The comedy of manners is a phrase often used in literary history and criticism. It is particularly applied to the Restoration dramatists in England, and especially to Congreve and Wycherley. The comedy of manners is a highly artificial form of drama and is generally full of verbal wit.
Characteristics of Restoration Comedy
The comic dramatists of the Restoration in England devoted themselves to picturing the external details of life, the fashions of the time, its manners, its interests, its mode of speaking. They depicted the fashionable drawing rooms, the coffee houses, the streets and gardens and parks of London. Their characters were chiefly people of fashion; and their plots were, for the most part, love-intrigues developed with clever dialogue.
Immorality in The School for Scandal
In Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal, there is absolutely nothing indecent in the whole of this play, nothing that would make even a teenage girl blush. There is no obscene jest, no indirect or oblique reference to debauchery or sexual aberrations. The utmost that happens so far as sexual relations between men and women are concerned is Joseph’s success in prevailing upon Lady Teazle to agree to his suggestion for an adulterous relationship with him, but even this relationship does not materialize.
A Satire on the Upper-Class Fashionable Society
Like the typical comedy of manners, The School for Scandal is a satire on the upper-class social life of Sheridan’s time. Sheridan had acquired a first-hand knowledge of the life of the English upper-class. Early in his life, he had had an opportunity to live in the city of Bath. In the second half of the eighteenth century Bath was a famous centre of fashionable life. All those who had money used to visit this health-resort to drink its mineral waters, to gossip, to dance, and to attend the theatre. The School for Scandal gives us a most interesting picture of the upper-class life of Sheridan’s time. Various aspects of that life have been satirized in the play. We have a satirical treatment of gossip-mongering, hypocrisy, pretentious moralizing, love-intrigues, prodigality and extravagance leading to heavy indebtedness, and a craze for fashions
Satirical on Scandal-Mongering
Lady Sneerwell and her circle represent in this play the scandal-mongers who give us an idea of how ladies and gentlemen in those days used to gather and indulge in slanderous gossip about their acquaintances and friends. Lady Sneerwell had herself, in her youth, suffered greatly as a result of the venomous tongues of people, and so she has taken to scandal-mongering as a kind of revenge upon society. But those who belong to her circle-Mrs. Candour, Sir Benjamin, and Mr. Crabtree-have no such motive, and they indulge in this hobby for the sake of mere fun. Mrs. Candour talks copiously about illicit love-affairs, elopements, bankruptcies etc. Mr. Crabtree and Sir Benjamin make fun of various women of their acquaintance and run them down, some for the way they paint their faces, some for the manner in which they try to look younger than their years, and some for their ridiculous countenances. Indeed, a Satirical treatment of scandal-mongering is one of the important themes in this play.
Satire on Hypocrisy
One of the most important characters in this play is Joseph Surface who proves to be an embodiment of hypocrisy and pretentious moralizing. We come to know of this man’s real character from Lady Sneerwell in the opening scene. She describes him as artful, selfish, and malicious, in short, “a sentimental knave.” Subsequently, whenever we meet him, we feel greatly amused by his behaviour. The manner in which he tries to extricate himself from the situation in which he has become entangled when he is pleading his love to Maria and is detected doing so, is very funny indeed, and he states his curious dilemma in a brief soliloquy, Sir Peter describes Joseph as “a man of sentiment.” But Sir Oliver ridicules Joseph’s sentiments by saying: “If he salutes me with a scrap of morality in his mouth, I shall be sick directly”. Joseph believes in the maxim: “Charity begins at home”. The exposure of the hypocrisy of Joseph takes place in the famous screen scene, and this exposure is one of the most entertaining episodes in the play.
The School for Scandal does have its share of love-intrigues which were common in the comedy of manners. Lady Sneerwell is in love with Charles, and she joins hands with Joseph to hinder the marriage of Maria with Charles whom Maria loves. Joseph collaborates with Lady Sneerwell in this intrigue because he himself wishes to marry Maria, not because he is in love with her but because she will bring a rich dowry. When Lady Sneerwell and Joseph have failed in their initial efforts, they resort to another intrigue, namely their making an allegation that Charles is solemnly pledged to marry Lady Sneerwell. But this strategy also fails. Besides Joseph develops a love-affair with Lady Teazle who initially wants a lover for fashion’s sake only but who afterwards gets ready to surrender her honour to Joseph’s amorous advances. Fortunately, Lady Teazle is saved from degrading herself by the unexpected arrival of Sir Peter just at the right moment. All these love intrigues are a source of considerable mirth for us.
Satire on of Extravagance and Indebtedness
Sheridan makes fun of those young men who used to squander money in those days and who used to get heavily into debt for which they undertook to pay exorbitant rates of interest. This class of young men is well represented by Charles and his boon-companions. Charles goes so far as to sell his family portraits in order to raise money.
Satire on the Craze for Fashion
The craze for fashion receives a satirical treatment in this play in the person of Lady Teazle. When Sir Peter criticizes extravagant, Lady Teazle gives this reply to him: “My extravagance ! I’m sure I’m not more extravagant than a woman of fashion ought to be.” As for her furnishing her dressing room with heaps of flowers in winter, she defends herself thus: “Lord. Sir Peter, am I to blame because flowers are dear in cold weather?” Lady Teazle is of the view that women of fashion are not answerable to anybody after they are married. There is plenty of humour in the scenes in which Lady Teazle and Sir Peter are shown quarrelling, and Lady Teazle’s devotion to fashion is an important aspect of these quarrels.
Satire on Contemporary Journalism
The author also pokes fun at contemporary journalism. In the very opening scene, we have a satirical reference to the gossip-columns of a newspaper called “The Town and Country Magazine” which gladly published slanderous news-items pertaining to well-known personalities. Then there is the fellow called Snake who, by profession a poet and a critic, assists Lady Sneerwell in getting her scandalous stories published in newspapers.
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