ZOUNDS! "Special" English as a dramatic tool in Sheridan's major comedies

by Vivien Lee


Richard Brinsley Sheridan lived in "an age of oratory"; he was raised by, made his living as, and spent his life as, and surrounded by, declaimers. The society he chose, that of eighteenth-century Bath, England, was obsessed with manners and fashions of speaking; his father ran a Bath Academy of Oratory. Sheridan was as famous in his lifetime for political oratory as for writing drama, and his drama is, above all, a drama not just of manners but of manners of speaking. The obvious example is his character of Mrs Malaprop, one of his earliest creations, who has given her name to the universally recognized form of mis-speaking known as malapropism.

In his most famous plays, The Rivals and The School for Scandal, Sheridan develops a distinctive dramatic technique, the essential creation and definition of character by manner of speaking. In the earlier play this technique is more stylized, often being used simply as a comic device. The later play shows a far more sophisticated development of the technique: the hypocrites share a contrived manner of speaking (best exemplified by Joseph), as do the honest characters share a direct and straightforward manner of speaking (best exemplified by Charles).

Sheridan's most elaborate and exaggerated use of speech mannerisms is in the oaths and manners of swearing he gives his characters, particularly Acres in The Rivals, Again, his progress as a dramatist is illustrated by greater sophistication and subtlety of this device in School for Scandal, where exclamations define more subtle distinctions of character, like frankness and hypocrisy.