Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

views updated May 29 2018

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

BORN: 1751, Dublin, Ireland

DIED: 1816, London, England


GENRE: Drama

The Rivals (1775)
The School for Scandal (1777)
The Critic (1779)


Irish author Richard Brinsley Sheridan was both a dramatist and a statesman. He is best known for his contribution to the revival of the English Restoration comedy of manners, which depicts the amorous intrigues of wealthy society. His most popular comedies, The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), display his talent for sparkling dialogue and farce. Like other writers of the genre, Sheridan satirized society, though his dramas reflect gentle morality and sentimentality.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Born into Literary Family Sheridan was born in October of 1751 in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a prominent actor and a noted author. His mother, Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan, wrote one fairly successful play and one respected novel. She died while he was an adolescent. His father, Thomas Sheridan, was a playwright, actor, theater manager, orator, and also a scholar of English elocution who published a dictionary. Sheridan's paternal grandfather, Thomas Sheridan, spent many intimate years with Irish author Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Drama and Marriage When Sheridan was eight, the family moved to London, where he attended the prestigious boarding school, the Harrow School. Though he disliked school, he proved to be an excellent student and began writing poetry at an early age. After composing dramatic sketches with friends, Sheridan considered becoming a playwright. His father, however, intended him to study law, and he began an informal program of legal studies after leaving the Harrow School in 1768.

When the family moved to Bath in 1770, Sheridan met Elizabeth Linley, an outstanding singer and famed beauty, with whom he eloped three years later. Shortly after their marriage, Sheridan abandoned his legal studies in order to devote himself to writing. Soon, Sheridan found himself living in London during the 1773–1774 season without an income and with a child on the way. Sheridan would not permit his wife to sing for money, even though she could command as much as fifteen hundred pounds for a series of concerts.

While Sheridan was not yet successful writing dramas, the theater had widespread popularity in this period in Great Britain. Theater appealed to the upper, middle, and even lower classes. Upper gallery seats could be purchased for as little as one shilling, allowing for the poor to attend on occasion. The repertoire performed in this period reflected all genres, including comedies, melodramas, farces, tragedies, and dramas.

First Success as Playwright Success for Sheridan began with The Rivals in 1775. Initially, the performance of the play failed because of miscasting and the play's excessive length. Undaunted by the poor reception, Sheridan recast several roles, abbreviated sections of the play, and reopened it ten days later to a unanimously positive response. The success of The Rivals derived from the use of one of comedy's oldest devices: the satirizing of manners.

The favorable reception of The Rivals led immediately to other opportunities for Sheridan. At Covent Garden on May 2, 1775, his two-act farce St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant appeared and earned for itself a minor place in the afterpiece repertoire. The farce contains many of the elements of The Rivals: idiosyncratic but essentially good-natured characters, scenes of disguise and of revelation, quick, verbal strokes, and a farcical starring role rich in numerous assumed disguises for the principal male actor.

Continued Popularity In The Duenna, first performed at Covent Garden on November 21, 1775, Sheridan once more rose beyond competence to brilliance. The Duenna played an unprecedented seventy-five nights that first season and was praised by audiences and critics alike.

Sheridan earned a small fortune in this first year and a half of dramatic penmanship and directing. When famed actor and director David Garrick retired as part-owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, Sheridan, in concert with his father-in-law, Thomas Linley Sr., and wealthy physician James Ford, purchased Garrick's share. In the following two years, Sheridan revived a number of Restoration comedies, and wrote and produced his most successful comedy, The School for Scandal, which debuted on May 8, 1777.

End of Playwriting Career In 1779, Sheridan produced his last successful work, The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed. His last play was Pizarro (1799). A historical drama, Pizarro met with popular acclaim but was soon forgotten. Critics today consider it a disappointing conclusion to Sheridan's theatrical career.

Political Career In 1780, Sheridan made a career change. He was elected to the House of Commons, where he excelled as an orator. His speeches are considered brilliant masterpieces of persuasion and verbal command. At the time, Great Britain was facing challenges to its empire and supremacy. The ongoing American Revolution, which did not completely end until 1783, resulted in the loss of many of Britain's North American colonies. However, Britain soon began settling Australia and New Zealand, adding again to its colonial empire. At home, the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland resulted in the formal creation of the United Kingdom in 1800.

During his time in Parliament, however, Sheridan's interest in politics kept him from his theatrical endeavors, and his management of Drury Lane became haphazard. In an attempt to beautify the aging theater, he rebuilt the interior, but it burned down shortly thereafter. Left without resources, Sheridan was unable to finance another parliamentary campaign. His last years were spent in poverty and disgrace.

