Undoubtedly Sheridan’s purpose in writing “The Rivals” was to entertain the audience by making them laugh and not by making them shed tears. “The Rivals” was written as a comedy pure and simple. Though there are certainly a few sentimental scenes in this play yet they are regarded as a parody of sentimentality. The scenes between Faulkland and Julia are satire on the sentimental comedy which was in fashion in those days and against which Sheridan revolted.
A brief examination of these sentimental scenes would clearly reveal that Sheridan’s intention was to poke fun at the sentimental comedy of the time. We find both Faulkland and Julia absurd. The true character of Faulkland is indicated to us by Absolute’s description of him as the “most teasing, captious, incorrigible lover”. Faulkland’s own description of his state of mind about his beloved Julia also makes him appear absurd. He says that every hour is an occasion for him to feel alarmed on Julia’s account. If it rains, he feels afraid lest some shower should have chilled her. If the wind is sharp, he feels afraid lest a rude blast should adversely affect her health. The heat of the noon and the dews of the evening may endanger her health. All this is funny and certainly no to be taken seriously. Sheridan is here ridiculing the excessive solicitude and concern which an over-sentimental lover like Faulkland experiences when separated from his beloved. Sheridan seems to be pleading for mental equilibrium even in the case of an ardent lover.
Sheridan continues to portray Faulkland in the same satirical manner. When Acres appears and is questioned by Absolute regarding Julia’s activities in the countryside, Acres replied that Julia has been enjoying herself thoroughly and been having a gay time. Now, a normal lover would feel extremely happy to learn this. We expect the same reaction from Faulkland because he had assured Absolute that he would feel happy “beyond measure” if he were certain that Julia was hale and hearty. But his actual reaction is quite different and greatly amuses us by its absurdity.
In both his interviews with Julia, Faulkland betrays the same absurdity. In the first interview, he complains to her of the mirth and gaiety that she as been enjoying during his absence. He wants to be loved for his own sake and for no particular reason and he also expects her love to be “fixed and ardent”. In short, his whole manner of talking to her and his soliloquy at the end of this scene reveals him in a still more comic light.
The second interview again shows him a ridiculous light. He subjects Julia to a test in order to convince himself of the sincerity of her love. The author’s intention is to show the absurd length to which an over-sentimental lover can go, and the author expects us to laugh at this kind of lover.
Even Julia suffers from an excessive sentimentality and she too is made to appear absurd and ridiculous for that reason. The manner in which she describes her lover to Lydia shows the kind of mentality that she has. In the two interviews with Faulkland, Julia is again over-flowing with emotion. We smile at the way she behaves; we are amused by her excess of emotion; we mock at the abject surrender to her lover and her repeated attempts to make up with him.
Lydia too is an over-sentimental girl though in a different way; and she too becomes the subject of ridicule in the play. Her romantic ideas and her romantic planning appear absurd to us. She wants not the usual routine marriage but a runaway marriage. Now all this makes us laugh at her superficiality and silliness. These absurd notions have been derived by her from the sentimental and romantic stories to which she is addicted. The collapse of her romantic hopes disappoints her greatly but amuses us a good deal.
The manner in which the other characters have been portrayed is also evidence of the anti-sentimental character of the play. Captain Absolute is a practical man and though he assumes the name and status of Ensign Beverley, he would not like to forfeit the rich dowry which Lydia will bring him. Mrs. Malaprop is a conventional, practical woman whose attitude to marriage is business-like. Sir Anthony to is a practical, worldly man. Bob Acres is a country boor with no romantic or sentimental pretensions but towards the end of the play he shows that he is more practical than anybody else by saying:
If I can’t get a wife without fighting for her, by any valour, I’ll live a bachelor.
Then there is Sir Lucius who is absurd but not because of nay sentimentality. One reason why he is absurd is because of his insistence on fighting duels. But he does not want to fight duels for the sake f any sentiment.
When Sheridan himself fought a couple of duels for the sake of Miss Elizabeth Linley, there was a strong emotion behind them, but here we have a mockery of dueling and we are made to laugh at the manner in which these duels are arranged.