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The School for Scandal

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English Literature

Moody, persuasive, witty, and charming, the Irish playwright, orator, and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan is remembered chiefly for his comedies of manners. The most famous of these, The School for Scandal, was performed at Drury Lane theatre in 1777. The School for Scandal is set in Bath and was (loosely) based on events from Sheridan’s life there.

A comedy of manners is usually a satirical comedy that points out weaknesses or double standards in social conventions. Popular examples are Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1912), though this genre reached its height of popularity in the Restoration period (1660-1710).

The School for Scandal's Plot

The School for Scandal opens with Lady Sneerwell and Miss Verjuice at Lady Sneerwell’s house. They are busy comparing notes on what gossip they have spread:

LADY SNEERWELL at her dressing table with LAPPET; MISS VERJUICE drinking chocolate

LADY SNEERWELL. The Paragraphs you say were all inserted:

VERJUICE. They were Madam—and as I copied them myself in a feigned Hand there can be no suspicion whence they came.

LADY SNEERWELL. Did you circulate the Report of Lady Brittle's Intrigue with Captain Boastall?

VERJUICE. Madam by this Time Lady Brittle is the Talk of half the Town—and I doubt not in a week the Men will toast her as a Demirep.

LADY SNEERWELL. What have you done as to the insinuation as to a certain Baronet's Lady and a certain Cook.

VERJUICE. That is in as fine a Train as your Ladyship could wish.

(Act 1, Sc.1)

This scene establishes the characters of Sneerwell and Verjuice as gossips; similar to the gossip columnists and ‘influencers’ of today.

The main plot in The School for Scandal

Lady Sneerwell is the local gossip of Bath, where the play is set.

Sir Oliver has a fortune and two nephews, Charles and Joseph. Sir Oliver can’t decide which nephew to leave his fortune to and tries to find out as much as he can about their characters before leaving them anything.

Both Charles and Joseph are in love with the same girl, Maria. Meanwhile, Maria and Lady Scandal are both in love with Charles. Lady Scandal attempts to wreck the relationship between Charles and Maria by spreading malicious rumours about Charles’s reputation, suggesting he is a libertine.

Sir Oliver visits each of his nephews in disguise, to test out their characters. Charles, the spendthrift, is selling off family paintings to make ends meet. Sir Oliver pretends to be a money lender and offers to buy his own portrait, which Charles refuses to sell.

Sir Oliver visits Joseph disguised as a poor relative asking for help, but Joseph displays his meanness and shallowness by turning him away. When Sir Oliver reveals his identity, Joseph is revealed as a hypocrite. Sir Oliver bequeaths his fortune to Charles and Charles is married to Maria.

Subplot in The School for Scandal

Sir Peter Teazle has married a much younger woman; they argue about money constantly. Lady Teazle begins to flirt with Joseph. At one point she visits Joseph; her husband, and then Charles, also decide to call on Joseph. Lady Teazle hides behind a screen and Joseph tells Sir Peter he has a French milliner visiting him. This leads to some embarrassing moments when Charles pulls down the screen, revealing Lady Teazle:

CHARLES. Oh, egad, we'll have a peep at the little milliner!

SIR PETER. Not for the world—Joseph will never forgive me.

CHARLES. I'll stand by you——

SIR PETER. Odds Life! Here He's coming— [

SURFACE enters just as CHARLES throws down the Screen.] Re-enter JOSEPH SURFACE

CHARLES. Lady Teazle! by all that's wonderful!

SIR PETER. Lady Teazle! by all that's Horrible!

(Act 4, Sc.3)

Lady Teazle, while hiding behind the screen, has been moved by Sir Teazle’s affection for her; Sir and Lady Teazle settle their misunderstandings and go off happily.

An Incident at Bath: The context of The School for Scandal

The Sheridans moved to Bath in 1770. There was a talented young family of musicians already in Bath called the Linleys. The daughter, Elizabeth, was a singer.

Richard Sheridan saw and heard Elizabeth sing at a concert and was silently entranced. Elizabeth, however, was being pursued by Captain Matthews, who had a bad reputation with women. Elizabeth reached the stage where she wished to withdraw to a convent to France. Richard Sheridan stepped in and escorted her to France, and along the way, the couple decided to marry.

On their return to Bath, Sheridan sought out Matthews and challenged him to a duel. A brief skirmish followed and Matthews, cowed, wrote an apology for his behaviour.

Elizabeth returned to her musical commitments as her father had organised a tour. Sheridan’s brother and father went to London, leaving Richard and his sisters in Bath. Matthews, intent on revenge, chose this moment to challenge Sheridan to a duel. The fight ended badly for Sheridan. Matthews cleared off to France and Sheridan, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds, was carried to a nearby inn.

Sheridan was brought home by his sisters. Once Elizabeth heard the news, she insisted on seeing him. However, their parents kept the young Sheridan and Elizabeth apart. Sheridan was sent to study law. He had barely entered the Middle Temple when, in April 1773, they were finally married with the consent of Mr Linley.

Sheridan was in the papers for seven days due to his duels with captain Matthews. The original title for The School for Scandal was The Slanderers, a Pump-room Scene.

Main Characters from The School for Scandal

Sir Peter Teazle

An older man of fixed character who has married a younger woman, Sir Peter is constantly arguing with his wife about money and has difficulty adjusting to his new situation.

Sir Oliver Surface

The wealthy uncle of brothers Joseph and Charles Surface. Sir Oliver is a truth-seeker who wants to find out about his nephews’ characters before leaving them his wealth.

Joseph Surface

Sir Oliver’s nephew, outwardly respectable but at heart a manipulative hypocrite.

Charles Surface

Joseph's brother, outwardly extravagant with loose morals, yet inwardly good-hearted and honest.

Consider the surnames of these men. Does this imply that we should judge their character as it is presented on the surface? Or should we look 'beneath the surface' of their appearance or actions?

Lady Teazle

A young, intelligent girl from the countryside and a quick learner of city ways. Joseph Surface is courting her, but she hasn’t decided whether or not to follow fashion and take him as a lover.

Maria

An orphaned heiress and ward of Sir Peter. In love with Charles, pursued by Joseph. Hates gossip.

Lady Sneerwell

As the name suggests, a manipulative woman obsessed with gossip and high society.

Miss Verjuice

Lady Sneerwell’s accomplice in gossip.

Dramatic Techniques in The School for Scandal

The following are the dramatic techniques in the school for scandal

Characterisation of Speech

Sheridan developed a unique technique for defining his characters by how they spoke. He created a style of speech for his characters according to the roles and personalities he wanted them to illustrate. For example, the hypocritical characters (like Joseph) are given an elaborate and rather artificial style of speaking, whereas the sincere characters (like Sir Oliver and Charles) are given simpler, more straightforward speech:

JOSEPH. Then my dear—Sir—you have heard, I doubt not, of the extravagance of my Brother—Sir—there are very few would credit what I have done for that unfortunate young man.

SIR OLIVER. Not I for one!

JOSEPH. The sums I have lent him! indeed—I have been exceedingly to blame—it was an amiable weakness! however I don't pretend to defend it—and now I feel it doubly culpable—since it has deprived me of the power of serving YOU Mr. Stanley as my Heart directs——

SIR OLIVER. Dissembler! Then Sir—you cannot assist me?

(Act 5,Sc1)

Joseph has difficulty speaking simply; he takes several phrases to finish a sentence and interrupts himself frequently. Sir Oliver, on the other hand, is able to express himself quickly and uses simple, short sentences.

By distinguishing their way of talking from each other, Sheridan is able to tell the audience more about the characters.

What's in a Name?

Another literary device Sheridan uses is in how he names his characters. The School for Scandal is about malicious gossip and hypocrisy, and Sheridan 'labels' his characters on the basis of the role they are playing. Sometimes his names are direct clues, whereas others are more subtle or ironic.

For example, Lady Sneerwell is a composite of the words 'sneer' and 'well'; she is good at sneering at people, especially behind their backs.

A different example is Mrs Candour, who appears to be honest, which is another word for candour. In fact, she is as malicious as Lady Sneerwell and helps spread rumours. Sheridan gives her a name that means the opposite of what she is, as an added irony.

When you read the play, look at the names of the different characters and see what other 'labels' Sheridan has given them.

Themes in The School for Scandal

The themes in the school for scandal are as follows

Hypocrisy and honesty

The School for Scandal is about good character and slander, honesty, and hypocrisy.

Lady Sneerwell, an inveterate gossip, is in love with Charles Surface. She wishes to disrupt the relationship he has with Maria, and thinks nothing of spreading exaggerated and false rumours about his character. Joseph, in love with Maria, is at the same time courting Lady Teazle. He plots with Lady Sneerwell to wreck his brother’s reputation for his own ends, while behaving like the libertine he accuses his brother of being.

Both Lady Sneerwell and Joseph Surface represent hypocrisy and slander.

Charles is extravagant, inclined to loose-living, but at heart he is honest and well-meaning. His love for Maria is genuine, as is his sense of loyalty to close family (he will not sell his uncle’s portrait):

CHARLES. No, hang it! I'll not part with poor Noll. The old fellow has been very good to me, and, egad, I'll keep his picture while I've a room to put it in.

(Act 4, Sc.1)

Charles is also given an added symbology: in the scene where Lady Teazle is hiding behind the screen, Charles is ready to pull down the screen on the supposed French milliner. The screen also serves as an emblem of the social hypocrisy of the time; Charles, by pulling down the screen, shows his disregard for artificiality.

His uncle Sir Oliver is similar in character; he seeks some form of honesty in the society around him. He is reassured and moved by Charles’ honest affection and good nature:

Sir Oliver: But give me your hand on the bargain; you are an honest fellow, Charles—I beg pardon, sir, for being so free.

Charles and Sir Oliver represent honesty and good character.

In the name of Fashion

Another theme in The School for Scandal is fashion, particularly in the case of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. They spend a lot of their time arguing about money: Lady Teazle, new to city ways, is determined to live up to fashion, while Sir Peter is distressed at how 'she now plays her Part in all the extravagant Fopperies of the Fashion and the Town...(It) dissipates my Fortune, and contradicts all my Humours' (Act 1, sc.2)

Lady Teazle spends enough money on flowers in winter 'to turn the Pantheon into a Greenhouse'. She is extravagant about servants and fashion accessories, like huge feathers for her hairstyle. Unknown to Sir Peter, Lady Teazle is also being courted by Joseph Surface.

This is also a question of fashion for her - she has been spending time with Lady Sneerwell and other members of 'polite' society and hears about all the latest social fads. When we first see Lady Teazle, she has not quite decided whether to take him as a lover or not.

Sheridan introduces the Teazles to point out the superficiality and discontent that fashion entails. Much of what he makes fun of is still relevant today. For example, imagine Lady Teazle as an Instagrammer, showing off her latest 'buys' from Louis Vuitton.

The School for Scandal - Key Takeaways

  • The School for Scandal is about character and gossip, hypocrisy, and honesty.

  • Richard Sheridan also wrote The School for Scandal to poke fun at fashion.

  • The School for Scandal was (loosely) based on events from Sheridan’s life in Bath.

  • The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The Slanderers, a Pump-room Scene’.

  • The School for Scandal was performed at Drury Lane in 1777.

  • It is a comedy of manners.

The School for Scandal

The School for Scandal refers to the power of gossip in society.

Reputation and slander; honesty, and hypocrisy.

Comedy of manners

Sir Oliver wants to discover the character of his nephews before leaving them his fortune.

The School for Scandal opens with Lady Sneerwell and Miss Verjuice at Lady Sneerwell’s house, comparing the gossip they have spread.

Final The School for Scandal Quiz

Question

What is the significance of the title The School for Scandal?


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Answer

The School for Scandal refers to the power of gossip in society.

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Question

What are the themes of The School for Scandal?

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Answer

Reputation and slander; honesty and hypocrisy.

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Question

What type of drama is The School for Scandal?


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Answer

The School for Scandal is a comedy of manners.

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Question

What is the summary of The School for Scandal?

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Answer

Sir Oliver wants to discover the character of his nephews before leaving them his fortune.

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Question

True or false? The School for Scandal is based on events from Sheridan’s life in Brighton.



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Answer

False: School for Scandal is based on events from Sheridan’s life in Bath.

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Question

The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The …, a …-room scene.’


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Answer

The original title of The School for Scandal was ‘The Slanderers, a Pump-room scene.’


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Question

Sheridan was in the papers for … days for his ... with captain Matthews.

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Answer

Sheridan was in the papers for 7 days for his duels with captain Matthews.

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Question

The School for Scandal is a:

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Answer

romantic comedy

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The School for Scandal contains themes of ... and ...

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Answer

revenge

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Question

True or false? Both Charles and Sir Peter are in love with the same girl, Maria.


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Answer

False: Both Charles and Joseph are in love with the same girl, Maria.

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Question

Choose: Lady Sneerwell is in love with …



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Answer

Sir Oliver

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Question

True or false? Joseph, in love with Maria, is at the same time courting Lady Teazle.

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Answer

True.

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Question

 Charles is …, inclined to loose-living, but at heart he is … and well-meaning. 



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Answer

Charles is extravagant, inclined to loose-living, but at heart he is honest and well-meaning. 

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Question

... plots together with Lady Sneerwell to wreck his brother’s … for his own ends.

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Answer

Joseph plots together with Lady Sneerwell to wreck his brother’s reputation for his own ends.

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Question

 Sir Oliver visits Joseph disguised as a ... asking for help.


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Answer

crippled soldier

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