Sheridan's The School for Scandal: Sentiment, Scandal, and Charity

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Sheridan's plays represent a reaction to the eighteenth-century sentimental comedy.  They represent a return to the older comedy of manners, but they also take some of the moral temperance of the sentimental comedy as a kind of guide.  The School for Scandal can be seen as both a comedy of manners and as a sentimental comedy.  The plot line involving Charles and Maria represents the sentimental turn, while the plot line involving Lady Sneerwell, Joseph, Lady Teazle, and the Scandal College has a more classic "comedy of manners" feel.  The reconciliation between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle is a mixture of the two (cf. Act 2.1 and 3.1).

Comedy of manners: Concerns the manners and the conventions of an artificial, highly sophisticated society. The stylized fashions and manners of this group dominate the surface and determine the pace and tone of this sort of comedy. Characters are more likely to be types than individuals. Plot, though often involving a clever handling of situation and intrigue, is less important than atmosphere, dialogue, and satire. The dialogue is witty and finished, sometimes brilliant. The appeal is more intellectual than imaginative. SATIRE is directed in the main against the follies and deficiencies of typical characters, such as fops, would-be wits, jealous husbands, cox-combs, and others who fail somehow to conform to the conventional attitudes and manners of elegant society. A distinguishing characteristic of the comedy of manners is its emphasis on an illicit love duel, involving at least one pair of witty and often amoral lovers. This prevalence of the "love game" is explained partly by the manners of the time and partly by the special satirical purpose of the comedy itself. In its satire, realism, and employment of "humours" (Harmon & Holman)

The sentimental comedy: "Just as the comedy of manners reflected in its immortality the reaction of the Restoration from the severity of the Puritan code on the Commonwealth period, so the comedy that displaced it, known as sentimental comedy, or "reformed comedy," sprang up in the early years of the eighteenth century in response to a growing reaction against the tone of Restoration plays. [. . .] Because of the violence of its reaction, sentimental comedy became very weak dramatically, lacking humor, reality, spice, and lightness of touch. The characters were either so good or so bad that they became caricatures, and plots were violently handled so that virtue would triumph. [. . .] The dramatists resorted shamelessly to sentimental emotion in their effort to interest and move the spectators. The domestic trials of middle-class couples are usually portrayed: Their private woes are exhibited with much emotional stress intended to arouse the spectator’s pity and suspense in advance of the approaching melodramatic happy ending." (Harmon & Holman)

Sheridan's play is also reflective of the concerns of the Georgian Comedy with its neoclassical and especially Horatian emphasis on teaching and delighting.   The key to a well-made play is not to let moral instruction take over the story itself.  It is best to avoid either extreme and strive for a balance of enjoyment and instruction. 


What exactly is the role of sentiment in the play, both in the relationships of Charles and Maria and Sir Peter and Lady Teazle and also in Joseph's use of stock sentiments?  Is sentiment to be trusted?

"Sentiment" in the eighteenth-century represented conflicting sets of expectations:

  1. In the early Augustan period, "sentiment" was a state of emotional excess and pathos -- an "enthusiasm" which was dangerous in being controlled more by emotion than reason.
  2. By mid-century (though beginning much earlier) sentiment represented qualities/aspects of benevolence, moral order, and rationality, which were not particularly associated with the emotional. 
  3. Likewise, "sentiment " became associated with sentimental comedy and thus represented an emotional response to such displays of benevolence, etc.

The following twentieth-century models call into question the ethical ideals of sentiment:

  • Paul Parnell ("The Sentimental Mask") argues that sentimental laughter is self-admiration that runs the possibility of self-delusion.
  • Raymond Williams argues that the language of sentiment hides the actual consequences of the behavior of a certain protected class of people.
  • Jean Hagstrum (Sex and Sensibility) argues that a linguistic shift takes place in the banter of sentiment from ideas to feelings and that shift betrays sentimentality as a combination of sexuality and morality.

Question: Are these theories too skeptical?   Do they hide the genuine ethics of sentiment?  Do they apply to some expressions of sentiment better than others?  How would you answer their objections?

Selected Passages

  • Examples of Joseph's sentiments: 195, 216, 250, 261 (compare with Charles' on 232 and Sir Peter's view on 269)
  • Joseph as the sentimental man: 193, 194, 202, 219
  • Charles' pledge to Maria: 277
  • Sir Peter's attraction to Lady Teazle: 226
  • Lady teasel's warm-hearted repentance: 257
  • The role of wit, true and false: 210, 214, 215


The School for Scandal is a thesis play: what is the problem of gossip, and what are its consequences?  It is, therefore, a comedy of self-adjustment and self-reformation.  One learns the impact and dangers of slander, malice, and gossip.  Does it follow that all the characters are equally judged?

  • The prologue's view of opposing scandal as a Quixote-like task: 187-188
  • Scandal as a kind of painting: 191-192
  • Mrs. Candour: 195-196, 197, 200
  • The murder of characters: 212, 218
  • The fashionable need to take a lover if only by appearance: 216
  • Joseph's logic in regards to lovers: 246-247
  • Charles' honesty and forthrightness: 233-234
  • The outlandish mistakes of the scandal college: 263-266
  • Lady Teazle returns her diploma: 275


In what sense is charity a learned or natural behavior?  How is Charles held up as a figure of fallen, but nonetheless admirable, benevolence?  How are we to regard the wisdom of Sir Oliver's actions and disguises?

  • Maria's refusal to savage others' character: 201
  • Charles' loyalty to Sir Oliver: 243
  • Charles' support of Stanley: 243 versus Joseph's refusal to practice charity: 261
  • Sir Peter's laughter with Sir Oliver: 268-269

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding