The play begins in Lady Sneerwell’s home. She is sitting at her dressing table and talking to Snake, a man she pays to insert rumors about people she knows into the gossip columns. The two discuss Lady Sneerwell’s talent for ruining reputations and compare her methods to those of Mrs. Clackitt, whom they say has used gossip to ruin marriages, force couples to elope to save their reputations, and cause sons to lose their inheritances. Snake says that Lady Sneerwell is a subtler gossipmonger who concocts more believable stories. Lady Sneerwell appreciates the compliment. She says causing scandal for others brings her satisfaction, because scandal ruined her own reputation when she was young.
Lady Sneerwell is the leading gossipmonger in town, and a very malicious one too. She spreads false rumors about people because she’s bitter that false rumors were spread about her, and even goes so far as to pay someone to help her ruin reputations. In the play, however, gossip is not only a sign of cruelty, but also a way to show intelligence. Lady Sneerwell is such a master gossip that she knows which details to tell people and to which people to tell them in order to make her false stories stick.
Snake then asks Lady Sneerwell to explain her motivations for a certain rumor she has asked him to spread. This rumor concerns a young woman named Maria, her guardian Sir Peter Teazle, and the two Surface brothers, who were also Sir Peter’s wards for a time after their father’s death. Snake says that he knows that Maria and Charles (the younger Surface brother) are in love, although Charles has a reputation for being an extravagant spender and good-for-nothing, while Lady Sneerwell and Mr. Joseph Surface, who has a good reputation, are known to be in love. Why, Snake asks Lady Sneerwell, is she trying to split up Maria and Charles, when she could just marry Joseph and be happy?
Lady Sneerwell is a master at concealing her own motives, so even those she employs to help her spread rumors sometimes do not understand her motivations. Lady Sneerwell has allowed it to be widely believed that she loves Joseph, so in the case of Maria and Charles, who are her potential in-laws if she marries Joseph, it does not make sense for her to create a scandal. If this story damages their reputations, it would also damage hers once she joined the Surface family as Joseph’s wife.
Lady Sneerwell explains that she is really in love with the bankrupt big-spender Charles, not Joseph. Joseph, meanwhile, wants to marry his brother’s beloved Maria (although only because she is a wealthy heiress), so he and Lady Sneerwell are plotting to break up Maria and Charles. Lady Sneerwell says that Joseph’s reputation for morality is misplaced: he is selfish and malicious, which is why he is happy to conspire with her. Snake remarks that Sir Peter is completely convinced of Joseph’s goodness, and Lady Sneerwell adds that Sir Peter is also prejudiced against Charles and opposes the idea of letting Maria and Charles marry.
Lady Sneerwell is cynical enough to believe that she can force Charles to marry her by spreading rumors about him. She sees through Joseph’s hypocrisy and understands that he cares so little for his family’s honor that he is willing to sabotage his brother’s reputation and happiness to become personally wealthy. This flies in the face of the prevalent thinking of the time, which held that a ruined reputation for one member of the family impacted an entire family name.
Joseph Surface is then announced, and enters. Lady Sneerwell tells him that she has informed Snake of their plans and that they can trust Snake to keep their secret. Joseph praises Snake’s trustworthiness. Lady Sneerwell asks after Maria and Charles. Joseph says he has not seen either of them, but he reports that Maria has heard some of Lady Sneerwell’s rumors and has stopped meeting with Charles. Charles, meanwhile, is in so much debt that creditors are coming to seize his belongings.
Lady Sneerwell does not cultivate a reputation for goodness, but instead focuses on ruining other people’s reputations. She does not think perfect concealment of her own character from other schemers is necessary. Joseph, on the other hand, flatters everyone he meets. He hopes to be considered above the fray at the same time as he fights to ruin the reputations of others.
Joseph says he only wishes it were in his power to help his brother, but Lady Sneerwell cuts him off, saying there is no need for him to hypocritically pretend to have pity for his brother around her and Snake. Joseph says she is right, but adds that he really will be doing a good deed by breaking up the romance between Maria and Charles. Charles, he says, could only be tamed by a woman like Lady Sneerwell.
Joseph is so used to pretending to be moral that he struggles to drop the pretense even when he is around co-conspirators. He continues to flatter Lady Sneerwell and come up with reasons why what they are doing is right and justified even after she tells him to stop.
Snake leaves and Joseph tells Lady Sneerwell that she was wrong to place her trust in him, because he has seen Snake talking to Mr. Rowley, who was Joseph’s late father’s steward and does not like him. Lady Sneerwell asks Joseph if he thinks Snake will betray their plots to Rowley, and Joseph says that Snake is too much of a villain to be expected to be loyal to one bad deed over another.
Joseph’s true character is understood by the canny Rowley, who has known him all his life. Lady Sneerwell is malicious, but not hypocritical, so she does not see the danger in telling Snake about her motives. Joseph recognizes that Snake, like himself, has no loyalty to any cause and would betray them to help himself.
Maria enters, looking upset. She tells Lady Sneerwell that she slipped away from Sir Peter’s house because Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle Crabtree were there, and she hates listening to them gossip about their friends. Joseph agrees, saying that they gossip so much that they even gossip about people they do not know. Lady Sneerwell defends Sir Benjamin, saying he is witty and a poet, but Maria says she does not like wit when it is malicious. She asks Joseph his opinion, and Joseph agrees. Lady Sneerwell says that unkindness is essential to wit, and asks Joseph if he agrees: he says he does.
Maria is an independent and moral thinker. Unlike others, who defend their indulgence in gossip by saying that it is a way to show intelligence and wittiness, Maria sees only the cruelty of the rumors and criticisms she hears. Joseph, meanwhile, agrees with both Maria and Lady Sneerwell, although their ideas contradict one another. He tries to flatter whatever person he is talking to, even if they have just heard him say the opposite.
A servant announces that Mrs. Candour’s carriage has arrived. Lady Sneerwell says that Maria will like Mrs. Candour, who has a reputation for being good-natured. Maria, however, says that this is an affectation: Mrs. Candour does even more damage to people’s reputations than Crabtree. Joseph says that there is nothing worse for someone’s reputation than to be defended by Mrs. Candour. Mrs. Candour enters. She asks Joseph what news he’s heard, and says that no one talks about anything but scandal. Mrs. Candour then asks Maria what is going on with her and Charles, and says that the town talks of nothing but his extravagant spending. Maria says she thinks people should find something better to do. Mrs. Candour agrees, but says there is no way to keep people from talking, and that she has also heard that Sir Peter and Lady Teazle have not been getting along.
Mrs. Candour, like Joseph, hypocritically tries to conceal her role in spreading rumors. She does this by pretending to defend the target of a rumor or lamenting that people cannot find a better occupation for their time than gossiping, while simultaneously trying to prove her own social clout by showing off how much she knows about what is going on with members of an extended social circle. Mrs. Candour often criticizes spreading rumors while also saying that people cannot be stopped from gossiping. In this way, she seeks to create the impression that she is an outside observer of gossip, instead of a central figure in the rumor mill.
Maria is indignant, but Mrs. Candour continues to gossip. Joseph says it is amazing what stories people will make up, and Maria replies that it is just as bad to repeat lies as to make them up. Mrs. Candour agrees, but says that there is nothing to be done, because people will talk. She continues to gossip about couples eloping, an unmarried woman rumored to have had a baby, and two men dueling. She concludes by saying she would never spread such rumors, and Joseph praises her restraint.
Mrs. Candour’s hypocrisy is clear as she laments the prevalence of gossip while gossiping herself. Her attempt to conceal her true nature is easily seen through and makes her look foolish and lacking in self-awareness. At the same time, by praising Mrs. Candour’s discretion, Joseph shows that he also is a dissembler who does not say what he means.
Mrs. Candour says she hates when people are attacked behind their backs, and then asks Joseph if it is true that his brother Charles is ruined. Joseph says that his brother’s finances are very bad, and Mrs. Candour names four other men in similar financial straits. Charles, she says, can find consolation in the fact that he will not be the only person in his social circle in this position. Joseph agrees.
Mrs. Candour’s hypocrisy is still on display. She seems to take pleasure not only in spreading rumors, but in spreading them about as many people as possible. The consolation she says that Charles will have is hollow, of course, as well as condescending.
Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle Crabtree enter. Crabtree brags that his nephew is a wonderful poet who comes up with hilarious rhymes about his acquaintances. Lady Sneerwell asks Sir Benjamin why he never publishes his verse. Sir Benjamin explains that, since his work usually mocks people, it circulates quickly around town if he gives it to the friends of those he is mocking, and so he asks them to show it to no one. He would, however, like to publish some love poems about a certain lady, he says, indicating Maria.
Some of the gossipmongers see their behavior as justified because they show their wit and creativity through their gossip, either by transmitting rumors in the form of short poems or by coming up with funny one-liners while gossiping. They choose to believe that when a poem full of gossip circulates through town, this proves the talent of the poet, not society’s interest in gossip.
