THE ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY IS IRELAND'S LEADING BODY OF EXPERTS IN THE SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES

The Royal Irish Academy/Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann champions research. We identify and recognise Ireland’s world class researchers. We support scholarship and promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. We believe that good research needs to be promoted, sustained and communicated. The Academy is run by a Council of its members. Membership is by election and considered the highest Academic honour in Ireland.

Read more about the RIA

Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the DIB

10 December 2019

This evening (Tues 10 Dec), Fintan O'Toole delivers a lecture 'Biography and history: the case of the Sheridans' at the RIA as part of a celebratory evening marking ten years since the first volumes of the DIB were published. Below is the DIB entry for Richard Brinsley Sheridan, one of the Sheridan family's many luminaries. 

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

by Sinéad Sturgeon

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816), playwright and politician, was born in September or October 1751 at 12 Dorset Street, Dublin, the third child of Thomas Sheridan, actor and orthoepist, and his wife, Frances Sheridan, née Chamberlaine, novelist and playwright. He was baptised as Thomas Brinsley Sheridan at St Mary's church, Dublin, on 4 November 1751, Thomas being a favourite forename for the Sheridans. It was the name not only of Richard's father and paternal grandfather, Thomas Sheridan, but also of Thomas and Frances's first child, who had died in 1750 aged three. Almost immediately, however, Sheridan's parents, who each had a brother named Richard, called him by that name instead. Sheridan had three siblings who survived into adulthood: his older brother Charles Francis (b. 1750), and two younger sisters: Alicia (1753–1817), known familiarly as Lissy, later Alicia Le Fanu, and Anne Elizabeth or Betsy (b. 1758).

Early life in Dublin, 1751–59 Richard spent his early years in Dublin where Thomas Sheridan was the prosperous manager of the Smock Alley Theatre. Rising political tensions in Ireland, however, soon destroyed the promising economic prospects of the Sheridan family. In 1752 Thomas had created as an annexe to his popular theatre a dining society known as the Beefsteak Club, which was patronised by the lord lieutenant and his circle. Such ascendancy connections firmly inscribed Thomas Sheridan in the public mind as part of the establishment, an association that proved disastrous in the early months of 1754 when the staging of James Miller's ‘Mahomet’ (based on Voltaire's Mahomet, the imposter) coincided with the prorogation of the Irish parliament. A stirring speech inflamed the patriotic sensibilities of the audience, and in the ensuing riot Smock Alley was badly damaged, a financial calamity from which Thomas Sheridan never fully recovered. He sub-let Smock Alley and departed for London with Frances and Charles, leaving Richard and the infant Lissy in Dublin. Richard's childhood was thereafter marked by stints of loneliness and by instability, with frequent bouts of illness. In October 1756 the Sheridans returned to Dublin, and in 1758 Richard and Charles were placed in Samuel Whyte's academy in Grafton Street. The family were not reunited for long, however, and in the summer of 1758 Thomas, Frances and Charles returned to London. Richard and Lissy lived with Whyte until August 1759, when they were summoned to rejoin the rest of the family, now settled in Windsor. Richard would never return to Ireland though he maintained close family connections there and a lifelong interest in Irish affairs.

Education and early writings, 1760–71 In London, Richard and Charles were at first taught by their mother, who focused particularly on English. In January 1762 Richard was sent as a boarder to the public school at Harrow, run by Dr Robert Sumner, while Charles – regarded by his parents as the more promising son – was taught at home. Richard was as unremarkable a pupil at Harrow as he had been at Whyte's, though this average performance seems to have stemmed from unhappiness and detachment rather than lack of ability. He made lasting friendships with his teacher, Dr Samuel Parr, and fellow pupil, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, but was bullied because of the perceived social inferiority attached to his father's profession. In addition, he suffered once again from being separated from his family for prolonged periods of time. In September 1764, anxious both to avoid creditors and to improve his wife's delicate health, Thomas took Frances, Charles, and his daughters to the French town of Blois in the Loire valley where, on 26 September 1766, Frances Sheridan died, aged forty-two, after a short illness. Richard, who had again been left behind, was not reunited with his remaining family until 1769, when the family regrouped and settled in Frith Street, London.

