‘A Submission, Sir!’ Who has the Right to Person in Eighteenth-Century Britain?

  • Peter de Bolla
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


On 19 February 1747 the actor-manager Thomas Sheridan was tried in the court of Oyer and Terminer for assault and acquitted. Immediately following this case the court heard a suit that Sheridan himself brought against one Edward Kelly, a young man from Galway, and also for assault, and found for Sheridan. Kelly was sent down, fined £500 and imprisoned. Although these two interconnecting cases do not have the same reputation in the history of theatre as Charles Macklin’s later suit brought against some members of the audience who had attempted to have Macklin barred from acting on account of his refusal to be whipped, ‘Sheridan’s Case’, as I will refer to it, should be thought of as a landmark case.1 And its significance is not confined to the cultural history of the theatre, or the social and political inflections of acting; ‘Sheridan’s Case’ is caught up in the deep structures of practice, precedent, behaviour and aspiration which underpin the conceptual formation of person. As will become clear such structures, in so far as they may be understood to be located in the individual, become visible once we begin to see the practices of subjectivity as fully cultural and political forms; that is, once we begin to read the formation of the category ‘person’ historically.


Eighteenth Century Irish Theatre Wide Survey Dublin Journal Court Hearing 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    See William W. Appleton, Charles Macklin: An Actors Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    He was the author of, among other works, British Education; or, The Source of the Disorders of Great Britain (London, 1756); A Course ofLectures on Elocution (London, 1762); Lectures on the Art ofReading, 2 vols (London, 1775) and A Complete Dictionaty of the English Language (London, 1789).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The exception here is Esther K. Sheldon, Thomas Sheridan of Smock-Alley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967) to which the current essay is much indebted.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On eighteenth-century theatre see Allardyce Nicoll, The Garrick Stage: Theatre and Audience in the Eighteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980); H.W. Pedicord, The Theatrical Public in the Time of Garrick (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1954); J.J. Lynds, Box, Pit and Gallery (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1953); C.J.L Price, Theatre in the Age of Garrick (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Thomas Sheridan, An Humble Appeal to the Publick, together with some considerations on the present critical and dangerous State of the Stage in Ireland (Dublin, 1758), p. 15.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Thomas Sheridan, An Humble Appeal to the Publick, together with some considerations on the present critical and dangerous State of the Stage in Ireland (Dublin, 1758), pp. 33–4.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    It is worth recalling that for the period in question the rights of person are quite explicitly framed or focused through the exemplary subject, the monarch. In effect rights are transferred from the sovereign to his or her subjects, or to put it another way, persons only have rights in so far as they are subjects of and for the sovereign. Within the period the clearest articulation of this legal doctrine is to be found in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols (London, 1765–69), the first volume of which is devoted to the rights of persons.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Benjamin Victor, Letters, 3 vols (London, 1776), I, p. 127.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Hippolyte Taine, Notes on England (London: Thomson & Hudson, 1957), p. 144.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Daniel Befer, The Complete English Gentleman, ed. Karl Bulbring (London: David Nutt, 1890), p. 13.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    John Barrell, English Literature in History 1730–80: An Equal, Wide Survey (London: Hutchinson, 1983), p. 209.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols (London, 1765–69), I, p. 394.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Ibid., p. 384.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    Ibid., p. 393.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Ibid., p. 394.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    For a good account see the essays in Robert D. Hume, The London Theatre World 1660–1800 (Carbondale, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    There is now a significant bibliography on gender in the period. For a good survey see Michele Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1996). The question of gender and theatre in the period was opened up by Christina Straub, Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); see also Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, eds, Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (London: Routledge, 1991). For an account of masculinity in relation to the visual arts see John Barrell, ‘The Dangerous Goddess: Masculinity, Prestige and the Aesthetic in Early Eighteenth-Century Britain’, in John Barrell, The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1992); see also my The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape and Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    For a helpful guide through the complexities of this social type see Susan Staves, ‘A Few Kind Words for the Fop’, Studies in English Literature, 22 (1982) pp. 413–28.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    A rather more strenuous description puts it in the following manner: ‘Play-actors are the most profligate wretches, and the vilest vermine, that hell ever vomited out … they are the filth and garbage of the earth, the scum and stain of human nature, the excrements and refuse of all mankind, the pests and plagues of human society, the debauchers of mans minds and morals’, The Players Scourge (London, 1757), p. 2. As Straub argues the basis for this suspicion is deeply connected to the sexual ambiguity of actors, a point she makes in respect of Cibber whose ‘sexuality and gender neither exactly “fit” with nor oppose a masculinity defined as oppositional to the “femininity” of women and effeminate males’, Sexual Suspects, p. 25.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    See Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, ed. B.R.S. Fone (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1968), p. 6.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    It would be difficult to ascertain the number of engravings in circulation of particular paintings, and it seems likely that if this form of the image was taken into account there would be other contenders - the royal family for example - for the most frequently depicted person. But it seems equally unlikely that any other individual was represented in a first state - painted in whatever media or sculpted - as often as Garrick. Among the artists who produced portraits, a large number of which were, of course, of the actor in character are: Batoni, Carmontelle, Dance, de Loutherbourg, Gainsborough, Hayman, Hogarth, Hone, Kaufman, Lemoine (a bust), Nollekens (a bust), Reynolds, Romney, West, Wilson and Zoffany. The last so many times it almost seems as if Garrick became that artist’s muse.Google Scholar
  22. 28.
    A Seasonable Examination of the Pleas and Pretension of the Proprietors of and Subscribers to PlayHouses erected in defiance of the Royal Licence (London, 1735), p. 6.Google Scholar
  23. 39.
    John Vanbrugh, Aesop, part II, in Bonamy Dobree and Geoffrey Webb, eds, The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh, 4 vols (London, 1927), p. 67.Google Scholar
  24. 40.
    Benjamin Victor, Letters, 3 vols (London, 1776), I, p. 126.Google Scholar
  25. 41.
    A Full Vindication of the Conduct of the Manager of the Theatre Royal, written by Himself(Dublin, 1747), p. 6.Google Scholar
  26. 44.
    Sheridan was, in fact, lucky to be admitted in camera - an actor in England, Arthur Murphy, was refused admission to the middle temple on the ground that he was an actor. See Howard Hunter Dunbar, The Dramatic Career of Arthur Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 36.Google Scholar
  27. 48.
    Benjamin Victor, The History of the Theatres of London and Dublin, 2 vols (London, 1761), I, p. 126.Google Scholar
  28. 52.
    Thomas Sheridan, An Humble Appeal to the Publick, together with some considerations on the present critical and dangerous State of the Stage in Ireland (Dublin, 1758), p. 33.Google Scholar
  29. 53.
    John Barrell notes a similar anxiety over ‘degrading’ in relation to Smollet’s Roderick Random. See AnEqual,Wide Survey, p. 203.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Peter de Bolla 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter de Bolla

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations