The School for Scandal explores how people hide and are exposed, both literally and figuratively. As characters’ true natures are unmasked, hypocrites are seen for who they really are, while mistaken impressions and unearned reputations are corrected. Some characters, like Maria, behave morally and have a reputation for goodness, while others, like Lady Sneerwell, behave immorally and have a reputation for wickedness. But most of the other characters conceal who they really are from themselves or from others.
The play’s central characters, the Surface brothers, each have an undeserved reputation: their true nature is concealed from the world. Joseph Surface is a hypocritical moralist: he is wicked but cultivates a reputation for goodness. His brother Charles is a sincere sinner: badly behaved and reputed to be a good-for-nothing, but honest, honorable, and kind at his core. Over the course of the play, these two brothers have their true characters exposed and earn the reputations they deserve. It is no accident that the two brothers’ last name is Surface, which hints at the difference between their reputations and characters. While Joseph is good on the surface and bad deep down, Charles does not disguise his flaws, and may seem wicked, but is actually loyal, loving, and charitable. Many of the characters in the play are similarly given names that expose their main character traits.
The play exposes the concealed elements of the characters’ natures, fittingly, through literal acts of concealment and exposure. The Surface brothers’ rich old Uncle, Sir Oliver Surface, has lived in colonial India since the two boys were too young to remember him, but has sent his orphaned nephews enormous allowances. When Sir Oliver returns to England from India, he wants to test his nephews and bring their true natures to the surface. To do this, he uses the fact that neither brother will recognize him and presents a different false persona to each nephew. In each case, the way the young man responds to his disguised uncle exposes his own true nature.
In The School for Scandal’s most famous scene, the screen scene, several characters’ true natures are unmasked after their physical presence hiding in a room is literally exposed. Lady Teazle visits Joseph’s house because she is considering becoming his lover. When her husband arrives to talk to Joseph about his suspicion that Lady Teazle is having an affair with Charles, Lady Teazle hides behind a screen. Next, Charles arrives at Joseph’s house, and Sir Peter hides in a closet to eavesdrop on Joseph and Charles’s conversation and to discover whether Charles is Lady Teazle’s lover. In the end, when everyone is forced from their hiding place, the scene serves not only to expose Joseph’s true character—as someone trying to steal his friend’s wife—and Charles’s true character—as someone who is true to his love for Maria and not interested in Lady Teazle—but also to expose the husband and wife to each other. To the Teazles’ surprise, they trust and love each other much more than they had realized before.
The School for Scandal is not a very serious play, however, and it does not drive its moral home by severely punishing its wicked hypocrites once it has exposed them. Instead, it is sufficient for the play’s purposes to bring the true nature of the Surface brothers to the surface and for Lady Teazle and her husband to realize their true feelings about one another.
Concealment and Exposure ThemeTracker
Concealment and Exposure Quotes in The School for Scandal
LADY SNEERWELL. Yes, my dear Snake; and I am no hypocrite to deny the satisfaction I reap from the success of my efforts. Wounded myself in the early part of my life by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation.
SNAKE. Nothing can be more natural. But, Lady Sneerwell, there is one affair in which you have lately employed me, wherein, I confess, I am at a loss to guess your motives.
SIR PETER. When an old bachelor marries a young wife, what is he to expect? ‘Tis now six months since Lady Teazle made me the happiest of men—and I have been the most miserable dog ever since! We tifted a little going to church, and fairly quarrelled before the bells had done ringing. I was more than once nearly choked with gall during the honeymoon, and had lost all comfort in life before my friends had done wishing me joy. Yet I chose with caution—a girl bred wholly in the country, who never knew luxury beyond one silk gown, nor dissipation above the annual gala of a race ball. Yet now she plays her part in all the extravagant fopperies of the fashion and the town, with as ready a grace as if she had never seen a bush or a grass-plot out of Grosvenor Square! I am sneered at by all my acquaintance, and paragraphed in the newspapers. She dissipates my fortune, and contradicts all my humours; yet, the worst of it is, I doubt I love her, or I should never bear all this. However, I'll never be weak enough to own it.
ROWLEY. You know, Sir Peter, I have always taken the liberty to differ with you on the subject of these two young gentlemen. I only wish you may not be deceived in your opinion of the elder. For Charles, my life on't! he will retrieve his errors yet. Their worthy father, once my honoured master, was, at his years, nearly as wild a spark; yet, when he died, he did not leave a more benevolent heart to lament his loss.
SIR PETER. You are wrong, Master Rowley. On their father's death, you know, I acted as a kind of guardian to them both, till their uncle Sir Oliver's liberality gave them an early independence: of course, no person could have more opportunities of judging of their hearts, and I was never mistaken in my life. Joseph is indeed a model for the young men of the age. He is a man of sentiment, and acts up to the sentiments he professes; but for the other, take my word for't, if he had any grain of virtue by descent, he has dissipated it with the rest of his inheritance. Ah! my old friend, Sir Oliver, will be deeply mortified when he finds how part of his bounty has been misapplied.
MRS. CANDOUR. Now, I'll die, but you are so scandalous, I'll forswear your society.
LADY TEAZLE. What's the matter, Mrs. Candour?
MRS. CANDOUR. They'll not allow our friend Miss Vermillion to be handsome.
LADY SNEERWELL. O surely she is a pretty woman.
CRABTREE. I am very glad you think so, ma’am.
MRS. CANDOUR. She has a charming fresh colour.
LADY TEAZLE. Yes, when it is fresh put on.
MRS. CANDOUR. O fie! I'll swear her colour is natural: I have seen it come and go.
LADY TEAZLE. I dare swear you have, ma'am: it goes off at night, and comes again in the morning.
SIR BENJAMIN. True, ma'am, it not only comes and goes, but, what's more—egad, her maid can fetch and carry it!
MRS. CANDOUR. Ha! ha! ha! how I hate to hear you talk so! But surely now, her sister is, or was, very handsome.
JOSEPH. 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.
SIR PETER. Wild!—Ah! my old friend, I grieve for your disappointment there; he’s a lost young man, indeed. However, his brother will make you amends. Joseph is, indeed, what a youth should be. Everybody in the world speaks well of him.
SIR OLIVER. I am sorry to hear it; he has too good a character to be an honest fellow. Everybody speaks well of him!—Pshaw! then he has bowed as low to knaves and fools as to the honest dignity of genius and virtue.
SIR PETER. What, Sir Oliver! do you blame him for not making enemies?
SIR OLIVER. Yes, if he has merit enough to deserve them.
SIR PETER. Well, well—you’ll be convinced when you know him. ’Tis ediﬁcation to hear him converse; he professes the noblest sentiments.
SIR OLIVER. Oh, plague of his sentiments! If he salutes me with a scrap of morality in his mouth, I shall be sick directly. —But, however, don’t mistake me, Sir Peter; I don’t mean to defend Charles’s errors: but, before I form my judgment of either of them, I intend to make a trial of their hearts; and my friend Rowley and I have planned something for the purpose.
CHARLES. Not much, indeed; unless you have a mind to the family pictures. I have got a room full of ancestors above, and if you have a taste for paintings, egad', you shall have 'em a bargain.
SIR OLIVER. Hey! what the devil! sure, you wouldn't sell your forefathers, would you?
CHARLES. Every man of them to the best bidder.
SIR OLIVER. What! your great-uncles and aunts?
CHARLES. Ay, and my great-grandfathers and grandmothers too.
SIR OLIVER. Now I give him up. [Aside.] What the plague, have you no bowels for your own kindred? Odd's life, do you take me for Shylock in the play, that you would raise money of me on your own flesh and blood?
CHARLES. Nay, my little broker, don't be angry: what need you care if you have your money's worth?
SIR OLIVER. Well, I'll be the purchaser: I think I can dispose of the family canvas. Oh, I'll never forgive him this! never!
JOSEPH. 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.
LADY TEAZLE. 'Tis very true!
JOSEPH. Now, my dear Lady Teazle, if you would but once make a trifling faux pas, you can't conceive how cautious you would grow, and how ready to humour and agree with your husband.
LADY TEAZLE. Do you think so?
JOSEPH. 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.
No, sir, —she has recovered her senses, and your own arts have furnished her with the means. —Sir Peter, I do not expect you to credit me—but the tenderness you expressed for me, when I am sure you could not think I was a witness to it, has penetrated so to my heart, that had I left the place without the shame of this discovery, my future life should have spoken the sincerity of my gratitude. As for that smooth-tongued hypocrite, who would have seduced the wife of his too credulous friend, while he affected honourable addresses to his ward—I behold him now in a light so truly despicable, that I shall never again respect myself for having listened to him.
SIR OLIVER. I was, sir —so nearly that my present poverty, I fear, may do discredit to her wealthy children, else I should not have presumed to trouble you.
JOSEPH. Dear sir, there needs no apology:—he that is in distress, though a stranger, has a right to claim kindred with the wealthy. I am sure I wish I was of that class, and had it in my power to offer you even a small relief.
SIR OLIVER. If your uncle, Sir Oliver, were here, I should have a friend.
JOSEPH. I wish he was, Sir, with all my heart: you should not want an advocate with him, believe me, sir.
SIR OLIVER. I should not need one—my distresses would recommend me. But I imagined his bounty would enable you to become the agent of his charity.
JOSEPH. My dear sir, you were strangely misinformed. Sir Oliver is a worthy man, a very worthy man; but avarice, Mr. Stanley, is the vice of age. I will tell you, my good sir, in confidence, what he has done for me has been a mere nothing; though people, I know, have thought otherwise, and, for my part, I never chose to contradict the report.
SIR OLIVER. Odd’s heart, no more can I; nor with gravity either. —Sir Peter, do you know the rogue bargained with me for all his ancestors; sold me judges and generals by the foot, and maiden aunts as cheap as broken china.
CHARLES. To be sure, Sir Oliver, I did make a little free with the family canvas, that’s the truth on’t. My ancestors may rise in judgment against me, there’s no denying it; but believe me sincere when I tell you—and upon my soul I would not say so if I was not—that if I do not appear mortiﬁed at the exposure of my follies, it is because I feel at this moment the warmest satisfaction in seeing you, my liberal benefactor.