Sentiment and Intention or

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

The School for Scandal features many characters that conceal their true personalities with superficial screens. The characters of the play, all members of a wealthy class of English society in the late 1700s, present themselves as virtuous and well-intentioned people to those outside of their circles. What each character feels internally is vastly different from what he or she displays to the outside world. Mr. Joseph Surface conceals his own vices behind a mask. To those around him, Joseph is seen as a "man of sentiment" (67). Inward, however, he is a greedy, ungrateful, and dishonest person. His brother, Charles, is unique to the play. He does not rely on screens to hide his true self from the world. His character on the outside matches that which is within. He may not be of the strongest moral fabric, but his inner and outer personalities match. Lady Teazle conceals what she truly feels in order to fit in with her peers. On the inside, she is an innocent and sweet country bumpkin. When she sees reality, represented in the metaphor of a window, her screen is cast aside, revealing her inherent goodness. In The School for Scandal, the characters of Mr. Joseph Surface, Charles Surface, and Lady Teazle show that goodness and virtue come, not from what is expressed outwardly, but from a person’s inner feelings and intentions. When the screen that a person hangs up is swept aside, their true intentions will signify whether or not they are good or bad.

The metaphor of makeup in The School for Scandal represents the screens that the members of the upper class have hung over their inner selves. While at Lady Sneerwell’s house, Joseph Surface and Lady Teazle, along with other members of aristocratic society engage in the maligning of many of their "friends." One person who is sneered at is the widow Ochre, who "chalks her wrinkles" in a very "careless manner" (17). The chalk that Ochre uses is makeup, a substance that many women use to touch up and beautify their faces. It is something that shrouds or conceals their true appearance. The wrinkles that Ochre is trying to conceal are the unsightly blemishes that occur with age. In this play, they can be seen as the vices that the old widow attempts to conceal behind a screen of makeup. However, the careless manner in which the makeup is applied does not help to conceal her "wrinkles." The other characters can see through her superficial shroud. Ironically, these characters that are making fun of the widow for her ineffective screen, employ their own superficial sentiments to hide their true self. These walls of false truths will soon come down, revealing their true selves to the world.

Mr. Joseph Surface employs a screen of noble sentiment in order to conceal his own malicious intentions. Sir Peter Teazle, husband to Lady Teazle, describes Joseph as a man of the "noblest sentiments" (23). Sir Peter does not realize, however, that Mr. Surface has wooed Lady Teazle, Sir Peter’s young wife, in an effort to prevent the lady from getting in the way of Joseph’s desire to marry Maria, who Sir Peter has adopted as his legal child. Sir Peter’s tune would likely change if he were to be made aware of Joseph’s true intentions. He is, however, left in the dark. He describes Mr. Surface as "a model for the young men of the age" (11). The term "model" in this passage is very important metaphorically. A model is a representation of something. For example, a model airplane is meant to be an imitation of a real airplane. The model, however, is not a real airplane, but an artificial imitation. Sir Peter describes Joseph’s sentiments as a "model" for all young men. Though Joseph’s noble sentiments may seem to be the ideal representation of how a man should carry himself, he is, in reality, a phony.

Charles Surface, Joseph’s younger brother, is a man who does not place necessity on one’s ability to conceal his or her vices. He is a man who does not rely on sentiment. He is open about his extravagancies of alcohol and money. In a society where gossip is common, everyone knows that Charles struggles financially, thanks to his excesses. Charles does not hide this fact. When his uncle, Sir Oliver, arrives at Charles’ home, posing as Mr. Premium, a moneylender, the younger Surface decides to sell old family portraits in exchange for a loan. The portraits are a metaphor. They are a representation of a person. They, like a model, are not the true person, but a copy. They provide a glimpse at what the person featured in the portrait appeared to be outwardly, but give no indication of what kind of person they were on the inside. When Oliver, shocked to hear that Charles would sell portraits of his family, asks if Charles really would sell portraits of his family, his nephew simply replies "Every man of them to the best bidder" (39). Charles, who wears his vices on his sleeve, has no need for the false reality that the portraits provide, and has no trouble parting with them.

Lady Teazle, who begins the play relying on a screen to conceal what is inside of her, is the only character that casts aside her superficial screens for reality by the end. When she married Sir Peter, Teazle was an innocent and pure country bumpkin. Upon marrying into the upper class of English society, Teazle relied upon a shroud of class to allow herself to fit in with her peers. Sir Peter says that she "plays her part…with as ready a grace as if she had never seen a bush or a grass plot out of Grosvenor Square!" (10). Sir Peter refers to his wife’s actions as though she is playing a scripted part in a play. A play is a representation of reality, but it is not true reality in itself. All the characters in a play fill a role, but when the play is over, they do not maintain that role. It is not their inner reality. Lady Teazle is playing such a role. She is playing a part that is not true to her own reality.

While at Joseph Surface’s house, Lady Teazle finally comes to witness what her reality is. Joseph, upon Lady Teazle’s arrival in his home, asks for his servant to draw a screen in front of the window. This will conceal from a neighbor’s prying eyes the rendezvous between himself and Lady Teazle. What is seen outside the window is the real world. It is, in a metaphorical sense, reality. Joseph draws a screen over the window to block out reality. As Sir Peter unexpectedly arrives, Joseph realizes the need to hide Lady Teazle. She decides to go behind the screen to hide herself from her husband. While behind the screen, Lady Teazle is able to look out the window, where she sees reality. She looks inside her own screen and finds her true self—a pure and sweet country lady.

While Lady Teazle looks within herself to discover her true nature, Joseph struggles to maintain his own false reality. When Sir Peter catches a glimpse of a petticoat from behind the screen, Joseph lies, saying that he has been hiding "a little French milliner" (52). Sir Peter is rather amused by this, and, when Charles arrives a little while later, the two decide to throw down the screen and have a look at the milliner. Behind it, they find Lady Teazle. Upon discovering the lady, Charles says to Sir Peter "though I found you in the dark, perhaps you are not so now!" (55). While the screen was still up, the light of reality was not allowed to shine into the room, leaving Joseph’s true intentions unknown to Sir Peter. As the screen is removed, the reader can imagine a flood of light enter from the outside world. This sudden dose of reality, along with the discovery of Lady Teazle, causes Joseph’s sentiments to crumble. His screen, which concealed his true intentions, is now gone, leaving Sir Peter in the dark no longer.

After the screen is removed, Lady Teazle regains her grip on reality. She "recover[s] her senses" (56). When Joseph crafts a lie that explains why Lady Teazle has been hidden behind the screen, she refuses to support his claim. The old Lady Teazle, in order to protect her own honor, would not want her husband to discover her own immoral actions. However, upon looking within herself, she rediscovers the innocent and pure country girl that she has always been at heart. She denounces Joseph as a hypocrite, and returns to her husband, Sir Peter. This shows that she does not intend to lie to and cheat her husband. Her intentions are good. Joseph’s reputation is now tarnished, leaving him with no chance at marrying Maria. Maria later accepts Charles’ proposal of marriage. He is a man that may not be very virtuous or morally strong, but does at least have good intentions. He does not attempt to lie or trick others in order to receive personal gain. In the end, it is the inner feelings and intentions of the characters that define them as good or bad.

Though many characters in The School for Scandal rely on screens to conceal what they feel inside, it is only those with malicious intentions that are looked down upon. Lady Teazle had relied on a screen to conceal her pure and innocent nature, while Charles allowed the world to see his vices. However, they had no ill or malicious intentions, and are victorious in the end. Joseph’s malicious intentions—not his sentiments—are what lead to his defeat.


Works Cited

Sheridan, Richard. The School for Scandal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.