English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




***   26. School for Scandal   ***



The Talk of the Town

Vol. 1C pages 3001-3063 from Longman 3rd ed
"Richard Brinsley Sheridan" and "The School for Scandal"

for an online text of the play see Project Gutenberg

A Dover edition is also online.


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the final essay . Some other journaling ideas for today include:

What similarities and differences do you find with Twelfth Night?

How are Joseph and Charles contrasted?

What makes the screen scene (Act 4 scene 3) so successful? Other great scenes for analysis are the picture scene (Act 4 scene 1) and the story scene (Act 5 scene 2).

In the later 18th century the influence of books on literature seems to be retreating, giving way to observation of nature and natural speech. Compare "The Rape of the Lock" with Sheridan's play.

Compare the idea of celebrity or fame in The School for Scandal with the in Beowulf or Arthurian romance or any other literature we have read earlier.

Adapted and enlarged by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003)


Richard B. SHeridan

The irreverence of the 18th century is both celebrated and condemned in Richard Brinsley  Sheridan's The School for Scandal. It is celebrated in the hero Charles Surface, the hard-drinking rake who is ready to "knock down" his glorious ancestors and yet is beloved and reformable. It is condemned in the villain Joseph Surface, the hypocritical man of "sentiment" who seeks to advance himself by defaming his brother. The one is charitable and faithful in love, the other is greedy and malicious. They are paralleled in the older generation by the generous benefactor Sir Oliver Surface and the jealous penny-pinching Sir Peter Teazle. This is a Christian play of the Prodigal Son, and the parable of the talents, but it teaches Christian morality (to have reverence for others) without religiosity or sermonizing.

It is the scandalmongers who are the most memorable figures in Sheridan's play: Lady Sneerwell, Mrs. Candour, Sir Benjamin Backbite and Crabtree, Snake and the unreformed Lady Teazle. In their circle we find our own world of commercial gossip, of “private” revelations, factual or fictitious, profitably retailed for public consumption. The Town and Country Magazine, cited in the play’s first moments, was the prototype of today’s People and its numberless tabloid and television clones. Our mindless culture of celebrity is part of our British heritage.





 Left: Richard Brinsley Sheridan.




Sheridan knew more intimately than most the workings of the new gossip enterprise. He was born for celebrity as his father was a famous actor, his mother a well-known novelist and playwright. A few years before The School for Scandal had capped off Sheridan's first season as theater manager at Drury Lane, the newspapers had made much of his elopement with a young woman who had been previously betrothed to a much older man, and of his two half-farcical duels with a rival suitor. (Her earlier betrothal had even been transformed into a successful comedy, The Maid at Bath, by Samuel Foote.) Sheridan incorporated elements of these romantic experiences in two manuscript sketches that eventually took shape as The School for Scandal. In “The Slanderers,” a group of gossips convenes to mock and plot; in “Sir Peter Teazle” a middle-aged man newly and ruefully married does combat with his young, defiant country wife. Soon enough, Sheridan worked out a way to make the two parts mesh.

He begins with the slanderers, and the best route into the play's opening scene is to savor the buzz and the sting of it, the malicious pleasure that the characters take in their own machinations, and the more complex pleasure, at once satirical and collusive, that Sheridan invites us to take in hearing them. Scandal-mongering is presented as a learned art that includes a variety of tactics: the planting of paragraphs (compare Snake's forgeries to Maria's in Twelfth Night), the circulating of rumors, the propagation of errors (in Crabtree’s game of eighteenth-century “telephone” concerning the Nova Scotia sheep), the protestation against gossip as a cover for purveying gossip (this is Mrs. Candour’s specialty), the profession of sympathy (this is Joseph’s) for the very victim one is currently skewering. Sheridan works the customary satirist’s double play of exaggerating bad behavior in such a way as to allow the audience both identification and self-distancing: we’ve been bad this way ourselves, but surely not this bad--or have we? Still, by placing the slanderers first in the play, he partly cultivates our alliance with them. We depend on their gossip for exposition—for the story of Charles, Maria, Sir Peter and the rest on which the play will turn. Even while anatomizing the tactics of tattle, Sheridan addicts us to their operations.




Left: Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1785), by the famous 18th century painter Thomas Gainsborough.



The characters in the play are gauged in large part by their involvement with, and distance from, Lady Sneerwell’s malicious circle: those who have any capacity for love are not participants. Maria, in the first scene, gains the first exemption. Her few lines and her hasty exit show her critical of the school’s machination, but helpless in the face of them. (Sheridan conspicuously pares back her role throughout the play; the actress for whom the part was written was new and unsure of herself.) Sir Peter shows a subtler distance from the pack. He is baffled by his own predicament and almost incapable of seeing through Joseph's lies, yet he is possessed by a genuine if troubling emotion: the love he asserts for his recalcitrant new wife. He is (as his wife well knows) deeply invested in the illusion of his own “authority,” but he is also awakening (as the audience learns) to other priorities: “how pleasingly she shows her contempt of my authority,” he remarks once she’s left.

In Lady Teazle, the country wife newly enamored of town ways, Sheridan embodies the most ambivalent response to the Scandal School, and the one that the audience may most recognize as its own. Lady Teazle is both drawn to the group and at least incipiently wary of it. Sheridan sequences the scenes so as first to show Sir Peter and Lady Teazle in short, sharp combat with each other (2.1) and then to move them quickly into Sneerwell’s circle (2.2), where the conflict unfolds in a larger world and a longer scene. Like Maria earlier, Sir Peter tries to confront the slanderers; he proves more vociferous than she but no more effectual, and (again like Maria) departs in haste, leaving his wife and (as he jokes) his reputation behind. In Lady Teazle’s lingering, the School would seem to have scored a palpable hit, but Sheridan takes pains to deflect it. When Lady Teazle confronts her wouldbe seducer Joseph Surface, she makes clear that while she has some taste for scandalous talk, she has none for scandalous acts.





Left: The Teazles appearing at Stratford festival in Ontario, 1999. This classic is still performed.




Scene from SHeridan's School for ScandalThe unlike brothers Charles and Joseph play out Sheridan’s response to the theory of moral sentiment, a cult of feeling and moralistic expression that had emerged in the later half of the 18th century. Throughout its elaborations by thinkers from the Earl of Shaftesbury to Adam Smith, the fundamental proposition remained simple. Doing good feels good; the best criteria for evaluating actions are the feelings that prompt them, and the feelings they produce. It followed, by extension, that generous impulses in themselves might constitute virtuous actions. In plays, novels, and treatises, writers explored this idea’s potential as a source of charity and of mere self-absorption (sentimentalists being apt to congratulate themselves on the pure intensity of their own emotions):

  • Joseph represents the dark side. He compulsively spouts “sentiments” in the old root sense of the word: high moral sentences, generalizations about proper feeling, to which (as his condemnatory surname implies) he adheres not at all in practice. (It is one of Sir Peter’s saving graces that, though he falls for Joseph’s sentimental act hook, line, and sinker, he cannot quite bring himself to replicate it. In the very first and very last lines of his first scene [1.2], he attempts to launch a Joseph-like generalization, but promptly gives it up as a bad job.)

  • Charles, by contrast, acts on the genuine feelings themselves, free of their verbal formulation. The propensity first appears at his drinking-party (3.3), a mid-play counterpart (all festivity and no cunning) to the Sneerwell circle, and culminates in the auction scene (4.1), where affinities of fellow feeling abound and prevail. At the comic climax of that scene, where Charles decides not to sell the portrait of his beneficent Uncle Oliver at any price, Sheridan clinches his point visually and theatrically. Uncle Oliver’s good nature is at this point doubly concealed, by his present disguise as Mr. Premium, and by the “stern” expression of the portrait that belies his benevolence. Yet Charles’s intrinsic good nature responds to Oliver’s despite all these barriers, and so secures his inheritance (“The rogue’s my nephew after all!”).


The School for Scandal continues the great tradition of drinking scenes which we have seen from Beowulf and Canterbury Tales to Twelfth Night and Gulliver's Travels (contrast tea in the Rape of the Lock)


Moses from Sheridan's School for ScandalAs Frank Ellis points out in his book Sentimental Comedy (Cambridge UP, 1991), one of the things that sentimentalists most often sentimentalized was money. Fellow feeling trumps monetary desire Charles will not sell the picture, and thereby he garners monetary rewards (Charles is set for life). “Knock ’em down,” cries the auctioneer as he sells off the other pictures, but at scene’s end what have really been knocked down are the barriers of reputation and appearance so useful to the Sneerwell circle, and so inimical to the affinities that Charles and Oliver discover by the mysterious operations of sentiment.

