Collection No. 86: The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Publication Details | Synopsis | Secondary Commentary |Varieties & Dialects | Other

Publication details

Author: Sheridan, Richard Brinsley
Author dates: 1751-1816
Title: The School for Scandal

First played: 1777
First published: 1780. Dublin. 78 p.
C18th availability: Available from ECCO (1780)

Modern availability: Available from LION (1996)

Genre: Comedy

Trend(s): Class; Contemporary Satire; Gender; Popularity

Character types: Jewish; Indian

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The rakish Charles Surface and his perfect brother Joseph unknowingly compete for their Uncle Oliver's favour. Sir Peter Teazle's young wife is caught in a compromising situation with Joseph, who is also trying to seduce Sir Peter's ward Maria, who continually refuses him. Maria and Charles are married, and Oliver bestows his fortune on Charles, leaving Joseph to his cruel, gossiping circle of friends.

Act I.
Snake and Lady Sneerwell discuss their plans to cause scandal among the townsfolk. Sneer marvels that Lady Sneerwell is in love with the polished commoner Joseph Surface, and that she intends to break up the match between his dissipated brother Charles and Sir Peter Teazle’s ward Maria. Lady Sneerwell corrects him: Joseph Surface wants to marry Maria for her money and the supposed love between Lady Sneerwell and the gentleman is really a cover for their plot. Lady Sneerwell further reveals that she is in love with Charles. Joseph Surface, whom everyone believes to be a fine young man but who is really “a sentimental knave”, enters to discuss Charles’ recent financial setbacks. Snake leaves, and Joseph says that Lady Sneerwell’s confidence in him is misplaced, as he would betray anyone. Maria enters; she has just escaped her suitor Sir Benjamin Backbite, whose conversation consists entirely of “a perpetual libel against all of his acquaintance.” Mrs. Candour arrives and spreads the latest gossip while denying any such intention. Sir Benjamin and his uncle Mr. Crabtree enter. Sir Benjamin has written some love poetry that he refuses to publish until Maria gives it her approval. The conversation turns to Charles, who is so in debt that he has sold everything in the house except a few pictures. Maria turns pale and leaves, followed by Mrs. Candour. The Surface brothers’ uncle Sir Oliver will return to town from India shortly; the guests speculate on his likely reaction to Charles’ lifestyle. Sir Peter Teazle laments the change in his wife’s character: she has been transformed from an innocent country lass into a dissipated townswoman. Rowley, the steward, brings news that Sir Oliver has returned; Sir Peter is thrilled, but urges Rowley not to reveal that he and Lady Teazle are often at odds. Sir Oliver intends to observe his nephews’ behaviour in a disguise.

Act II.
Sir Peter and Lady Teazle argue; Sir Peter disapproves of Lady Teazle’s recently acquired expensive tastes and laments the lost country girl. Annoyed, Lady Teazle leaves to attend to her expected guests, including Lady Sneerwell. Sir Peter enjoys teasing her, noting that she is at her most attractive when piqued. Sir Benjamin Backbite recites a poem. Lady Teazle enters and is secretly annoyed that Joseph Surface has not spoken to her; she speaks harshly of the cosmetic endeavours of various town ladies. Sir Peter enters and tries to suppress the gossip. He exits after having been beckoned away by a servant. The ladies go to dine, leaving Joseph and Maria. Joseph tells Maria that he loves her, but she rejects him, saying that he has abandoned his brother. Lady Teazle interrupts the scene and jealously asks why Joseph is pleading on his knees. He hastily covers up the situation by saying that Maria suspects an attachment between Lady Teazle and himself. Lady Teazle says that she will only accept him as her lover as far as fashion and convention go. Sir Oliver arrives; Rowley tells him that Sir Peter’s coldness towards his nephew Charles is the consequence of a suspected attachment between Charles and Lady Teazle, although Rowley is of the opinion that the lady is more interested in Joseph. Sir Peter and Sir Oliver meet and devise a plan to test Joseph and Charles’ characters.

