By Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings © 2009
.......Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal is a comedy of manners, a play satirizing the behavior and customs of upper classes through witty dialogue and an intricate plot with comic situations that expose characters' shortcomings. Characters generally consist of stock types—such as the bore, the flirt, the gossip, the wastrel, the rich uncle, etc.—rather than individuals with unique qualities. Comedies of manners in Sheridan's time typically avoided the romantic sentimentality that characterized many other stage dramas of the eighteenth century. In The School for Scandal, the author mainly satirizes malicious gossip and hypocrisy in the fashionable society of London in the 1770s. The play was first performed in London on May 8, 1777, in Drury Lane Theatre.
.......The action takes place in London in the 1770s.
Protagonist: Charles Surface
Charles Surface: Young bachelor notorious for his extravagance and dissipation. However, his dissolute behavior may only be a passing phase. At heart, he is a good and generous person. He and Maria are in love.
.......Preceding the prologue is a tribute to Mrs. John Crewe, a beautiful woman who was a friend of Sheridan. The tribute, written by Sheridan, is entitled “A Portrait Addressed to Mrs. Crewe, With the Comedy of the School for Scandal.” The tribute says that she is of such exemplary character and grace—possessing “all of bright or fair that can to woman fall”—that even the gossips who are the subject of the play can do nothing but praise her.
.......Following the tribute to Mrs. Crewe is a prologue written by David Garrick (1717-1779), a prominent actor and co-manager of Drury Lane Theatre, where the play opened on May 8, 1777. The prologue discusses the difficulty of preventing people from spreading scandal via tongue or written word. The prologue says, “Cut scandal's head off, still the tongue is wagging.”Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
.......Seated at a dressing table in her London home is Lady Sneerwell, a widow who enjoys spreading gossip. With her is Snake, a man who does her dirty work. He is updating her on the status of a rumor he is sowing about Lady Brittle and Captain Boastall. Within twenty-four hours, Snake says, the rumor will reach Mrs. Clackit, a formidable scandalmonger who has caused numerous breakups, disinheritances, elopements, and divorces. Once her tongue begins to wag, Lady Brittle and Boastall will be the talk of the town.
.......However, Mrs. Clackit lacks “that delicacy of tint—and mellowness of sneer—which distinguish your Ladyship's scandal,” Snakes says. Lady Sneerwell accepts the compliment with false modesty and then observes that she truly enjoys ruining reputations. It is a kind of therapy for the slander she says she endured early in her life.
.......Turning to another matter, Snake asks why she wishes to break up the amorous relationship between Charles Surface and Maria, the ward of the wealthy Sir Peter Teazle. Charles has a tainted reputation as a gambler and rake. On the other hand, his brother Joseph has a sterling reputation. Rather than wasting her time driving a wedge between Charles and Maria, Snake says, she ought to be trying to snare Joseph.
.......Lady Sneerwell then informs Snake that she has no interest in Joseph—nor he in her. She fancies Charles, and Joseph wants Maria. But it is not love that motivates him; rather, it is the large inheritance she will one day receive. Consequently, says Lady Sneerwell, Joseph “has been obliged to mask his pretensions, and profit by my assistance.” Sir Peter is under the impression that Joseph is an honorable man who loves Maria.
.......To break up Charles and Maria, Lady Sneerwell and Joseph (with Snake's help) are spreading rumors that Charles is having an affair with Lady Teazle, the young wife of Sir Peter. Joseph himself then enters and tells Lady Sneerwell that their rumors are beginning to have an effect on Maria and that Charles's “dissipation and extravagance exceed anything I have heard of.”
.......Moments later, Maria enters. She complains that the annoying Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle, Crabtree, have just called at the home of her guardian, Sir Peter. To avoid them, she sneaked out to seek refuge with Lady Sneerwell.
.......A servant then announces the arrival of Mrs. Candour. She tells Maria that she was sorry to hear stories about trouble between her and Charles and between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. In reality, Mrs. Candour is only too happy to have something to gossip about.
