Thomas Sheridan


Portrait of Thomas SheridanThomas Sheridan was an Irish actor and teacher of elocution. He spent thirty years campaigning for English educational reform. His campaign was to include the teaching of speech improvement and for the creation of standards for English speakers. Among Sheridan’s famous students were James Boswell and John Kemble.

Sheridan received an M.A. in 1743 from Trinity College in Dublin. He was the godson of the essayist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, who also was interested in standardizing English. Sheridan married Frances Chamberlaine, a novelist, in 1747. They had two sons, the youngest of whom was Richard Brinsley Sheridan--a well known playwright and stage actor. Sheridan, the father, influenced the thinking and writing of another well known and influential elocutionist, Hugh Blair.

Sheridan and his family moved to London, England in 1758, where he established himself as an educator and teacher of elocution. He lived in London until 1770 at which time he moved to Bath. While in Bath Sheridan founded an Academy for the regular instruction of young gentlemen in the art of reading and reciting and grammatical knowledge of the English tongue.

Sheridan’s approach to elocution represented a break with most of his contemporaries. Sheridan’s style of elocution appealed to the audience's emotions, not just through speech, but also through movement and gestures. He distinguished between spoken and written language, and assigned considerable power to the spoken version. His emphasis has been named the Natural School of Elocution (Bacon, 1964, p 1). He taught natural elocution through practice in oral reading.

Another key issue for Sheridan was that English be standardized and that people who do not speak the standard version of English be taught to do so. Toward this goal, Sheridan published two books which contained orthographical depictions of how English should be pronounced (1780, 1786). In his 1786 book entitled Elements of English, he faulted educational practice for allowing that the same words be “pronounced in quite different manner by the Natives of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Yorkshire, and all the several counties of England” (pp. v-vi) and advocated for remedial attention be given to those who spoke in a different dialect.

While Sheridan’s aim in creating a standardized tongue was toward egalitarianism, the impact was likely to have been otherwise, since he saw the dialect variations from standard English as being vulgar and provincial.

Sheridan's Course of Lectures of Elocution (1762), was popular both in Britain and America. It went through many editions after its publication in 1795 and was throughout the 19th century in American colleges for teaching elocution.

Sheridan argued expansively that the art of speaking could improve religion, morality, and constitutional government and would refine of the English language and lead to perfection of all the arts.

Thomas Sheridan’s writings arranged chronologically

Sheridan, Thomas (1756). British education. London: R & J Dodsley.

Sheridan, Thomas (1761). A dissertation on the causes of the difficulties which occur in learning the English tongue. London.

Sheridan, Thomas (1762). A course of lectures on elocution: Together with two dissertations on language and some other tracts relative to those subjects London. Reprinted in 1974 by Scolar press

Sheridan, Thomas (1769). A plan of education for the young nobility and gentry of Great Britain. London

Sheridan, Thomas (1775). Lectures on the art of reading. 2 vols. London

Sheridan, Thomas (1780). A general dictionary of the English language. 2 vols. London.

Sheridan, Thomas (1781) A rhetorical grammar of the English language. Dublin: Price, et al., reprint, Menston, England: Scholar's Facimile Press, 1969.

Sheridan, Thomas (1786). Elements of English. London.

Sheridan, Thomas (1974). A rhetorical grammar of the English language. Calculated solely for the purposes of teaching propriety of pronunciation and justness of delivery. London : Scolar Press.

Sheridan, Thomas, (1796). A course of lectures on elocution. Providence, Rhode Island, Carter and Wilkinson. Reprinted in 1991 in Delmar, NY by Scolars' Facsimiles & Reprints.

Writings about Thomas Sheridan, arranged alphabetically

Bacon, Wallace (1964). The elocutionary career of Thomas Sheridan 1718-1788. Speech Monographs, 31, 1-53.

Benzie, William (1972). The Dublin orator: Thomas Sheridan’s influence on eighteenth century rhetoric and belles letters. Leeds, UK: University of Leeds.

Goring, Paul (2004). The rhetoric of sensibility in Eighteenth-Century culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mugglestone, Lynda (2003). Sheridan in the schoolroom. Paradigm, 2, #7.

Haberman, Frederick (1953). Thomas Sheridan and the natural school. Speech Monographs, 20, 58-64.

Lefanu, Alicia (1824). Memoirs of the life and writings of Mrs. Frances Sheridan. London.

Rhodes, R. Crompton (1933) Harlequin Sheridan, the Man and the Legends: With a Bibliography and Appendices. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sheldon, Esther, (1967) Thomas Sheridan of Smock Alley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.