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"Uncorking Old Sherry", 1805, by James Gillray

One of the greatest political cartoons of the 18th century is Gillray’s “Uncorking Old Sherry” (pictured). It shows William Pitt opening a bottle containing the easily recognisable features of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and an explosion of fibs, puns, stolen jokes, and invective erupting from it. Pitt and Sheridan confronted one another regularly in the House, and according to those who knew Pitt well he thought Sheridan a far more formidable opponent than Fox. On March 6, 1805 they had clashed with particular intensity. In a debate on the Additional Forces Bill Sheridan had attacked Pitt for what he presented as his betrayal of the Catholics. Having failed over Catholic emancipation, Pitt had  returned to office in harness with a set of politicians determined to resist it, and in consequence his character was, said Sheridan, “degraded by the violation of a solemn pledge”.

According to Creevey both the accusation and Pitt’s furiously indignant rejection of it had trembled on the very edge of what was permissible in the House. However, in the later parts of his speech Sheridan had meandered off into digression and sarcasm, raising laughs but dissipating the moral force of his indictment. Sheridan’s inability to resist the beckonings of his own wit and fancy had given Pitt the opening for an effective retort, in the course of which he threw off this memorable sketch of Sheridan’s oratorical mode:

No subject comes amiss to him, however remote from the question before the House. All that his fancy suggests at the time, or that he has collected from others; all that he can utter in the ebullition of the moment; all that he has slept on and bottled up, are combined and introduced for our entertainment. All his hoarded repartees — all his matured jests — the full contents of his common-place book — all his severe invectives — all his bold and hardy assertions — all that he has been treasuring up for days and months — he collects into one mass, which he kindles into a blaze of eloquence, and out it comes together, whether it has any relation to the subject of the debate or not.

Pitt’s words clearly supplied the hint for Gillray’s cartoon. But the metaphors of wine and maturation which flit through Pitt’s reply also mischievously remind his hearers of Sheridan’s prodigious fondness for drink.

Sheridan’s ability to function without impairment after consuming vast amounts of alcohol astonished his contemporaries even in that hard-drinking age. Someone going to hear the debates in the House of Commons called in on his way at the Exchequer Coffee-House, where one of the other customers was studying a parcel of papers. Pushing the papers aside, he ordered a decanter of brandy, drank it off neat, and then walked away. The spectator followed soon after, and went up into the gallery of the House. He was astonished to hear the man he had seen drinking in the coffee house — who was Sheridan — give a long and brilliant speech. In the end, of course, even Sheridan was not invulnerable to such a course of conduct. His looks coarsened, and his second wife Hecca came to detest his drinking. Over the years her own health was undermined as a result of interrupted nights; for apparently Sheridan would never agree to sleep in a separate bed.

If wine was a constant presence in Sheridan’s life, it also could play an important role in his plays. The Duenna (1775), a comic opera-play, is now not often put on, although Byron, an immense admirer of Sheridan, thought it finer by far than Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. Set in Seville, The Duenna centres on the family of the wealthy Don Jerome. His son, Ferdinand, is in love with Clara, whose father is determined to send her to a nunnery. Jerome’s daughter, Louisa, is in love with Antonio, a man of honour but no fortune. Jerome intends to marry Louisa to the wealthy Jew, Isaac Mendoza, who is both avid for money and convinced of his skill as a schemer. However Mendoza is tricked into marrying Louisa’s duenna (that is, her guardian or chaperon), the aged but witty and resourceful Margaret.
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