The Truth About Lies

It is often remarked that money is the root of all evil, since many people lie, cheat, and steal in order to obtain it. Often, it seems that no deception is too large when it comes to acquiring wealth and power. However, the truth always seems to have a way of coming out; leaving the perpetrator to deal with the consequences of his lies. This idea is adapted comedically in Richard Sheridan’s play, The School For Scandal. Each of the characters in the play are connected through a series of schemes and lies, which center around the accumulation of money, with the character of Lady Teazle acting as the catalyst to those around her. Through metaphors of finance and the larger metaphor of the "screen", Lady Teazle’s transformation acts as a lens through which the true nature of the characters can be more clearly seen; that sentiment without honesty is no sentiment at all.

Lady Teazle’s transformation from a disobedient to doting wife after the removal of both her physical and emotional screens brings the true identities of the other characters to light; however, her transformation is made possible literally through a financial gesture, the importance of which is evident Sheridan’s metaphors. After her physical screen is removed, she tells Sir Peter that she "has recovered her senses, and your own arts have furnished her with the means" (56). She reveals to Sir Peter that she has realized how much he cares for her when she listened to his conversation with Joseph, and vows to live a life of honesty. However, her sanity (senses), is actually recovered when she realizes that Sir Peter’s money will provide her with the considerable financial resources to continue the life of comfort to which she has become accustomed. She continues tell Sir Peter "I do not expect you to credit me, but the tenderness you expressed for me…has penetrated so to my heart" (56). While it may seem to Sir Peter that she is overwhelmed by his declaration of his gentle feelings for her, in reality, she wants Sir Peter to think that she doesn’t really expect payment from him, but if he is offering money, or tender, she will gladly fulfill her obligation of marriage to him. Although Lady Teazle’s transformation is the key to unlocking the truth behind the pupils of the scandalous school, through these financial metaphors, Sheridan seems to be arguing that money continues to be the determining force behind human interactions. When Lady Teazle realizes how much she stands to profit financially from reconciling with Sir Peter, she tears down her own "screen," and consequently, that of Joseph’s, along with Joseph’s monetary goals.

No character is more profoundly affected by Lady Teazle’s transformation than Joseph, who not only loses his important "screen" of sentiment, but his hopes for financial gain, which he has been carefully securing as seen through the author’s metaphors. Joseph attempts to convince Lady Teazle to further alienate her husband, an idea which Joseph expects her to trust "Exactly so, upon my credit, ma’am" (48). On one hand, he would like Lady Teazle to depend on his pride and honor, of which he has little, or in the financial sense, the deferred payment which he hopes to collect if he succeeds with his plan. Lady Teazle responds that his advice is "the newest receipt for calumny!" (48). Not only does she see his plan as an odd way to avoid receiving a bad reputation, but in the financial sense, she also feels that it would be too easy for someone to acknowledge her role in the scheme; a "receipt" as proof. Joseph assures her that the plan is "infallible" and reminds her that "prudence, like experience, must be paid for!" (48). To Lady Teazle, Joseph advises in this phrase that discretion takes dedication and work. Joseph reassures himself that his careful planning towards his financial resources will literally "be paid for" in the end. Unfortunately, as Joseph will come to realize, his schemes will cost him dearly, not only financially, but in reputation as well. When the sentimental "screen" of Joseph is destroyed, the mastermind behind these plots for money, Lady Sneerwell, experiences a similar destruction of reputation when her true sentiment is discovered.

Lady Teazle’s metamorphosis and the subsequent downfall of Joseph exposes Lady Sneerwell, whose "screen" of care and concern for the characters had allowed her to take charge of the entire scheme, using the promise of money to coerce her accomplices, which Sheridan portrays through monetary metaphors. Lady Sneerwell covers her lies well by conveying a sense of concern for those around her. In Act I, Scene I, when Maria suddenly feels ill, Lady Sneerwell encourages Mrs. Candour to "follow her: she may want assistance" (9). Her care for Maria seems apparent, but this is just Lady Sneerwell’s "screen" to hide her jealousy of the love she Charles has for Maria. Furthermore, she pretends to be very interested in a conversation with Benjamin Backbite and Crabtree, yet the minute they are out of the room, remarks, "Ha! Ha! ‘tis very hard for them to leave a subject they have not quite run down" (10). Clearly, Lady Sneerwell removes her "screen" when her proclaimed friends are gone, and assumes it when they are present, in order to further convince everyone of her good and honest nature. Monetary metaphors also appear frequently in this scene. Lady Sneerwell tells Snake that Joseph agreed to her schemes because he can "profit from my assistance" (2). Joseph can financially benefit from her schemes, but can also gain profit in reputation and status. She further tells Snake that Joseph will not give her scheme away because he sees the "mutual interest" (2) between him and Lady Sneerwell. They share the secrets of one another; Lady Sneerwell knows of Joseph’s true identity and how it would destroy him if Sir Peter were to find out, so it would be in his best interest to keep the plot a secret. Financially, Joseph stands to gain monetary interest if he invests in the plan. Finally, in Lady Sneerwell’s description of Charles, she describes him as "bankrupt in reputation", and as "material" (2). The first phrase may refer to his lack of money, for which he had gained an irresponsible reputation. It may also mean that he is simply lacking a good reputation, because unlike the other characters, he is true to his actions, no matter how imperfect they might be, and therefore awarded a bad reputation by people who are more content to cover up their imperfections. Lady Sneerwell’s description of Charles as "material" suggests that perhaps it is more than love that attracts her to him. It is the prospect of having him love her and how that victory would make her look to her peers. It is as though she is gathering the "materials" necessary to keep her "screen" intact. Lady Sneerwell’s devious habits are unknowingly aided by other characters, such as Mrs. Candour, whose absurd penchant for rumors furthers Lady Sneerwell’s lies by spreading them to anyone who will listen.

