The Rivals is a farce of mistaken identity that shares a lot of similarities with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, which was released two years prior. A main character impersonates a lower-class person to achieve amorous advantage, the young lovers must overcome the interference of a country bumpkin and an elderly rich aunt, and a second pair provides a subplot and contrast to the main romance, similar to Goldsmith’s comedy. Mrs. Malaprop, the elderly aunt who continually butchers the English language and gets her name from the solecism in which she frequently engages, is perhaps the most memorable character in The Rivals. The Rivals was lambasted by reviewers after its first performance, so Sheridan rushed to edit it in less than two weeks, cutting it by almost an hour, making some of the characters more sympathetic, and cleaning up the language, and it was met with ecstatic applause.
Summary of the Rivals
The entire play takes place in a single day in Bath, a popular vacation spot for the upper classes. Fag and Thomas, two servants, cross paths on the streets of Bath. Sir Anthony Absolute, Thomas explains, decided on the spur of the moment to bring his entire household to town. Fag teases Thomas, telling him that he no longer works for the younger Absolute and that Ensign Beverley is his new boss. He explains that Absolute has assumed the guise of an ensign in order to woo Lydia Languish, a lovely young heiress.
Lydia and Lucy converse in Lydia’s dressing room about the literature Lucy has bought for her mistress. The arrival of Lydia’s cousin Julia, who has just arrived in Bath with her guardian Sir Anthony, astounds them. Lydia rushes to inform her cousin that her lover, Beverley, has been forbidden from communicating with her since her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, discovered their romance. Mrs. Malaprop believes that an ensign is not the right match for her niece. Meanwhile, Mrs. Malaprop is surreptitiously communicating with Sir Lucius, an Irish baronet.
Lydia is adamant about marrying a poor ensign, despite Julia’s doubts, and Lydia is willing to give up two-thirds of her fortune in the process. Lydia mocks Julia’s own fiancé Faulkland’s stupid jealousy, which Julia finds ridiculous. Julia defends Faulkland’s harsh temper, claiming it stems from his love for her and insecurity over his ability to deserve her.
Sir Anthony comes to see Mrs. Malaprop later, and the two of them chastise Lydia for her interest in Beverley. Sir Anthony attributes a girl’s disobedience to her reading. Mrs. Malaprop presents a jumbled case for the areas of study suited for young ladies, attempting to use sophisticated vocabulary but coming out as silly. Sir Anthony has proposed to Lydia and Absolute, and they are debating how to persuade the young people to accept the marriage proposal.
Mrs. Malaprop focuses on her own love affair with Sir Lucius after Sir Anthony departs, and she worries about Lydia finding out about it. She inquires as to whether Lucy informed Lydia, which Lucy denies. Mrs. Malaprop then hands Lucy a second letter addressed to Sir Lucius. Lucy thinks about how much money she is made in tips and gifts delivering letters for all these lovers, and how, by pretending to be simple, she actually revealed Lydia and Beverley’s love affair to Mrs. Malaprop, leading Sir Lucius to believe he is corresponding with Lydia instead of her elderly aunt.
Fag and Absolute strategize how to keep Sir Anthony from learning about Absolute’s courting of Lydia in Absolute’s lodging (in his disguise as Beverley). When Faulkland comes, he presses Absolute to ask Mrs. Malaprop and his father for Lydia’s hand in marriage, but Absolute is not sure Lydia will accept him once she discovers he is wealthy and marrying him is not a form of rebellion. Meanwhile, Faulkland has been in a foul mood, claiming that it is because he is worried about Julia if they are separated. Absolute informs him that Julia is fine and in Bath, and persuades him to stay to hear an update on her from Acres, the Absolutes’ country neighbour. Acres enters and informs them that Julia has been in excellent health and has the ability to enchant everyone she encounters. In a jealous rage, Faulkland dashes away.
Acres, who is unaware of Absolute’s courtship of Lydia, now tells Absolute about his own stupid attempts to become more trendy while courting Lydia. Sir Anthony returns a short time later and informs Absolute that he wishes to make his son’s fortune by marrying him to someone. Sir Anthony, on the other hand, refuses to reveal the identity of the woman, claiming that Absolute owes him absolute loyalty. Absolute says that he is already in love and that he is unable to obey his father, who curses him and storms away.
Meanwhile, Lucy gives Sir Lucius a letter from “Delia.” Sir Lucius continues to believe “Delia” is Lydia. After Sir Lucius departs, Fag threatens to inform Ensign Beverley that Lucy is also operating on behalf of Sir Lucius, but Lucy explains that the letters are actually from Mrs. Malaprop. She then informs Fag that his master has a new adversary who is even more formidable: Absolute. Fag dashes out to inform Absolute that the woman he loves and the woman his father wants him to marry are the same person.
Absolute later sees his father on the North Parade and reconciles with him. Absolute swears to marry whatever woman his father tells him to marry, no matter how old or ugly she is, without mentioning that he is already wooing Lydia as Ensign Beverley. Absolute does not appear to care if his prospective wife is attractive, which disgusts Sir Anthony.
Julia walks into her room to discover Faulkland there. She inquires as to why Faulkland does not appear excited to see her, to which he responds that he had heard she had been having a good time without him and hence pretended disinterest to her. She claims she simply put on a happy face so her friends would not blame him for her sadness. He appears to be reassured for a moment, but then pressures her again, doubting that she actually loves him and is not simply obligated to marry him. She sobs as she walks away.
Captain Absolute pays Mrs. Malaprop a visit at her home. He flatters her and impresses her with his appearance and gallantry. They read a letter from Beverley (really from Absolute) that she rips out. Mrs. Malaprop’s pretension and foolish use of language are mocked in the letter, and Beverley vows to find a way to meet Lydia with Mrs. Malaprop acting as an intermediary. Mrs. Malaprop scoffs at this impudence, and Absolute then asks if he can meet Lydia. Mrs. Malaprop summons Lydia and leaves. Lydia is taken aback when she sees Beverley, her boyfriend. He informs her that he pretended to be Absolute in order to see her, and she is overjoyed that he fooled her aunt. Mrs. Malaprop listens in, but misinterprets what the two lovers are saying, believing Lydia is cruelly rejecting Absolute. Lydia is escorted out of the room after she intervenes.
Sir Lucius enters at Sir Acres’ lodgings, where Acres says that he has come to Bath to pursue Lydia, who is currently being courted by a man named Beverley. Sir Lucius persuades Acres to challenge Beverley to a duel, despite the fact that there are no grounds for it. Acres is apprehensive about the prospect, but he lets Sir Lucius lead him and draught the challenge letter. Sir Lucius has hinted that he may issue a challenge to a captain who has disrespected Ireland in the past. After a while, David tries to persuade his master not to send Beverley the letter of challenge. Acres is frightened by David’s concerns about the duel, but he is determined to go forward with it. When Absolute arrives, Acres begs him to deliver the letter to Beverley, as he knows both Absolute and Beverley.
Mrs. Malaprop is complimenting Absolute to Lydia, who argues that Beverley is also charming, despite the fact that Mrs. Malaprop has only met Beverley. Lydia will not look at Captain Absolute when Sir Anthony and Captain Absolute arrive. She is puzzled, though, as to why her aunt does not notice that this is not the same man she saw before. Absolute is urged to speak by Sir Anthony, but he argues that he is too afraid to do so. Finally, he realises that his secret will be revealed. He tells Lydia not to be surprised, but when she hears his voice, she shouts, “Beverley!” Mrs. Malaprop and I did not get along at first.
Sir Anthony believes Lydia has gone insane, but they soon discover Absolute has duped them all. Absolute was lying when he professed absolute indifference to his wife’s beauty, which pleases Sir Anthony. Mrs. Malaprop is outraged that Absolute mocked her in that letter, but they leave the pair alone together at Sir Anthony’s request. Lydia, on the other hand, is enraged that Absolute duped her. She tosses a small photograph of him in the trash and declares that she will not marry him. When Sir Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop reenter, they are surprised to discover a furious scene rather than a loving one.
Absolute strolls down North Parade, moaning about his shattered dreams. Sir Lucius notices him and dares him to a duel without explanation. Absolute tries but fails to figure out Sir Lucius’ motivations. Despite this, he accepts to duel Sir Lucius that evening. Absolute runs into Faulkland as Sir Lucius departs. Absolute informs Faulkland that he has been rejected by Lydia and challenged by Sir Lucius, and that he needs a second in the battle. Faulkland concurs. A servant brings Faulkland a letter from Julia, in which she apologises for his poor behaviour. Despite his feelings of sorrow for behaving unfairly toward her, he now believes it is improper for her to forgive him without first being asked. Absolute informs him that he can no longer listen to the issues Faulkland invents for himself and walks away. To himself, Faulkland claims that the duel has given him a new idea for ensuring Julia’s true devotion.
Faulkland informs Julia that he must leave England, implying that he was involved in a duel. Julia declares that she and he will elope. He cautions her to consider the possibility that they could be short on cash and that he will become more irritable than before. Nonetheless, she expresses her want to remain with him. Faulkland explains that he concocted the account of the duel, overjoyed at having shown the sincerity of her love. Julia is enraged; she declares that this betrayal is the final straw, and she will no longer marry him. Lydia returns a few time later, looking for Julia, who she expects to persuade her to return Absolute. She informs Julia of Absolute’s dishonesty, and Julia admits that Faulkland had already informed her. Lydia is enraged, but she begins to recollect about her beautiful days with Beverley. Julia expresses her displeasure with Lydia’s behaviour, pleading with her to be sensible and not wreck a possibly great marriage over a whim. Faulkland, Absolute, Sir Lucius, and Acres are all to be involved in a duel, says Fag, who is accompanied by Mrs. Malapropand. They all dash off to try to put an end to it.
Sir Anthony notices Absolute as he waits for the combat to begin. Absolute succeeds in concealing his intention to fight a duel, but David runs up to Sir Anthony moments later and informs him of the situation. They were in too much of a rush to try to stop it.
Acres and Sir Lucius await their duelling opponents on King’s-Mead-Fields, a little outside of town. When Sir Lucius raises the danger of Acres being slain, Acres loses his bravery. Approaches by Faulkland and Absolute. Sir Lucius believes Faulkland is Beverley, but Acres realises that neither of them is. Sir Lucius then urges Acres to fight Faulkland in place of Beverley, but Acres declines. Absolute admits that Beverley was a fictitious persona he had assumed, and he offers to fight Acres in Beverley’s place. Acres continues to refuse to fight. Sir Lucius insults Acres by calling him a coward, and Acres absorbs the abuse without retaliating. The struggle between Sir Lucius and Absolute begins, as the other characters rush in. Sir Anthony asks for an explanation as to how Absolute came to fight, but he does not get one. Lydia is afraid, Mrs. Malaprop says, and she begs Lydia to tell Absolute that she still loves him. Sir Lucius interjects, explaining that he understands Lydia’s silence, but Lydia interrupts, saying that she adores Absolute. Sir Lucius then reveals a love letter from Delia and inquires as to whether Lydia was the one who wrote it. Mrs. Malaprop admits that she is Delia and Lydia denies authoring it. Sir Lucius claims he will relinquish his claim to Lydia because he does not want to marry Mrs. Malaprop. Sir Anthony encourages Julia to marry Faulkland, suggesting that his jealousy will lessen after they marry, and Acres agrees to host a party for the newly engaged couples.