Sheridan died in London on July 7, 1816, in the sixty-fifth year of his life. Though Sheridan expired in poverty, he was mourned widely and was buried at Westminster Abbey, in the Poets' Corner.

Works in Literary Context

Scandal as Theme A product of his time, Sheridan's plays showed the influence of William Shakespeare's plays (consciously or unconsciously). It is also believed that Sheridan was greatly influenced by his contemporary William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh as well as the comedies of the David Garrick era. Sheridan also reacted to the tenor of his times by including in his plays a tolerance of human nature that he believes will support social good rather than individual self-interest. Sheridan's originality was to dramatize the agents of scandal and slander more vividly than any purely decorative comic wits or would-be wits had been represented since the time of Congreve.

Influence Plays like The Rivals and The School for Scandal were believed to be principally responsible for an English revival of comedy, though some later scholars disagreed. The School for Scandal in particular affected British playwrights who followed. Through his partial interest in Drury Lane—though he was a distracted manager for much of his tenure—Sheridan was also able to play an influential role in the course of British theater.

Works in Critical Context

Frequently Performed Sheridan wrote and produced three plays that have been performed more frequently than the works of any other playwright between Shakespeare and Shaw. The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic entered the performing repertoire immediately upon their first appearance in the 1770s, and one or more of them is still performed every year. Since their debut, both The Rivals and The School for Scandal have been popular with critics and audiences alike. Modern critics have focused on Sheridan's skilled use of dialogue and manipulation of character in his major dramas.

The Rivals Tom Moore, Sheridan's biographer and first systematic critic, wrote, “The characters of The Rivals … are not such as occur very commonly in the world; and, instead of producing striking effects with natural and obvious materials, which is the great art and difficulty of a painter of human life, [Sheridan] has here overcharged most of his persons with whims and absurdities, for which the circumstances they are engaged in afford but a very disproportionate vent.” Subsequent critics have attributed the comedy's greatness to its exuberant play with language and with language's power to obfuscate reality, but this language emanates from, as well as serves to form, distinctly drawn, wonderfully absurd characters. One of Sheridan's recent critics argues persuasively that the twenty-three-year-old playwright, who denied plagiarism in the preface to the first edition of The Rivals, depended heavily upon Shakespeare.

The School for Scandal Few disputed the artistry of The School for Scandal in its time. It has been presented on stage to paying audiences every year since its premiere. Henry James and George Bernard Shaw, a century after its first appearance, found fault with its sentimentality. But a century after James and Shaw, critics have redis-covered Sheridan's greatest play and found it worthy of serious attention.

With The School for Scandal, Sheridan answered the expectations many had for his management of Drury Lane after Garrick. There were detractors, including his father, Thomas Sheridan, who remarked: “Talk about the merit of Sheridan's comedy, there's nothing to it. He had but to dip in his own heart and find there the characters both of Joseph and Charles.” Most critics welcomed Sheridan's greatest comedy and hoped the playwright would produce more of them.


Sheridan's famous contemporaries include:

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784): This English writer was best known for his dictionary and witty aphorisms. His works include A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

King George III (1738–1820): This controversial king ruled England and Ireland during most of Sheridan's life. George III suffered from mental health issues and over-saw the loss of the American colonies.

William Hazlitt (1778–1830): This British writer and literary critic occasionally supported and praised Sheridan. His books include The Spirit of the Age (1825).

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824): This scandalous British poet and writer was often ostracized from society for his misdeeds, despite his wealth and charm. Among his best-known works was the narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1818).

Responses to Literature

  1. List the types of humor in The Rivals and The School for Scandal. Create a presentation of your lists using examples from the plays.
  2. In a short essay, analyze Sheridan's view of love and marriage as revealed in his plays.
  3. How did Sheridan's involvement in the theater community affect his plays? See The Critic in particular. Write an essay about your conclusions.
  4. In a group discussion, highlight the different classes in Sheridan's plays. Which class does he seem to understand and empathize with the most?
  5. Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop is responsible for a literary term. Discuss in an essay why audiences findMrs. Malaprop amusing. Then research malapropism and find your own examples of such usage.


Sheridan was adept as using the “reversal of fortune” plot line to comic effect. Here are some other works that contain the reversal-of-fortune plot, sometimes known as peripeteia:

Great Expectations (1860–1861), a novel by Charles Dickens. Things change for the poor orphan Pip when he learns of a large fortune coming his way.

The Little Princess (1905), a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A young girl whose father has died in the jungle grows up in poverty, until one day she realizes she is the lost heir to a vast fortune.

