The School for Scandal focuses on a group of wealthy Londoners who entertain themselves and torment one another by spreading rumors. The play hints at how serious a ruined reputation can be, both for men and for women, and therefore how unkind it is to spread rumors, yet it also does not seek to teach a serious lesson against spreading rumors.
In the 1770s, when pre-marital sex was considered an unforgiveable offense for women, and husbands whose wives had affairs were mocked and looked down on as “cuckolds,” gossip often concerned female sexuality. For men, the most disastrous rumors for their reputations (apart from their wives’ fidelity) concerned their finances: noblemen could borrow huge sums of money, but only for as long as their reputations lasted.
Ruined reputations could change the course of a life. Lady Sneerwell, the most malicious of the rumormongers, says that she became a cruel gossip after a scandal ruined her reputation when she was young. And, Mrs. Clackitt, a rumormonger who never physically appears in the play, is said to be responsible for engagements broken off, marriages ended or begun unwillingly, and men being disinherited. Yet these instances of lives ruined by the rumor mill do not occur within the action of the play to characters that would inspire the audience’s sympathy.
Instead of portraying the circle of gossips as truly destructive, the play pokes fun at the behavior of the gossips themselves. The gossips can be divided into two categories: those who gossip for fun and those who gossip to ruin other people’s fortunes for their own gain.
The recreational gossips are Mrs. Candour, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and his uncle Mr. Crabtree. These characters believe that gossiping is a way of showing off wit and sophistication. They are more interested in their own ability to come up with clever jokes about the latest scandals, and seem almost unaware of the life-wrecking potential of rumors. Yet as they vie with one another to show that they know the most specific details about the latest scandal, they also become the butt of the joke themselves. The ridiculousness of these recreational gossips is displayed in the scene when they stand around Sir Peter Teazle’s house speculating about whether he fought a duel with Charles or Joseph Surface, and whether he was wounded with a sword or shot with a gun. When Sir Peter Teazle walks up to them, entirely unharmed, it becomes clear how preposterous they are for arguing about the details of something that never happened.
Early in the play, Lady Teazle also joins in this group. She has married Sir Teazle and moved to London from the countryside, and she believes that to become a truly fashionable lady, she should gossip. This comes easily to her, because she is witty and intelligent and, despite having a good heart, has yet to realize how hurtful gossip can be. By the end of the play, however, she has seen firsthand how gossip can hurt her own relationship, and she foreswears scandal altogether. Her wit may be a sign of intelligence, but she is also too intelligent to continue to gossip once she has seen the destructive power of scandal.
The self-interested gossips, on the other hand, attempt to use rumors more strategically to hurt others and benefit themselves. They do not gossip despite the cruel effects this activity can have on others, but because of them—they hope to ruin other people’s hopes and realize their own. Joseph and Lady Sneerwell plot to break up the relationship between Charles Surface and Maria so that Joseph can marry Maria for her fortune and Lady Sneerwell can marry Charles, whom she loves. To this end, they plot to make Sir Teazle suspect that Charles is pursuing his wife Lady Teazle, so that he will not let his ward Maria marry Charles, while at the same time leading Maria to believe that Charles is in love with Lady Sneerwell. The plots of Lady Sneerwell and Joseph are ultimately exposed, and each is left looking ridiculous, Lady Sneerwell for trying to entrap a man who did not love her, and Joseph because his hypocrisy has cost him two sources of fortune, from Maria and from his uncle. Yet the play does not suggest that there will be a true comeuppance, even for these most malicious of gossips. Instead, Joseph and Lady Sneerwell seem likely to cut their losses and marry one another. In the end, those who spread rumors out of cruelty also become the butt of jokes when their plots fail, but they are certainly more condemned by the play than the merely witty gossips, who are ridiculed and nothing more.
Rumors, Wit, and Cruelty ThemeTracker
Rumors, Wit, and Cruelty 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.
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.
SIR PETER. Madam, madam, I beg your pardon—there’s no stopping these good gentlemen's tongues. —But when I tell you, Mrs. Candour, that the lady they are abusing is a particular friend of mine, I hope you'll not take her part.
LADY SNEERWELL. Ha! ha! ha! Well said, Sir Peter! but you are a cruel creature, —too phlegmatic yourself for a jest, and too peevish to allow wit in others.
SIR PETER. Ah! madam, true wit is more nearly allied to good-nature than your ladyship is aware of.
LADY TEAZLE. True, Sir Peter: I believe they are so near akin that they can never be united.
SIR BENJAMIN. Or rather, madam, suppose them to be man and wife, because one seldom sees them together.
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.
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.
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 BENJAMIN. Aye, there; I told you Mr. Surface was the man.
MRS. CANDOUR. No, no, indeed; the assignation was with Charles.
LADY SNEERWELL. With Charles! You alarm me, Mrs. Candour!
MRS. CANDOUR. Yes, yes, he was the lover. Mr. Surface, to do him justice, was only the informer.
SIR BENJAMIN. Well, I’ll not dispute with you, Mrs. Candour; but, be it which it may, I hope that Sir Peter’s wound will not—
MRS. CANDOUR. Sir Peter’s wound! Oh, mercy! I didn’t hear a word of their ﬁghting.
LADY SNEERWELL. Nor I, a syllable.
SIR BENJAMIN. No! what, no mention of the duel?
MRS. CANDOUR. Not a word.
SIR BENJAMIN. O Lord, yes, yes: they fought before they left the room.
LADY SNEERWELL. Pray, let us hear.
MRS. CANDOUR. Aye, do oblige us with the duel.
SIR PETER. Though, when it is known that we are reconciled, people will laugh at me ten times more.
ROWLEY. Let them laugh, and retort their malice only by showing them you are happy in spite of it.
SIR PETER. I’faith, so I will! and, if I’m not mistaken, we may yet be the happiest couple in the country.
ROWLEY. Nay, Sir Peter, he who once lays aside suspicion—
SIR PETER. Hold, Master Rowley! if you have any regard for me, never let me hear you utter anything like a sentiment: I have had enough of them to serve me the rest of my life.
LADY SNEERWELL. The torments of shame and disappointment on you all.–
LADY TEAZLE. Hold, Lady Sneerwell,—before you go, let me thank you for the trouble you and that gentleman have taken, in writing letters from me to Charles, and answering them yourself; and let me also request you to make my respects to the scandalous college, of which you are president, and inform them, that Lady Teazle, licentiate, begs leave to return the diploma they gave her, as she leaves off practice, and kills characters no longer.
LADY SNEERWELL. You too, madam—provoking—insolent—May your husband live these fifty years!