Having left Harrow, Richard continued his education in London under Lewis Ker, an Irishman and former physician who taught Latin and mathematics, and Thomas Sheridan, who instructed Richard and his friend Henry Angelo in English grammar and rhetoric. Richard also became friendly with Angelo's parents, an Irishwoman named Elizabeth Johnson and Dominick Angelo, a renowned horseman and swordsman, who gave Sheridan riding and fencing lessons. In September 1770 the Sheridan family moved to Bath, where they took lodgings in Kingsmead Street. Thomas Sheridan planned to establish an academy for elocution and rhetoric, but when this scheme failed, he launched ‘Attic Evening's Entertainments’: these were concerts that consisted of recitations by the Sheridans, and music by the Linleys, a well-known family of gifted musicians. Richard was now in regular correspondence with Halhed, with whom he began a writing collaboration. Together they wrote Jupiter, a three-act farce based on the Amphityron myth, and in August 1771 they published a translated version of the Love Epistles of Aristenatus. Halhed and Richard hoped to sell Jupiter to a theatre company, and even had plans for a periodical named Hernan's Miscellany, of which Richard wrote a draft first issue. By the summer of 1771, however, Halhed could wait no longer for the commercial success of these literary schemes and took a job in the East India Company, advising Richard to do the same.

Courtship and marriage, 1771–73 Richard, meanwhile, was heavily involved in Bath society, and writing satires, lampoons, and love poetry. By 1771 he had fallen in love with the famous singer Elizabeth or Eliza Linley (1754–1792), eldest daughter of the musician Thomas Linley and Mary Johnson. Though Thomas Sheridan regarded the Linleys as socially inferior, the children of the two families maintained friendly terms. Eliza was said to have possessed a superb soprano voice, and she had been performing professionally since the age of eleven or twelve. Eliza first sat for Gainsborough in her early teens, and was the principal singer in Bath concerts by 1769. She had many admirers, including Halhed and Charles Sheridan, and by early 1771 she was engaged to Walter Long, a wealthy older gentleman. Long broke off the engagement, however, possibly at the request of Eliza herself, and settled upon her £3,000 for breach of promise – either from kindness, or to ward against a possible lawsuit threatened by Thomas Linley. The actor and playwright Samuel Foote recast these events into the comedy The maid of Bath.

Another admirer, the so-called ‘Captain’ Thomas Mathews (in fact an ensign), pursued Eliza so aggressively that she fled to France, accompanied by Sheridan, with the intention of entering a convent. During the journey, Sheridan proposed, and they were married by a catholic priest in a village near Calais in March 1772. As both were protestant minors, marrying without parental consent in a foreign country, this marriage probably was not valid. Meanwhile, Mathews made slanderous accusations against Sheridan's character in the Bath Chronicle, and when the young couple returned to England, Sheridan fought duels with him in May and July 1772. Sheridan won the first, but was seriously wounded in the second. He was then sent by his father to stay with Thomas Grenville, having promised to cease communication with Eliza and to study for a legal career. Sheridan entered the Middle Temple on 6 April 1773, but just a week later, on 13 April, he and Eliza were married in a quiet ceremony at Marylebone church, London, to the lasting fury of Thomas Sheridan.

