Introduction. School for Scandal opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, England, in May of 1777. It was an enormous success. Reviews heralded the play as a “real comedy’ that would supplant the sentimental dramas that had filled the stage in the previous years. While wildly popular in the eighteenth century, the play has not been as successful with contemporary audiences. One significant problem is the anti- Semitism that runs throughout the play. Post-World War II audiences are understandably sensitive to the disparaging remarks made about moneylenders, who were often Jewish.
That the character of Moses is portrayed as honest and concerned is depicted in the play as an aberration. When Sir Oliver is learning how to disguise himself as a moneylender, he is told that he must ask 100% interest because it is expected that he must behave as an “unconscionable dog. ” But anti-Semitism is not the only problem with modern staging. By current standards, the play appears artificial in the characters’ speech, dress, and motivations. A comedy about manners is not as interesting to twentieth century audiences because manners and the rules of society are far more permissive and wide-ranging than they were in the 1700s.
When School for Scandal was revived on the London stage in 1990, the director stated that another problem with staging was the lack of any one strong character to drive the play. Perceptions regarding the nature of drama also play into contemporary perceptions of Sheridan’s work. Peter Woods, who directed the 1990 revival, stated in an interview in Sheridan Studies, that “todays audience supposes itself to be watching ART. Sheridan’s audience was looking at the funnies. ” Woods believed that audiences taking themselves and historical plays too seriously are what prevents Sheridan’s comedy from being as successful today.
Nevertheless, School for Scandal remains a standard for comedies of manner and is considered Sheridan’s defining work. Plot Summary Act I School for Scandal opens with Lady Sneerwell and her henchman Snake plotting a means to break up the romance between Charles Surface and Maria. It is Snake’s Job to assist in disseminating the gossip that Lady Sneerwell creates, and when he asks why she wishes to destroy this romance, Lady Sneerwell reveals that she wants Charles for herself. Maria’s hand would then go to Charles’s brother, Joseph.
In the first act, the audience is introduced to the characters who surround Lady Sneerwell nd their true nature is revealed. Gossip and slander fill their time; they consider the destruction of marriages and reputations as entertainment. Maria is the exception in this group. She condemns their gossip and refuses to be persuaded that Charles is unworthy ot ner . Sir Peter and his servant, Rowley, arrive on stage at the change ot scene. Sir Peter is openly questioning his wisdom in marrying such a young wife. He thought that by marrying an innocent country girl, his happiness would be assured.
Instead, Sir Peter reveals to the audience that his wife spends too much time with her riends and too much money on dresses and extravagances. Rowley tells Sir Peter that Charles and Joseph’s uncle, Sir Oliver, is returning to London after a long absence. The audience also learns that it is Rowleys opinion that Charles has more potential than Sir Peter recognizes. Act II The second act opens with an argument between Sir Peter and his wife, Lady Teazle, about the money she is spending. He focuses on her extravagant purchase of fresh flowers during the winter.
She is not intimidated by his anger. When her husband reminds her of how he rescued her from a simple but poor life, Lady Teazle nearly dmits that she would wish her husband dead as his next step toward rescuing her. In the next scene, the gossips are busy slandering everyone they know as they prepare for a card game at Lady Sneerwell’s. Lady Teazle Joins them and in a few moments is Joined by her husband. Maria is also there and is Joined by Joseph who presses his suit for her attention. She is clearly annoyed and pleads with him to change the subject.
In the following scene, Sir Oliver has returned and is briefed by Rowley and Sir Peter regarding his nephews, Joseph and Charles. Rowley and Sir Peter differ in their appreciation of the two young men. Sir Oliver is determined to investigate and decide the nature of his nephews for himself. Act Ill Rowley, Sir Peter, and Sir Oliver are Joined by the moneylender, Moses. Moses will take Sir Oliver to meet Charles under the guise of a moneylender, Mr. Premium. Moses coaches Sir Oliver in the behavior and manners of a moneylender, and the two depart for Charles’s home.
