mrs Sheridan, who published her novel The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bulph in 1761. In 1763, her play The Discovery was performed.

Thomas Sheridan’s financial worries were never far behind. While Richard was packed off to school at Harrow, the Sheridans moved to Blois to escape creditors. The cost of living there was considerably cheaper. It meant, however, that young Richard Sheridan experienced a lonely childhood, often feeling downhearted:

'...and much given to crying when he was alone, and he attributed this very much to being neglected by his father, to his being left without money, and to not being taken home at the regular holidays.'

(Sheridan to Creevey from Richard Brinsley Sheridan: a life, Linda Kelly, 1997)

Despite his mother’s sudden death during this time, his life at Harrow did seem to improve. He grew less solitary and made friends. Sometimes he spent holidays with Mr Aikenhead, ‘a splendid West Indian’¹ who lived at Richmond. More often, he spent them at the home of the headmaster Mr Sumner, a friend of Thomas Sheridan's. There was a steady housekeeper, Mrs Purdon, who showed motherly concern for him.

By 1770, Thomas Sheridan was back in England and moved with his family, including Richard, to Bath. The plan was to set up an Academy, where Richard and his brother Charles would act as ushers. The plan for the Academy fell through. Undeterred, Thomas Sheridan set up ‘Attic Entertainments’, which consisted of poetry recitals enlivened with vocal and instrumental music.

There was a talented young family of musicians already in Bath, the Linleys. Thomas Linley the elder arranged concerts and conducted his talented violinist son (another Thomas) and equally talented singer daughter, Elizabeth. Linley's son had performed with Mozart in Florence and Elizabeth had already made a name for herself. She performed for Richard Sheridan's father in London. What followed would not sound out of place in a Henry Fielding novel.

Richard Sheridan saw and heard Elizabeth sing and was silently entranced. Elizabeth was being pursued by a Captain Matthews, who had a bad reputation with women. She wished to withdraw to a convent in France. Sheridan stepped in and escorted her to France, and along the way, the couple decided to marry. On their return to Bath, Sheridan sought out Matthews and challenged him to a duel. A brief skirmish followed and Matthews, cowed, wrote an apology for his behaviour.

Elizabeth returned to her musical commitments, as her father had organised a tour. Sheridan's brother and father were in London, leaving Richard and his sisters in Bath. Matthews, intent on revenge, chose this moment to challenge Sheridan to a duel. The fight ended badly for Sheridan, as Matthews cleared off to France, and Sheridan, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds, was carried to a nearby inn.

He was brought home by his sisters, and once Elizabeth heard the news she insisted on seeing him. However, their parents kept the young Sheridan and Elizabeth apart. After recovering, Sheridan was sent to study law. He entered the Middle Temple but gave it all up to marry Elizabeth in April of 1773, with the consent of Mr Linley. Thomas Sheridan broke off communication with his son and it took some time for the rift to heal.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan Plays

The Rivals (1775)

‘There will be a Comedy of mine in rehearsal at Covent-Garden within a few days….’ wrote Sheridan to his stepfather in November of 1774. The comedy in question was The Rivals. It opened to a full house in January 1775. However, the first night was not a success.

The character of Sir Lucius O’Trigger offended the Irish contingent in the audience, and the actor was miscast: ‘gabbling in an uncouth dialect,’ wrote the Morning Chronicle (1775) ‘that was neither Welch, English, nor Irish.’

Further performances were postponed for ten days while Sheridan cut, rewrote, and modified the script. The role of O’Trigger was recast. Elizabeth quipped that she was relieved the play had failed, as now she could sing and they would ‘have as much money as we like’.¹ The delayed second night was a resounding success.

The play is set in Bath, and concerns the ups and downs of Lydia Languish’s relationship with Captain Jack Absolute. Lydia (who reads a great many romantic novels) is determined to marry for love alone, not money. Jack, on discovering this, courts her in disguise as an impoverished ensign.

The situation is complicated by Lydia’s aunt and guardian, Mrs Malaprop, who will not allow Lydia to marry into poverty. Jack’s father Sir Anthony also turns up, and after a series of comic misunderstandings, Lydia agrees to marry Jack.

The Rivals is particularly noted for its introduction of Lydia’s aunt, Mrs Malaprop. She gets very involved in the affairs of the young lovers in the play, and uses a lot of malapropisms in her speech (which is why she is called Mrs Malaprop). At one point she is explaining to Sir Anthony (father of Lydia’s suitor Jack) how she thinks young women should be educated:

Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts;—and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know…

(R.B.Sheridan, The Rivals, Act 1, sc.2, 1775)

In her speech, Mrs Malaprop has confused the following:

  • supercilious with superficial
  • geometry with geography
  • contagious with continental
  • orthodoxy with orthography

Mrs Malaprop is arranging with Sir Anthony for his son to visit Lydia as a potential suitor and says: ‘…I hope you will represent her to the captain as an object not altogether illegible.’ She doesn’t really mean that Lydia should be hard to read (like a book); she has confused the word with ‘ineligible’ or ‘a suitable potential partner’.

Note: Although Mrs Malaprop confuses many words, there are also several occasions wherein, in a sense, she hits the spot - Lydia may be hiding her feelings and therefore hard to read.

Fintan O’Toole suggests that Mrs Malaprop is possibly Sheridan’s (lighthearted) revenge on his father:’

By making Mrs Malaprop both his father’s worst nightmare and a satire of his father at his worst, Sheridan both acknowledged and defused his antecedents.’

(Fintan O’Toole, A traitor's kiss: the life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1997)

With The Rivals, Sheridan created a satire of comedies that audiences were already familiar with. Sheridan borrowed from Shakespeare, Congreve, Jonson, and Garrick, among others, creating new material with familiar content. The audiences lapped it up, and Sheridan followed up his success with The Duenna, a comic opera with an overture and five songs, which Sheridan’s father-in-law arranged based on traditional Scottish and Irish songs. The Duenna ran at Covent Garden for 75 days in its first season, outdoing the popular Beggar’s Opera.

Dr Johnson recommended Sheridan for the Literary Club, which was rather like being nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature today. This meant Sheridan was recognised as one of the great intellectuals of his time.

David Garrick, actor-manager at Drury Lane theatre, was impressed by Sheridan. Garrick had a half-share in the patent of Drury Lane, which he now wished to sell. Sheridan and his father-in-law Linley, along with one other investor Dr James Ford, bought up Garrick’s share. Sheridan had to borrow, but was convinced he would make money.

School for Scandal (1777)

A year later, in 1777, The School for Scandal was performed at Drury Lane and raised the roof. The playwright Frederic Reynolds was passing by the theatre when he heard a great roar from inside and took fright, thinking the building was about to collapse. The roar had been the audience inside applauding the end of act 4.¹ The School for Scandal was based on the events in Bath when Sheridan had been in the papers for 7 days over the second duel with Matthews. The play’s original title had been ‘The Slanderers, a Pump-room scene.’

The plot hinges on inheritance, identities and gossip. Sir Oliver attempts to discover as much as he can about his nephews Charles and Joseph to decide who to leave his fortune to. At the same time, Lady Sneerwell is in love with Charles, who is in love with Maria, who in turn is loved by Joseph.

Maria is in love with Charles, so Lady Sneerwell and Joseph spread rumours about Charles’s character in an attempt to ruin the relationship between Charles and Maria. Sir Oliver, in disguise, ‘tests’ each of his nephews. Sir Oliver reveals his identity and discoveries, and Charles inherits Sir Oliver's fortune and marries Maria.

Garrick had retired from acting, but supervised rehearsals and wrote the prologue. The School for Scandal brought in £15,000, which was £5000 more than Sheridan’s original investment.

The Critic (1779)

In 1779, The Critic was performed. The Critic was Sheridan’s favourite play, in particular its first act. Sheridan uses it to poke fun at heroic tragedy. It was inspired by George Villiers’s The Rehearsal (1671). Mr Puff, a gentleman with literary aspirations, has written a ludicrous historical melodrama, filled with excessive emotions and unbelievable plots. The critics of the title are the poet Sir Fretful Plagiary, and the reviewers Sneer and Dangle.

As with The School for Scandal, Sheridan delayed finishing The Critic. Two days before the first night, he still had not written the closing scene. In desperation, the actor playing Puff, Tom King, invited Sheridan into the green room, where there was a table set with food, wine, and writing materials. Once Sheridan was in the room, King slipped out and locked him in. Linley and Ford told Sheridan he could only come out once he had finished writing the scene, which he did, under duress.

Sheridan had considerable experience of playwrights, and since taking up management at Drury Lane, read all the plays sent in to him. He was well aware of the persistence of some of the authors, especially Richard Cumberland. Mr Puff may well be based on Cumberland. Certainly people at the time identified Puff with Cumberland, including Cumberland’s son, who ‘cursed at Mr S(heridan) pretty soundly.’ (Linda Kelly, Richard Brinsley Sheridan: a life, 1997)

The Critic was Sheridan’s last play. His time was taken up with managing Drury Lane and a new career in Parliament. His oratory skills won him the election as MP for Stafford in 1780, and his career in politics lasted 30 years. He came to know Charles James Fox, and both men became members of the Westminster Committee, a group of MPs intent on electoral reform. Sheridan also became a close advisor to Prince George during the Regency period.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan Writing Style

Sheridan’s sense of satire comes from a place of optimism. He pokes fun at the establishment in a gentler way than the Restoration playwrights. The human failings that he makes fun of are forgiven, as Sheridan believes in human goodness. His wit, charm and persuasiveness were his tools in playwriting and later in oration when he went into politics.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan Later Years

In 1792, Sheridan’s wife Elizabeth died. She was susceptible to consumption (tuberculosis), and after the birth of her daughter Mary her condition worsened. She travelled to Hotwells in Bristol, noted for its medicinal waters, but died in June. Sheridan was in mourning over her death, but theatre and politics pressed for his attention. His fortunes now gradually declined.

In 1795, he married Esther Jane Ogle, which began as a happy marriage, but ended in alienation. In 1806, he lost his seat in Parliament and failed to be re-elected. Drury Lane Theatre burned down in 1809. This left Richard Sheridan deep in debt until his death. He died in poverty in 1816 and lies in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Sheridan's wit and intelligence created a brilliant style of high comedic writing that bridged the period between the comedies of Congreve and Oscar Wilde.

William Congreve (1670–1729) was a playwright noted for the wit, satire and social observation in his comedies of manners. His most popular plays included Love for Love (1695), and The Way of the World (1700).

His monologues from The Rivals, School for Scandal, and The Critic form part of the stock-in-trade for actor auditions and as stand-alone pieces. His works continue to be relevant, performed, and appreciated by audiences across the world.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan - Key takeaways

  • Sheridan is born in 1751 in Dublin, to the actor Thomas Sheridan and novelist Frances Chamberlaine.
  • The Rivals is performed in 1775.
  • The School for Scandal is performed at Drury Lane in 1777.
  • In 1779 The Critic is performed.
  • Drury Lane Theatre burns down in 1809.
  • In 1816 Sheridan dies in London, in debt.

1. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: a life, Linda Kelly, 1997

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The Rivals, School for Scandal, The Critic

He was born in Dublin in 1751.

Duels fought over Elizabeth Linley  whom he later married.

School for Scandal.

Final Richard Brinsley Sheridan Quiz

Question

What did Richard Brinsley Sheridan write?

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Answer

The Rivals, School for Scandal, The Critic

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Question

Where was Richard Brinsley Sheridan born?

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Answer

Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751.

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Question

What are the causes that brought scandal for Richard Brinsley Sheridan?

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Answer

Duels fought over Elizabeth Linley, whom he later married

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Question

Which is Sheridan’s greatest comedy?

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Answer

The School for Scandal.

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Question

Who did Sheridan marry?

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Answer

Elizabeth Linley, a singer

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Question

Choose: The Rivals is about...

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Answer

gossip


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Question

True or false? Sheridan became the manager of Covent Garden.

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Answer

False: Sheridan became the manager of Drury Lane Theatre.

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Question

 The term 'malapropism' comes from the play...

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Answer

The Critic

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Choose: 

The Critic is a satire of...

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Answer

heroic tragedy plays

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 School for Scandal was based on the events in … where Sheridan was involved in a scandal.

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Answer

Bath

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 The Drury Lane theatre burnt down in 1809 as a result of...

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Answer

accident

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True or false? Sheridan is buried in the Speaker's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

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False: Sheridan is buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

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Question

True or false? The School for Scandal is based on events from Sheridan’s life in Brighton.

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False: The School for Scandal is based on events from Sheridan’s life in Bath.

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The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The …, a …-room scene.

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Answer

 The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The Slanderers, a Pump-room scene.’

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 The first night of The Rivals...

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Answer

was a failure.

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What is the significance of the title The School for Scandal?


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Answer

The School for Scandal refers to the power of gossip in society.

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What are the themes of The School for Scandal?

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Answer

Reputation and slander; honesty and hypocrisy.

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What type of drama is The School for Scandal?


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Answer

The School for Scandal is a comedy of manners.

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What is the summary of The School for Scandal?

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Answer

Sir Oliver wants to discover the character of his nephews before leaving them his fortune.

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Question

True or false? The School for Scandal is based on events from Sheridan’s life in Brighton.



Show answer

Answer

False: School for Scandal is based on events from Sheridan’s life in Bath.

Show question

Question

The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The …, a …-room scene.’


Show answer

Answer

The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The Slanderers, a Pump-room scene.’


Show question

Question

Sheridan was in the papers for … days for his ... with captain Matthews.

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Answer

Sheridan was in the papers for 7 days for his duels with captain Matthews.

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The School for Scandal is a:

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Answer

romantic comedy

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The School for Scandal contains themes of ... and ...

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Answer

revenge

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True or false? Both Charles and Sir Peter are in love with the same girl, Maria.


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False: Both Charles and Joseph are in love with the same girl, Maria.

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Choose: Lady Sneerwell is in love with …



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Answer

Sir Oliver

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True or false? Joseph, in love with Maria, is at the same time courting Lady Teazle.

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Answer

True.

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Question

 Charles is …, inclined to loose-living, but at heart he is … and well-meaning. 



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Charles is extravagant, inclined to loose-living, but at heart he is honest and well-meaning. 

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... plots together with Lady Sneerwell to wreck his brother’s … for his own ends.

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Joseph plots together with Lady Sneerwell to wreck his brother’s reputation for his own ends.

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 Sir Oliver visits Joseph disguised as a ... asking for help.


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Answer

crippled soldier

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