Success as a playwright, 1775–9 After a honeymoon in East Burnham, Sheridan and Eliza returned to London early in 1774, and settled in Orchard Street. Sheridan, who had abandoned the law, now confronted the problem of supporting himself and his young wife. He was adamant that Eliza, as the wife of a gentleman, would not continue her singing career, and Eliza, in any case, had always disliked the publicity to which her professional career exposed her. Sheridan turned to writing, and his first play, ‘The rivals’, opened at Covent Garden Theatre on 17 January 1775. After a disappointing debut, it closed for ten days while Sheridan edited, rewrote, and recast actors; it reopened on 28 January 1775 to great acclaim. ‘The rivals’ was indebted to Frances Sheridan's novel Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761) and her unfinished play ‘A journey to Bath’; it also drew on much of Sheridan's recent experience as a parentally persecuted young lover, theatrically transformed into a witty and socially incisive burlesque. The play was set in Bath, and followed the fortunes of newly married Lydia Languish (who is so opposed to mercenary matches that she will not marry a man of fortune) and Jack Absolute (a gentleman who poses as a penniless ensign). The contorted utterances of Mrs Malaprop, a character inspired by Mrs Tryfort in ‘A journey to Bath’, but also a satire on his father's obsession with elocution and linguistic orthodoxy, inspired the term ‘malapropism’ and proved immensely popular with audiences.

In April 1775 Sheridan wrote – reputedly in two days – a short farce for a benefit performance at Covent Garden to raise money for Lawrence Clinch (d. 1812), the actor who had played Irishman Lucius O'Trigger in ‘The rivals’. ‘St Patrick's day’ reflected both Sheridan's political interest in the American revolution (he strongly sympathised with the cause of the rebels), and his pride in his Irish identity. It was soon followed by ‘The duenna’, a comic opera with music provided by the Linleys, in which two daughters elope from the houses of their tyrannical fathers. ‘The duenna’ was a phenomenal success; it opened on 21 November 1775 (four days after the birth of Sheridan's first child, christened Thomas), and ran for an unprecedented seventy-five nights at Covent Garden Theatre. In January 1776 Sheridan, Thomas Linley and Dr James Ford raised £35,000 to buy Garrick's controlling share in Drury Lane Theatre. Now principal manager, Sheridan staged something of a Restoration revival: ‘A trip to Scarborough’ adapted from Sir John Vanbrugh's The relapse, and three plays by William Congreve, modifying their characteristically coarse humour to suit contemporary taste.

In March 1777 Sheridan, proposed by Dr Johnson, was elected to the Literary Club, where he met some of the leading cultural and political figures of the time, including Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke. Sheridan's status as the most successful and admired playwright of his generation was consolidated with ‘The school for scandal’, which opened in Drury Lane on 8 May 1777. The elaborate story, witty dialogue and vivid characters made it a sensational hit, and for the next twenty-five years it was performed more often than any other play in London. Extending his dominance of London theatre, Sheridan bought the other share of Drury Lane in 1778 from Willoughby Lacy for £45,000 via a series of complex financial arrangements. In the summer of 1799 Sheridan staged ‘The camp’ (almost certainly co-authored by General John Burgoyne), a short satire on the contemporary fears of a French invasion. ‘The camp’ ran for fifty-seven performances and was followed by Sheridan's last original play, ‘The critic’. A sparkling and self-conscious comedy, ‘The critic’ concerned the production of a play written by a Mr Puff called ‘The Spanish armada’, and the invitation of two foolish critics, Dangle and Sneer, to its rehearsal.

Political career, 1780–93 ‘The critic’ was another triumph for Sheridan, yet he now abandoned writing and the theatre to realise his long-held ambition of a public career. Eliza's fame and much sought-after voice had secured the young couple's entry into aristocratic whig society, including Devonshire House, the heart of the metropolitan whig elite. Sheridan had become acquainted with several opposition politicians, most notably the political reformer and opponent of the American war Charles James Fox, whom he met in 1776 or 1777; their close and mutually admiring friendship would become one of the most crucial influences on Sheridan's political career. Sheridan made his political debut in the early months of 1780, when he worked with Fox on the Westminster committee, part of the county association movement agitating for parliamentary reform. The next step was to secure a parliamentary seat in the general election of that year. Aided by the recommendation of the duchess of Devonshire, Sheridan – after an expensive electoral campaign – entered parliament on 12 September 1780 as the member for Stafford, a seat he would keep for the next twenty-six years. The same election saw William Pitt, the future prime minister who would become Sheridan's bitter political foe, enter parliament for the first time. Sheridan quickly established himself in the commons as a Foxite whig; his first significant speech in the house was in March 1781 when he spoke on the subject of the Gordon riots, vigorously denouncing the government's declaration of martial law to subdue the mob. The whiggish theme of the preservation of civil, political and religious liberties in the face of an alarming increase of executive power would become a predominant theme for much of Sheridan's political career, though the rigid social inequities and aristocratic ethos of the whigs would eventually estrange him from the party. Sheridan's typically eloquent expression and ready wit marked the oratorical skill that would come to define and distinguish his presence in the British parliament.

