Servant Characters

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

Introduction to Character Type

The servant character type is widespread throughout the collection of plays, as servants play minor and major roles in many of the plays' plots. Servants are primarily distinguished by their nearly universally non-standard English: in nearly every speech given by this character type, variations occur in vocabulary, orthography and grammar. Some dialects spoken by servants are determined by their region of origin, although in most cases the non-standard English is used to achieve a comic effect.

Although the plays contain an abundance of servants, they are not complex characters and do not provide much food for analysis. Many servants fulfil simple roles, in which their only function is to advance the plot by catering to the needs of their masters. Often nameless, these servants are found in The Jealous Wife (1761), The Clandestine Marriage (1766), The Belle's Stratagem (1780; published 1781) as well as in many other plays. Despite their lack of character development, the servants do offer a portrayal of lower-class life in England. One particular example occurs in Bickerstaff's Love in a Village (1762; published 1763), which offers a panoramic perspective of various servants' roles. In this play, servants sing about their responsibilities at a hiring fair. The characters include a hunter, a housemaid, a laundry-maid, a gardener, a footman, a groom, a cook-maid, a dairy-maid and a carter. This description of characters' roles provides a survey of the standard household duties of servants in the period. Love in a Village also demonstrates an heirarchical structure among the servants, as Rossetta and Young Meadows, both disguised as servants, assume that their initial mutual rejection is the consequence of a perception of a rank within servants' roles.

Despite the fact that servants speak for only one sentence, the recurrence of non-standard grammar, orthography and vocabulary in nearly every speech given by a servant suggests that the character type may simply exist to introduce dialect speech into the plays. Because the non-standard speech does not function to advance the plot, it exists as a linguistic sign that the character is of a lower class than the main characters; however, it may also serve to achieve a comic effect. Such comedy is produced when characters use double comparatives and superlatives ("more haughtier", "most affablest", as they do in The Clandestine Marriage), and neologisms ("flustrated", in The Male Coquette (1757) and "gibberage" in A Trip to Scarborough (1777; published 1781)). Non-standard grammar characteristic of several servants in this collection includes improper conjugation ("she have", in A Summer's Tale (1765), among many other instances of this error), and an addition of the prefix "a-" to verbs ("a roguing" in The Way to Keep Him (1760)). Servants' language is characterised by frequently-occurring orthographic variations such as "enow", "un" and "sartan" ("enough", "him" and "certain"), uses of apocope ("I ha'"), and contractions ("Look'ee", "o't", "wa'n't"). Regional dialects are also present in servants' speeches. Northern, Irish, French and West Country dialects are common. The use of regional dialects reinforces the assumption that the servants are not as well-educated or as cosmopolitan as their masters. Servants are also characterized by a more frequent use of "thou" for the second person than upper-class characters. Code-switching often occurs as servants apply "you" to their masters, but return to "thou" when addressing their peers.

A few servants play more substantial roles within the plays, but, as with minor characters, a primary function of the major servants is to insert dialect into the plays. One such character is Hurry, in Burgoyne's The Maid of the Oaks (1774), whose speech is marked with the haste suggested by his name. Making vocabularic errors, Hurry mishears "favour" as "fever" and "courtier" as "court her". The Nurse in Colman's Polly Honeycombe (1760) is also important to the action of the play; Polly mocks her for her non-standard English. The moral integrity of Roger, the faithful servant of Foote's The Englishman in Paris (1753), is marked by his English dialect amidst the deceitful and cunning French-speakers.

The recurrence of the servant character type recalls its ubiquitousness in the society of fashionable London. The importance of servants to English society of that time is demonstrated in The Platonic Wife (1765), by Elizabeth Griffith, which provides an unusual moral to the conclusion of the play: the protagonists are no longer to employ foreign servants, and in Reed's The Register Office (1761), in which the hiring of servants is the primary focus of the play. However, the lack of character development among servants in this collection is indicative of the flat perspective in which these figures were seen by cosmopolitan audiences. The relationship of servants to non-standard English is an indication of servants' lack of education; however, this relationship is also used as a source of low-comedy moments by the playwrights.

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List of Plays

Love in a Village (Bickerstaff)

The Maid of the Mill (Bickerstaff)

The Spoil'd Child (Bickerstaff)

The Maid of the Oaks (Burgoyne)

Polly Honeycombe (Colman)

The Jealous Wife (Colman)

The Clandestine Marriage (Colman and Garrick)

The Belle's Stratagem (Cowley)

The Summer's Tale (Cumberland)

The Choleric Man (Cumberland)

The Walloons (Cumberland)

The Imposters (Cumberland)

False Impressions (Cumberland)

The Englishman in Paris (Foote)

The Male Coquette (Garrick)

The Apprentice (Murphy)

The Way to Keep Him (Murphy)

The School for Guardians (Murphy)

The Rivals (R.B. Sheridan)

A Trip to Scarborough (R.B. Sheridan)

The Platonic Wife (Griffith)

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©2009 Arden Hegele