Places Discussed

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Lady Sneerwell’s dressing room

Lady Sneerwell’s dressing room. Despite the fact that the stage direction indicates that the first scene of the play takes place at Lady Sneerwell’s dressing table, the room in which the scene takes place is a large room used by fashionable ladies for waiting on their most confidential guests. Thus Lady Sneerwell uses her dressing room to converse with Snake in much the same way the men of the house would use the library.

Drawing room

Drawing room. Other scenes in Lady Sneerwell’s house are set in the typical drawing room of a fashionable house. For example, in act 2, scene 2, Sheridan presents the famous school for scandal in attendance in the drawing room. Drawing rooms were used purely for public purposes. It was here that a hostess would receive guests or where guests would gather before and after dinner. Usually they were among the larger rooms of the house and certainly the room in Lady Sneerwell’s house is big enough to handle her rather large group of scandalmongers.


Library. Joseph Surface’s library, in which the play’s most famous scene is set. Like women’s dressing rooms, libraries were places where men met their friends for personal visits. Usually, however, it was where they met their male friends, so the scene in which Joseph meets intimately with Lady Teazle has a special significance in its being set in the library.

Historical Context

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Sheridan's England was a very different one than that of earlier British playwrights. The mid-seventeenth century had brought the German House of Hanover to the English throne. The first two King Georges spoke little English and had no interest in patronizing the arts. Royal patronage, which had supported so many writers in the past, ended. By the tune George III became king in 1760, England was more concerned with colonization and reform than with supporting the arts.

While the British were cementing their control over Canada and India the American colonists were proving themselves restless with Britain's rule. England had always seen itself as a military power; when the discontent in the colonies developed into the American Revolutionary War, which the British ultimately lost, George III took the news badly. But George III, who had always been popular with his subjects, was ill and at the mercy of his son who constantly plotted to seize the throne.

At the same time, the industrialization of England had resulted in an even sharper division between classes. Industrialization brought a great deal of wealth to England, but little of it found its way to the working class or the poor. What the poor had, instead, was even less than before. With the Enclosure Act, the lower class were shifted from the country, losing a simple existence that permitted them to grow some of their food and trade for their needs.

With no where else to go, these displaced people moved into London. There was little shelter and even fewer jobs to greet them. But there was cheap gin, and public drunkenness became a serious problem. But there were also public executions to entertain the poor and prisons for those who could not pay their debts. For those with money, there was tobacco and opium. There were coffeehouses, where tea was served more frequently than coffee, and men met there to drink and talk and read the newspapers.

Women were usually excluded from these social activities, but they did make attempts at social integration and suffrage (the right to vote). Gambling was a proper occupation for gentlemen, as was the visiting of brothels....

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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While paying a prostitute for sex or having a mistress was acceptable for men, the same behavior was not permitted for women. Ladies of the eighteenth century were to be chaste, and early marriage was encouraged to ensure this; girls could wed at twelve years of age. Still, no such high standard interfered with men's behavior.

By the last half of the eighteenth century, drama had almost disappeared from the theatre. There were many great actors, but few playwrights were creating memorable work. There was little incentive for good writing. The playwright collected only the third, sixth, and sometimes (if the play lasted), ninth night's profits. Theatre owners and actors, however, made a great deal of money. Still, theatre flourished, and several of London's more notable drama houses (including Sheridan's own Drury Lane Theatre) were established in the 1700s.

Surrounding the theatres were brothels, and this reflected the dual nature of the city. London was a complex city, and, in many ways, it reflected the chaos of the royal family. There were huge stores that imported the finest objects from around the world, and the city was crowded with artisans and street singers. The municipality tried to keep the streets cleaned, and sewers were being built. But coal dust turned the buildings black and covered everything in its path. And on the edge of all this civility, the slums existed. Sewage was dumped into the river Thames, and the poor made use with outside privies and slept in the doorways. Whole families shared one room—if they could afford it.

The city overflowed with life and vitality, but there were two distinct worlds present. One was the world of the rigidly defined life of society, where social convention ruled behavior. This is the world of Sheridan's School for Scandal. The other world lay just outside the theatre's doors. Those dark, depressed, and often twisted lives would not be the subject of plays until the next century.

