Explain the theme 'fickleness of reputation' in Sheridan's The School for Scandal.

lit24 | Student

The title of the play "The School for Scandal," clearly reveals the theme of the play namely 'fickleness of reputation.' Gossiping and scandal mongering were the most ubiquitous vices of Sheridan's time and no one's reputation was safe, in fact the more one tried to safeguard his or her reputation more carefully, the more they were in danger of having it destroyed. This is most evident in Act I Sc. 1 itself when Crabtree reveals how Miss Letitia Piper came to give birth to twins:

Crab. Why, one evening, at Mrs. Ponto’s assembly, the conversation happened to turn on the breeding Nova Scotia sheep in this country. Says a young lady in company, I have known instances of it; for Miss Letitia Piper, a first cousin of mine, had a Nova Scotia sheep that produced her twins. “What!” cries the Lady Dowager Dundizzy (who you know is as deaf as a post), “has Miss Piper had twins?” This mistake, as you may imagine, threw the whole company into a fit of laughter. However, ’twas the next morning everywhere reported, and in a few days believed by the whole town, that Miss Letitia Piper had actually been brought to bed of a fine boy and girl: and in less than a week there were some people who could name the father, and the farm-house where the babies were put to nurse.

Scandal mongering was a very common vice during Sheridan's life time and he decided to attack it in his satirical play "The School for Scandal." The latent irony in the title is expressed straightaway in the 'Prologue' itself:

"A school for Scandal! tell me, I beseech you,
Needs there a school this modish art to teach you?
No need of lessons now, the knowing think;
We might as well be taught to eat and drink."

The vice is so ubiquitous that Sheridan says that there is no need to 'teach' how to spread scandal. Sheridan in two scenes(Act I sc.2 and Act II sc.2) reveals to us the various ways in which scandal can be spread throughout society. His aim in doing so is to expose the vice in all its glory in the hope that society might reform itself and put an end to scandal mongering. But Garrick informs us in the 'Prologue' that this is a futile task:

"Alas! the devil's sooner raised than laid.
So strong, so swift, the monster there's no gagging:
Cut Scandal's head off, still the tongue is wagging."

However, one eager 'pupil' of this 'School for Scandal' does learn her lesson and is finally 'cured' of this vice. Lady Teazle, who after she marries Sir Peter Teazle and enrolls herself in this school, willingly and eagerly learns to speak ill of others. Her husband tries to cure her of this vice but she refuses
to listen to him. Finally, after a narrow escape from being molested by Joseph Surface she realizes the foolishness of her ways and is reformed: "No Sir--she has recovered her Senses." (ActIII Sc.3)

Sheridan in the concluding lines of his 'Prologue' seems to say 
that although society itself is a 'school for scandal' it is still possible to reform the scandal mongerers:

"Bless'd were the fair like you; her faults who stopp'd,
And closed her follies when the curtain dropp'd!
No more in vice or error to engage,
Or play the fool at large on life's great stage."

Read the study guide:
School for Scandal

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