Set in fashionable Bath, The Rivals centers around the complicated relationship between Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute. Guided by popular novels of the time, wealthy heiress Lydia desires to be swept away by the type of romantic love affair that she finds lacking in the social circles in which she moves. To woo Lydia, Jack Absolute disguises himself as the poor but passionate Ensign Beverley and steals her heart. However, Lydia is under the guardianship of the comical Mrs. Malaprop, who is determined that Lydia must make a good, practical marriage. Likewise, Sir Anthony Absolute is equally determined that his son, Jack, will marry well and increase his fortunes. Thus, Lydia and Jack are thrust together by their guardians, but Lydia maintains her determination to marry ‘Ensign Beverley’.
Outside of her wishes for her niece, Mrs. Malaprop herself has fallen passionately in love with the younger Irish baronet, Sir Lucius O’Trigger. With the assistance of her maid, Lucy, she writes love letters to him under the pen name of Delia; however, he believes that he is courting the wealthy Lydia! Meanwhile, Lydia’s sensible cousin Julia faces marital issues of her own when her intended husband Faulkland refuses to accept her loyalty and faithfulness to him, choosing instead to constantly make problems where there are none. With confusion reigning supreme, the truth is eventually revealed and, despite initially spurning Jack Absolute for his deceit, Lydia agrees to marry her true love. Mrs. Malaprop, however, is not so lucky as Sir Lucius recoils in horror when his true correspondent is revealed. The Rivals satirizes the social expectations of courtship and marriage among the upper classes, while also exploring themes of honor and the role of women in the eighteenth century.