School for Scandal
Title How Words Can Build or Destroy
This School trains people into the art and culture of pretenses and character assassination and it has many outstanding graduates. Those who make flat a's in the simulated class are prominently Lady Sneerwell, Lady Backbite, Mrs. Candour and Joseph Surface. Joseph has a unique contribution to the culture of hypocrisy, paralleled only by his co-conspirator, Lady Sneerwell, but being male, he has an edge and invites greater focus and discussion.
While Lady Sneerwell is accorded with the dishonor of forming and leading the School for Scandal in using Joseph Surface to connect her with brother Charles, Joseph merely uses her and the newcomer Lady Teazle in separate relationships, but in reality, wants Maria as his brother Charles does (Sheridan 1777). Charles, Joseph and Maria are all wards of their uncle, Sir Peter Teazle, but the brothers have distinctively different personalities, both hidden. Joseph appears to all as benevolent and a gentleman, while Charles is a wastrel and disrespectable. Through her very effective school of gossipers, Lady Sneerwell creates and spreads intrigues and falsehoods against the goodly Charles so that Maria may turn her back to Charles and leave him open. Meantime, Joseph enjoys the gossips that destroy the relationship between his cousins and the favor of their uncle, who believes Joseph to the better and more reputable man for Maria (Sheridan).
A long-lost uncle Sir Oliver returns from the East Indies with a fortune and plans to investigate on the rumored behaviors of his two nephews in deciding as to whom between them should be his heir. The School has effectively built a positive image of Joseph and this information has reached the long-lost uncle, who is wise enough to see the truth for himself and not just rely on outside and unverified information about his nephews whom he had not met.
The era during which this play was written was steep in costly fashion and scandalous circumstances, including incest. The wards Charles, Joseph and Maria are first cousins, as their fathers are brothers. Their uncle Sir Peter also marries a much younger and extravagant wife, Lady Teazle, who gets enrolled and indoctrinated in Lady Steerwell's infamous school for gossipers and the high life. Lady Teazle has the nerve to challenge her husband to ending their marriage. The story becomes more complicated when Joseph gets into a secret, adulterous and likewise incestuous relationship with the flaunty Lady Teazler as a consequence of the School's influence. Charles gets all the blame and disfavor while Joseph keeps his moral reputation high and intact, but cautious about Maria's learning about his affair with Lady Sneerwell.
Joseph's position of advantage finally comes to a reckoning when his returning uncle Sir Oliver conducts his investigation on the true characters of his two nephews. Sir Oliver is the force that opposes the tide of hypocrisy in that society, having been in another region and with a resulting and different mindset of his own. In his talk with his brother Sir Peter who praises Joseph, Oliver takes the courage to verify the common impression of Joseph's virtues (Sheridan). This is the un-trodden path to the truth. Sir Oliver's exposure to a different culture could have disposed him to the need for verification.
Based on prevailing assumptions, judgments and gossips about the brothers, Sir Oliver presents himself as a broker, Mrs. Premium, offering a loan to Charles, who has been accused of being a spendthrift. He can determine on his own if the information is true. In a sumptuous dinner for Maria, Charles acquires his unknown-uncle's loan, promising repayment from the uncle's fortune, but also admits that he sold the family silver and his father's library (Sheridan, Act III) and now offers to sell the family portrait. This seeming extravagance at first disappoints Sir Oliver and, inwardly decides to disinherit Charles. But his impression and decision change when Charles decides to keep Sir Oliver's last portrait and also to send part of the sales of the auction to an unknown poor relative Mr. Stanley, Sir Oliver's assumed identity with Joseph (Sheridan 1777).