In March 1782 the prime minister, Lord North, resigned and the opposition came to power under the marquess of Rockingham, adopting a liberal, reformist agenda. Sheridan was appointed under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office, effectively Fox's deputy for foreign affairs, a position abruptly terminated later that year by the sudden death of Rockingham. In the Fox–North coalition of 1783 Sheridan returned to office as joint secretary of the treasury with Burke's son Richard. In a stinging parliamentary exchange of February 1783, Pitt attacked Sheridan on the grounds of his theatrical background and connections. Sheridan brilliantly riposted that if he did return to the theatre, he would be tempted to improve one of Ben Jonson's best characters, the ‘angry boy’ (from The alchemist), and this epithet became widely and lastingly attached to Pitt. Sheridan held the position of joint secretary until December 1783, when the king dismissed the Fox–North administration and asked Pitt to form a government.

In February 1785 Sheridan's hostility to Pitt was again apparent, spurred on this occasion by his continuing interest in Irish affairs. Sheridan had supported the Irish campaign for legislative independence in 1782, and he now opposed Pitt's commercial propositions to liberalise trade between Britain and Ireland claiming that they threatened to undo that hard-won autonomy. In a speech delivered to the house on 30 May 1785, Sheridan declared his resistance to any infringement of Ireland's legislative independence and defended the 1782 settlement. Sheridan's opposition contributed to one of Pitt's most humiliating parliamentary defeats. His political weight was again demonstrated in his support of Burke's impeachment of Warren Hastings. On 7 February 1787 Sheridan spoke on the Oudh charge to remarkable effect: his five and a half hour speech was regarded by contemporaries as one of the most brilliant pieces of oratory in parliamentary history. When Sheridan finished, the entire house, reportedly for the first time in its history, erupted into prolonged and rapturous applause.

On 14 August 1788 Thomas Sheridan died, with Richard by his bedside; he was buried under the aisle of St Peter's church, Margate. Two months later, George III temporarily succumbed to porphyria and in the ensuing political crisis Sheridan played a leading role (Fox being abroad at the time). A long-term friend and regular guest at Carlton House, Sheridan now became the prince's confidential political adviser in the negotiations of the regency, fostering a reputation for intrigue and alienating leading whigs who were resentful of his influence with the prince.

During the dramatic events in France in 1789 Sheridan, along with Fox, supported the right of the French to form their own government, but the issue divided him politically from Burke. Sheridan continued actively to promote the cause of political reform: in 1792 he founded with Charles Grey and Edward FitzGerald the Society of Friends of the People to recruit liberal whig backing for parliamentary reform. The Society of Friends made contact with the United Irishmen (founded in 1791), whose democratic and non-sectarian ideals Sheridan endorsed; it also eventually engendered a split in the whig party between the conservatives (led by Burke) and reformists such as Sheridan and Grey. Sheridan repeatedly spoke against the repressive legislation introduced in Britain and Ireland in the 1790s, reiterating the view that unrestrained executive power rather than political reform threatened British liberties. He regularly associated with radicals such as Arthur O'Connor and William Godwin, as well as the London Corresponding Society, and was in contact with the Girondist group in the French national convention. In an increasingly tense political climate (intensified by Pitt's declaration of war with France in 1793), Sheridan came to be regarded as a dangerous political radical, portrayed in the cartoons of James Gillray as a French Jacobin. Sheridan managed to evade the prosecutions for high treason that Pitt's government was widely instituting, and he staunchly defended those who fell foul of the reactionary government, testifying in defence of Horne Tooke and Thomas Hardy.

Personal life, the stage, and Ireland, 1791–99 This political turbulence coincided with a period of emotional disquiet in Sheridan's personal life. Though Eliza seems to have tolerated earlier affairs – The school for scandal was dedicated to his lover Mrs Crewe – Sheridan's relationship with Lady Harriet Duncannon (the sister of the duchess of Devonshire) effectively ended their marriage. Eliza, lonely and depressed by the recent deaths of her siblings, began a relationship with Fitzgerald in 1791. She gave birth to Fitzgerald's daughter, Mary, in the spring of 1792, but the pregnancy fatally weakened her fragile health, and she died on 28 June 1792. A grief-stricken Sheridan accepted Mary as his child and maintained friendly terms with Fitzgerald, as Eliza had wished, and he was devastated when Mary died in October 1793. Mary was buried with her mother in Wells cathedral.

From 1791 to 1794 Sheridan was again closely involved in the increasingly erratic management of Drury Lane. He unwisely assumed financial responsibility for redecorating the theatre; the cost hugely exceeded estimates and inflicted considerable strain on Sheridan's already precarious finances. Some respite from this stressful and lonely situation was afforded by his marriage on 27 April 1795 to Esther Jane Ogle (whom he called Hecca), the vivacious young daughter of the dean of Winchester. They had one son, Charles Brinsley, born on 14 January 1796.

In the later 1790s Sheridan became increasingly involved in Irish affairs. He spoke in defence of Arthur O'Connor at his trial in May 1798, and was afterwards involved in O'Connor's attempted escape. Though Sheridan emphatically insisted that France must not be allowed to gain control of Ireland, he defended the cause of the rebels to the commons on 19 June 1798, describing Ireland as ‘one continuous scene of the most grievous oppression’ (Kelly, 225). Sheridan made no further appearances in parliament that year, but returned to Drury Lane where, on 24 May 1799, he staged ‘Pizarro’, an adaptation of Friedrich von Kotzebue's play Die Spanier in Peru. Sheridan had rewritten Kotzebue's original so extensively that ‘Pizarro’ was virtually a new work (it was later translated back into German), and it was hugely popular, the play's themes of patriotism and heroic tragedy chiming well with the embattled national mood. ‘Pizarro’ was in effect an oblique expression of Sheridan's own complex and contradictory political views: ‘opposition to a French invasion, but support for the United Irishmen rebellion staged with French help; a passionate British patriotism and a belief that the British government was organised tyranny; republican instincts and dependence on the prince’ (O'Toole, 344).

Later career, 1797–1816 In his later political career Sheridan increasingly deviated from the whig party line. In 1797, when Grey's second motion for reform failed, Sheridan did not follow Fox in seceding from parliament, and in 1801 he refused to cooperate with Grenville in undermining the Addington ministry (he feared this would lead to Pitt returning to power). Unlike Fox, Sheridan came to regard Bonaparte as despotic and imperialist and by 1803 he was a firm advocate of volunteer corps, calling for a united patriotic resistance to the danger of a French invasion. When the whigs finally came to power in the 1806 Fox–Grenville administration, Sheridan was excluded from the cabinet, though he was made treasurer of the navy and a member of the privy council. When Fox died in September 1806 Sheridan hoped to succeed him both as the member for the independent borough of Westminster and as party leader, but the whig oligarchs no longer trusted him, and they endorsed Lord Percy as their candidate instead. Nevertheless Sheridan did win Westminster after a turbulent campaign, but he lost it almost immediately in the 1807 general election, which returned the tories to power under the duke of Portland. Sheridan was invited to stand as co-candidate with John Colclough (1767–1807) for Wexford in June 1807, but he lost the election after Colclough was killed in a duel with an opposing candidate. In the end Sheridan could only return to parliament as the member for Ilchester, a pocket borough in the gift of the prince.

