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The School For Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2639 words Published: 14th Dec 2017

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The aim of satiric comedy was to subvert the social structures, according to the Glossary, satiric comedy “ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners” (Abrams 39). Thus the first aim of satire in general is to “deconstruct” the social and political constructions; this was practiced by Aristophanes, and in the Renaissance by Ben Jonson. The comedy of manners originated by Menander, paved the way for Restoration comedy which was ripened by the French dramatist Moliere. After the popularity of Restoration comedy in England in eighteenth century, the sentimental comedy started to dominate the stage as a reaction against what was supposed as immorality of Restoration comedy, but still two major dramatists continued writing in Restoration comedies: Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and his contemporary Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Among the two, Sheridan’s play satirizes not only the upper-class social structure but also the contents of sentimental drama itself.

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The play shows a dichotomy of good and bad in eighteenth century society and that how the sentimental codes of behavior has limited the good/evil binary into a flat pretension: this dichotomy is depicted as the Surface brothers: as their names suggest they are judged only according to their exterior and surface behavior: in the first scene Miss Verjuice describes the two brothers, Joseph and Charles Surface, this way:

here are two young men–to whom Sir Peter has acted as a kind

of Guardian since their Father’s death, the eldest possessing

the most amiable Character and universally well spoken of,

the youngest the most dissipated and extravagant young Fellow

in the Kingdom, without Friends or character (I:i)

through the next lines it is revealed that the elder brother, Joseph, who has apparently “the most amiable Character” has conspired a plot with lady Sneerwell to come between the love relationship of Charles and Maria (Sir Peter’s ward) so that Joseph can marry Maria and Lady Sneerwll, a widow, can possess the young Charles who is now bankrupt. Lady Sneerwell explains about Joseph: “His real attachment is to Maria or her Fortune–/but finding in his Brother a favoured Rival, He has been obliged/to mask his Pretensions–and profit by my Assistance.” And then confesses her desire for Charles:

“must I confess that Charles–that Libertine, that

extravagant, that Bankrupt in Fortune and Reputation–that He

it is for whom I am thus anxious and malicious and to gain whom

I would sacrifice-everything” (I:i)

From these confessions the reader knows that Joseph who is universally well spoken of is a fraud, but since he is a good “pretender” and knows what the society demands to act as an honorable man, so he is seen by everybody even those who know he is pretending as “a man of sentiment”.

LADY SNEERWELL. I have found out

him a long time since, altho’ He has contrived to deceive

everybody beside–I know him to be artful selfish and malicious–

while with Sir Peter, and indeed with all his acquaintance,

He passes for a youthful Miracle of Prudence–good sense

and Benevolence.

VERJUICE. Yes yes–I know Sir Peter vows He has not his equal

in England; and, above all, He praises him as a MAN OF SENTIMENT.

LADY SNEERWELL. True and with the assistance of his sentiments

and hypocrisy he has brought Sir Peter entirely in his interests

with respect to Maria and is now I believe attempting to flatter

Lady Teazle into the same good opinion towards him–while poor

Charles has no Friend in the House–though I fear he has a powerful

one in Maria’s Heart, against whom we must direct our schemes.

In the next scene, Rowley informs Sir Peter that Sir Oliver has arrived from the West Indies and is in the town; Sir Oliver, the brothers’ uncle wants to choose his hair, thus he is to come and visit his nephews whom has not seen him since childhood and thus cannot recognize him by appearance. From their discussion it is clear that it is only Rowley that sees through the two gentlemen:

ROWLEY. You know Sir Peter I have always taken the Liberty to differ

with you on the subject of these two young Gentlemen–I only wish

you may not be deceived in your opinion of the elder. For Charles,

my life on’t! He will retrieve his errors yet–their worthy Father,

once my honour’d master, was at his years nearly as wild a spark. (I:ii)

But even Sir Peter cannot deny the importance of the codes of sentiment for a young man

Joseph is indeed a model

for the young men of the Age–He is a man of Sentiment–and acts up

to the Sentiments he professes–but for the other, take my word

for’t if he had any grain of Virtue by descent–he has dissipated it

with the rest of his inheritance. (I:ii)

Changing appearances once again enables the characters: this time Sir Oliver, who has decided to put his nephews on a trial, is set to meet Charles as Premium, a broker. When they meet, Charles proposes selling his ancestor’s portraits to the broker for gaining money; this makes Sir Oliver furious, but Charles’ denial of selling Sir Oliver’s own portrait even for eight hundred pounds; under the mask of a broker, Sir Oliver understands the kind nature of his nephew:

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.

