Gossip drives School for Scandal, a play in which far too often characters mistake appearance for reality and falsehood for truth. The play is a study of how gossip—which could be defined as words substituting for reality—can be manipulated by the immoral, greedy, and hardhearted to destroy lives and to bring, at least for a short time, material gains to the evil.
Lady Sneerwell is the chief example of malicious gossip. Through her, we learn that gossips are created, not born: Lady Sneerwell becomes a gossip in retaliation for how she was hurt by gossips as a young woman. From this, Sheridan shows how the damage of gossiping is spread like a disease. The play also indicts the role of more "innocent" gossips, such as Lady Candour, in serving and spreading the interests of evil simply by enjoying listening to, repeating, and embroidering false stories. There is no real "innocence" once one steps across the threshold of the gossips' lair.
Joseph Surface is another portrait of the malicious gossip: he is a lying hypocrite who pretends to goodness while spreading false and self-serving tales.
Sheridan shows us, however, that there is a way out of a world that seems, much like our modern world, awash in viral untruths. Sir Oliver manages to test words against the reality of actions to determine whose character is truly good versus whose is corrupt, in the process exposing both the evil and the honest. In doing so, he shows that gossip only has power if we allow it to.
For the characters in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy of manners School for Scandal, gossip is the common currency of everyday life in London society. Gossip provides a path to personal gain as well as a source of individual and group entertainment.
Gossip is the means by which characters like Lady Sneerwell and Joseph Surface increase their own worth and diminish and, whenever possible, destroy the worth of others. It's also a means by which characters like Mrs. Candour and Sir Benjamin Backbite simply have fun.
The characters' gossiping and rumor-mongering also illustrate and emphasize other themes in the play.
The theme of appearance versus reality is exemplified by the Surface brothers. Charles Surface is considered a rogue and a scoundrel, but he's actually honorable and trustworthy. Joseph Surface enjoys a reputation as a respectable, upstanding individual, but he's wholly corrupt.
The hypocrisy of those who gossip for personal advancement at the expense of others is apparent in the dealings of Joseph Surface, who feigns concern for his brother but who also attempts to sabotage him and acquire a fortune by manipulating Maria into marriage. Mrs. Candour hypocritically pretends to abhor gossip but in fact engages in gossip and rumor-mongering whenever she can.
The theme that idleness breeds mischief, if not downright evil, is prevalent throughout the play. Characters like Maria and Charles, who have better things to do than gossip and spread rumors, are depicted as people with integrity and high moral values. Characters like Lady Sneerwell, who have money, property, and time on their hands, are depicted as scheming, hypocritical, and immoral.
School for Scandal is a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It first opened to great success in London, May 1777. The play follows a group of rich Londoners who like to spread rumors and scandal.
As such, gossip and its consequences is perhaps the most significant theme within the play. The gossips can be split into two groups: those who gossip simply for their own enjoyment and those who gossip for their own gain.
The most prolific and also the most malicious gossip is Lady Sneerwell. She says that a scandal that ruined her reputation when she was only a young girl is the reason that she is now a gossip herself.
Yes, my dear Snake; and I am no hypocrite to deny the satisfaction I reap from the success of my efforts. Wounded myself in the early part of my life by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation.
Mrs. Clackitt, who we never actually see in the play, is also responsible for the ruination of many lives. Joseph Surface and Snake also fit into the category of cruel, self-interested gossips.
The characters who enjoy gossiping for fun are Mrs. Candour, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and his uncle Mr. Crabtree. They believe that gossiping and coming up with clever stories shows off their intelligence, their humor, and their sophistication.
None of the gossips in School for Scandal worry about the consequences of their rumors. And none of them are above adding lies and exaggerations to their stories to make them more interesting.
The title of the play gives an indication of one primary role that gossip plays: the interactions of a group of gossipers who spread information about scandals. Another related theme is how people get caught up in and harmed by that web of (often erroneous) information.
A number of the people in the "school" spend all their time sharing hearsay or outright lies about the others. With names like Snake, Lady Sneerwell, and Sir Backbite, it is easy to imagine their personalities, and offer a reminder that this is a comedy.
Gossip about possible behavior also ensnares people who want to live right but are tempted. Just being seen in the wrong company can ruin a reputation. Lady Teazle is among those torn between morality and desire. Her lack of caution almost ruins her.
The brothers Charles and Joseph seem to be two sides of a coin, one superficial and the other sincere. But are they really so different? Morality alone, Sheridan seems to say, cannot save a person who keeps running with the wrong crowd. Gossip is contagious, like a disease.
Gossip is in many ways the commerce of the wealthy, as they have leisure to socialize and party. But gossip, the play also shows, can increase a person's social value (and wealth) even as it harms their character. Even though Charles wins his dream girl and inheritance, he only succeeds in doing so by playing the gossip game.
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