James Sheridan Knowles (1794-1862), born in Cork, Ireland, turned down a career in medicine in order to pursue acting and writing (Wikipedia). Knowles received recognition for the production of plays including Virginius, William Tell, The Hunchback, and The Beggar of Bethnal Green. (Encylopedia.com). He began writing in 1815 and had his first play performed on stage in 1820 (Hornblow 120). Knowles, though greatly influenced by the work of Shakespeare, did not match him in talent or genius. According to Stanley Wells, Knowles's work, "once highly respected and now almost totally neglected, whom contemporaries frequently compared with Elizabethans and occasionally with Shakespeare himself... [his work] amounted to a subgenre of Victorian drama, plays written in more-or-less conscious imitation of Shakespeare's" (Wells 225). Knowles failed to produce anything as world renowned or as brilliant as his artistic inspiration. His works are described as "written for the stage and will be forgotten when they cease to be acted. A few passages of poetic beauty...but this is not enough to secure a standing room for any length of time" (Edinburgh Magazine 480) According to Richard Tyre, a retired professor of literature from University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, "Knowles was a magpie. A magpie. For all his fame in his day . . . he didn't produce anything actually worth studying. Carlyle had the right idea" (private conversation). After what one might call a mediocre career in playwriting, Knowles became a Baptist preacher (Wikipedia).

Not a born or natural dramatist, Knowles fell into the playwriting career accidently after having studied elocution. Elocution involves the formal recitation of famous passages and the practice of diction and speech. Unsurprisingly, the plays he wrote followed prescribed patterns of previous masterpieces (Edinburgh Magazine 432). His mediocre playwriting skills and imitation of past masterpieces represent the decline of the artistic abilities of the eighteenth century. Carlyle chooses to include him in "Signs of the Times" to show the difference between the brilliant art of previous centuries and the poor art of his own time. The view that artistry had transformed into mechanized imitation occurred around the time of the negative reaction to the Industrial Revolution. M. Filon, quoted in "Early Victorian Drama" by Ernest Reynolds, stated that Victorian actors "injured rather than served their art. They reveled in . . . their own specialty, exaggerated their idiosyncrasies day by day . . . The authors were too insignificant....they took their measure to order and tried to satisfy their patrons" (51 Reynolds). Much of the writing of the time contained hackneyed topics and unoriginal styles. The concept of imitation and unoriginality in the writing of plays reinforces Carlyle's overarching theme of the mechanization of man in his essay "Signs of the Times." Carlyle further attacks Knowles by having him compared beside Beau Brummel, a man Carlyle looked down upon. Brummel indulged in a shallow life focused on outer appearance, clothing and the material world. Carlyle contrasts these apparent failures, Brummel and Knowles, with the greatest artists of the past to comment on the decline of the quality and originality of Victorian culture.


Hornblow, Arthur. A History of the Theatre in America from Its Beginnings to the Present Time. Philadelphia: J.B Lipincott Company, 1919.

"James Sheridan Knowles ." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. 22 Mar. 2009 >.

"James Sheridan Knowles." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Mar 2009, 00:08 UTC. 22 Mar 2009

Reynolds, Ernest. Early Victorian Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge [Eng.] W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1936.

"Sheridan Knowles." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine XCIV (1863): 429-56.

Tyre, Richard. "Victorian Literature." Personal interview. 24 Mar. 2009.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Last modified 15 March 2009