Scene III of Act IV demonstrates the dishonesty of Sheridan's time and culture, particularly in the form of hiding behind furniture (Sheridan 1777). Joseph is the central figure here and the most curious kind of hypocrite. He has a tryst with Lady Teazle at this time and yet is cautious that Maria won't know. At this point, his uncle Sir Peter comes in to check with him on the rumors about the affair between his wife and Charles. Lady Teazle sees him coming and hides behind a furniture, but can hear their conversation. She overhears that her husband intends to increase her allowance and grant her other requests (Sheridan, Act IV). But the hand of fate puts in Charles into the same scene and drives Sir Peter to hide also. Charles mentions the affair between his brother Joseph and their aunt, Lady Teazle, and the conversation acquits him of his uncle's charges within his own hearing from his hiding place. Having been exposed, Joseph calls him out. With Joseph temporarily out to respond to a caller, Charles and Sir Peter chance upon Lady Teazle in her hiding place. This discovery reduces Lady Teazle to repentance, excusing herself as a victim of the fashionable culture of intrigues and hypocrisy, perpetrated by the School.
This confession and repentance put an end to her illicit affair with Joseph.
Despite the humiliation of that discovery, Joseph remains unrepentant. In the next Act, he is visited by his uncle Sir Oliver as Mr. Stanley, who perceives Joseph as one with seeming benevolence and only restraining his public show of sensuality (Sheridan, Act V Scene I). In that encounter, Joseph speaks unpleasantly and ungratefully about his supposed absent uncle. Through practiced and refined expressions of goodwill, Joseph hypocritically refuses to give this disguised poor relative any money. It must have sent shivers through him to hear later that his uncle has returned to that town. This scene and the next establish the well-entrenched hypocrisy in Joseph. His uncle Sir Peter has already discovered his indiscretion with Lady Teazle, but, unlike her, persists in his pretenses. Instead, he gets deeper with hypocrisy by conniving with Lady Steerwell and Snake to produce fictitious testimony to a secret relationship between her and Charles (Sheridan Act V Scene II). It is their last ditch.
Sir Oliver as the poor relative Mr. Stanley visits Joseph again, and this time, Charles arrives and both brothers eject the unknown uncle. The timely arrival of Sir Peter, his wife and Maria exposes the truth about Sir Oliver as Mr. Premium and Mr. Stanley, who forgives Charles but disinherits Joseph. Maria, at first, rejects Charles for his affair with Lady Sneerwell, but Snake, the false witness, has been bribed by the opposite camp and now swears to the innocence of Charles. Joseph and Lady Sneerwell are left to themselves and the agony of hypocrisy and censure. At the end of the play, Lady Teazle swears to dissociate and avoid the School of hypocrites and scandal mongers (Sheridan).
The play has a number of messages, expressed through the different characters. It says that even brothers brought up by a common parent or parent-surrogate can develop entirely different or opposed personalities and tendencies, as in the case of Joseph and Charles. Social fashion and prosperity can lead idle people, like Lady Sneerwell, Mrs. Candour, Sir and Lady Backbite, and Joseph, to create fronts or appearances of virtue while retaining inner darkness. Sheridan himself lived through those days of high fashion during which he incurred huge debts (Matthews 1998). This tendency can be and has been very infectious and dominating. The desire to look benevolent and virtuous is especially attractive and this is the facade Joseph takes for himself to the end and despite open revelations of his hypocrisies.
Inveterate liars and chronic hypocrites can and does plague society, as the obstinacy of Joseph and Lady Sneerwell suggests. They try to gain and maintain all advantage possible at any expense, even when disclosed. The play also suggests that some beneficiaries can be ungrateful behind the back of their benefactors, as shown by the encounter between Joseph and his uncle Sir Oliver, disguised as the poor relative Mr. Stanley. It urges caution that people are not always what they seem and rumors can be starkly false and the greatest doubts can be factual.
The play also points to the need to be circumspect. Sir Oliver has heard about the personalities and acts of his nephews but plans to obtain personal information on which to base his judgment and decision on whom to choose as his heir. This was either because of his different culture, acquired from the East, which invests more on character than outward aspects. Or else it is his nature to confirm, rather than rely on rumor, as do quite many people. And the way he investigates the characters of his nephews also…