Satire in The School for Scandal

Comparing The School for Scandal and Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son has provided an interesting venture into the society from over two hundred years ago, representing society and their expectations. Brinsley recognizes the issues in the society and uses satire to exhibit the members of society and their faults. Ridiculing the characters using the satirical modes, Brinsley uses his play as an education and using satire providing a comedic viewpoint to the play. The play has a genre specific title as a comedy of manners with contradictions of character expectations and the actual reality. Lord Chesterfield has contributed to an intriguing comparison, Chesterfield’s letters were a set of guidelines that allowed a look inside the expectations of those who held positions in society and how they themselves justified their controversial behavior. The contrast between Chesterfield and Brinsley as authors gives viewpoints from a variant of judgments: Brinsley as a satirist with an intent to entertain and humor and Chesterfield providing a list of strict and efficient guidelines to those whom he believed needed to know. There is an evident difference in the two: with the play an instrument to provide wistful reflection on the individual and another a collection of letters sent to educate the receiver on the expectations of society and how to adapt to societies way of life.

Sheridan has written the play in a style that is an accurate reflection of the lives of the upper class and their society which is essentially true. The play is written with an intention to raise questions about the gossip and slander that served as the foundation for the society. With an intent to educate the audience on the ability of gossip and lies, and its capability to cause havoc, Sheridan used the characters as examples of falseness and as a reflective tool for the audience to recognize their own faults. Dominating conversation were lies that could ruin the individuals’ character within seconds due to the quick-fire nature of the gossip and its ability to spread. Sheridan adapted the satirical mode of lampooning to his writing to ridicule the characters in a snide, witty and derogatory manner, by lampooning a method of comedy writing that can occur meanwhile allowing the correct message to be efficiently delivered. Conversations between Sir Benjamin Backbite and Crabtree ‘Mr. Surface I did not mean to hurt you (…) undone as ever man was’.[1] The two characters are embroiled in a complete contradiction, an intentional use of lampoon by Brinsley’s to mock the characters for their behavior and to highlight their stupidity in the situation they have involved themselves in. Despite his earlier declaration that he had no intent to cause upset to the individual Backbite later refers to the man in a spiteful tone as somebody who was ‘undone as ever a man was.’[2]

Sheridan further satirizes Lady Sneerwell, using irony to highlight the follies of herself and the society she revolves around she declares humor in a situation that is cruel to those who are the subject of the slander. ‘Ha, ha, ha! Tis very hard for them to leave a subject they have not quite run down’.[3] Lady Sneerwell finds comedy in the humiliation of the people they have targeted. The characterization of the individual as the ‘subject’, takes away the humanity of the person they are simply a subject of entertainment and humiliation. This is a portrait of society by Sheridan to show how people can become warped on opinion, an opinion that has an intent to cause malice simply to provide others with entertainment. There are parallels between the two, with both Sheridan and Brinsley describing societies influence with great depth and understanding. However, Sheridan has satirized society with an intent to educate on its ills whereas Chesterfield begins to write a list to educate on societies standards and how to abide them. ‘Little trifling objects (…) as parts, which conspire to form that whole (…) exterior of a man of fashion, they are importance’. [4]

Chesterfield represents himself as a voice of society and its expectation and the language in his work is a representation of this. The language creates an almost imperative tone for the reader to follow such instructions. There are comparisons to be made between Chesterfield and Lady Sneerwell both of their opinions revolve around their society and societies expectations with Sneerwell expressing the same strict standards on manners as Chesterfield ‘She certainly has talents but her manner is gross’.[5] Both have views that presentation can determine perception of an individual and if an individual does not present themselves with complete manners they are not worthy and therefore are worthy of humiliation.

Sheridan acknowledges the importance of public perception and politeness of the individual. The satirical playwright attempts through the aspect of comedy rather than to tear down the character but to inspire a change in the character and the decisions they make and in fact the audience’s perception of themselves. The characters that inhabit the play are stuck in a world of manners and the falsities of them. Mrs Candour is satirized for the falsities of her manors and character. Brindley begins with her last name, the quality of Candour is somebody that beholds purity, integrity and innocence. [6] Mrs Candour serves as a complete contradiction to her name, with Sheridan using satire to create a contradiction between Mrs Candours expected nature and the contradiction she is. Mrs Candour’s reputation serves as a gossip who can make slander spread at an effective rate removing the respectability someone of her position would have. ‘But, lord, do you think I would report these things? No, no: tale-bearers ‘. [7] The ironic nature of Mrs Candour’s actions as somebody who supposedly opposes gossip: yet she takes substantial enjoyment in spreading such things.

