Mrs Malaprop is both character and caricature. She provides humour but fails to engage our sympathy.
Although all of the characters Sheridan creates in “The Rivals” are highly embellished and slightly over exaggerated, of all of them it is perhaps Mrs Malaprop who remains the most memorable. .
Now a middle-aged widow, Mrs Malaprop lives alone apart from the company of her young niece, Lydia Languish. Having almost no life of her own to be occupied with, Mrs Malaprop continues to live her life entangled and constantly interfering in her niece’s, leading her to be described as “the old harridan.” .
Much of the play happens to revolve around Lydia’s constantly eventful love life, of which Mrs Malaprop is always involved. However her unhealthy interest in her niece’s affairs appears in fact to be only out of self-greed, as in marrying off Lydia, the amount of money Mrs Malaprop receives will relate to the wealth of the suitor. .
It is thus in Mrs Malaprop’s interests for Lydia to marry Jack Absolute as opposed to Ensign Beverley.
Consequently, Mrs Malaprop is so determined for her niece to marry Jack Absolute that she is drawn to holding meetings with him herself and is reduced to reading Lydia’s correspondence.
However, unfortunately for Mrs Malaprop it is Ensign Beverley who to have a much greater grasp of Lydia’s affections.
Despite her infuriating behaviour, we are engaged to feel sympathy for the middle-aged widow who’s love life is non-existent to such a degree that she is forced to seek solace possessing an unhealthy interference in her niece’s romantic situation. We should feel especially sympathetic at the realisation that she is in fact being taken for a fool, as Jack Absolute is playing her off against Ensign Beverley when they are in fact the same person. .
Although Mrs Malaprop does indeed provide a fair amount of the humour in the play through her unique “malapropisms”, it is at her own expense and she remains the butt of many of the character’s jokes in the play, as Jack Absolute proves in Act 3 Scene 3.