Country Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

The "Country" title describes a vast array of characters, which includes people from all ranks of society and from a variety of regions within England. Characters that fall under the "Country" heading can be subdivided into smaller groups, such as hunters and horsemen, peasantry, doltish country squires, characters opposing the city, and characters with specific regional dialects. Generally, country characters do not speak in Standard English, are less well educated than their urban counterparts, and exhibit a kindly naïveté in their actions. They are often the butt of jokes, reflecting the sophisticated London audience's tastes during this period.

Hunters and horsemen, the first subgroup of country folk, are recurring stock characters whose language tends to be applied to any situation, regardless of the latter's relationship to their favourite pastimes. Prime examples of this character type are Sir Harry in Colman's The Jealous Wife (1761) and Squire Groom in Macklin's Love A-La-Mode (1759; published 1779). These characters use equine terms to describe romantic situations:

[Sir Harry.] I have knocked up poor Snip , shall lose my Match, and as to Harriot ,why, the Odds are that I lose my Match there too---A skittish young Tit! If I once get Her tight in hand, I'll make Her wince for it.--- Her Estate joined to my own, I wou'd have the finest Stud, and noblest Kennel in the whole Country ---But here comes her Father, puffing and blowing, like a broken-winded Horse up Hill (Colman 21).

Both characters eventually reject their fiancées in favour of more satisfying pursuits. In contrast, Jack Hustings in Cumberland's The Natural Son (1785) is a kindly character who seeks a wife to occupy him when he cannot enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors. The hunting characters use a specific vocabulary: for example, "Hollo! hollo! ye hoicks...ille, ille, hoa" (Cowley 13). However, when this vocabulary is applied indoors, it causes embarrassment for more sophisticated family members. Maria parodies her father's hunting language in Arthur Murphy's The Citizen:

Maria. But when he comes to town, I wish he would do as other gentlemen do here---I am almost asham'd of him---But he comes to me this morning--- "Hoic! hoic! our Moll---Where is the sly puss--- Tally ho!"---Did you want me, papa?---Come hither, Moll, I'll gee you a husband, my girl; one that has mettle enow---he'll take cover, I warrant un--- Blood to the bone (Murphy 6).

The peasantry, which represents a large proportion of the country folk in these plays, speaks with rustic language and unconventional idioms. A fine example of low-class country speech occurs in a cameo appearance of two countrymen in the otherwise city-based False Impressions (1797). Isaac and his father Gawdry have come to town to look for employment as footmen, but their rustic behaviour and inappropriate skill-set doom their endeavour:

Isaac. A'looks so grave, a'daunts me.

Gawd. What shou'd daunt thee, boy? Don't hang thy head, but up, and tell him boldly what can'st do.

Isaac. I wull, father, I wull.---I can sing psalms, shoot flying, worm the puppies, cut capons, climb the rookeries, and make gins for polecats (Cumberland 16-17).

The unconventional orthography ("A" for "He", "wull"), grammar ("what can'st do"), speech idioms ("shoot flying") and vocabulary ("gins for polecats") clearly indicates that these are peasant folk. Additionally, country characters in general tend to favour archaic language, particularly "thou" over "you", as in this example; "thou" signifies familiarity and occasionally condescension if applied by an upper- to a lower-class character.

Doltish country squires represent possibly the most stereotyped group of characters in these plays, each individual possessing no distinguishing features (most are named Tony or Toby), nor undergoing any character development as the action progresses. The portrayals of country squires' distribution throughout the collection suggests that this was a recognizably funny character type to London audiences, needing no nuance or explanation. Prominent figures of this type occur in Cumberland's The Box-Lobby Challenge (1794), Foote's The Cozeners (1774; published 1778), Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and Sheridan's The Rivals (1775). This character type frequently uses entertaining interjections, such as "Dad!", "Fire and faggot!", "Zukers!", "Hey!", "Ecod!" and "Bandbox!", invents words, and uses unconventional grammar, demonstrating the squires' lack of education and sophistication.

Several plays, particularly Murphy's The School for Guardians (1767) and Cumberland's The Choleric Man (1774; published 1775), juxtapose a city and a country education. The former play pits sisters Mary Ann (country) and Harriet (city) against each other; invariably, the country loses to the city. Mary Ann's speech underscores her simplicity: "I began to think as how you had forgot poor I---I expected you all the live long, long day, so I did" (Murphy 25). Similarly, Charles Manlove (city) and Jack Nightshade (country) of The Choleric Man are brothers who have been raised according to different principles. Nightshade's gratuitous faux-pas in urban social situations are supported by his bad grammar. In contrast, in Burgoyne's The Maid of the Oaks (1774), Lady Bab, a sophisticated London femme du monde, seduces Dupeley, who believes he is an experienced and international character, by pretending to be an English shepherdess. She affects a rustic tone and a simpering, innocent attitude much at odds with her real persona; her romantic success is a rare triumph of the country over the city.

Finally, some regional dialects within England are represented. West country dialects occur in Bickerstaff's The Recruiting Serjeant (1770) and in Cowley's The Town Before You (1794; published 1795). The accent is well represented by Bickerstaff's countryman, whose wife's speech has surprisingly little deviation from Standard English. A Bath dialect occurs in Foote's The Maid of Bath (1771; published 1778), which has some similarities ("z" for "s") to Sir Jasper Wilding's speech in The Citizen. In Reed's The Register Office (1761), Margery speaks with a Yorkshire accent. In Griffith's The Platonic Wife (1765), Nicodemus, a servant, says "Ise does" and "youse been", but the content of his speech clearly identifies him as English, suggesting that he speaks with a regional accent.

Country characters are abundant in this collection. The subgroups of hunters and horsemen, peasants, country squires, city/country oppositions, and regional dialects, are linked by their lack of personal development and their overarching traits of naïveté and lack of touch with the grim reality of their cosmopolitan counterparts.

Works Cited:

Colman, George. The Jealous Wife. London: J. Newbery ... T. Becket, and Company ... T. Davies [etc.], 1761. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Cowley, Hannah. The Runaway. London: 1776. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Cumberland, Richard. False Impressions. London: C. Dilly, 1797. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Murphy, Arthur. The Citizen. London: G. Kearsly, 1763. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

Murphy, Arthur. The School for Guardians. London: Paul Vailliant, 1767. Literature Online. 8 August 2008.

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List of Plays

Love in a Village (Bickerstaff)

The Maid of the Mill (Bickerstaff)

The Recruiting Serjeant (Bickerstaff)

The Maid of the Oaks (Burgoyne)

The Jealous Wife (Colman)

Man and Wife (Colman)

New Brooms! (Colman)

The Runaway (Cowley)

The Town Before You (Cowley)

The Summer's Tale (Cumberland)

The Brothers (Cumberland)

The Choleric Man (Cumberland)

The Natural Son (Cumberland)

The Box-Lobby Challenge (Cumberland)

False Impressions (Cumberland)

Amelia (Cumberland)

The Maid of Bath (Foote)

The Cozeners (Foote)

She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith)

Love A-La-Mode (Macklin)

The Citizen (Murphy)

The School for Guardians (Murphy)

The Register Office (Reed)

The Rivals (R.B. Sheridan)

A Trip to Scarborough (R.B. Sheridan)

The Platonic Wife (Griffith)

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©2009 Arden Hegele