In 1809 Sheridan was financially ruined when the Drury Lane Theatre was destroyed by fire; he watched the inferno from his favourite piazza coffee house, reputedly remarking ‘surely a man may take a glass of wine by his own fireside’ (Moore, ii, 368). Reluctantly, Sheridan agreed to Samuel Whitbread's taking over the management of the theatre and resolving its considerable debts. Beset by creditors, Sheridan's only remaining source of income was the duchy of Cornwall funds, the prince having appointed him receiver-general in 1804. To the chagrin of Grey and Grenville, Sheridan was again the prince's adviser in the regency negotiations when the king relapsed into madness in 1811, this time with little hope of recovery. When the prince regent showed no intention of bringing in a reformist administration which would establish catholic emancipation, a disillusioned Sheridan became determined to regain his political independence. He abandoned his Ilchester seat and stood once more for Stafford in the 1812 election. He was heavily defeated, however, and his parliamentary career of thirty-two years finally came to an end.

Sheridan's last years were troubled by drinking and debt, but he maintained his interest in politics and in Ireland, forming a close friendship with Thomas Moore, and socialising with radicals such as Byron, who celebrates Sheridan in his comic epic Don Juan. In 1813, anxious as always about his son Tom's delicate health, Sheridan obtained for him the position of colonial paymaster at the Cape of Good Hope. No longer protected by the immunity of an MP, Sheridan was arrested for debt in May 1814 and August 1815, but his increasing infirmity saved him from imprisonment. Sheridan died, aged sixty-five, at 17 Savile Row, London, on 7 July 1816. He was buried on 13 July in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Assessment Though Sheridan's career as a playwright effectively ended when he was just twenty-eight years old, his plays established him even in his own lifetime as one of the great comic writers in English. His works, especially ‘The rivals’ and ‘The school for scandal’, continue to be performed, and Mrs Malaprop in particular has proved to be an enduring comic triumph. Sheridan's subsequent parliamentary career, however, was soured by disappointments, and frustrated by the rigid political culture of the late Georgian period. Aligned by his friendship with Fox to a party that refused to admit non-aristocrats to the higher echelons of power, Sheridan's continued support for reform and his commitment to Irish issues marked out an increasingly independent political stance that fatally strained his relations with the constitutionally conservative whigs. Though Sheridan would have preferred to have been buried beside Fox in Westminster Abbey, his interment in Poets' Corner more fittingly commemorates the literary context in which he continues chiefly to be remembered.

The most famous portraits of Sheridan are those by Joshua Reynolds (1789) (private collection) and by John Hoppner, in the National Portrait Gallery, London; there is also a marble bust in NGI. His papers are held in the NLI, TCD, the RIA, the British Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Thomas Moore, Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols, 1825); Sheridania; or, Anecdotes of the life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan: his table talk and bon mots (1826); W. Fraser Rae, Sheridan: a biography (2 vols, 1896); John Hutchinson, A catalogue of notable Middle Templars (1902), 224; Mrs Oliphant, Sheridan (1909); William LeFanu (ed.), Betsy Sheridan's journal: letters from Sheridan's sister, 1781–1786, and 1788–1790 (1960); C. Price (ed.), The letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols, 1973); Stanley Ayling, A portrait of Sheridan (1985); James Morwood, The life and works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1985); James Morwood (ed.), Sheridan studies (1995); Linda Kelly, Richard Brinsley Sheridan: a life (1997) (portr.); Fintan O'Toole, A traitor's kiss: the life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1997); ODNB

Stay up to date with the Royal Irish Academy newsletter

Sign up now