What is the significance of the names Richard Brinsley Sheridan uses in his play School for Scandal?
Many of the names in School for Scandal describe the characters in question, giving them an allegorical quality reminiscent of medieval drama in which characters had names that identified them by their roles, such as "Everyman," "Vice," or "Sloth." This form of naming represents the tendency in eighteenth-century drama to create characters who were "types" rather than distinct individuals. Sheridan, in other words, is not alone in this naming: playwrights did it all the time. Sheridan, like others, uses names to both point to the comedic nature of his drama and to indicate that School for Scandal deals in moral issues; more specifically, the damage done by gossip and by valuing words over action in judging other people.
As for names in the play, Lady Sneerwell, as her name suggests, "sneers well" by specializing in and spreading vicious gossip that ruins reputations, while her servant Snake, as his name implies, is underhanded. Careless is Charles Surface's partying, irresponsible friend, while Sir Benjamin Backbite is an irritating gossip who goes after Maria.
Other names also have an ironic twist. Mrs. Candour gossips so freely—she is so "candid" or "honest"—that she spreads falsehoods, while the name Surface, shared by Joseph and Charles, really means that we need to look below the surface of these men to determine who has true worth.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play School for Scandal is what is known as a "comedy of manners" or "drawing room comedy." It is an iconic exemplar of this genre, which gains its comic effect from making fun of the wealthy, typically through witty repartee and entertaining plot twists. Despite its frothy entertaining character, the play also, like the satires of Juvenal, unmasks vice and hypocrisy. The names of the major characters add to the humor of the play by revealing much of their true nature and providing opportunities for puns and other forms of word play and verbal irony. Some examples of this are:
- Lady Teazle: teases people in a nasty manner verbally and teases potential paramours in the sense of being sexually suggestive without actually committing adultery, but regains her moral sense by the end of the play.
- Sir Benjamin Backbite: is a backstabber who spreads malicious gossip.
- Mrs. Candour: is candid and open, but this means that she spreads gossip.
- Snake: is snake-like and venomous.
- Joseph Surface: his superficial amiability masks a deeper hypocrisy