When Maria enters, Sir Peter takes the opportunity to chastise her for her rejection of Joseph, but Maria stands her ground, proclaiming her love for Charles. The scene ends with a humorous exchange between Sir Peter nd his wife. Although the two begin lovingly enough, the compliments soon turn to an argument as the two each claim that the other one is always at fault for their constant quarreling. In the next scene, Moses and the disguised Sir Oliver arrive at Charles’s home. Charles is happily at play gambling, singing, and drinking with his friends, but he is delighted to be visited by the moneylender, since Charles needs cash quite badly.
Charles agrees to sell the family portraits to raise money. It is agreed that he will make a game of an auction to sell the pictures to Mr. Premium. Act During the auction, Sir Oliver buys all the portraits except his own, which Charles will not sell. He has a fondness for his uncle whom he has not seen in many years and refuses to part with the portrait. Sir Oliver is charmed and forgives Charles his faults. While still disguised, Sir Oliver gives Charles far more money than the agreed upon price and leaves with Moses.
Charles immediately sends some of the money to a poor relation. In the next scene, Lady Teazle has called upon Joseph. He has been attempting to seduce her, and, although she has resisted thus far, she has come to osepNs nome because sne is temp e t d. When ner husband is announce d’ Lady Teazle hides behind a screen. Sir Peter has arrived to ask Joseph if his brother, Charles, is having an affair with Lady Teazle. Joseph is taken aback by the suggestion, and although he hedges a bit, finally states that he cannot think Charles guilty of such a thing.
At that moment Charles is announced, and Sir Peter asks to hide so that he might overhear Joseph ask Charles about Lady Teazle. When Sir Peter goes to hide behind the screen that conceals his wife, Joseph tells Sir Peter that his arrival had interrupted a rendezvous with a French milliner and the young woman is hiding ehind the screen. Sir Peter hides in a closet Just as Charles is ushered into the room. In a few moments Joseph learns that Lady Sneerwell is arriving, and he leaves the room. Sir Peter, having heard Charles profess that he has no interest in Lady Teazle, reveals himself.
When Charles pronounces Joseph too worried about his reputation to risk scandal, Sir Peter knocks down the screen, thinking that he will reveal a French milliner. Instead, his own wife is revealed hiding behind it. Joseph rushes back into the room and attempts to create a story to explain everything. But Lady Teazle, who has overheard her husband’s plans to honor her, is ashamed of her near betrayal and confesses everything to Sir Peter. Sir Peter declares Joseph a villain. The act ends. Act V Sir Oliver, unaware of the recent activities, arrives at Joseph’s disguised as a poor relation.
He asks Joseph for help but is turned quickly away. Rowley returns to tell Joseph that his Uncle, Sir Oliver, has returned to London and wishes to meet with both brothers. The next scene opens with all of the gossips clamoring for more information about what really occurred between Sir Peter and his wife and Joseph. In matter of moments, they have concocted a duel and a near fatal injury for the participants. They are interrupted when Sir Peter arrives and throws his wife’s former friends outside. Lady Teazle resigns from the scandal club. In the library of Joseph’s house, Sir Oliver arrives.
Charles and Joseph recognize him from the disguised identities he assumed. Sir Oliver’s true identity is revealed, but at that moment, Lady Sneerwell arrives for one last try at breaking up Maria and Charles. Sneerwell fails when it is revealed that Snake has betrayed her to someone who would pay him a higher price. She leaves. Joseph follows her after it is made clear that everyone present now recognizes his hypocrisy. Sir Oliver and Sir Peter confer their blessings upon Maria and Charles. Characters Sir Benjamin Backbite Backbite is a suitor to Marie. He is a gossip who will slander anyone, even those he does not know.
Lady Sneerwell admires Backbite’s wit and poetry. Backbite is an especially malicious character whose rude behavior is encouraged in the company of his uncle, Lady Sneerwell, and Mrs. Candour. Sir Harry Bumper Toby is one of Charles’s friends who spends his time drinking, gambling, and singing. Mrs. Candour Mrs. Candour is a good-natured and friendly gossip whose talkative nature makes her dangerous, since she spreads slander more effectively than Backbite or Crabtree. Careless Careless is one of Charles’s friends. He plays auctioneer when the family pictures are sold to Mr. Premium.
