Lady Teazle and the "Envenomed Tongue of Slander"

"Prudence, like experience, must be paid for"—such is the questionable nature of Joseph Surface’s logic of honor, meant to induce the Lady Teazle into eliminating the last vestiges of her country morality in Richard Brinsley’s comedy of manners, The School for Scandal (page 48). Indeed, throughout this play Lady Teazle, innocent and naïve, flirts with the intrigues of scandal and infamy, dangerously close to becoming an irretrievable member of aristocratic London’s circle of gossips, appropriately dubbed the "school for scandal." An analysis of the recurring image of the "envenomed tongue of slander," as well as the contrast between Lady Teazle as a woman of country manners, and as a woman of wealth and rank, demonstrates the connection between wealth and treachery, sentiment and knavery. However, in the end, Lady Teazle achieves a balance between the two competing moralities when the "screen" from her eyes falls dramatically. She is a woman of rank who has rejected the "honourable logic" of the "school for scandal" and embraced her former, moral country manners (49).

Although Lady Teazle is unable to immediately perceive the wickedness of slander, Act I, Scene I presents an image of scandal thoroughly characterized by the vileness and depravity of a snake. This scene opens with a conversation between Mr. Snake and Lady Sneerwell, two of the more prominent and active members of the "school for scandal." It is no coincidence that "Mr. Snake" is a one-dimensional villain, whose employment solely depends on the "infamy" and "badness of [his] character" (75). As an accomplice to Lady Sneerwell, he performs the actual thefts and deceptions necessary to wreak havoc on the upstanding characters of various individuals. Thus, from the very first scene, slander is directly associated with the conniving, oily Mr. Snake. However, the image of the snake is reinforced by Lady Sneerwell’s description of her devious motives for debauchery. She remarks, "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" (2). The phrase "envenomed tongue of slander" clearly provokes an image of a poisonous, hissing snake. In addition, this phrase appropriately captures the particular method of slander: the whisper. Because slander is implemented through lies and falsehoods, the members of the "school for scandal" tend to appear secretive when spreading rumors. Indeed, the common image of gossip is that of a person leaning over to whisper in another’s ear; the articulate human words are reduced to the snake-like hiss of a whisper. Interestingly, the names "Snake" and "Sneerwell" themselves refer to the characteristic hissing snake-like sound, and there can be no doubt as to the author’s intention of associating these two characters with the hiss of the word slander. Thus, the image of an "envenomed tongue" that spreads scandalous tales and blatant exaggerations is markedly accurate.

The snake-like image of scandal associated with Mr. Snake and Lady Sneerwell is also associated with the "tale-bearers" of the "school for scandal" (6). However, there is an important distinction between the former and the latter, and that is the recognition of slander’s poisonous consequences. The "envenomed tongue" which Lady Sneerwell refers to in the conversation with Mr. Snake is also referred to later in Act I, Scene I. At this point in the scene, Mr. Snake has exited and other characters have joined in conversation with Lady Sneerwell, including the Lady Candour and the pretentious Sir Benjamin Backbite. Notice that the name "Backbite" immediately presents an image of the mouth, or, more precisely, sharp teeth. In the context of the play, this name is a metaphor for the particular literary methods of Sir Benjamin’s slander—satire and lampoon. He admits that although he possesses literary talent, "’tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons on particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties" (7). Satires and (especially) lampoons are literary forms that can be notorious for the merciless degradation of a person’s character. Thus, the name "Backbite" is appropriate to one who delights in boasting talent while ridiculing others.

Similarly, as her name suggests, Lady Candour is open and frank. However, the name is meant to be ironic for she lacks the honesty and integrity that is usually associated with that word. In contrast, Lady Candour’s nature is overwhelmingly hypocritical with regards to her actions and the professed truthfulness of her words. Indeed, her opinion on slander is that "there’s no stopping people’s tongues… tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers—‘tis an old observation and a very true one: but what’s to be done, as I said before?" (5-6). Again, Lady Candour provokes the image of the whispering tongue to describe scandal, but she readily dismisses the effects of its poison. This is in great contrast to the attitudes of Mr. Snake and Lady Sneerwell. It has already been noted that Mr. Snake admits to the "badness" of his character. Indeed, he pleads at the end of the play to preserve his reputation for villainy because "if it were once known that I had been betrayed into an honest action, I should lose every friend I have in the world" (75). Like Mr. Snake, Lady Sneerwell unabashedly states, "I am no hypocrite to deny the satisfaction I reap from the success of my efforts" (2). Thus, Lady Sneerwell and Mr. Snake differ from Lady Candour in that they are not hypocritical and the image of the slanderous tongue is used to describe scandal throughout this scene.

Considering the obvious image of slander as a malicious, hissing snake presented in the very first scene, it seems odd that the Lady Teazle does not perceive this image as well. It appears odd because as the daughter of a "plain country squire," Lady Teazle should possess a morality characterized by humility and gratitude. However, Lady Teazle is unable to perceive the venom in scandal because a screen of wealth and social rank jades her honest country morality. Specifically, Lady Teazle’s marriage profoundly raised her social status from a country maid to a woman of rank and fortune. Lady Teazle’s husband, Sir Peter, remarks that before they were married, she was "in somewhat a humbler style" (14). He often condemns her for extravagance to which she merely retorts, "I’m sure I’m not more extravagant than a woman of fashion ought to be… For my part, I should think you would like to have your wife thought a woman of taste" (13). Thus, through Lady Teazle, a connection is drawn between wealth and treachery: she perceives that now, as a lady of rank and fortune, she must become a lady with "taste" and style (15). However, her efforts to conform to "fashionable" London society—to acquire "taste"—result in the significant degeneration of her moral character. The word "taste" in this context is an extension of the metaphor of the "envenomed tongue" used to represent the "tale-makers and tale-bearers" of Act I, Scene I. Here the word insinuates that the ideals of the members of the "school for scandal" are a direct consequence of wealth and luxury. In other words, slander is a consequence of leisure. Lady Teazle is inhibited from seeing this because she associates such individuals as the cruel Lady Sneerwell or the hypocritical Lady Candour with the upper-class pretensions of fashion and good "taste." However, it is shown that the very persons she admires are portrayed by the deviousness of a snake.

Perhaps the most devious character of the School for Scandal has the most influence in encouraging the destruction of Lady Teazle’s country morality. The metaphorical screen of wealth, which prevents Lady Teazle from appreciating the honesty of her former country manners, is greatly encouraged by Joseph Surface. Interestingly, Mr. Surface also possesses a metaphorical screen, but one which differs greatly from Lady Teazle’s. Like Lady Sneerwell and Mr. Snake, Joseph Surface purposefully causes mischief and brews scandal when it suits his interests. However, as his name suggests, Mr. Surface takes care to cultivate an image of honor and virtue by frequently professing sentiments of morality. These sentiments serve as a screen between his true, immoral character and his virtuous reputation in society. In contrast to Lady Teazle, Mr. Surface conscientiously constructs and depends on his metaphorical screen for his reputation. Thus, though he is admired by most individuals as "a youthful miracle of prudence, good sense, and benevolence," characters such as Lady Sneerwell more accurately categorize him as "artful, selfish, and malicious—in short, a sentimental knave" (2-3). Because of his reputation as a "man of sentiment," Joseph manages to ingratiate himself with Lady Teazle to such a degree that she agrees to consider him her lover, in the name of fashion (55, 21).

Although the relationship between Mr. Surface and Lady Teazle is entirely to his advantage, in Act IV, Scene III, every screen comes tumbling down. Although this happens all at once and for several different reasons, what is of interest here is the nature of the removal of Lady Teazle’s metaphorical "screen" of wealth. In this scene, Joseph struggles to persuade Lady Teazle to sacrifice her virtue in order to secure her reputation. Relying on his prudent and benevolent image, Joseph professes such nonsensical sentiments as "prudence, like experience, must be paid for" (48). He explains to Lady Teazle that "your character at present is like a person in a plethora, absolutely dying from too much health" (48). Although Lady Teazle is inclined to believe him, the entrance of her husband, Sir Peter, interrupts their inappropriate rendezvous. Ironically, Sir Peter visits Joseph to obtain his opinion on deeds that will provide an independent salary for Lady Teazle, in order to accommodate her extravagant desires. While exclaiming "oh! I’m quite undone! What will become of me? Now, Mr. Logic?" Lady Teazle hides behind a screen placed strategically in front of the window.

Standing behind this actual screen which protects her from exposure of the shameful truth, the metaphorical "screen" which blinded Lady Teazle from the reality of her immoral behavior begins to disintegrate as she witnesses the generosity of her husband. The conclusion of this scene is a masterpiece of dramatic effect: the screen which hides Lady Teazle is thrown down and she is exposed in front of her husband as a "little French milliner" which "plagues" Joseph (52). However, rather than produce an incredible falsification, Lady Teazle is revealed as a balance between a woman of rank and a woman of moral country manners. Instead of complying with Joseph’s stuttering fabrication, she simply notes that she "has recovered her senses, and [Joseph’s] own arts have furnished her with the means" (56). Although it may appear as if the awkwardness and shame of her exposure is the impetus for her reformation, Lady Teazle clearly states that it is her husband’s generosity which has opened her eyes, "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" (56). Thus, as the screen in front of the window is torn down, so too is the screen of pretentiousness, which would not allow Lady Teazle to show the appropriate gratitude and respect for her husband.

Lady Teazle’s transformation has shown that the treachery and knavery of the "school for scandal" are a consequence of the leisure and luxury of the wealthy. The connection is shown through the snake-like image of scandal, which is clearly associated with the characters Lady Sneerwell and Mr. Snake, and derived from the recurring metaphor of the "envenomed tongue." Although the "envenomed tongue" is used initially to describe slander, the Lady Teazle then uses the word "taste" to describe her view of what is important to a woman of wealth and fashion. Thus, what is important to a woman of wealth and fashion is to acquire the "taste" that characterizes the "school for scandal." However, in the end, efforts to corrupt the naïve Lady Teazle with hypocritical sentiments are defeated by the dramatic collapse of the "screen." As a consequence, Lady Teazle is finally able to appreciate the love of her husband, and recognize the hypocrisy of the "school for scandal." She confronts Lady Sneerwell, and with the poise and stature of a woman of rank and honest morality, declares, "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" (74).

  

Work Cited

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The School for Scandal. Ed. Stanley Applebaum. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.