Initially honor seems to be in short supply in School for Scandal: The gossips are completely without honor; Lady Teazle is considering abandoning the lessons about honor that she learned growing up in the country; Joseph is ready to betray his brother to secure a wealthy wife; and Charles is hopelessly in debt to moneylenders. Even Sir Oliver, whose honor should be above question, is ready to assume a disguise to test his nephews’ honor. By the conclusion of the play, however, it is clear that only the gossips have no true honor. Lady Teazle realizes that she values her husband and that she has more honor than her friends had supposed. Charles, though foolish and intemperate with gambling and money, is honorable. He pays his debts, if slowly, and he is willing to help a poor relation without being asked. Sir Oliver’s deception unmasks Joseph’s hypocrisy. And the moneylender, Moses, is a man of so much honor that he assists Charles in managing his debts.
Sheridan asks his audience to question the morality of society in this play. Slandering one’s neighbors, acquaintances, and friends is an entertainment. There is no real interest in the truth — and even less consideration is given to the damage that such gossip causes. In the early acts of School for Scandal, the subjects of such gossip are not known to the audience, who cannot determine the truth of Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour’s observations. But by the last act, it becomes clear that these gossips need absolutely no element of truth to fuel their stories. The felling of the screen in Joseph’s library — and the confrontation that took place immediately after — are fresh in the audience’s mind. This earlier scene serves as a nice contrast to the speculation and innuendo that engages the gossips. Although it is all comedy, it is comedy that teaches a lesson to the audience.
School for Scandal is generally regarded as a refutation of the sentimental drama that was prevalent on the London stage prior to and during Sheridan’s era. Sentiment was much admired as a replacement for the debauchery of Restoration comedy, but it often proved bland and boring. Often the protagonists were pure to the point of generic blandness. In Sheridan’s play, Joseph Surface is much admired for his sentiment. Conversely, his brother Charles is chastised because he is not the man of sentiment that his brother is: “He is a man of sentiment . . . there is nothing in the world so noble as a man of sentiment.” That Joseph is really not at all noble or admirable makes Sir Peter’s compliment more damning and more a mockery of this eighteenth-century convention.
Truth and Falsehood
Trying to determine the truth occupies much of Sheridan’s play. Lady Sneerwell and Snake are engaged in deception and falsehood, and Joseph is willing to bend the truth to get what he wants. When Sir Oliver, disguised as old Stanley, approaches Joseph to ask for money, Joseph easily lies that he has no money. He even blames his brother, Charles, stating that Charles’s free-spending has left Joseph without funds. Of course the gossips have no interest in the truth; their goal is to entertain one another with wild speculation. When compared to such exciting exaggerations as theirs, reality — and the truth — is boring.
This is certainly a play about wealth. The poor in London were much too busy trying to find shelter and food to engage in such idle distractions as gossip or gaming. Wealth really sets the characters in this play apart from the rest of society. For instance, Sir Peter complains that his wife spends too much on silk dresses and fresh out-of-season flowers. Charles spends his money gaming and drinking with his friends, and the moneylenders are on their way to being wealthy, thanks to idle young men such as Charles. Maria is the object of Joseph’s plotting only because she is wealthy, and Sir Oliver is primarily interested in the morals of his nephews because he plans to leave them him wealth.