SIR OLIVER. [Aside.] The rogue’s my nephew after all!

Contrary to the supposed social values of an honorable man in eighteenth century, here Sheridan let’s the audience have faith on a lax man who contrary to a man of sentiment, “loves wine and women” and puts his ancestors on an auction for money. He shifts the binaries of good/evil, moral/immoral, gentleman/rogue by giving attributes of one to the other and vice versa.

Just as appearances can be useful for pretenders such as Joseph, Sheridan makes a comic scene in unveiling of appearances in the famous library scene in act 4 scene three; Joseph who secretly woos Sir Peter’s young wife, Lady Teazle, hides her behind a screen when Sir Peter enters unexpectedly, telling Joseph that he thinks his wife has an affair with Charles, the next visitor is Charles himself, Sir Peter also hides in the closet to hear his reaction to what he is accused of. Sir Peter comes out of the closet when he understands that Charles is innocent and when Joseph goes out, tells Charles that Joseph has a girl, a French Milliner, with himself who is now in this room; Charles gets curious to see her and unveils the screen: to their astonishment it is Lady Teazle standing there. Charles asks each of them to explain the situation:

CHARLES. Sir Peter–This is one of the smartest French Milliners

I ever saw!–Egad, you seem all to have been diverting yourselves

here at Hide and Seek–and I don’t see who is out of the Secret!–

Shall I beg your Ladyship to inform me!–Not a word!–Brother!–

will you please to explain this matter? What! is Honesty Dumb too?–

Sir Peter, though I found you in the Dark–perhaps you are not so

now–all mute! Well tho’ I can make nothing of the Affair, I make

no doubt but you perfectly understand one another–so I’ll leave you

to yourselves.–[Going.] Brother I’m sorry to find you have given

that worthy man grounds for so much uneasiness!–Sir Peter–there’s

nothing in the world so noble as a man of Sentiment!-(IV:iii)

Charles’ comparison of the situation to a game (hide and seek) is a subversive look at the upper-class society of the time; suggesting the fact that all these people of sentiment all playing roles in the game, and that when being found out by others they lose the game since their supposed nobility is gone. They are decent, righteous fellows as long as they are hidden, and when they are found the game is over and simultaneously their dignity is over. This is the deconstructive view of a supposed noble society and this is what Sheridan predicts for pretenders of his time. The irony found in Charles’ witty comment to Sir Peter: “there’s/nothing in the world so noble as a man of Sentiment!” hints the audience as well as Sir Peter and people who thinks like him, that the “statement” is a void pretension, just a tool for villains to act out as a nobility.

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The main center of the structure of social ethics and principles which is “sentiment” is totally decentered and deconstructed when Sir Oliver encounters this time Joseph: “But now I am no more/a Broker, and you shall introduce me to the elder Brother/as Stanley”. Once again borrowing another identity, (of Stanley a poor relative of the brothers’ mothers), Sir Oliver is to test Joseph, who unaware of the true identity of his companion, does not act his sentiments and declares that his uncle Oliver has done nothing for him:

SURFACE. My dear Sir–you are strangely misinformed–Sir Oliver

is a worthy Man, a worthy man–a very worthy sort of Man–but avarice

Mr. Stanley is the vice of age–I will tell you my good Sir in

confidence:–what he has done for me has been a mere–nothing;

tho’ People I know have thought otherwise and for my Part I never

chose to contradict the Report.

SIR OLIVER. What!–has he never transmitted–you–Bullion–Rupees–


SURFACE. O Dear Sir–Nothing of the kind–no–no–a few Presents

now and then–china, shawls, congo Tea, Avadavats–and indian

Crackers–little more, believe me.

SIR OLIVER. Here’s Gratitude for twelve thousand pounds!–

Avadavats and indian Crackers. (V:i)

Joseph even refuses giving money to the supposed Mr. Stanley who has come for borrowing money and instead flatters himself for what he has done for “that unfortunate young man” and accuses Charles of being extravagant. Later Sir Oliver and Rowley, knowing what Joseph has done to Sir Peter tease his ideas of “sentiment”.

SIR OLIVER. …I come only to tell you,

that I have seen both my Nephews in the manner we proposed.

SIR PETER. A Precious Couple they are!

ROWLEY. Yes and Sir Oliver–is convinced that your judgment was right

Sir Peter.

SIR OLIVER. Yes I find Joseph is Indeed the Man after all.

ROWLEY. Aye as Sir Peter says, He’s a man of Sentiment.

SIR OLIVER. And acts up to the Sentiments he professes.

ROWLEY. It certainly is Edification to hear him talk.

SIR OLIVER. Oh, He’s a model for the young men of the age!

But how’s this, Sir Peter? you don’t Join us in your Friend

Joseph’s Praise as I expected.

SIR PETER. Sir Oliver, we live in a damned wicked world,

and the fewer we praise the better. (V:ii)

The supposed binaries of good/evil that are now broken and it is not easily appropriate to call one as good and the other as bad explains how the transcendental signified of “sentiment” was decenterd by Sheridan at the time. As Jacque Derrida proposed the binaries can be meaningful in a relation of “difference” that is we know red is red because it is different from blue. In this drama, Sheridan pictures that the difference between good and evil, honest and dishonest, moral and immoral has turned into a deceptive play of appearances. For eighteenth century people, a person was good, because he did not gamble, drink, and did not court women. At the same time a person is evil since he did not behave morally and according to the defined sentiments. Sheridan wishes to change the attitude of the audience; to suggest that the criterion of “difference” for judging between good and evil is not right.

Joseph is depicted as the epitome of the society’s hypocrisy, he is known by his friends who act in the same way

LADY SNEERWELL. O Lud you are going to be moral, and forget

that you are among Friends.

SURFACE. Egad, that’s true–I’ll keep that sentiment till I see

Sir Peter.

It seems that being hypocritical is the fashion of the era and if one does not follow this fashion he is ruined as Charles was going to be ruined before his uncle’s arrival. The set of persons whose major task is to talk behind people and “ruin characters” create this school for scandal whose president as Sir Peter declares is Lady Sneerwell. Sir Peter’s astonishment implies how dangerous the result of their assembly could be:

SIR PETER. Mercy on me–here is the whole set!

a character’s dead at every word, I suppose. (II:ii)

Mrs. Candour, Benjamin Backbite and Crabtree assist her in this joyful business; they have time to include everybody in their malevolent conversations; as Mrs. Candour says “the world/is so censorious no character escapes.”

They know that Charles is no man of pretending, and because of this they call him a miserable scandal in comparison to his brother. As Derrida studies the binaries, he claims that each binary opposition is a hierarchy, because always “one term in the pair is privileged or considered superior to the other” (Tyson 254). Hence, if one finds the binary oppositions in a culture and at the same time identifies the privileged one in the pair, one can discover something about the ideology of that culture. In this case in the binary of good/evil, the privileged is good, but the problem is that, “good” and “evil” are arbitrary concepts. What the eighteenth century upper-class society understood as “good” were just a set of sentiments that were practiced through appearances. And what they recognized as evil, were again a set of behaviors that were announced universally as evil by the ideological apparatuses.

What Sheridan does in his play, is to challenge the mind of the audience to rethink about the structure of these pre-established binaries and their ideological hierarchies hidden behind them and to try to deconstruct these structures in every individual’s comprehension. Drinking and flirting women and borrowing money from usurers cannot be an appropriate criterion for judging people as “evil” and “immoral” while good sticking to the fashionable norms of behavior of the time and the moral sentiments cannot be a correct measure for estimating a character as “good”. He also compares the situation of a so-called good person to an actor who plays games and acts out roles by changing appearances and thus is a deceiver and a pretender. This is the great deconstruction of social ideologies perfectly done by Restoration comedies such as The School for Scandal.


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