Reversal of Fortune (1990), a film by Barbet Schroeder. In this movie based on the true events surrounding husband and wife Claus and Sunny von Bülow, a large fortune is to be gained if a lawyer can wrangle the appeal.

Trading Places (1983), a film directed by John Landis. In this Academy Award–nominated comedy, two wealthy brothers make a bet on whether or not a poor man will be affected by instant wealth.



Davidson, Peter, ed. Sheridan: Comedies. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Moore, Thomas. Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1825.

Sichel, Walter. Sheridan. London: Constable, 1909.


Auburn, Mark S. “The Pleasures of Sheridan's The Rivals: A Critical Study in the Light of Stage History.” Modern Philology 72 (February 1975): 256–71.

Durant, Jack D. “The Moral Focus of The School for Scandal.” South Atlantic Bulletin 31 (November 1972): 44–53.

Jackson, J. R. De J. “The Importance of Witty Dialogue in The School for Scandal.” Modern Language Notes 76 (November 1961): 601–607.

James, Henry. “The School for Scandal at the Boston Museum.” Atlantic Monthly 34 (December 1874): 754–57.

Jason, Philip K. “A Twentieth-Century Response to The Critic.” Theatre Survey 15 (May 1974): 51–58.

Leff, Leonard J. “The Disguise Motif in Sheridan's The School for Scandal.” Educational Theatre Journal 22 (December 1970): 350–60.

Shaw, George Bernard. “The Second Dating ofSheridan.” Saturday Review 81 (1896): 648–50.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816)

views updated May 11 2018


SHERIDAN, RICHARD BRINSLEY (17511816), Irish playwright, theater manager, and politician. Sheridan was born in Dublin shortly before 4 November 1751, the day when he was baptized. His father was Thomas Sheridan, an Irish Protestant actor and theater manager; his mother was Frances Sheridan, who became well known as a writer of novels, including The Memoirs of Miss Sydney Biddulph (1761) and the Oriental tale The History of Nourjahad (1767).

The family moved to England, where Sheridan attended, and disliked, Harrow School, until 1770 when he left and moved, again with his family, to Bath. Early efforts at writing included Jupiter, a farce that prefigures The Critic and that was rejected for production by Sheridan's future colleague David Garrick; verse for the Bath Chronicle; and fragments of political essays. In Bath he met and eloped with the singer Eliza Linley (17541795), but the validity of their marriage was contested by both families and by another admirer of Linley's with whom Sheridan fought two duels. Although the families eventually dropped their opposition to the marriage, Sheridan remained very short of money, having moved to London to study law in 1773.

His first play was the comedy The Rivals, staged at Covent Garden in January 1775. It is a polished and urbane "comedy of manners" whose satirical targets include the corruption of language by Mrs. Malaprop (who famously describes another character as "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile"), and the corruption of morals in the contemporary cult of "sentimentality." After a near failure on the first night, it went on to achieve spectacular success and to bring Sheridan both money and aristocratic contacts. Sheridan went on to write a string of brilliant and successful comedies: The farce St. Patrick's Day was produced in May 1775 and The Duenna, an operatic play, followed in November 1775. In 1776 Sheridan became manager and part-owner of the Drury Lane Theatre. A Trip to Scarborough, a loose adaptation of John Vanbrugh's comedy The Relapse, was staged there in 1777, followed in May of that year by the classic comedy The School for Scandal in which a hypocritical "man of feeling" is contrasted with his rakish but good-hearted younger brother in a comedy set in the world of newspaper columns and society gossip. In 1779 Sheridan became the sole owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, where he produced The Critic, or A Tragedy Rehearsed in the same year.

1780 marked a turning point in Sheridan's career: he spent over £1000 securing election as a member of Parliament for Stafford and ceased to write for the theater. A political ally of Charles James Fox and the Whigs, he joined the government in 1782 as the undersecretary of foreign affairs, and in 1783 became secretary of the treasury. His most famous parliamentary interventions, however, related to the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor of India. A particular facet of the case related to the Begums of Oude, whom Hastings was alleged to have unlawfully deprived of their property: Sheridan discussed the case in a five-hour speech on 7 February 1787 that even his opponents acknowledged as "the most splendid display of eloquence and talent which has been exhibited in the House of Commons during the present reign" (Bingham, p. 237). Politically, Sheridan also argued against the Act of Union, and against press censorship.

