Richard Brinsley Sheridan is the most outstanding satirist in the drama of the Enlightenment. He came of an Irish stock; his father was an actor and his mother an authoress. Sheridan was educated at Harrow. Later on he developed connections with the theatrical world. He was twenty-three when his first comedy 'The Rivals' (1775) was staged.
The action of the play unfolds itself within two parallel intrigues. Julia, a girl of quiet temperament, has a jealous and mistrustful lover. His character gives rise to a number of petty quarrels and conflicts, which are happily settled towards the end, when the lovers are united.
The other heroine Lydia is a girl full of romantic fancies. A legitimate marriage seems too prosaic for her; besides she prefers an admirer without social standing. Therefore, Lydia's suitor, Caption Absolute (a sober young man) decides on a trick to capture the girl's fancy – he introduces himself to her in guise of a poor lieutenant. When the deception is discovered, Lydia at first refuses to marry him, but finally agrees to become his wife.
The most interesting characters of Sheridan's art are two comic characters in this play. One of them is Bob Acres, a coward who is forced by circumstances to fight a duel. The resulting scene is highly comical. The second is Lydia's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop. The most characteristic feature of this pretentious woman is her love for long foreign words which she uses incorrectly. For example, she says epitaph instead of 'epithet' etc. A funny fondness for high sounding words and their incorrect usage, so wittily ridiculed by Sheridan, has since been given the name of 'malapropism'. Such personages as Sir Anthony, Bob Acres, and, above all, Mrs. Malaprop, are classic figures in English comedy.
Sheridan's tribute to the vogue of the day was his comic opera 'The Duenna' (1775). Its plot shows the influence of Molliere and the Spanish comedy. In 1777 he wrote 'The School for Scandal'. The latter is the best artistic work of the English drama of the 18th century and one of the best English comedies of all times. In his comedy Sheridan boldly criticizes the bourgeois aristocratic society of England. He created the English social comedy. It exposes the hypocrisy, cruelty and egoism of bourgeois-aristocratic circle in England.
Sheridan discontinued playwriting to become a partner in, and later on a sole proprietor of the Drury Lane Theatre.
In 1780, Sheridan went in for politics and became a famous orator. Some of Sheridan's political speeches delivered within this period are regarded as a classical example of English oratory art. In 1780, he became a member of the English parliament. By turns he filled the posts of undersecretary for foreign affairs, secretary of the exchequer, and, finally, treasurer of the Admiralty.
In 1787, he delivered his famous speech against Hastings, the Governor-General of India. In his speech during the long trial that lasted for six hours, he held to shame the English policy in India.
The second half of Sheridan's life was overshadowed by two misfortunes; the death of his wife in 1792 and the loss of his property – the Drury Lane Theatre – which was burnt to the ground. The catastrophe, however, did not rob Sheridan of his natural cheerfulness. A witness' evidence has it that during the fire Sheridan was calmly drinking wine in a coffee-house opposite and indulging in witticism about the burning theatre. The last years of Sheridan find him in reduced circumstances. He had contracted many debts, and at the same time of his death there were bailiffs at his house.
Byron remarked of Sheridan in these words: 'He has made the best speech and written the best comedy, the best opera, and the best farce in the English literature'.