School at the Globe Theatre London 2006The auctioneer’s key phrase proves prophetic of both the play’s structure and its performance history.
The School for Scandal climaxes in a subsequent knockdown—the falling of the screen in Joseph’s library (4.3)—that by all accounts in performance nearly brought the house down, too. The audience response on opening night was such that one boy, passing the playhouse at the crucial moment, believed in terror that the edifice was actually collapsing, and discovered only “the next morning that the noise did not arise from the falling of the house, but from the falling of the screen in the fourth act; so violent and so tumultuous were the applause and laughter” (Frederic Reynolds, The Life and Times of Frederic Reynolds [London, 1826], 1.110).

What accounted for all this tumult? Perhaps it was the quick ricochet of revelation, in one of the best-managed moments of recognition in all comedy: Charles’s and Peter’s twinned reactions, ending in opposite adjectives (“Lady Teazle, by all that’s wonderful/horrible”); Joseph’s protracted silence, followed by convulsive, ineffectual self-defense. (Silence, specified in the stage directions, matters hugely to the scene’s success, making room not only for the “applause and laughter” but for Charles’s acute and almost tender interrogation of the other three, who stand stock still.) The core of the scene’s power, though, lies not in any of these three characters but in the two parties at opposite ends of the revelatory spectrum: Lady Teazle and the audience, now freshly linked by Sheridan’s stagecraft. During her time behind the screen, Lady Teazle has become an audience too, in fact pure auditor (all ears, no eyes). She has heard things—about Peter’s warmth, and Joseph’s coldness—that the audience has long understood. At the fall of the screen, the audience can laugh at the stupefaction of the stage witnesses, but can savor what those onstage are too surprised to contemplate: Lady Teazle’s self-recognition, her sorting-through of the delusions she’s done with and her working-out of how to proceed from here. Sheridan stages things so that we suddenly see her at a moment when she is suddenly seeing herself. During the ensuing dialogue he deftly gives her reaction considerable time to develop.

from a 2006 performance at Everyman Theater in BaltimoreMuch of the pleasure in the famous screen scene consists in watching Joseph construct his own trap in a series of encounters with characters more authentic than himself, working hard against the effects of Lady Teazle’s crackling retorts, Sir Peter’s newly self-critical self-revelations, Charles’ confident and rather wide-eyed banter. Joseph arranges the screen, at the scene’s start, to block a window, but in the end the screen is a medium of transparency, a means of seeing-through the lies that are told to our faces. “You make even your screen a source of knowledge,” Peter remarks, in one of the scene’s exquisite little self-prophecies. Sheridan sustains the motif of enclosures and openings into the later reconciliation scene (5.2), where Peter approaches his wife through a door she has deliberately left open.

In this play as in many comedies, the moment of recognition breaks a spell for audience as well as characters. We spend almost all of Act 5 in the company of the Scandal School, but find no trace of our earlier expository dependence on them. They are in the wrong, and we know because we have witnessed the events that they now falsify into preposterous fiction. Sheridan here sends up the fuss the newspapers made of his own amorous activities and abortive duels, but he makes a larger point too, about the medium he works in and the media that compete with it. Gossip, whether spoken or in print, depends on absence; we purvey malicious news, and contrive malicious fictions, only when the person under scrutiny is safely elsewhere. Simply by entering the room, Peter explodes their fantasy that he’s near death. “Egad . . . this is the most sudden recovery!”

Look once more at Joshua Reynolds’ portrait (Plate 23 and below) of Frances Abington in 1771, in the role of another would-be country wife, William Congreve’s Miss Prue. The painting anticipates the mix of elegance and audacity, wonder and defiance that would help make Lady Teazle the definitive role of Abington’s career.


Left: portrait of actor Robert Baddeley as Sheridan's Moses, cir. 1781. The play's Christian message includes figures of Jews as grasping money-lenders, a stereotype traditional on the English stage. To what extent is the play a purveyor of scandal?


























Richard Brinsley Sheridan texts at Bartleby.

Memoirs of the Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan at Batleby

Sheridan website by David Francis Taylor

Richard Brinslet Sheridan wasn't born here from the Irish Independent


Know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson? Please send it to Dr. G. I


Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess.