The language used by Mrs Malaprop is not an example of Sheridan’s subtle use of humour; her inaccurate use of language, or malapropisms, are blatant throughout the play. The woman who thinks of herself as ‘Queen of the dictionary’ makes many errors in her use of language, ‘with her select words so ingeniously misapplied’ and is an obvious source of humour to both the audience and the other characters throughout the play. Her character does, however, show how Sheridan is able to mix both subtle and noticeable humour successfully in The Rivals, and how Sheridan uses a number of comic devices in order to make the play amusing.
Many of the characters in the play use romantic language when they think that it is expected of them. Even Sir Anthony Absolute is able to consciously adopt the language of sentiment when he thinks it is necessary, informing Mrs Malaprop that he has ‘come to mitigate the frowns of unrelenting beauty’. This is in comic contrast to his usual brusque manner, and also helps to highlight the absurdities of the sentimental conventions of the time. Sir Anthony’s usual language is blunt and to the point, and is amusing in itself in the play, especially on the occasion where he becomes apoplectic with rage yet demands that his son should be ‘cool, like me.’ This stereotypical image of the short-tempered father is in direct contrast to the romantic language Sir Anthony uses when it is expected of him by society, and this is an example of how Sheridan uses the language of the characters to create subtle, yet amusing scenes in The Rivals.
Lydia Languish, in contrast to Sir Anthony, is the epitome of the tragic heroine and constantly uses overly romantic language to illustrate this. Her character is a stereotypical portrayal of a popular heroine of the time. Sheridan uses her excessive behaviour in order to parody sentimental comedy, for instance when she stresses that she was to stay angry at Absolute for ‘three days and a half’ as she thought was the correct way to behave due to all of the romantic novels that she reads. Lydia has a childish view of romance, and her constant use of romantic language makes her seem less genuine then other characters, for instance her level headed cousin, Julia. We can see, however, by her concern for Absolute’s life at the end of the play that she her feelings are sincere and that she really does love the Captain. Sheridan’s clever use of excessive language in order to stereotype and parody sentimental comedy was overlooked by some members of the original audience who saw Lydia as a genuine romantic heroine rather then the somewhat absurd character that she comes across as in a modern performance.
Lydia’s cousin, Julia, comes across as a very level headed character, who shows genuine feeling and common sense throughout the play. This manner is reflected in the sensible and rational language that she uses for much of the play; ‘I do not love even his faults’. This language, and indeed sensible manner, disappears, however, when Julia is with Faulkland. As with all of the other characters in the play, Julia is prone to using the language of sentiment when she is with Faulkland; ‘My heart has long known no other guardian…we will fly together’. The differences between the language of everyday life and the romantic language used by the characters are clear, and Sheridan uses this stark contrast to comic effect within The Rivals.
Faulkland is a comical figure throughout the play due to his obsessive behaviour and his constant worrying about Julia, for instance in Act II, Scene III where he frets about the state of her health, and is then upset when Acres informs him of her good spirits. Faulkland is under the impression that he cannot be happy when he is separated from Julia, and is pessimistic throughout the play, he can ‘never hear anything that would make another man bless himself, but you immediately damn it with a but.’ Faulkland, like Lydia, uses the language of a sentimental hero almost constantly throughout the play, and his almost ridiculously excessive language is comic, especially when compared to the cool, calm and calculated speeches delivered by Absolute. As with the rest of the characters, the language that Faulkland uses clearly portrays his personality, and Sheridan is able to parody the typical sentimental hero with Faulkland’s excessive, even obsessive behaviour throughout the play.
Another example of how Sheridan uses the excessive language of a character in order to parody something that he does not agree with is Sir Lucius O’Trigger, an Irishman whose obsession with duelling is verging on the ridiculous. He is a typical Irish stereotype (although many of the anti-Irish jokes were removed from the play after people took offence in the first performance of The Rivals). Sir Lucius is used by Sheridan to highlight the absurdities of duelling – he is concerned about etiquette when his friend’s life is at stake; ‘it is much the genteelest attitude’, which Acres answers with ‘I’d just as leif be shot in an awkward position as a genteel one’. Although these lines are comic in themselves, they also highlight how ridiculous duelling is, and the original audience would have known that Sheridan had recently fought in a duel over his wife, Elizabeth Lindely, and so this scenario would have been far more relevant to them.
Acres is a typical country bumpkin, and he is typified in this play by his referential swearing, in which ‘the oath should be an echo to the sense’, concluding that ‘damns have had their day’. Acres is slightly foolish, and a fairly ridiculous figure on stage, yet Sheridan manages to balance this bumbling character with the more subtle figures of speech that Acres uses in order to enhance the comic effect of the character, and create another source of humour which could often be overlooked by an audience.
The servants in The Rivals play an important role in the action, much more so then they would in a sentimental comedy and they can also be defined by the language they use. Fag, who thinks himself to be of an importance that far outstrips his station uses far more polished language when he is talking to his superiors; ’you know, Sir, one says honest to one’s inferiors’, yet displays his lack of breeding and hypocrisy when he beats the kitchen boy. David, who is a rustic servant, repeats the phrase ‘by the mass’ throughout the play. He is simple and unsophisticated, much like that phrase, and has a no nonsense view on the subject of duelling. He shows genuine concern for his master, yet unwittingly distresses him with his talk of Acres’ death, which, ironically, is reminiscent of the torment that Acres himself caused Faulkland earlier in the play. Lucy is another servant who is exploits most of the cast for material gain, under the guise of being simple; ‘commend me to a mask of silliness, and a pair of sharp eyes for my own interest under it’. She displays a completely different attitude when she is on her own or with other servants then she does when she is in the company of someone like Mrs Malaprop, and is able to use simple language and ideas in order to fool her superiors into thinking that she in unintelligent.
In The Rivals, Sheridan uses basic, obvious humour, such as the use of the character's names to describe their personalities, and the simple jokes such as Mrs Malaprop’s inappropriate use of language. The play is based on stereotypes, and Sheridan uses ridiculous and over the top characters and events in order to parody sentimental comedy. All of this can, however, overshadow Sheridan’s more subtle use of humour which can be found in the language of the characters, and in how easily the characters can be defined by closer observation of their speech, for instance Julia’s down to earth attitude, Acres’ rustic simplicity and Absolute’s ability to deceive. An audience can be easily distracted by the many other humorous aspects of the play and easily overlook this cleverness of language.