In the course of late seventeenth and eighteenth century a
significant change in the understanding and expression of emotions occurred in
all of Europe, which not only impacted literature in the most obvious way but
also left its recognizable footprint in philosophical arguments; furthermore it
changed the mentality of men and women and their attitude and behavior toward
each other (Slote 220-221). As Abrams states sensibility is “an intense
emotional responsiveness to beauty and sublimity whether in nature or in art,
and such responsiveness was often represented as an index to a person’s
gentility, that is, to one’s upper-class status” (360). At that time, quite
apart from any action one might take, it was admirable to have a virtuous
heart, to shed a sympathetic tear for another’s grief, which on the contrary to
personal 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 this
grand concept was drama of sensibility or as you may call it sentimental
comedy. Although they have a lot of sentiment and feeling, they try to haul in
their work, humor. In this way these “benevolent heroes and heroines of the
middle class,” with an elevated dialogue in moral sentiments, “prior to the
manipulated happy ending, suffer tribulations designed to evoke from the
audience the maximum of pleasurable tears.” It should be borne in mind that in
addition to sentimental comedy, the novel of sensibility or sentimental novel
presents the idea of sentimentalism in the same manner (Abrams 361). On the
contrary to realism that the author is selective in subject matter to evoke a
sense that his/her characters might actually exist, and also that the events of
the story could happen, or display rarer aspects of life to suggest their
materials as everyday occurrences (Abrams 334), the material of sentimentalists
are actually everyday life occurrences.

 Moreover, Abrams claims that
“sentimentalism is now a derogatory term applied to what is perceived to be an
excess of emotion to an occasion, and especially to an over indulgence in the
tender emotions of pathos and sympathy” (Abrams 363). In fact what is just an
expression of humane reaction to merely possible circumstances may appear
sentimental to the later reader (Abrams 363), but in accordance with moral
terms, this issue can be fixed if they are empathic reactions  which depend upon the judgment of the
individual and conditioned by literary and cultural changes (Slote 194-197).

The
Significance of Witty Dialogue, the Disguise Motif, and the Moral Focus in The
School for Scandal

As previously mentioned The School for
Scandal is constructed on the roots of sentimentalism, and here it is
attempted to reach and grasp a handful of branches of this marvelous tree, in
which Sheridan’s purposes flourish.

In an
English 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 is
his brother Joseph. Maria is in love with Charles, but Lady Sneerwell and
Joseph plot to ruin this relationship through rumors about Charles. At the same
time, an older man named Sir Peter Teazle has taken a young wife, called Lady Teazle; after
only a few months of marriage they now bicker constantly about money, driving
Lady Teazle to contemplate an affair with Joseph. The
plot thickens when Sir Oliver Surface, the
rich uncle of Joseph and Charles, returns to town. He schemes to test the
rumors about Joseph being a man of sentiment and Charles having fallen into
ruin; to do so, he goes to each of them in disguise. He is infuriated when he
sees Charles driving the family into debt. Charles proposes to sell him all he
has left, the family portraits, angering his uncle even more; however he
forgives him when Charles refuses to sell the painting of his uncle.

The tangle of love and rumors becomes clear
when, 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 is
having an affair with his wife as has been rumored, also tries to hide behind
the screen. He sees what he thinks is simply a young woman Joseph has been
trying to hide. Sir Teazle hides in the closet instead, but when Charles starts
to talk about Joseph’s relationship with Lady Teazle, Joseph reveals that Sir
Teazle is hiding in the closet, and Charles pulls him out. When Joseph goes out
of 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 a
poor relation looking for money. Sir Oliver is disappointed to find that Joseph
is only kind on the surface, but will not help his relative. The play ends with
Sir Oliver revealing his plot and his findings to Charles and Joseph. Everyone
realizes that Lady Sneerwell and her servant Snake orchestrated the rumor about Charles and Lady
Teazle.

Clearly influenced by the works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan,
especially The School for Scandal, Durant declares that “we develop the
impression that Sheridan was (1) a benevolist certainly aware of the prevalence
of 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 to
affirm the basic good nature of mankind” (46). James E. Evans also has some
interesting facts to add to Sheridan’s abilities as he declares “Sheridan is
ambivalent about luxury … and that the plots mirror the cultural work of the
comedy … he uses money for his representation of sensibility, artfully embedded
in 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 the
world.” Because although Sheridan himself believes he was affected by the world
around him a lot, he wasn’t, at least not as much as his inner beliefs and
aesthetics (Durant 45).