The School for Scandal

The School for Scandal Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Richard Sheridan's The School for Scandal. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Richard Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, but moved to England at the age of eight and never returned. He came from a literary family: his mother was also a successful playwright and novelist, while his grandfather had been a good friend of Jonathan Swift. Not long after leaving his boarding school, Sheridan moved with his family to Bath, where he fell in love with Elizabeth Linley, the famous and beautiful young singer he was to marry after fighting a series of a scandalous duels that captivated British society. In desperate need of money, he wrote his first play, The Rivals, in 1775, which launched his career as a star playwright. After this, Sheridan was offered a job managing the historic Drury Lane Theater, which he went on to own. His second play, The Duenna appeared the following year, and his third, The School for Scandal, was staged in 1777 to wide acclaim. Sheridan was having an affair with the famous hostess of a social salon, Frances Crewe, to whom he dedicated the play in a long poem which is often reproduced along with the play. His wife would also go on to have an affair. Sheridan served in parliament and in a variety of governmental roles over the next thirty-two years, becoming one of the most respected orators of his time. He was always extravagant with money, however, and in 1808, when the Drury Lane Theater burned down in a fire, he was bankrupted and removed from parliament. He spent his final years hounded by his creditors.
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Historical Context of The School for Scandal

The play takes place in 1777. The wealth that the Surface brothers vie to inherit was earned by their uncle, Sir Oliver Surface, who has spent the last sixteen years in the East Indies. These were years of growth for the East India Company, the British company that enjoyed a monopoly on trade coming from an expanding region of South and Southeast Asia, and which was likely Sir Oliver’s employer. The East India Company collected taxes, in the form of money and goods, from peasants across a wide swath of this territory and shipped precious commodities like silk, tea, spices, and cotton from this region to the rest of the world. Wealthy investors in the East India Tea Company fought against efforts by the British parliament to control their activity in the East Indies. British colonialists who went in person to the East Indies often had free reign for corruption, stealing money that should have gone to the company’s shareholders or to the British government in the form of taxation (not to mention the local people it was stolen from in the first place). Fantastic fortunes were generated in this part of the world for wealthy British families like the Surfaces. The system was deeply unfair, as the taxes colonialized people paid did not support their own government, but were sent out of the country to increase British wealth. During a period of famine from 1769-1773, the British East India Company did not cease collecting taxes from the peasants, but even went so far as to increase taxes. Ten million people, or roughly one-third of the population of the region then known as Bengal, are thought to have died as a result.

Other Books Related to The School for Scandal

Sheridan lived a century after the heyday of the Restoration comedy of manners, a period in theater history which saw the first female actors on the British stage and explored sexual themes with unprecedented openness. One of the famous plays of this period is Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677). While Sheridan’s comedies were less sexually explicit than Restoration comedies of manners, he drew inspiration from these playwrights, and even staged Restoration Comedies in his capacity as manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, prompting revived interest in these works. Sheridan was also called “the modern Congreve,” after William Congreve (1670-1729), the celebrated Restoration playwright of witty comedies about relationships between men and women and high-society affectation. In contrast to the bawdy works of the Restoration, Sheridan and his contemporaries wrote “genteel” comedies, which could be instructive for an audience drawn from both the middle and upper classes looking to cultivate good manners and a genteel aspect. Although these works were not sexually explicit, sexual innuendo is essential to their humor. Sheridan’s comedies were also considered to be “laughing comedies,” as separated from the “crying comedies” which were extremely moralistic and known to provoke tears. Later literary scholars would compare his plays to comedies of manners by Oscar Wilde, who skewered the affectations and aspirations of upper-class Britons of the 1890s in witty and satirical plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband.
Key Facts about The School for Scandal
  • Full Title: The School for Scandal
  • When Written: 1775
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1775
  • Literary Period: Georgian comedy, “New” Comedy of Manners, Genteel Comedy or Laughing Comedy
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Setting: London, England
  • Climax: Lady Teazle is discovered behind the screen in Joseph Surface’s room.

Extra Credit for The School for Scandal

Split Personality. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s father Thomas Sheridan said that he saw both Joseph and Charles, the characters from The School for Scandal, in his son’s personality. “Richard had only to dip the pen in his own heart, and he had both Joseph and Charles,” he was reported to have said.

Mashup. The School for Scandal began as two separate plays, one about a circle of gossips led by Lady Sneerwell, the other about the Teazles and their marriage.