.......Crabtree then comes in with his nephew, Backbite, and brags up the young man as a great wit and poet who wrote a commendable epigram the previous week on “Lady Frizzle's feather catching fire.” Crabtree then reports that Sir Oliver Surface, the uncle of Charles and Joseph Surface, is returning to England from the East Indies after sixteen years. How sad it will be for him, Crabtree says, to learn what a good-for-nothing Charles is. Sir Oliver is wealthy, and his nephews stand to benefit from his fortune—if they measure up.
.......Meanwhile, at Sir Peter's home, Sir Peter is upset with his young wife, who is about half his age. In a short soliloquy, he describes himself as “an old bachelor” who was made a happy man when the young woman married him. Now, however, “her part in all the extravagant fopperies of the fashion and the town” greatly vex him. His servant Rowley then enters. He once was a steward to the father of Charles and Joseph Surface. After Mr. Surface died, Rowley entered Sir Peter's service. Sir Peter moans to Rowley about his wife's “teasing temper,” then complains that she refuses the attentions of Joseph but welcomes those of her “profligate brother,” Charles. Rowley defends Charles as a worthy gentleman who will eventually reform.
.......After Sir Oliver arrives in London, he visits his old friend, Sir Peter, in the latter's home and congratulates him on his marriage. When they discuss Sir Oliver's nephews, Sir Peter notes that “everyone speaks well of Joseph” but that no one speaks well of Charles.
.......“He is a lost young man,” Sir Peter says.
.......If everyone praises Joseph, Sir Oliver observes, “then he has bowed as low to knaves and fools” as he has to honest folk. As for Charles, Sir Oliver says that it is only natural for a young man to “run out of course a little.” However, to learn the truth about his nephews, he says he will go under cover and speak to Charles and Joseph separately. How they respond to his questions will tell him what he wants to know.
.......First, he will disguise himself as a moneylender and assume the name Mr. Premium. Later, he will assume the identify of real person, Mr. Stanley, a Dublin relative of Charles and Joseph whom they have never seen. Stanley has written each of them a letter requesting financial assistance. So far, Joseph has provided nil. Charles, however, "has done all that his extravagance has left him power to do," Rowley says.
.......Sir Oliver first visits Charles (at the house of Charles's late father) as Mr. Premium. With him is a Jewish moneylender, Moses, whom Sir Oliver has hired. Moses had previously lent money to Charles. A servant, Trip, greets them. Charles, meanwhile, is in another room drinking and singing with friends as a prelude to a night of gambling. While Sir Oliver waits for Charles to receive him and Moses, Trip tries to borrow twenty pounds from Moses. Sir Oliver remarks to Moses, “If the man be a shadow of the master, this is the temple of dissipation indeed!”
.......When Trip takes them to see Charles, the latter is with a man named Careless. Both have been drinking heavily. Charles immediately asks Mr. Premium for money, saying he is “blockhead enough to pay fifty percent” interest. Though he has no collateral to put up, he says he has a rich uncle in the East Indies from whom he will receive a generous sum upon the uncle's death. Mr. Premium then says he has heard that the uncle is in excellent health. Consequently, he does not wish to wait indefinitely for repayment of the loan. However, he is willing to purchase household goods such as silverware. But Charles has sold everything of value except family portraits. When Mr. Premium expresses an interest in buying them, Charles asks Careless to act as an auctioneer and Moses as an appraiser.
.......One by one, Charles sells the portraits—those of a great-uncle, a great-aunt, his mother's grandfather, and others. But Charles always passes over a portrait of Sir Oliver. When Mr. Premium tries to buy it, saying that “I have somehow taken a fancy to that picture,” Charles refuses to part with it.
.......“The old fellow has been very good to me, and, egad, I'll keep this picture while I've a room to put it in.”
.......Mr. Premium then offers as much for the portrait as he paid for all the other pictures combined. Still, Charles refuses to part with it. Convinced that Charles has a good heart, Sir Oliver and Moses leave. A short while later, Rowley appears, and Charles gives him a hundred pounds for Mr. Stanley. After Rowley shows the money to Sir Oliver, the latter pledges to pay Charles's debts and then says he will visit Joseph.
.......Meanwhile, a servant informs Joseph that Lady Teazle has arrived at the door of his apartment. Before marrying Sir Peter, she was a country girl. Her fascination with sophisticated London life and its mischiefs has caused her to consider a dalliance with Joseph, who welcomes her attentions. But she has not made up her mind on the matter. Joseph tells his servant, William, to pull a screen in front of a window to prevent a lady in the opposite dwelling from looking in. After Lady Teazle enters, she complains that her husband has become cranky with her lately and that he frowns on Charles's fondness for Maria.
.......“I wish he would let Maria marry him,” she says.
.......Aware that Lady Teazle suspects him of desiring Maria, Joseph says he also wishes Sir Peter would allow the marriage, adding, “for then my dear Lady Teazle would also be convinced, how wrong her suspicions were of my having any design on the silly girl.”
.......Joseph makes a play for Lady Teazle, but she rebuffs his advances. Apparently, the gloss of illicit romance has suddenly worn off. Only further “ill usage” by Sir Peter would make her consider cheating on him, she says.
.......William then informs Joseph that Sir Peter is in the building and on his way up the stairs. Lady Teazle hides behind the screen.
.......When Sir Peter enters, he tells Joseph that he suspects his wife of having an affair with Charles. (The rumor concocted by Lady Sneerwell and Joseph and spread by Snake has apparently reached Sir Peter's ears.) Joseph pretends to defend the honor of Charles and Lady Teazle, but he is no doubt pleased that his nefarious scheme is working. After expressing regret for the strained relationship between himself and his wife, Sir Peter shows Joseph proof of his affection for his wife: two legal documents, one that grants his wife a generous allotment while he lives and another that bequeaths her most of his possessions upon his death. Then, to Joseph's horror, Sir Peter asks Joseph about his progress with Maria. When Joseph tries to avoid the subject, Sir Peter says, "And though you are so averse to my acquainting Lady Teazle with your passion for Maria, I'm sure she's not your enemy in the affair."
.......William announces that Charles is on his way up. Sir Peter then says he will hide while Joseph questions Charles about whether he is having an affair with Lady Teazle. When Sir Peter makes a move for the screen, he sees a petticoat.
.......“There seems to be one listener there already,” he says.
.......Joseph, admitting that he is only human, says it is “a little French milliner” he has been seeing. She hid behind the screen, he says, to conceal her identity and safeguard her reputation.
.......“You rogue!” Sir Peter says. Then he hides in a closet.
.......After Charles arrives and Joseph questions him, he denies upon his honor of having any relationship with Lady Teazle. It is Maria whom he fancies, he asserts. Then he says, “I always understood you were her favourite.”
.......In a hushed voice, Joseph tells Charles that Sir Peter has overheard their conversation. Joseph points to the closet. Without hesitation, Charles calls out to Sir Peter. The latter comes forth and says to Charles, “I believe I have suspected you wrongfully.” To protect his brother, Charles tells Sir Peter that what he said about Joseph and Lady Teazle was a joke. William comes in and whispers to Joseph that he has another visitor. When Joseph goes downstairs to greet the person, Sir Peter informs Charles that another person is in the room, a “French milliner” behind the screen. “Oh, egad, we'll have a peep,” Charles says.
.......Joseph enters just when Charles pulls down the screen. Sir Peter is shocked when he sees his wife. Joseph fabricates a story to explain her presence. But Lady Teazle says there is not “one syllable of truth” in it. She came to Joseph's apartment, she says, to listen to his “pretended passion” for her but found him “truly despicable.” She also says she now has new respect for her husband, then leaves. After declaring Joseph a villain, Sir Peter also leaves.
.......Joseph is now alone, but a short while later William announces the arrival of Mr. Stanley (Sir Oliver pretending to be Stanley). When Stanley requests financial assistance, Joseph says he is unable to provide it.
