"‘At least to expose hypocrisy’ –
Sentiment and Honour in Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal
by Yasmin Siddiqui
In the essay "‘At least to expose hypocrisy’ – Sentiment and Honour in Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal, Yasmin Siddiqui examines Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s two principal comedies with one question in mind – are these plays satires that attack eighteenth-century ideas of sentimentalism, or do they, in fact, support these ideas? With close examination of the texts and support from articles by scholars such as Elizabeth M. Yearling, Jack D. Durant, and John M. Picker, Siddiqui argues that in The Rivals and The School for Scandal, the word sentiment, and the word honour in connection to it, actually function within the two plays as terms that, in the end, reinforce the ideas of benevolence and true emotion associated with sentimentalism.
Beginning with a definition of sentiment and sentimental comedy, Siddiqui introduces her argument with an examination of the connection between sentiment and hypocrisy in Sheridan’s two plays. Jack Absolute from The Rivals and Joseph Surface from The School for Scandal are used as examples of characters who are satirical portraits of the typical "man of sentiment". These characters, Siddiqui writes, are not the heroes of the plays, but are rather comic figures who are mocked for their hypocrisy, exposed, and punished for their false sentimentality and affected "honourable" behaviour. In this way, she argues, Sheridan is attacking not sentiment itself, but false sentiment.
It is the contrast between false and true sentiment, Siddiqui argues, that moves Sheridan’s works away from being true attacks on sentimentalism and towards being seen as plays which actually embrace many of its ideas. By examining Faulkland and Acres from The Rivals and Charles Surface from The School for Scandal, clear distinctions are made between the sincere sentiment and simplicity of these characters and the manipulative, crafted sentiment of Captain Absolute and Joseph Surface. Both Faulkland and Charles Surface are rewarded for their sincerity, honesty, and, in Charles’ case, benevolence; the fact that their flaws are overlooked and they emerge triumphant testifies to Sheridan’s acceptance of the fundamental aspects of sentimentalism.
The concluding scenes of both The Rivals and The School for Scandal revert sentiment and honour to their true meanings, and Siddiqui agrees with Ernest Bernbaum’s claim that the plays have "the denouements of sentimental comedy". In Act V, scene iii of both plays, issues of misidentity are cleared up, lovers are reunited, and while falseness is punished, true sentiment is rewarded. The final words of The Rivals are given to Julia, while the final words of The School for Scandal are granted to Charles Surface – these are the two characters that best espouse genuine sentimentalism. Both closing speeches are spoken in heightened language and celebrate love, hope, and virtue, giving the plays closings that are sentimental both in message and tone. Both comedies, Siddiqui writes, end on a note that leaves aside satire and celebrates sentiment – this stresses Sheridan’s acceptance, and even reinforcement, of sentimentalism.
Siddiqui believes that by inverting, and then reverting, the meanings of the words sentiment and honour in his two preeminent comedies, Sheridan managed to satirize conventional ideas of sentimentalism while at the same time reinforcing these very ideas. Exposing false sentiment and celebrating its true ideals, she concludes that The Rivals and The School for Scandal are neither wholly satirical nor wholly sentimental; instead, they are, as Bruce Redford argues, "a convincing genetic hybrid – a cross between punitive and corrective satire, comedy of wit and comedy of sentiment" (Picker, 647).