In the course of late seventeenth and eighteenth century asignificant change in the understanding and expression of emotions occurred inall of Europe, which not only impacted literature in the most obvious way butalso left its recognizable footprint in philosophical arguments; furthermore itchanged the mentality of men and women and their attitude and behavior towardeach other (Slote 220-221). As Abrams states sensibility is “an intenseemotional responsiveness to beauty and sublimity whether in nature or in art,and such responsiveness was often represented as an index to a person’sgentility, that is, to one’s upper-class status” (360).
At that time, quiteapart from any action one might take, it was admirable to have a virtuousheart, to shed a sympathetic tear for another’s grief, which on the contrary topersonal anguish, was a pleasurable emotion. Notably what was known then as”the luxury of grief,” “pleasurable sorrows,” and “the sadly pleasing tear,”called, with approval “sensibility,” is now called, with disapproval “Sentimentalism”(Abrams 361).It should be pointed out that what modified the intention of thisgrand concept was drama of sensibility or as you may call it sentimentalcomedy. Although they have a lot of sentiment and feeling, they try to haul intheir work, humor. In this way these “benevolent heroes and heroines of themiddle class,” with an elevated dialogue in moral sentiments, “prior to themanipulated happy ending, suffer tribulations designed to evoke from theaudience the maximum of pleasurable tears.
” It should be borne in mind that inaddition to sentimental comedy, the novel of sensibility or sentimental novelpresents the idea of sentimentalism in the same manner (Abrams 361). On thecontrary to realism that the author is selective in subject matter to evoke asense that his/her characters might actually exist, and also that the events ofthe story could happen, or display rarer aspects of life to suggest theirmaterials as everyday occurrences (Abrams 334), the material of sentimentalistsare actually everyday life occurrences. Moreover, Abrams claims that”sentimentalism is now a derogatory term applied to what is perceived to be anexcess of emotion to an occasion, and especially to an over indulgence in thetender emotions of pathos and sympathy” (Abrams 363). In fact what is just anexpression of humane reaction to merely possible circumstances may appearsentimental to the later reader (Abrams 363), but in accordance with moralterms, this issue can be fixed if they are empathic reactions which depend upon the judgment of theindividual and conditioned by literary and cultural changes (Slote 194-197).
TheSignificance of Witty Dialogue, the Disguise Motif, and the Moral Focus in TheSchool for ScandalAs previously mentioned The School forScandal is constructed on the roots of sentimentalism, and here it isattempted to reach and grasp a handful of branches of this marvelous tree, inwhich Sheridan’s purposes flourish.In anEnglish high society where gossip runs rampant, a tangle of love has formed. Lady Sneerwell is in love with a rebellious man named Charles Surface.However, Charles is in love with Maria, as ishis brother Joseph. Maria is in love with Charles, but Lady Sneerwell andJoseph plot to ruin this relationship through rumors about Charles. At the sametime, an older man named Sir Peter Teazle has taken a young wife, called Lady Teazle; afteronly a few months of marriage they now bicker constantly about money, drivingLady Teazle to contemplate an affair with Joseph.
Theplot thickens when Sir Oliver Surface, therich uncle of Joseph and Charles, returns to town. He schemes to test therumors about Joseph being a man of sentiment and Charles having fallen intoruin; to do so, he goes to each of them in disguise. He is infuriated when hesees Charles driving the family into debt. Charles proposes to sell him all hehas left, the family portraits, angering his uncle even more; however heforgives him when Charles refuses to sell the painting of his uncle.The tangle of love and rumors becomes clearwhen, while Lady Teazle is visiting Joseph Surface, her husband comes to call.Lady Teazle hides behind a screen and listens to their conversation. Then,Charles Surface arrives as well; Sir Teazle, hoping to see whether Charles ishaving an affair with his wife as has been rumored, also tries to hide behindthe screen.
He sees what he thinks is simply a young woman Joseph has beentrying to hide. Sir Teazle hides in the closet instead, but when Charles startsto talk about Joseph’s relationship with Lady Teazle, Joseph reveals that SirTeazle is hiding in the closet, and Charles pulls him out. When Joseph goes outof the room, Sir Teazle tells Charles about the woman hiding behind the screen,and they pull it down to reveal his wife.
Sir Oliver visits Joseph dressed as apoor relation looking for money. Sir Oliver is disappointed to find that Josephis only kind on the surface, but will not help his relative. The play ends withSir Oliver revealing his plot and his findings to Charles and Joseph. Everyonerealizes that Lady Sneerwell and her servant Snake orchestrated the rumor about Charles and LadyTeazle.Clearly influenced by the works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan,especially The School for Scandal, Durant declares that “we develop theimpression that Sheridan was (1) a benevolist certainly aware of the prevalenceof evil, (2) a satirist strangely contemptuous of satire and its motives, (3)an artist reluctant to see or show human nature depraved, and (4) one eager toaffirm the basic good nature of mankind” (46). James E. Evans also has someinteresting facts to add to Sheridan’s abilities as he declares “Sheridan isambivalent about luxury … and that the plots mirror the cultural work of thecomedy … he uses money for his representation of sensibility, artfully embeddedin a satire of slander” (51).
Another critic, Louis kronenberger declares that”Sheridan’s sense of theatre wins out in the end over his knowledge of theworld.” Because although Sheridan himself believes he was affected by the worldaround him a lot, he wasn’t, at least not as much as his inner beliefs andaesthetics (Durant 45).