Classical Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

"Classical" designates the group of characters who allude to Latin or Greek language and / or literature, particularly mythology. The following list of plays excludes characters that use classical allusions that are particular to a profession (i.e. law), instead focusing on characters referring to the classics to demonstrate their level of education, to provide a mythological background to contextualize their situation, and to impress others with their refinement. In this collection, the classics are a mark of the upper (educated) class; therefore, upwardly-mobile middle-class characters use classical allusions to emulate the nobility's level of education and taste.

Classical allusions are the outward sign of a solid education and of elevated social status, which is a recurrent theme among the plays. A case in point is that of Leonard, in Cumberland's The Passive Husband (1798; published 1813), who is unwilling to learn and would prefer to be a soldier; however, to support his social status, his parents have hired a classical tutor for him. A similar degree of parental involvement is seen in Foote's Taste (1752), in which Lady Pentweazel will spare no sum in ensuring that her schoolboy son Caleb is well educated. When his level of education is called into question by the registrar in Reed's The Register Office (1761), the Scotchman furiously asserts that he speaks Latin:

Scotch. Latin! Hout awa, Man! hout awa, ye daft Gowk! Do ye jeer abody'---a Scotchman , an no unnerstan Latin? ha! ha! ha! A verra gud Joke a-truly!--- Unnerstan Latin , quo' he!---Why we speak it better, nor ony o' his Majesty's Subjects, an wi' the genuine original Pronunciation too---I'se gie ye a Speecimen frae that wutty Chiel Maister Ovid .
Parve, nec invidio, sine me, Liber, ibis in urbem,
Hei mihi, quod Domino non licet ire tuo!
Now ken ye, Man, whether I unnerstan Latin , or no? (Reed 33).

However, some upwardly-mobile characters, such as Old Cockney in Bickerstaff's Love in the City (1767), Captain Le Brush in The Register Office, and Mr. Doiley of Cowley's Who's the Dupe? (1779), misuse classical allusions in their efforts to raise their social standing, producing a comic effect. For example, Doiley insists that his daughter must marry the brilliant but boring scholar Gradus, to her dismay. To outwit Doiley, another suitor, Granger, must defeat Gradus in a battle of Greek recitations. Granger is not hampered by his lack of Greek, impressing Doiley and winning his daughter's hand by reciting the following "Greek" speech:

Grang. Yon lucid orb, in æther pensile, irradiates th'expanse. Refulgent scintillations, in th'ambient void opake, emit humid splendor. Chrysalic spheroids th'horizon vivify---astifarious constellations, nocturnal sporades, in refrangerated radii, illume our orb terrene (Cowley 25).

Classical mythology is used as a way of demonstrating taste and refinement. As Bob Acres in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) demonstrates, even swearing can be refined by allusions to Venus and Bacchus: "there is no meaning in the common oaths, and...nothing but their antiquity makes them respectable" (Sheridan 27), although he does revert to "damme" as the play progresses. In Foote's The Patron (1764), Sir Thomas Lofty commends Dactyl for his tasteful use of Latin and recommends employing Latin quotations as much as possible. Likewise, in Foote's The Diversions of the Morning (1747; published 1795) Townly calls Fustian's Latin "extremely polite" (Foote 289), reinforcing the relationship of gentility and the classics.

Finally, classical allusions are used to contextualize situations within plays. In Cowley's The Runaway (1776), George informs his friends that he is in love by using an extended metaphor to tell them that he now wears the mantle of Venus. Similarly, in Macklin's The True-Born Irishman (1762), the middle-class O'Dogherty uses Homeric references with delicacy to describe his likely cuckolding. Sir Anthony, the pedantic lover of Frances Sheridan's The Discovery (1763), also describes the object of his affections in classical terms, in keeping with his reserved character.

References to Latin and Greek language and literature form an integral part of the linguistically-based class divisions in this collection of eighteenth-century plays. Classical allusions represent a high level of education, which is associated with high-class gentility and refinement. Middle-class characters aspiring to greater social standing use classical diction and literary references, often with comic errors.

Works Cited:

Cowley, Hannah. Who's the Dupe? London: J. Dodsley, L. Davis, W. Owen, 1779. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Foote, Samuel. "Tragedy A-La-Mode." The Diversions of the Morning. London: Wilkinson; Wilson, Spence and Mawman, 1795. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Reed, Joseph. The Register Office. London: T. Davies, 1761. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Rivals. London: John Wilkie, 1775. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.


[Return to Top]

List of Plays

The Runaway (Cowley)

Who's the Dupe? (Cowley)

The Natural Son (Cumberland)

The Passive Husband (Cumberland)

The Diversions of the Morning (Foote)

Taste (Foote)

The Mayor of Garratt (Foote)

The Patron (Foote)

The True-Born Irishman (Macklin)

No One's Enemy But His Own (Murphy)

The Register Office (Reed)

The Discovery (F. Sheridan)

The Rivals (R.B. Sheridan)

[Return to Top]

©2008 Arden Hegele