However, Sheridan himself was sinking into debt. The Drury Lane Theatre was declared unsafe in 1792 and had to be demolished; Sheridan himself borrowed the money for the building of a new theater on the site. After the death of his first wife, Sheridan married in 1795 the nineteen-year-old Esther Ogle, daughter of the dean of Winchester. In 1799 Sheridan even returned to dramatic writing, and his tragedy Pizarro, an adaptation from August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue's The Spaniards in Peru, earned enough money to gain him a brief financial reprieve; but in 1802, with debts on all sides, the Drury Lane Theatre went into receivership. At the same time, his political career was stalling.

In the 1806 "ministry of all the talents," Sheridan was made treasurer of the navy, but this relatively minor post did not carry cabinet rank. In 1809 the new Drury Lane Theatre burned down. Although, characteristically, he was able to joke about ithe is said to have watched from a nearby coffeehouse, remarking, "a man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside"the fire made his financial ruin unavoidable and marked the end of his ownership of the theater. Sheridan had been a friend of Prince George (later King George IV) and should have benefited from George's elevation to Prince Regent in 1811, but the prince's favor proved short-lived. The following year Sheridan lost his seat in Parliament, and although the prince supplied him with £3000 to buy his way back in, Sheridan spent the money clearing personal debts. In 1813 Sheridan was again imprisoned for debt. He lived in poverty and alcoholism until his death on 7 July 1816.

See also Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Hastings, Warren .


Primary Sources

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edited by Cecil Price. 2 vols. Oxford, 1973.

. The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edited by Cecil Price. 3 vols. Oxford, 1966.

Secondary Sources

Bingham, Madeleine. Sheridan: The Track of a Comet. London, 1972.

Morwood, James, and David Crane, eds. Sheridan Studies. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

O'Toole, Fintan. A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 17511816. London, 1997.

Matthew Steggle

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

views updated May 14 2018

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The British playwright and orator Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) wrote two comic masterpieces for the stage, The Rivals and The School for Scandal. In his own time, Sheridan was equally celebrated as a great Whig orator.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Oct. 30, 1751. His father, Thomas, was an actor and theater manager; his mother, Frances, was the author of novels and plays. The family moved to London in 1758, and Sheridan was educated at Harrow (1762-1768). His first publication, a joint effort with a school friend, N.B. Halhead, was a metrical translation of Aristaenatus (1771). With this friend Sheridan also wrote his first play, a farce called Jupiter, which was rejected by both David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

Courtship and Marriage

In 1770 the Sheridans moved to Bath. There Richard, his brother Charles, and his friend Halhead were among the many who fell in love with a beautiful young singer, Elizabeth Linley. The most importunate of her admirers was a Capt. or Maj. Mathews. Terrified by his persecutions, she decided to seek shelter in a French convent, and Sheridan offered to protect her on her journey. In March 1772 they fled to France and were secretly married there. Leaving her at the convent, Sheridan returned to England and fought two duels with Mathews. Elizabeth was brought back to Bath by her father, and Sheridan was sent to London by his, but on April 13, 1773, they were allowed to marry openly.

Though at first the young couple had nothing to live on except a small dowry, in January 1775 Sheridan solved the problem of their support with the production of The Rivals at Convent Garden. A comedy of manners that blended brilliant wit with 18th-century sensibility, it became and remained a great successes. One measure of its popularity was that it gave a new word to the English language, "malapropism," based on Mrs. Malaprop's mistakes.

The year 1775 was a productive one for Sheridan. In May his farce, St. Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant, was performed, and in November Sheridan's comic opera, The Duenna, was produced with the help of his wife's father at Covent Garden. A son, Thomas, was also born to the Sheridans in 1775.

Drury Lane

In June 1776 Sheridan purchased Garrick's share of the Drury Lane Theater and became its manager. No fault can be found with his theatrical sense, but misfortunes and financial carelessness plagued him in this career. At first, however, Sheridan prospered, and 2 years after purchasing Garrick's interest he was able (with his partners) to buy the other half of the theater.

On May 8, 1777, Sheridan presented his new play, The School for Scandal. It was immediately, and throughout Sheridan's management, the most successful piece in the repertory of the Drury Lane. This comedy is an ingenious blending of two plots, one concerning the young, country-bred wife of a middle-aged husband who is taught town manners by a "school" of scandalmongers, the other concerning the amorous and financial adventures of the Surface brothers, whose contrasting reputations also contrast with their true characters.

In October 1779 Sheridan produced the last play of his own authorship, The Critic, in which he deftly mocked the follies of everyone, from playwright to spectator, connected with the theater. Though he continued as manager of Drury Lane, and though, in 1799, he had a hand in translations of two German plays, Pizarroand The Stranger at the age of 28 Sheridan had virtually completed the first of his careers.

Parliamentary Career

Sheridan had long been sympathetic to the position of Charles James Fox and his fellow Whigs; his first service to that party was his extensive contributions to their periodical, the Englishman (March 13-June 2, 1779). In October 1780 Sheridan entered Parliament as the member for Stafford.

It soon became apparent that the Whigs had another great orator to add to Edmund Burke and Fox. In 1782 and 1783 Fox's friends briefly held office, and Sheridan was respectively undersecretary for foreign affairs and a secretary of the Treasury. His greatest orations, however, were delivered in the 7-year impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India.

On Feb. 7, 1787, Sheridan spoke for 5 hours on the crimes of Hastings against the begums (princesses) of Oudh. A typical response to this speech was that of a Mr. Logan, who, before he heard it, had written a spirited defense of Hastings. After the first hour Logan remarked, "All this is declamatory assertion without proof"; after the second, "This is a most wonderful oration"; after the third, "Mr. Hastings has acted very unjustifiably"; after the fourth, "Mr. Hastings is a most atrocious criminal"; and at the end, "Of all monsters of iniquity the most enormous is Warren Hastings!" Many of Sheridan's other parliamentary addresses were also greatly admired, but few of them were preserved.

A friend of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), an ally of Fox, an independent after Fox's death, Sheridan was treasurer of the navy in the Whig administration of 1806. In 1804 the prince had appointed him receiver of the duchy of Cornwall, and in 1808 Sheridan at last began to benefit from this office. But his fortunes were on the decline, and in 1812 he lost his seat in Parliament.

Sheridan's first wife died in 1792, and in 1795 he married Esther Jane Ogle. In 1792-1794 Sheridan had to rebuild Drury Lane Theatre, incurring great debts. In 1809 it burned. The theater was again rebuilt, by subscription, but Sheridan did not receive enough for his share to prevent his being harassed by creditors before his death on July 7, 1816. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

The most complete modern edition of Sheridan's works is The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, edited by Raymond C. Rhodes (3 vols., 1928). The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (3 vols., 1966) were well edited by Cecil Price.

The earliest relatively impartial biography was by Irish poet Thomas Moore, Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols., 1825), which omits some of the information made available by Sheridan's family. Early accounts by John Watkins, Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of … Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols., 1817), and by William Smyth, Memoir of Mr. Sheridan (1840), started many false and scandalous stories. Sheridan's sister, Alicia Lefanu, replied to Watkins in her biography of her mother, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Frances Sheridan, Mother of … Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1824). Of the later accounts, recommended are those of William F. Rae, Sheridan: A Biography (2 vols., 1896), and Walter S. Sichel, Sheridan, from New and Original Material (2 vols., 1909). Raymond Rhodes wrote the most substantial critical study, Harlequin Sheridan: The Man and the Legends (1933). A good brief study is William A. Darlington, Sheridan (1933). □

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

views updated May 11 2018

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816). The son of an Irish actor, Sheridan achieved fame as both dramatist and politician, making his way by merit, with the additional advantage of influential friends, notably Charles Fox and the prince of Wales. Sheridan's major works were all produced before entering Parliament in 1780: The Rivals (1775), The Duenna (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), and The Critic (1779). ‘Sheridan’, according to Horace Walpole, was ‘one of the most perfect comic writers … his plots are sufficiently deep, without clumsy entanglement’ and his ‘characters strictly in nature—wit without affectation’.

Sheridan was a superb political orator, achieving fame during the campaign against Warren Hastings; one memorable speech, on 8 February 1787, lasted an astonishing 5 hours and 40 minutes. For all his ability, Sheridan never attained cabinet rank, and served only as under-secretary at the Foreign Office (1782), Treasury secretary (1783), and treasurer of the navy (1806–7). His predominant loyalty was to Fox; but Sheridan's intrigues in the Regency crisis were not approved. Mutual antagonism between Sheridan and Burke contributed to the disintegration of the Whig Party in the 1790s, with Sheridan flaunting his admiration for the French principles Burke despised. Sheridan never became the revolutionary some anticipated, and was a patriot with regard to Napoleonic France. His private life was eventful, even disreputable: he cheated openly on both his wives, drank to excess, and borrowed extensively from friends. He died in straitened circumstances, caused partly by losses incurred from his involvement with Drury Lane theatre.

David Wilkinson

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

views updated Jun 08 2018

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816) English dramatist and politician. He excelled in comedies of manners, such as The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777). Entering Parliament as a member of the Whigs in 1780, he became one of the most brilliant orators of his generation.

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