Literary Style

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A major division in a drama. In Greek plays, the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House) revolutionized dramatic structure by combining elements into fewer acts.

School for Scandal is a five-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of Lady Sneerwell and Joseph's plan to break up the romance between Charles and Maria; the audience also meets the gossips. By the end of Act II, the complication, the audience has met Sir Oliver and knows that he plans to test his nephews' morality. The climax occurs in the third act when Charles meets his uncle disguised as a moneylender and agrees to sell him the family portraits.

The conflict between Maria and her guardian, Sir Peter, is revealed when she refuses his request to allow Joseph to court her. There are several near misses as a series of visits, Lady Teazle and her husband, Charles, and Lady Sneerwell all arrive at Joseph's. As Lady Teazle and her husband each hide in separate areas and each peek to see what is occurring, the screen finally provides the falling action, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when Sir Oliver's arrival restores order and Sir Peter is reconciled with Maria and Charles.

This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally, plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused by the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner.

Thus the plot of School for Scandal is the story of how Joseph and Lady Sneerwell each try to lie their way to getting what they want, while its parallel plot is how Sir Oliver attempts to discover the truth about his nephews. But the themes are those of falsehood (in the form of malicious gossip), honesty, true love, and a rejection of sentiment as a virtue.

The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Sheridan's play is London during the eighteenth century—more specifically, it is set in London's richer quarters. No exact time markers are provided, but the action takes place during a short period of time.

A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. "Characterization" is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this, the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.

School for Scandal provides two types of characters. There are traditional heroes and villains and a vulnerable young woman. But some characters are also defined by his or her name. Lady Sneerwell clearly does a good job of sneering contemptuously at everyone else. And Backbite lives up to his name as well. Charles and Joseph's natures are revealed in their surname, Surface, indicating that they are somewhat superficial characters interested in appearances.

Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means "kind" or "type." Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance.

School for Scandal is most frequently classified as a comedy of manners, although it has also been accurately described as social satire and anti-sentimental drama.

Comedy of Manners
"Comedy of manners" is a term applied to a type of play that provides a depiction of the very artificial manners and conventions of society. Characters are usually types and not individuals. Their names reflect their "type." The dialogue in these plays is witty and is of more interest to the audience than the plot, which serves more as an excuse to deliver humorous lines. The comedy of manners is associated most closely with the Restoration of the late-seventeenth century. But the illicit love affairs and lack of morality that defined the genre eventually resulted in their disappearing from the stage. Sheridan revived this genre in the late eighteenth century.

Satire attempts to blend social commentary with comedy and humor. Satire does not usually attack any individual but rather the institution he or she represents. The intent is to expose problems and create debate that will lead to a correction of the problem. In School for Scandal, Sheridan satirizes a society that is so shallow that gossip and slander—and the destruction of a reputation—are forms of entertainment.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1777: The Continental Congress votes to accept the services of the Marquis de Lafayette, who will command a division during the American Revolutionary War. Lafayette will assist the American Colonies, although he has been forbidden to do so by the king of France Louis XVI. The French have secretly been supporting the American war effort for nearly two years.

    Today: The United States regards England as one of its closest allies and strongest supporters. The two countries frequently support one another in economic, military, and cultural efforts.

  • 1777: The victory at Saratoga is a turning point for the Revolutionary War. For the first tune, the English realize that they can not beat the Americans. Parliament asks George III to back down and end the war. He refuses to consider the option.

    Today: The monarchy of England has little political power and could neither declare war nor sustain one in opposition to parliament.

  • 1777: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is composing music and his Concert No. 9 for Pianoforte and Orchestra in E flat major debuts in Salzburg. Europe remains a center for great music, with London better known for its theatre than its musical composers.

    Today: England has been an important force in popular music since the 1960s, delivering such influential groups as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.

  • 1777: Disease is a major threat to living a long life. Ailments such as tuberculosis cripple and kill many people. George Washington obtains approval to have his troops inoculated against smallpox.

    Today: Advancements in medical technology have resulted in treatments, preventions, or cures for such diseases as tuberculosis and polio. Smallpox is considered to be completely eradicated, and vaccination is no longer required.

Media Adaptations

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School for Scandal was videotaped in 1965. The 100 minute-long black and white film, taped during a stage performance of the play, stars Joan Plowright and Felix Aylmer. The Hal Burton production is available from Video Yesteryear.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Morrow, Laura. "Television, Text, and Teleology in a School for Scandal," in Shakespeare on Film Newsletter, Vol. 11, no. 2, 1987, p. 3.

Morwood, James, and David Crane. "On Producing Sheridan: A Conversation with Peter Wood," in Sheridan Studies, edited by Morwood and Crane. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 178-88.

Rump, Eric. "Sheridan, Congreve and School for Scandal," in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 58-70.

Snider, Rose. "Richard B. Sheridan," in Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward, 1937, reprint by Phaeton Press, 1972, pp. 41-73.

Taylor, Richard. '"Future Retrospection': Rereading Sheridan's Reviewers," in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 47-57.

Wiesenthal, Christine. "Representation and Experimentation in the Major Comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 25, no. 3, 1992, pp. 309-30.

Further Reading
Auburn, Mark S. "Richard Brinsley Sheridan," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89. Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, edited by Paula R. Backscheider. Gale, 1989, pp. 298-322. Auburn provides a general overview of Sheridan's plays and his life.

de Selincourt, Aubrey. "Sheridan," in Six Great Playwrights: Sophocles Shakespeare Moliere Sheridan, Ibsen, Shaw. Hamish Hamilton, 1960, pp. 105-31. This essay is an examination of the construction of several of Sheridan's plays, with a brief look at Sheridan's development of characters.

Hay, Douglas, and Peter Linebaugh, Eds. Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. Pantheon, 1975. This book explores the legal problems that confronted the differences in class. The book includes a number of detailed studies.

Hogan, Robert. "Plot, Character, and Comic Language in Sheridan," in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, edited by A. R. Braunmiller and J. C. Bulman. University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 274-85. Hogan compares Sheridan's use of plot and comedic language in School for Scandal and The Rivals.

Kronenberger, Louis. "School for Scandal," in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy, edited by Scott McMillin. W. W. Norton, 1973, pp. 558-63. Kronenberger discusses the strengths and appeal of School for Scandal. He focuses on the themes and on the play's contrasts with Restoration comedy.

Jarrett, Derek. England in the Age of Hogarth. Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974. Derek presents a social history of the eighteenth century The author uses diaries and letters to provide authenticity to his ideas.

Mikhail, E. H., Ed. Sheridan: Interviews and Recollections. St. Martin's Press, 1989. Mikhail provides an interesting examination of the private Sheridan through the use of letters and recollections from the period to offer a different biography of Sheridan. The author has tried to use information that has not been previously printed in other biographies.

Porter, Roy. English Society in the Eighteenth Century. Penguin, 1982. Porter tries to provide a comprehensive look at eighteenth-century English life. He offers a number of small details on every aspect of English social life, from the small country town to London.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Penguin, 1977. Stone's study of family life and the relationship between family, state, and law is easy to read and absorb. Stone includes examples to support this account of social history. This volume makes it easy to see the progression of family structure and values during 300 years of political and social transformation.


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Auburn, Mark. Sheridan’s Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. Perhaps the best of the very few full-length studies of Sheridan and his work. First-rate discussion of The School for Scandal.

Danziger, Marlies K. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Frederick Unger, 1978. A good place to begin study of Sheridan and his work. Contains an excellent discussion of The School for Scandal and a useful bibliography.

Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1976. Carefully researched and rewarding study by a leading scholar in the field. Places Sheridan’s work firmly in the context of late eighteenth century theater and dispels many of the myths surrounding The School for Scandal. Highly recommended.

Schiller, Andrew. “The School for Scandal: The Restoration Unrestored.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 71 (September, 1956): 694-704. In this classic article, Schiller attacks the idea that The School for Scandal recaptures the spirit and substance of Restoration comedy. Schiller considers The School for Scandal “a kind of bourgeois morality play.”

Worth, Katharine. Sheridan and Goldsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Worth is at her best in this slender but worthwhile book when discussing the plays of Sheridan and Goldsmith in the context of eighteenth century theatrical traditions and practices. Very good chapter on The School for Scandal.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide