School for Scandal Summary

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

School for Scandal

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School for Scandal Summary

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The comedic, satirical play, School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was originally staged in 1777 in London’s Drury Lane Theatre. In this play, gossip and scandal, usually concerning sexual intrigue, dominate the high society and aristocracy of England. Often considered the highlight of the “comedy of manners” plays, Sheridan’s plot delivers a scathing rebuke of the lack of honor, lax morality, and conceits of the idle rich, who spend their time in constant turmoil striving for superior position and advantage amongst themselves, through destroying the good names of their peers.

Each character bears an obviously satirical name, for example, Lady Sneerwell’s primary occupation is spreading malicious lies and innuendos about other people, to gain favor for herself among her social set, while gleefully ruining the reputations of others. Therefore, thematically, there are two sets of characters in the play: those who revel in society as the school for scandal and those who do not. Through complicated plot twists and verbal jousting, the characters struggle to know the truth of each other’s characters. A secondary theme is that of the hidden nature of people’s true identities.

For example, Sir Peter Teazle, an older man, has recently married a young, beautiful country girl. He soon comes to doubt the wisdom of marrying such a young girl when Lady Teazle seems to revel in London society and all of its frivolous antics. Lady Sneerwell determines to ruin the Teazle’s marriage, and both their reputations, with the help of her intimate friend, Snake, who forges love letters in pursuit of Lady Sneerwell’s goals. In addition, she schemes to ruin the love affair between young Maria, Sir Oliver Surface’s ward, and Charles Surface, one of his nephews and potential heirs, because Lady Sneerwell wants Charles for herself. Joseph Surface, Charles’ brother, attempts to seduce Maria, but he is unsuccessful due to the help of Maria’s friend, Lady Candor. In the public’s eyes, Joseph is the “good” brother, while Charles is the wild and “bad” brother. Sir Oliver Surface has only recently returned to England after 15 years away, and hearing the terrible gossip about his nephews, he resolves to secretly discover their true natures before revealing himself and choosing an heir.

However, Lady Teazle nearly becomes caught up in an affair with Joseph Surface, though the gossip ties her to an affair with Charles Surface. When she is caught by her husband entertaining Joseph Surface, the truth is revealed. Lady Teazle tearfully confesses to her husband that she only considered indulging in an affair because she thought it was expected and fashionable amongst those in high society, but she truly only has ever had interest in her own husband. In the end, Joseph reveals his hypocritical, lying nature to his uncle by being caught with Lady Teazle, ensuring Charles’ future as his heir. Snake is rounded up by Sir Oliver, and Maria and Charles are reunited when Sir Oliver becomes certain of his good, or at least potentially redeemable, character.

Through comedy that includes exaggerated circumstances, including people hiding in closets and behind screens to avoid detection, and the use of clever language and dialogue, Sheridan holds a mirror up to his contemporary society, showing them their flaws through shared laughter at the follies and foibles of human nature. Popular since its first production, Sheridan’s play retains its relevance as the epitome of comedic social satire.