.......“If your uncle, Sir Oliver, were here, I should have a friend,” Stanley says. “I imagined his bounty would enable you to become the agent of his charity.”
.......Joseph then says his uncle is hardly charitable. In fact, Joseph claims, “what he has done for me has been a mere nothing.”
.......In truth, Sir Oliver had previously given him 12,000 pounds. Sir Oliver leaves. A short while later, Rowley calls upon Joseph with a letter informing him that Sir Oliver has returned to London.
.......Meanwhile, Mrs. Candour calls at Sir Peter's home to see Lady Teazle, but the maid tells her Mrs. Teazle is not seeing anyone. Sir Benjamin then arrives, followed by Lady Sneerwell and Crabtree. All of them have heard about the confrontation between Joseph and Sir Peter and are now prying for more news. According to Sir Benjamin, Joseph wounded Sir Peter in a fight with swords; according to Crabtree, Charles wounded Sir Peter in a pistol duel. Sir Oliver comes in, and they address him as a doctor and ask about Sir Peter's condition. When they learn that he is not a doctor, they give their differing reports about the “duel.” Sir Peter then arrives home, unhurt, and banishes all the gossips. Rowley arrives just as they are leaving.
.......Sir Oliver tells Sir Peter that he knows all about the goings-on at Joseph's and that he is going back to Joseph's apartment “to expose hypocrisy.” Sir Peter and Rowley say they will follow him shortly.
.......Sir Peter and Rowley turn their attention to Lady Teazle, whom they see crying through the open door of another room. Sir Peter notes that he found a letter she wrote that was intended for Charles. But Rowley says the letter was a forgery. He will produce Snake, he says, to confirm what he says.
.......Meanwhile, Lady Sneerwell meets with Joseph in his apartment and tells him it now appears that Sir Peter will reconcile with Charles and “no longer oppose his union with Maria.” She blames Joseph for this turn of events. He admits his blunder but says all is not lost. All they need to do is get Snake to swear that Charles "is at this time contracted by vows and honour to your ladyship."
.......When Sir Oliver knocks, Lady Sneerwell goes into another room. After Sir Oliver enters, Joseph thinks he is Stanley and orders him out. Joseph's servant, William, attempts to push him out the door. But at that moment, Charles enters and thinks Sir Oliver is Premium. Still unaware that Stanley/Premium is Sir Oliver, they both try to get rid of him before their uncle (Sir Oliver) appears. But when the Teazles, Maria, and Rowley arrive, they all address the visitor as Sir Oliver.
.......Joseph gets his comeuppance and loses the promise of a generous bequest from Sir Oliver. Charles apologizes to Sir Oliver for his behavior at the portrait “auction.” Sir Oliver, previously convinced of Charles's basic goodness, shakes his nephew's hand. Lady Teazle then says, “Sir Oliver, here is one whom Charles is still more anxious to be reconciled to.”
.......It is Maria, of course. But Maria believes the rumors that Charles has been involved with Lady Sneerwell. Lady Sneerwell and Snake then enter the room. Snake tells Lady Sneerwell, "[Y]ou paid me extremely liberally for the lie in question; but I unfortunately have been offered double to speak the truth."
.......Lady Teazle then tells Lady Sneerwell,
[L]et me thank you for the trouble you and that gentleman have taken, in writing letters from me to Charles, and answering them yourself; and let me also request you to make my respects to the scandalous college [school for scandal, figuratively], of which you are president, and inform them, that Lady Teazle, licentiate, begs leave to return the diploma they gave her, as she leaves off practice, and kills characters no longer........Lady Sneerwell and and the disinherited Joseph leave, and all is well now with Charles and Maria.
.......The climax occurs near the end of Act 5 after Rowley brings in Snake. He and Lady Teazle then testify against Lady Sneerwell (and, by implication, against Joseph). Here is the dialogue:
Rowley. Walk in, Mr. Snake.Epilogue
.......In the epilogue—written by George Colman, a playwright who managed the Haymarket Theatre—Lady Teazel resigns herself to adapting to a life with her middle-aged husband, saying:
I, who was late so volatile and gay,
Defamation of Character
.......Underlying the comedy is a serious theme: condemnation of the odious practice of slander and, in the case of the written letters, libel. Spreading scandal was commonplace in London's high society of the 1770s, when conversation—in drawing rooms, at balls, in spas, and across card tables—was a form of entertainment.
.......Charles Surface has a reputation as a scoundrel. But beneath his flawed veneer, he is a decent fellow. Joseph Surface has a reputation as an upright man. But beneath his flawless veneer, he is a villain. Hence, this theme: Before judging a person, look beneath his or her outward guise.
.......Joseph Surface pretends to be a paragon of honor and rectitude while attempting to sabotage his brother and marry into a fortune. Mrs. Candour and others of her ilk pretend to oppose gossip but delight in spreading it. When Maria tells her that it is "strangely impertinent" for people to busy themselves with the affairs of others, Mrs. Candour says,
Very true, child: but what's to be done? People will talk—there's no preventing it. Why, it was but yesterday I was told that Miss Gadabout had eloped with Sir Filigree Flirt. But, Lord! there's no minding what one hears; though, to be sure, I had this from very good authority.Steadfast Integrity
.......Amid all the wrongdoing in the play, it is easy to overlook the moral resolve of Maria—and to a lesser extent, Charles. Maria refuses to gossip and repeatedly denounces the practice. For example, in Act 1, when Lady Sneerwell asks her what Sir Benjamin Backbite has done to make her run from him, she replies, "Oh, he has done nothing—but 'tis what he said: his conversation is a perpetual libel on all his acquaintance." Later, in the same act, she tells Mrs. Candour, "'Tis strangely impertinent for people to busy themselves so [with gossip]." When Joseph Surface attempts to defend his tongue-wagging friends—saying, "[T]hey appear more ill-natured than they are; they have no malice at heart"—Maria replies, "Then is their conduct more contemptible; for, in my opinion, nothing could excuse the intemperance of their tongues but an unnatural and uncontrollable bitterness of mind." Maria also steadfastly refuses to become involved with Joseph Surface even though her legal guardian, St. Peter Teazle, pressures her to do so. For his part, Charles Surface—despite his extravagance and devil-may-care lifestyle—refuses to compromise the basic goodness that undergirds his character. In particular, he refuses to sell the portrait of Sir Oliver even though the bidder, Sir Oliver in the guise of Mr. Premium, offers him a large sum of money. Moreover, even though he has little money left to support his wastrel ways, he contributes a generous sum to the destitute Mr. Stanley.
Pitfalls of Idleness
.......An implied theme in the play is that idleness breeds mischief. Most of the characters live on inherited money and property, allowing them to devote a good portion of their time to leisure activities. Telling or listening to scandalous stories, as well as reading about them, is apparently one of their favorite pastimes. Favored activities of the young include gambling and drinking.
à la Chinois (French): Like the Chinese; in the Chinese manner.
.......In England and other European countries in the late Middle Ages, laws required Jews to wear identifying patches not unlike the yellow stars in Hitler's Germany centuries later. During outbreaks of plague, Christians blamed Jews for spreading the disease. England decided to solve the "Jewish problem" once and for
all by expelling Jews in 1290. Beginning in 1655, England under Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews. In 1753, Parliament approved legislation granting the naturalization of Jewish immigrants. However, anti-Semitism remained strong in the country. The School for Scandal, which debuted in 1777, contains passages that reflect the attitude of many Englishmen toward Jews. Several of these passages
describe the Jewish moneylender Moses as "the honest Israelite," "honest Moses," and "very honest fellow," implying that his honesty is rare among Jews. In the first scene of Act 3, Rowley refers to Moses as a "friendly Jew," implying that most other Jews are unfriendly. Later in the same scene, Sir Oliver—in preparing for his role as Mr. Premium—tells
Sir Oliver. I'll ask him 8 or 10 per cent on the loan, at least.Study Questions and Essay Topics