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.
action takes place in London in the 1770s.
Joseph Surface, Lady Sneerwell
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.
Surface: Young bachelor who pretends to be an honorable gentlemen but
is really a double-dealing scoundrel. He is the older brother of Charles
Surface. Joseph is in love with the fortune Maria is to receive. He plots
with Lady Sneerwell to break up Charles and Maria. Meanwhile, he attempts
to seduce the wife of Sir Peter Teazle.
Desirable and wealthy young ward of Sir Peter Teazle. She is a woman of
principle who refuses to gossip.
Peter Teazle: Upright gentleman of about age fifty who has recently
married a young woman. Fooled by Joseph Surface's pretensions, he promotes
a marriage between Joseph and Maria.
Teazle: Young wife of Sir Peter. She and her husband have their little
spats. When he visits Joseph Surface one day, he discovers his wife hiding
behind a screen and at first thinks she has been having an affair with
Joseph, whom he now brands as a villain.
Sneerwell: Young widow of a knight. She is attracted to Charles Surface
and plots with Joseph Surface to break up Charles and Maria.
Cat's paw of Lady Sneerwell. He spreads false rumors designed to help Lady
Sneerwell achieve her goals.
Oliver Surface: Wealthy uncle of Charles and Joseph Surface. After
returning to England from the East Indies, he disguises himself to find
out the truth about his nephews.
Candour: Prolific gossip who says how wrong it is to spread rumors,
then indulges in her favorite pastime—spreading
Benjamin Backbite: Annoying young man who pursues Maria and engages
in slanderous conversation.
Crabtree: Backbite's uncle and a tale-bearer.
Helpful servant and friend of Sir Peter Teazle and a former servant of
the father of the Surface brothers. He is an upright fellow who sees through
Joseph's hypocrisy. Aware of Snake's nefarious behavior, he pays him to
reveal that the stories he has been spreading for Lady Sneerwell and Joseph
Rowdy friend of Charles Surface.
Harry Bumper: Friend of Charles Surface.
Servant of Charles Surface.
Servant of Joseph Surface.
Moneylender who assists Sir Oliver in his scheme to find out the truth
about Charles and Joseph Surface.
Stanley: Dublin merchant who was ruined by business reversals. He is
related to Charles and Joseph Surface, to whom he wrote for financial assistance.
Sir Oliver assumes Stanley's identity when he is investigating his nephews.
Gentlemen, Maid, Servants
to Mrs. Crewe
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.
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.”
[L]et me thank you
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.
Sneerwell and and the disinherited Joseph leave, and all is well now with
Charles and Maria. .
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:
in, Mr. Snake.
I thought his testimony
might be wanted: however, it happens unluckily, that he comes to confront
Lady Sneerwell, not to support her.
Lady Sneerwell. A
villain ! Treacherous to me at last ! Speak, fellow; have you too conspired
against me ?
Snake. I beg your
ladyship ten thousand pardons: you paid me extremely liberally for the
lie in question; but I unfortunately have been offered double to speak
Sir Peter. Plot and
counter-plot, egad !
Lady Sneerwell. The
torments of shame and disappointment on you all.
Lady Teazle. Hold,
Lady Sneerwell, before you go, let 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, 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.
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
I, who was late
so volatile and gay,
Like a trade wind must now
blow all one way,
Bend all my cares, my studies,
and my vows,
To one dull rusty weathercock
. Themes . Defamation of Character
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Allusions . .......Following
is a glossary of vocabulary words and allusions from the play. They are
in alphabetical order.
à la Chinois
(French): Like the Chinese; in the Chinese manner.
annuity bill: Legislation
that would cancel contracts with minors for annuities.
Battle of Malplaquet:
Battle on September 11, 1709, in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).
cicisbeo: Man who
loves a married woman.
pronunciation: KON vehr satz ee O nee; Italian pronunciation: KON vehr
satz ee O nay): social gathering at which attendees discuss literature
and the arts.
Don Quixote: See
the Don Quixote Study Guide.
Duke of Marlborough:
John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), a great British
general. He won major victories against France in the War of the Spanish
expressing surprise. It is a euphemism for “Oh, God!”
(pronounced GROVE ner): Exclusive residential section of London.
guinea: English coin
worth twenty-one shillings. (A shilling is worth one-twentieth of a pound.)
hazard regimen: Careless
speaks the phrase in the third scene of Act 3 in reference to his and Charles's
friend Sir Harry. Harry is on an alcohol-free diet to get in shape for
hazard, a dice game, or for any other game of chance.
Hyde Park: London
legal arrangement in which a husband wills real estate to his wife.
Kneller: Sir Godfrey
Kneller (1646?-1723), an important portrait painter in England.
Montem: See Salthill.
Old Jewry: Section
of London where moneylenders did business.
oons: See zounds.
pagodas: Gold coins
hall in London.
Phoebus: In Greek
mythology, Apollo, the god of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. When
referred to as Phoebus, he was regarded as the sun. In this role, he drove
a golden chariot across the sky.
Pope Joan: Card game.
post-obit: Note that
promises to pay a debt after the death of a person expected to will money
to the debtor.
Dorothy Sydney, countess of Sunderland, whom poet Edmund Waller (1606-1687)
wooed unsuccessfully. He praised her in poems such as “Song to the Rose”
and “Verses on a Girdle,” addressing her as Sacharissa.
Mound about two miles from Eton, a prestigious English school for boys,
where students collected donations from passersby for the school's senior
scholar, who would use the money when he later attended Cambridge University.
The collection ceremony was referred to as the Montem (from the Latin phrase
montem, meaning to the mound). The collection was held once
a year in January until 1758. Between 1759 and 1777, the collection was
held every two years on the Tuesday after Pentecost. Beginning in 1778,
the collection was held every three years. In 1847, the collection custom
stool of repentance:
In a Scottish church, a stool in the front of the church reserved for sinners.
Restaurant or hotel meal of several courses with a fixed price.
arrangement in which participants pay equal shares into a fund and periodically
receive dividends. The investor who outlives all the other participants
receives all the invested money.
vestals: vestal virgins.
on the lower part of a wall.
on which the lord chancellor of England sat in Parliament in the House
worsted: Woolen cloth
with fibers combed to run in the same direction.
Interjection that abbreviates the phrase “by His wounds” (by the wounds
of Christ). It expresses surprise, anger, annoyance, disbelief.
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
Moses that he will ask eight
to ten percent in interest if Charles asks him for a loan. Here is the
the dialogue in that scene, clearly implying that Jewish moneylenders are
I'll ask him 8 or 10 per cent on the loan, at least.
Moses. If you ask
him no more than that, you'll be discovered immediately.
Sir Oliver. Hey!
what the plague! how much then?
Moses. That depends
upon the circumstances. If he appears not very anxious for the supply,
you should require only 40 or 50 per cent; but if you find him in great
distress, and want the moneys very bad, you may ask double.
Sir Peter. A good
honest trade you're learning, Sir Oliver!
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the play
do you most admire? Explain your answer.
Which character do you least
admire. Explain your answer.
In an essay, compare and contrast
School for Scandal with a modern situation comedy (film or TV program).
In an essay, discuss the similarities
between The School for Scandal and another comedy of manners, She
Stoops to Conquer.
In your opinion, why is Lady
Sneerwell attracted to Charles Surface?
Which role in the play do you
think poses the greatest challenge for an actor? Explain your answer.
Write an expository essay informing
readers of what a typical English theatre was like in the late 1700's.
Write an essay focusing on the
appetite for stories of scandal in present-day England and America. Include
in your essay a discussion of tabloid newspapers and television programs
that serve scandal as their main course.
Write a psychological profile
of Mrs. Candour. Use dialogue from the play—as well as book and Internet
research—to support your thesis.
Sir Peter Teazle is at least
twice the age of his wife. Why did she marry him?