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Culture is defined as the behavior patterns shared by a group of people. Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor defined such behavior as the "knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired" by a group of people (as cited in "What is Culture," Palomar College). Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play School for Scandal, a comedy of manners, reveals a great deal about upper-class culture at the turn of the century that still holds true for all classes of Western society today.
One thing the play reveals is that society has a tendency to behave immorally; in other words, it has a tendency to behave in ways contrary to what society holds to be moral and ethical behavior. Honesty is one example of a behavior believed to be moral, yet all of the characters behave in dishonest ways. They take pride in slandering each other, and all are guilty of deception. One example of a character guilty of deception is Sir Oliver, who tricks both of his nephews with the purpose of discovering the truth about their characters. First, he tricks Charles by posing as a moneylender and discovers that Charles has liquidated all of his assets, except for Sir Oliver's portrait, to pay off gambling debts; yet, despite Charles's loose behavior, Sir Oliver also discovers that Charles very willingly financially assists their poor relation, Mr. Stanley. Then, Sir Oliver deceives his nephew Joseph by posing as Mr. Stanley asking for money. Through this deception, Sir Oliver learns that Joseph is a selfish liar.
Yet, the play further reveals that a part of culture is to behave in a contradictory fashion. Society is revealed as having contradictory culture because, despite society's tendency to behave immorally, Sheridan's play also reveals that society strongly values honor. One who acts honorably acts with integrity, which is to act according to one's moral principles. Society's cultural belief in the value of honor is revealed through the fact that, by the end of the play, the most honorable characters gain the most happiness. One example is seen in the fact that Charles gains the inheritance of Sir Oliver's fortune as well as the hand of Maria in marriage because, despite his gambling debts, he shows he is honorable through his diligence in paying off his debts, his willingness to change, and his willingness to generously financially assist Mr. Stanley. His willingness to change, thereby upholding his honor, is especially seen in his final lines of the final scene:
Why, as to reforming, Sir Peter, I'll make no promises, and that I take to be a proof that I intend to set about it. (5.3.127-26)
In the above, Charles is saying he cannot lie to promise he will reform, and refusing to lie helps prove that he is fully willing to reform and thereby uphold his honor.
Hence, Sheridan's play reveals that society's culture is a bundle of contradictions. While we value such morals as honor, we rarely act upon our morals.
The great comedy School for Scandal reflects its society's culture in many ways. It reflects its society through the sort of characters who are shown worthy of praise or blame. These aren't just randomly chosen individuals, but represent types. Sheridan shows his culture's values through what the characters are concerned with (marriage, gossip, reputation, the lack of independence that comes through debt, true value vs. appearances, etc.). The play also shows its culture's values through its biases; look at how the play portrays Jews.
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