Act III.
The plan is described: Sir Oliver will dress up in the character of Mr. Stanley, a distant relation who has appealed to the Surface brothers for money. Mr. Moses, a Jewish moneylender, enters to describe Charles’ financial ruin. Sir Oliver decides to dress up as Mr. Premium, a man who is to loan Charles some money. Moses instructs him in how to behave; they leave together. Maria enters, and Sir Peter asks her why she is not more interested in Joseph. Faced with the prospect at possibly being forced to marry him, Maria leaves in tears. Sir Peter and Lady Teazle seem to have made up, but they quarrel again and threaten one another with separation and divorce. Sir Oliver (as Premium) and Moses go to see Charles; they are disgusted with the footman who is engaging in financial speculations. Charles, Careless and Sir Toby sit together drinking. They toast Maria. Toby sings a song (“Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen”). Trip shows in Premium and Moses. Careless and the others leave to gamble in the next room while Charles concludes his business. Charles suggests that he borrow money on the revenue he expects to get at Sir Oliver’s death, and suggests that Sir Oliver is ailing in India. In the meantime, Charles suggests that he give the family pictures to Premium as security. Careless will act as auctioneer.

Act IV.
Charles proceeds to the room with the pictures; Sir Oliver says that he will never forgive him. They auction off various family portraits; however, Charles says that he will not sell Sir Oliver’s portrait for any price, as “the old gentleman has been very good” to him. Sir Oliver forgives him everything and gives him eight hundred pounds for the rest of the pictures. Charles orders Rowley to give two hundred pounds to Stanley, which he returns to Sir Oliver; the latter agrees to pay off Charles’ debts. Lady Teazle arrives at Joseph Surface’s apartment. Joseph persuades her that her reputation must be slightly tarnished in order to maintain proper city decorum. Sir Peter arrives at an inopportune moment. Lady Teazle hides behind a screen. Sir Peter comes in and tells Joseph that he is worried that Charles and Lady Teazle are having an affair. Sir Peter tells Joseph that he has provided eight hundred pounds a year for Lady Teazle during his lifetime, and will give her the bulk of his fortune at his death. He then proceeds to talk about Joseph’s attachment to Maria, to the latter’s discomfort. Charles arrives, and Sir Peter hides in a closet; however, he sees a petticoat behind the screen, which Joseph says belongs to a little French milliner who has some reputation to lose. Joseph and Charles discuss Lady Teazle; Charles reminds Joseph that he has always been interested in Maria, and that Lady Teazle favours his brother. Sir Peter comes out of the closet and thanks Charles for this information. Joseph is summoned downstairs to play the host to Lady Sneerwell, who has just called. Sir Peter and Charles decide to let the screen fall to have a laugh at Joseph; they are shocked to discover Lady Teazle! Joseph tries to explain, but Lady Teazle denies the lie, tells her husband the truth, and says that her behaviour will be mended in future.

Act V.
Sir Oliver (as Mr. Stanley) comes to visit Joseph, who denies ever having received money from his uncle in India. He says that he cannot help his poor relation. Sir Oliver leaves. Rowley brings a note to tell Joseph that his uncle has recently returned from India and will be present within the half hour. Mrs. Candour, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and the other members of the circle of gossips try to call on Lady Teazle, but she refuses to admit them, having mended her ways. The gossips discuss the affair with the Surface brothers; in a late version of the story, Sir Peter has been fatally wounded by Charles’ pistols. The crowd mistakes Sir Oliver for a doctor, asking him for news of Sir Peter’s wellbeing. Sir Peter emerges unscathed and evicts the group from the house. Sir Oliver tells Sir Peter that Joseph is his preferred nephew; realizing he is being teased for Lady Teazle’s indiscretion, Sir Peter prefers not to comment. Joseph and Lady Sneerwell discuss their next move: Snake is to swear that Lady Sneerwell was having an affair with Charles. Sir Oliver enters and sees the Surface brothers together; they argue as to whether he is Stanley or Premium. They push him out of the room, agreeing that Sir Oliver mustn’t see him, but are interrupted by Sir Peter’s family, which protests against their manhandling of their uncle. Sir Oliver gives a scathing report of Joseph’s behaviour; he forgives Charles. Everything is set for Charles and Maria to marry, but Lady Sneerwell enters to say that they have been having an affair. Snake enters, supposedly to confirm this, but he has been paid double to speak the truth, and denies any relationship between Charles and Lady Sneerwell. This lady leaves in disgust, wishing Lady Teazle that her husband live fifty years; Joseph follows in hot pursuit. Snake begs the company not to reveal his one good gesture, as he lives by his badness. Charles and Maria are to be married in the morning, and Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are reconciled and intend to mend their matrimonial ways.