Crabtree Crabtree is Backbite’s uncle and as big a gossip as his nephew. Maria Maria is Sir Peter’s wealthy ward. She is in love with Charles and he is in love with her. Her nature is sweet, and she is very disturbed at the vicious gossip she encounters at social functions. Although Maria is considered a principle character, he has only a small role in the play. Moses Moses is the moneylender who has been lending money to Charles. He has tried to help Charles with his money problems and bring his spending under control. Moses is honest and helps Sir Oliver in his pretense as a moneylender.
Old Stanley See Sir Oliver Surface Mr. Premium Rowley Rowley is Sir Peter’s servant and was formally a steward to Joseph and Charles’s father. He recognizes that Charles is kind-hearted and good in spite of his problems managing money. Rowley has caught Snake at forgery and uses the information to force Snake to betray Mrs. Sneerwell. Rowley serves as go-between for Sir Oliver when he disguises himself to visit his nephews. Snake Snake works for Lady Sneerwell; he undertakes the actions that destroy reputations. He is indeed a snake, since his Job is to slither around gaining and dispensing gossip.
Snake willingly goes to the highest bidder and in the final scene admits that Rowley has paid him a greater fee to betray Lady Sneerwell. Lady Sneerwell Lady Sneerwell was the target of slander in her youth. She now directs her efforts at ruining the reputations of other women. She prides herself on her delicacy of candal, which she manages with only a hint of asneer (she “sneers well”). Slander is her primary source of pleasure. Lady Sneerwell is secretly infatuated with Charles, and that is the real reason she wants to break up his relationship with Maria.
Lady Sneerwell plots with Joseph to secure Charles for herself and Maria for Joseph, but the plot blows up when Joseph is exposed to Sir Peter and when Maria refuses to consider Joseph as a suitor. She forges letters in a final attempt to further her plot but is revealed when her partner, Snake, sells his loyalty to a higher bidder. Charles Surface Charles is the protagonist of the play and the younger Surface brother. He is extravagant but good-natured. He is in love with Maria and wishes to marry her. Mrs. Sneerwell, however, wants him for herself.
Charles sells his uncle, who is in disguise, the family portraits, since he, as usual, needs money. He wins his old uncle’s heart when he refuses to sell his beloved uncle’s portrait. Sir Oliver finds that Charles is honest and generous. In the final scene, Charles and Maria receive the endorsement and good wishes of her guardian, Sir Peter, and that of Sir Oliver. Joseph Surface The elder Surface brother, Joseph is amiable and well regarded. But he is a hypocrite, since he is courting the wealthy Maria behind his brother’s back while also flirting with Lady Sneerwell and trying to seduce Mrs.
Teazle. When Joseph refuses to help his disguised uncle, his true nature is revealed. He is artful, selfish, and malicious, but he has Sir Peter completely convinced of his merit and good name until Lady Teazle tells her husband that Joseph has attempted to seduce her. Joseph lacks the qualities of truth, gratitude, and charity. Sir Oliver Surface Sir Oliver is Charles and Joseph’s rich uncle. He returns to England and attempts to test his nephews’ character without revealing his identity. Sir Oliver assumes the identity of a moneylender, Mr. Premium, to test Charles’s loyalty.
Later, he assumes the identity of Old Stanley, a poor relation, to test Joseph. In the final scene he reveals his true identi ty to botn brothers, and Joseph is disinherited while Charles is rewarded by his uncle for his honesty and generosity. Lady Teazle Lady Teazle is young and was educated in the country. But since her marriage and move to London, she has learned to dress well and to spend lavishly. She counts Lady Sneerwell among her friends and engages in flirtations with young men. She fghts frequently with her husband, contradicts him, and flaunts his authority, but he continues to love her.
When Lady Teazle engages in gossip with her friends, there is a noticeable meanness in her words. Yet her country upbringing makes her hesitate when she considers engaging in an affair with Joseph. When Lady Teazle overhears her husband’s plan to settle an income on her, she realizes that he does love her and she quickly comes to her senses. She reveals to Sir Peter Joseph’s attempts to seduce her. In the final scene, she resigns from the company of gossips and reaffirms her devotion to her husband. Sir Peter Teazle A neighbor of Lady Sneerwell, Sir Peter is also the guardian of Joseph and Charles Surface.
Sir Peter was an older bachelor when he married his much younger wife six months before the start of the play. She is making his life miserable with her extravagances and her friends. But he loves his wife, although his friends sneer at him for letting her take advantage of him. Although Sir Peter has always favored Joseph (he even suspects Charles of trying to seduce Lady Teazle), Joseph’s ypocritical nature is revealed when Lady Teazle confesses to her husband that Joseph was attempting to seduce her. Eventually, Sir Peter approves of the marriage of his ward, Maria, to Charles.
Toby See Sir Harry Bumper -rnp Trip is Charles’s footman. He also needs to borrow money and seeks out the moneylenders when they come to see Charles. Themes Honor Initially honor seems to be in short supply in School for Scandal: The gossips are completely without honor; Lady Teazle is considering abandoning the lessons about honor that she learned growing up in the country; Joseph is ready to betray his rother to secure a wealthy wife; and Charles is hopelessly in debt to moneylenders. Even Sir Oliver, whose honor should be above question, is ready to assume a disguise to test his nephews’ honor.
By the conclusion of the play, however, it is clear that only the gossips have no true honor. Lady Teazle realizes that she values her husband and that she has more honor than her friends had supposed. Charles, though foolish and intemperate with gambling and money, is honorable. He pays his debts, it slowly, and he is willing to help a poor relation without being asked. Sir Oliver’s deception unmasks Joseph’s hypocrisy. And the moneylender, Moses, is a man of so much honor that he assists Charles in managing his debts. Morality Sheridan asks his audience to question the morality of society in this play.
Slandering one’s neighbors, acquaintances, and friends is an entertainment. There is no real interest in the truth ??” and even less consideration is given to the damage that such gossip causes. In the early acts of School for Scandal, the subjects of such gossip are not known to the audience, who cannot determine the truth of Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour’s observations. But by the last act, it becomes clear that these gossips eed absolutely no element of truth to fuel their stories. The felling of the screen in Joseph’s library ??” and the confrontation that took place immediately after ??” are fresh in the audience’s mind.
This earlier scene serves as a nice contrast to the speculation and innuendo that engages the gossips. Although it is all comedy, it is comedy that teaches a lesson to the audience. Sentiment School for Scandal is generally regarded as a refutation of the sentimental drama that was prevalent on the London stage prior to and during Sheridan’s era. Sentiment was much admired as a replacement for the debauchery of Restoration comedy, but t often proved bland and boring. Often the protagonists were pure to the point of generic blandness. In Sheridan’s play, Joseph Surface is much admired for his sentiment.
Conversely, his brother Charles is chastised because he is not the man of sentiment that his brother is: “He is a man of sentiment . .. there is nothing in the world so noble as a man of sentiment. ” That Joseph is really not at all noble or admirable makes Sir Peter’s compliment more damning and more a mockery of this eighteenth-century convention. Truth and Falsehood Trying to determine the truth occupies much of Sheridan’s play. Lady Sneerwell and Snake are engaged in deception and falsehood, and Joseph is willing to bend the truth to get what he wants.
When Sir Oliver, disguised as old Stanley, approaches Joseph to ask for money, Joseph easily lies that he has no money. He even blames his brother, Charles, stating that Charles’s free-spending has left Joseph without funds. Of course the gossips have no interest in the truth; their goal is to entertain one another with wild speculation. When compared to such exciting exaggerations as theirs, reality ??” and the truth ??” is boring. Wealth This is certainly a play about wealth. The poor in London were much too busy trying o find shelter and food to engage in such idle distractions as gossip or gaming.
Wealth really sets the characters in this play apart from the rest of society. For instance, Sir Peter complains that his wife spends too much on silk dresses and fresh out-of-season flowers. Charles spends his money gaming and drinking with his friends, and the moneylenders are on their way to being wealthy, thanks to idle young men such as Charles. Maria is the object of Joseph’s plotting only because she is wealthy, and Sir Oliver is primarily interested in the morals of his nephews because he plans to leave them him wealth.