What is the significance of the names Richard Brinsley Sheridan uses in his play School for Scandal?

The characters in The School for Scandal, like those in the Everyman plays, have names which describe their most prominent characteristics. Gossips have names like Sneerwell and Backbite, while their victims are called Prim and Nicely.

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Sheridan uses his characters’ names in School for Scandal to generate humor. Names like Snake and Sneerwell cannot but be amusing. But they have an additional purpose in that they tell us straight away what kind of people they are. Like Charles Dickens, Sheridan uses unusual names as an aid...

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Sheridan uses his characters’ names in School for Scandal to generate humor. Names like Snake and Sneerwell cannot but be amusing. But they have an additional purpose in that they tell us straight away what kind of people they are. Like Charles Dickens, Sheridan uses unusual names as an aid to characterization. Once we’re introduced to Lady Sneerwell, for instance, we’re left in no doubt whatsoever as to what her chief characteristic is. And as for Snake, he couldn’t really be anything other than a slippery customer.

As Sheridan is writing a comedy of manners, satirizing the often appalling behavior of certain members of the English upper classes, subtlety pretty much goes out of the window here. But that’s perfectly intentional. Sheridan doesn’t want to portray the upper classes in a subtle light; quite the opposite. He wants them to be exposed, warts and all, in all their vanity, moral corruption, and rank stupidity.

These are people who hide behind a facade of respectability and high social status as they indulge in all manner of outrageous behavior. By giving them such on-the-nose character names, Sheridan is stripping away their civilized veneer to reveal what’s really going on beneath these louche aristocrats’ refined exteriors.

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Like the Everyman plays before him and Charles Dickens after him, Richard Brinsley Sheridan uses names to highlight the principal trait or disposition of the character in question. School for Scandal is about gossip and intrigue, a fact reflected by its title as well as the names of many characters. Lady Sneerwell, whose name reflects her propensity for sneering, is the most prominent, and her hireling, Snake, is equally well named for his poisonous and untrustworthy nature.

The scandal-mongers have suitable names for their conduct and tastes. Sir Benjamin Backbite spreads gossip and composes doggerel about acquaintances behind their backs, which is what "backbiting" means. Mr. Crabtree's sour nature is reflected by his name, since the crabtree produces only sour fruit, the crabapple. Their victims are similarly well named. Miss Vermillion, mocked for her use of cosmetics, is named after a type of red makeup which gives the appearance of blushing. The characteristics suggested by the names of Miss Prim and Miss Nicely are even more obvious. Miss Evergreen, meanwhile, is castigated for her attempts to remain young-looking.

The name "Surface" is shared by Joseph, Charles, and Sir Oliver. Its suggestion of shallowness and hypocrisy is most appropriate for Joseph, though it comes to have an equally apposite meaning for Sir Oliver when he appears in disguise. Even Charles is not innocent of shallowness, and his friend Careless is equally well named.

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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. 

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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
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