The School for Scandal


Richard Sheridan

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The School for Scandal: Situational Irony 3 key examples

Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Sanctimonious Gossip:

Mrs. Candour’s first appearance in The School for Scandal is a hilarious example of situational irony, setting up one of the biggest themes of the play: the lines between rumor, wit, and cruelty. From the moment she enters Lady Sneerwell’s home, Mrs. Candour begins to gossip about the people in her life: 

Mrs. Candour: And at the same time, Miss Tattle, who was by, affirmed, that Lord Buffalo had discovered his lady at a house of no extraordinary fame; and that Sir H. Boquet and Tom Saunter were to measure swords on a similar provocation.—But, Lord, do you think I would report these things?—No, no! tale-bearers, as I said before, are just as bad as the tale-makers. 

Joseph: Ah! Mrs. Candour, if everybody had your forbearance and good-nature! 

Mrs. Candour: I confess, Mr. Surface, I cannot bear to hear people attacked behind their backs; and when ugly circumstances come out against our acquaintance, I own I always love to think the best.—By the by, I hope ’tis not true that your brother is absolutely ruined?

In the passage above, Mrs. Candour demonstrates a strong level of cognitive dissonance. Despite enthusiastically and joyously gossiping to her heart’s content, she professes in the same breath that “tale-bearers […] are just as bad as the tale-makers.” Mrs. Candour is unable to recognize that by her own admission, her repetition of these rumors makes her just as bad as those who originated them. Her blatant lack of situational awareness turns the audience’s amusement towards her, making her the subject of ridicule. In this way, Sheridan uses situational irony to comment upon the hypocritical nature of those who claim that they abhor gossip for propriety’s sake yet take pleasure in spreading rumors themselves.

Act 2, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Cursed Rogueries:

Joseph Surface’s attempts to get close to Lady Teazle in order to facilitate his relationship with her husband Sir Peter (and therefore his ward, Maria) backfires when he discovers she is considering taking him on as a lover, in a wonderful example of situational irony:

A curious dilemma my politics have run me into! I wanted, at first, only to ingratiate myself with Lady Teazle, that she might not be my enemy with Maria; and I have, I don’t know how, become her serious lover. Sincerely I begin to wish I had never made such a point of gaining so very good a character, for it has led me into so many cursed rogueries that I doubt I shall be exposed at last.

Joseph’s dismay at the crossed signals between himself and Lady Teazle is a textbook illustration of a moment going differently than a character expected it would go. This scene is especially ironic because he is ultimately the cause of his own troubles—rather than Lady Teazle misinterpreting his actions, it is Joseph’s own intentionally duplicitous ingratiation that heralds his imminent downfall. There is further irony in the fact that he cannot actually determine whether to follow through on the situation he has created regarding this new potential romantic entanglement. Despite self-professing that he “made such a point of gaining so very good a character,” in reality, Joseph lives up to the promise of his name; his “good character” is only surface-level—underneath, he totally lacks any sort of moral or ethical backbone.

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Act 4, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Too Much Health:

In an example of situational irony, when Lady Teazle complains to Joseph that she is being suspected of adultery in Act 4, Scene 3, Joseph reveals his lack of morality by suggesting that the only way to alleviate her guilty conscience is to actually commit the sin of which she is accused:

Ah! my dear madam, there is the great mistake: ’tis this very conscious innocence that is of the greatest prejudice to you. What is it makes you negligent of forms, and careless of the world’s opinion?—why, the consciousness of your own innocence. What makes you thoughtless in your conduct, and apt to run into a thousand little imprudences?—why, the consciousness of your own innocence. What makes you impatient of Sir Peter’s temper, and outrageous at his suspicions?—why, the consciousness of your innocence. 

Joseph’s logic in the passage above is paradoxical and unsound, and therefore deeply ironic—rather than offering rational advice, he makes the unexpected and unintuitive suggestion that Lady Teazle should do exactly what most people would tell her not to do: betray her husband’s trust. Joseph’s insistence that Lady Teazle’s discomfort will be resolved with the loss of her innocence, rather than the restoration of her good name and relationship with her husband, instead demonstrates his own hypocrisy and failure to live up to his pristine social image. The quote below, from later in the same conversation, further emphasizes this discrepancy in Joseph’s character:

Oh! I am sure on’t; and then you would find all scandal would cease at once, for, in short, your character at present is like a person in a plethora, absolutely dying from too much health.

By characterizing Lady Teazle’s qualms as evidence that she is “dying from too much health,” Joseph demonstrates his inability to conceive that a person might want, let alone be able, to truly live up to their moral ideals.

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