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Secondary commentary

A) Jeffares, A. Norman. ‘Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 29 May 2008.

"Sheridan was preparing for his own highly successful The School for Scandal, with its contrast between the Surface brothers, its exposure of the moralizing Joseph's hypocrisy and the generosity of Charles the ‘wild spark’. While mocking excessive sensibility, the play, first staged on 8 May 1777, drew genuine feeling in Lady Teazle's transformation, and reflected current political issues in its reference to the Annuity Act, which necessitated Sheridan's persuading the lord chamberlain that the money-lending scene was general satire, not an attack on Benjamin Hopkins, a respectable rival of the raffish politician John Wilkes for a public office."

B) Auburn, Mark S. ‘Richard Brinsley Sheridan: 1751-July 7, 1816.’ Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, Third Series. Edited by Paula R. Backscheider, University of Rochester. The Gale Group, 1989. LiteratureResourceCenter. 29 May 2008.

"Three strands of action intertwine to make the plot of The School for Scandal. One might be called punitive comedy of exposure, the process by which the villainous Lady Sneerwell and her scandalmongering friends and the hypocritical Joseph Surface are revealed to testy old Sir Peter Teazle, honest Sir Oliver Surface, bluff steward-manager Rowley, and lively, naive, fashion-seeking Lady Teazle as the malicious manipulators that they have been. The strand most problematic is a comedy of self-adjustment, in which the old bachelor Sir Peter and the country-bred Lady Teazle learn how to respect one another; many critics believe that their rapprochement is only a product of self-interest, but evidence in the text and what we know about the original performances suggest mutual affection to be the means of resolution. The third strand, a comedy of merit rewarded, shows how mildly libertine Charles Surface reveals himself as valuing openness, honesty, and family affection above his spendthrift habits, thereby meriting the continued support of his returning "nabob" uncle Sir Oliver and the hand of the sober, virtuous Maria, Sir Peter's orphaned ward…Twenty performances came before Drury Lane closed for the year, and in the next season forty-five were offered for a total of sixty-five in first full year-short of The Duenna's seventy-five in its first season, but grossing thirty percent more in 1777-1778 than the average evening of Sheridan's first season as manager."

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Varieties & Dialects

Overview of varieties / dialects

There are surprisingly few instances of non-standard English (particularly with an Anglo-Indian character). There are a few occurrences of bad grammar (Sir Peter and Snake), some Latin terms (Sir Oliver) and one Jewish character who uses “that” / “dat” inconsistently.

Varieties / dialects

Variety: Sir Peter Teazle
a. Sample of dialect
[page 15]
Sir Peter .
Then you was glad to take a ride out behind the butler, upon the old dock'd coach horse.
b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar: “you was”
b.3 Vocabulary
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: English nobleman, married to a much younger wife
e. Consistency of representation: only this instance

Variety: Moses
a. Sample of dialect:
[page 28]

Yes, dat is very great point.

Sir Oliver .
I'll answer for't I'll not be wanting in that, eight or ten per cent on the loan at least.

Oh! if you ask him no more as dat, you'll be discovered immediately.

Sir Oliver .
Hey, what the plague---how much then?

That depends upon the circumstances---if he appears not very anxious for the supply, you should require only forty or fifty per cent . but if you find him

[Page 29 ]

in great distress, and he wants money very bad---you must ask double.

b.1 Orthography: inconsistent use of “dat” and “that”
b.2 Grammar: “if he wants money very bad”; “dat is very great point”; “ask him no more as dat”
b.3 Vocabulary
c. Nationality: English (Jewish)
d. Character profile: Jewish moneylender
e. Consistency of representation: inconsistent

Variety: Sir Oliver
a. Sample of dialect
[page 43]

Sir Oliver .
What an unnatural rogue he is!--- An expert facto paracide.
b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: Latin: facto paracide
c. Nationality: English (Nabob)
d. Character profile: rich Nabob uncle to Joseph and Charles Surface; recently returned from India and travelling incognito in London
e. Consistency of representation: only this instance

Variety: Snake
a. Sample of dialect:
[page 77]

But I must beg it as a favour that it may never be spoke of.

b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar: “it may never be spoke of”
b.3 Vocabulary
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: a con man
e. Consistency of representation: consistent

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Narrative comments on varieties and dialects


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Other points of interest


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©2008 Arden Hegele