This is an intentional paradox on Sheridan’s behalf to show the unstable standards of eighteenth-century upper-class people. Candour has no admittance in her own behavior however she makes little attempt to stop the slander and its possibility of ruining somebodies character simply stating that ‘people will talk there is one preventing it’.[8] Despite the way these women proclaim to hold no penchant for gossip and uphold utter politeness they are a complete contradiction to this encouraging the gossip to spread. Sheridan takes a moralistic stance with the play standing as encouragement of reflection on manners and false nature. With an implicit endorsement on the politeness of the individual and the lack of in characters such as Ladies Candour and Sneerwell. Sheridan’s ability to borrow from the sentimental comedy tradition that carries on through literature that is evident in his portrayal of such characters. He adapts the mode of humor by using satire however he does not always rely on the traditional Horation mode of satire using multiple. Horace used satire in a way that the voice is amusing and witty, allowing ridicule the silly aspects of human nature with an aim to bring the audience or reader to a point of enjoyment at their expense. [9]

Sheridan wrote the play with an initial concern to show the domestic aspects of the society rather the normal focus on politics which allows the folly of the men whom typically held the respect of those observing them be removed. Adopting a mode of satire that had some certain elements of the Juvenalian satirical way of writing that had: certain attacking speeches upon certain characters and their behavior. The mode of satire attaches to a statement of realism in the point they are making to the audience with the lack of authenticity. Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, demonstrates the importance of manners to the society and how impoliteness can be the downfall of an individual and their reputation. Although, Chesterfield does not use the satirical mode that Sheridan has chosen to adopt he adds a layer to social politeness by including the presentation of the individual.

Manners are recognized similarly Sheridan as an expression of the individuals status, however, Chesterfield goes as far to say that ‘frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill manners (…) there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred as audible laughter’.[10] There is a similarity between Chesterfield and the characters of The School for Scandal. Chesterfield continues his opinions on presentation because it serves another element to be judged allowing opinion to ‘descend still lower to your dress, cleanliness, and care of your person.’[11] Chesterfield recognizes societies capacity to judge on manners and as an extension of manners physical presentation: with hygiene becoming noticeable within societies standards with things such as ‘A dirty mouth has real ill consequences to the owner (…) it is very offensive to his acquaintances'[12]. The importance of the perception is evident to both Sheridan and Chesterfield who appreciate the importance of manners and how society focuses on the attributes of manners. From looking later into Chesterfield’s other letters to his son he begins to look at manners measured in an intellectual capacity going as far to say it that grammar essential to the success of the person and their social standing. ’I must tell you, too, that orthography, in the true sense of the word, is absolutely necessary for a person of letters.’[13] Recognition of manners is key to success in society and it is a multitude of manners one should understand to allow success to prosper.

In The School for Scandal, Richard Brinsley Sheridan uses satire to replicate the social situation of Eighteenth-Century London. Although different in both genre and message, there can be parallels drawn between the two by the language both have sneering tones with an intent to upset. However, one text uses it as an ironic statement the other as an educational piece with an attempt to prevent malice. Using characters like Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite Sheridan reveals the malicious nature of the inhabitants of high society whose entertainment is the downfall of others due to gossip and slander. From the beginning of the play, the capability of gossip is evident with the destruction it causes. However, there is the standard of manners that is expected to be upheld, yet this is something that is not upheld by the members themselves. Embroiled in every other individual’s business, the characters manipulate situations into a scandal that can cause the downfall of a reputation. Sheridan wrote the play with an intent to educate the individual through humor, by combining the comedy with the slanderous situation it allows the audience to enjoy the contradiction. Lord Chesterfield provides a different viewpoint than Sheridan because rather than an observer of the society is he is part of it. Chesterfield adds a layer to the social politeness which is the physical presentation of the individual through their: believing that the two work in tandem allowing a perfect portrayal of society preventing such slander from spreading. The distinctive voice that is provided by Chesterfield because of his obvious position in high society, provides a viewpoint into the nucleus of society and its inner workings. Both provide a distinctively different voice and allow exploration into the society through the texts. Overall, the two texts had similarities and differences, with both providing help into understanding the others message because of the difference of viewpoints.

[1] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The School for Scandal, ed. by Michael Cordner (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), p. 219

[2] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The School for Scandal, p219

[3] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The School for Scandal, p215

[4] Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Dear Boy: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son p98

[5] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The School for Scandal, p210

[6] http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27009?redirectedFrom=Candour&

[7] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The School for Scandal, p215

[8] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The School for Scandal, p214.

[9] “Satire Terms”, Nku.Edu, 2017 [accessed 29 December 2016].

[10] Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Dear Boy: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son. (London: Bantam, 1989) p100

[11] Ibid,p100

[12] Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Dear Boy: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son p98-99

[13] Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Dear Boy: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son. (London: Bantam, 1989) p75