Mrs. Candour and her love of gossip make her one of the most scandalous pupils of all; her true sentiment is seen only through the false accounts of others which she delivers to any listening ear, often using metaphors of money. Mrs. Candour proclaims that "a tale of scandal is as fatal to the credit of a prudent lady of her stamp as a fever is generally to those of the strongest constitutions" (8). Clearly, she is asserting that a rumor will destroy an established woman’s reputation. In monetary terms, however, the prudent lady is one who takes painstaking care of her finances, and the stamp proves her wealth. If a scandal were to take place, she could risk losing it all, whether reputation or wealth. This can be seen as foreshadowing the fate of Joseph; he took such care to secure his financial success, and one scandal ruined it all. The object of Joseph’s financial success, Maria, who possesses neither a "screen" nor an interest in spreading lies, is greatly affected by the change in Lady Teazle, as it consequently means that her unwilling role in the scheme is over.

Maria is an object of competition between Charles and Joseph; one wants her for her money and the other for her love. She seems to be an innocent pawn in the scheme of Joseph and Lady Sneerwell, yet not so naive that she does not realize the obsession the characters have with deception and money. Maria’s comment that women "have pride, envy, rivalship, and a thousand motives to depreciate each other" (5) is an important metaphor. It demonstrates her disgust with the "screens" (pride, envy, and rivalship) that the characters have erected in order to hide their true sentiments, as well as her understanding that deceiving others for money will most likely backfire, causing a loss in value of both money and reputation. It communicates the idea of lies and deceit, while incorporating another ironic foreshadowing of Joseph’s future; it is Maria’s fortune which he is so anxious to acquire, and by failing in his scheme, he not only loses the money, but the value of his character. Ironically, although Joseph’s outward sentiments seem to make him the perfect match for Maria, it is actually the seemingly immoral Charles, that truly loves Maria, and this truth is what comes to exemplify the value of his character.

As the deceptions of the characters come crashing down at last as a result of Lady Teazle’s transformation, Charles Surface stands out because he does not attempt to put up a "screen" in order to appear sentimental, and this honesty, related literally and metaphorically with money, is at first ridiculed but later comes to reflect negatively on those who hide their true identities with false sentiment. Charles tells Sir Oliver, "…the plain state of the matter is this: I am an extravagant young fellow who wants to borrow money" (36). Charles states "plainly" or without special pretensions, that he is aware of his lifestyle of spending too much than is necessary (extravagant) and not the least bit ashamed. When he is in need of more money, he goes about it honestly and openly, much unlike his brother, who uses schemes and lies. Furthermore, when Sir Oliver attempts to convince Charles to part with his portrait: "I’ll give you as much for that as the rest" (43). Although this is a considerable amount of money, Charles cannot part with it, for it means something to him; honesty. The portrait is even described "as honest a looking face as any in the room" (43) and Charles’ desire to keep it reflects the value he places on truth. Charles Surface’s character is essential to the play, because he demonstrates that sentiment means nothing if there is nothing inside to support it. Without honesty, sentiment is not sentiment at all.

The School For Scandal draws a humorous picture of an unfortunate reality; that many people will do anything to further elevate their characters, even if it means hurting friends and family. The characters of the play are willing to construct elaborate "screens" of sentiment in order to deceive those around them and increase their own wealth. It is not until Lady Teazle’s "screen" is revealed that the true nature of the others is seen, largely through examining Sheridan’s financial metaphors. Indeed, the characters who appear to be the most virtuous and harmless from the beginning; Joseph, Lady Sneerwell, and Mrs. Candour remain looking foolish when compared to the seemingly corrupt Charles, because they have no truth with which to support their sentiments. Charles proves that true sentiment comes from honesty, because it is formed by an inner strength, unlike the weakness of an outward "screen" which can be easily dismantled.