Crabtree and Sir Benjamin then begin gossiping about an acquaintance named Miss Nicely whom, they say, has gotten pregnant out of wedlock and plans to marry her footman. Mrs. Candour says that this is hard to believe because Miss Nicely is such a prudent lady, and Sir Benjamin responds that that prudence shows she had something to cover up. Mrs. Candour says that those with terrible reputations do seem to get through more scandals than those without any rumors spread about them.
The idea that those who seem blameless are the ones with the most to hide is a common explanation for hypocritical gossipmongers. In these social circles, a reputation can only be ruined once. Any later scandals that emerge about someone with an already “ruined” reputation will be less surprising, less interesting, and therefore less likely to spread.
Mrs. Candour then says that the story about Miss Nicely could, after all, just be a mistake—Crabtree says that this is true, and goes on to tell the story of Miss Letitia Piper. At a party where the difficulty of breeding sheep was being discussed, someone said that Miss Piper had a sheep that bore twins. A deaf old woman misheard this, and in no time at all, a rumor was circulating that Miss Piper had given birth to twins out of wedlock, and people were even spreading rumors about who the father was.
The gossips show how little concern they have for those whose reputations are ruined. They express no sympathy for Miss Piper, instead finding humor in how a deaf old woman unwittingly ruined a reputation. The gossips continue to seek to show their own centrality to their social circles by telling as many stories about ruined reputations as they can think of.
Crabtree turns to Joseph and asks if it is true that his uncle, Sir Oliver, is returning soon from the East Indies. Joseph says he has not heard this. Crabtree says Sir Oliver will be sad to see how badly Charles has grown up, but Joseph says he hopes no one has said anything to Sir Oliver to prejudice him against his brother. Crabtree responds that Charles, at least, has an excellent reputation among the Jewish moneylenders. Sir Benjamin says that despite his financial difficulties and the creditors who try to collect their money from him, Charles still gives lavish parties for his friends. Joseph says they are being insensitive in talking about his brother in front him.
The Surface brothers’ rich uncle has sent home large sums earned in the East Indies. As he became wealthy abroad, Sir Oliver sought to show off that wealth at home in England through his nephews—and Charles’s extravagant spending habits do create the impression in society that the Surface family is very wealthy. By exceeding the amount of money his uncle sends him and borrowing from moneylenders who ask exorbitant amounts of interest, Charles has left it uncertain whether his uncle will bail him out of debt.
Maria finds it painful to listen to these things said about Charles. She says she feels sick and leaves. Lady Sneerwell sends Mrs. Candour to follow Maria and make sure she is all right. Lady Sneerwell says it is clear that, despite no longer seeing Charles, Maria still has feelings for him. Sir Benjamin agrees, but Crabtree encourages his nephew, telling him to follow Maria and recite his love poems to her. Sir Benjamin tells Joseph that he is sorry if he upset him, but it’s well-known that his brother is in financial ruin and has had to sell everything except the family portraits, which, he says, are probably framed in the walls.
Pretending to be concerned about Maria, Lady Sneerwell means to make her feel worse by sending Mrs. Candour, who will be sure to repeat more gossip about Charles to Maria, to follow her. Sir Benjamin, likewise, gives an apology for gossiping about Charles that contains even more detail about the gossip. If Joseph cared about his brother or the family’s reputation, this would be even more upsetting to him.
Sir Benjamin and Crabtree leave, still remarking on Charles as they go. Lady Sneerwell laughs at how eager they are to continue gossiping. Joseph says he thinks Lady Sneerwell must have also found it difficult to hear about Charles’s difficulties. Lady Sneerwell says she fears that Maria may be too much in love with Charles to change her mind, but says that the Teazles and Maria will visit that evening, so they will be able to observe their feelings. In the meantime, she says, she will “plot mischief, and you shall study sentiment.”
Lady Sneerwell sees herself as standing above the other gossips, who gossip for fun and to show off rather than to manipulate relationships in their own favor. She doesn’t find it hard to hear about Charles’s financial position because she doesn’t care about Charles’s reputation—only about the effect that the scandal surrounding him will have on Maria’s love for him. Indeed, if Charles is financially ruined and abandoned by his uncle and Maria, he will need to marry a wealthy woman like Sneerwell to avoid going to jail. The reference to “sentiment” here also shows how Joseph manages to impress and manipulate people—by pretending he is a “man of sentiment,” acting on emotions based in lofty morals. Yet the mere fact that he has to “study” sentiment shows that it is not sincere for him.