It has been said “‘The two basic modes of satire are good-humoured teasing and savage attack” i.e. wit and malice. Wit is often thought of to be a quickness of mind and humour whilst malice is a desire to harm others. In the definitions an immediate difference arises, that of good natured wit and ill humoured malice, indeed it is often considered that ‘Rape of the Lock’ is the good-humoured teasing whilst ‘School for Scandal’ is more malicious, ‘savage attack’. Yet, is also clear that often the terms are interchangeable and irreversibly inter-woven – how far is this true in the two texts?
‘Rape of the Lock’ is written in a style coined ‘Horatian satire’ after Roman satirist Horace who said, “every play should either instruct or delight – better if it does both”. This is a light satirical style which aims to create humour without being overly malicious. Here is a clear example of a way in which wit is different from malice, the ‘Horatian’ satirical wit seen in ‘Rape of the Lock’ is far from the malice viewed in School for Scandal. For example, Pope writes, ‘The tortoise here and elephant unite\ Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white.’ The use of heroic couplets satirizes the vanity of society that has turned grand creatures into frivolous items. It is a clear use of bathos where the grand is brought down to an anti climax.
This is compounded in the list of items upon her toilet ‘Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux’. Pope emerges the highly important item of the bible amongst the less auspicious “puffs, powders, patches” to comment on society’s (and women in particular’s) lack of priorities or moral standards. The use of alliteration furthers this satire by placing more emphasis on the ‘B’ in bibles which breaks the pattern. These lines, whilst humorous, do not appear to have an intent for harm, indeed they are light hearted. It might then be concluded that this passage is only wit and lacking of malice.
In ‘School for Scandal’ however, Sheridan uses malice to degrade the women and the slanderous society, ‘she joins it on so badly to her neck that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur sees at once that the head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique.’ Whilst being equal to ‘Rape of the Lock’ in humour this line, and indeed many others in the play, have a far greater intent of harm than is seen in Pope’s poem. The dialogue is directly malicious and nasty towards an individual rather than the broader comment viewable in ‘Rape of the Lock’. Furthermore, it appears to have more a vicious undertone than Pope uses.
However, it must be noted that whilst Sheridan is simply commenting on the obsession with appearance, Pope is questioning the entire integrity of the society. ‘The hungry Judges soon the sentence sign\ And wretches hang that jury-men may dine;’ This, in particular, seems far closer to the malice viewed in ‘School for Scandal’. Moreover, it must be questioned which is then more malicious? Wit on a timid topic or wit on serious moral issues in the modern society? It seems malicious to trivialise and satirize the serious issue of greed manipulating the justice system in the country, whilst it seems mild in comparison to joke about the obsession with appearance that society holds. On the other hand, it must be recalled that appearance was extremely important in society at the time. A woman who was unattractive, or whom had a damaged reputation, would never marry and would be a burden on her family forever, “’twas the next morning everywhere reported, and in a few days believed by the whole town, that Miss Letitia Piper had actually been brought to bed of a fine boy and a girl;”. This reveals the damaging potential of slander, raising the line to the same moral significance, and malice, as that in ‘Rape of the Lock’
It seems difficult to judge the difference between wit and malice in impact on the audience, or indeed in content. Both cases are likely to evoke humour whilst often the margin seems blurred between the two in regards to content. However, the ability to offer wit without malice is highly valued among writers. In Utopia, More writes: “he is also a delightful talker , who can be witty without hurting anyone’s feelings.” It is clear he praises the ability to create wit in the absence of malice. However, Sheridan seems to disagree that this is possible. Lady Sneerwell remarks, “There’s no possibility of being witty without a little ill nature. The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick.” On one hand, by allowing Sneerwell this opinion, Sheridan might be discrediting it. On the other, he was directly opposed to the sentimental comedies of the time, those lacking malice, perhaps suggesting it is an opinion he holds. It is interesting to note the phrase “little ill nature” almost juxtaposed with the negativity viewed in the cast. The opposing opinion is offered by the heroine, Maria, “wit loses its respect with me when I see it in company with malice.” However, she is a minor character, lacking in personality, and it is questionable that Sheridan would align his opinions with hers. After all, she is the only character lacking in malice, yet she also completely lacks wit.
Pope, on the other hand, appears capable of creating wit almost lacking in malice. “Fate urg’d the sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,\ (But airy substance soon unites again)” The use of the mock epic technique elevates the incidence and offers it an importance which the event does not deserve. This creates wit in the over dramatic nature of the language. However, it might be considered that Pope is malicious in his trivialising of what, to Arabella Fermor, was a serious issue, one from which her reputation never fully recovered (she died a spinster). By contrasting major incidence with trivial ones, Pope continues to mock the petty feminine concerns, “When husbands or when lapdogs breathe their last;\ Or when rich China vessels fall’n from high,\ In glitt’ring dust, and painted fragments lie!” Yet, again the language feels anti-femine and almost misogynistic, the female concerns are not allowed to be taken seriously in the text and little context is offered to suggest why these things are so important to women.
Yet, there do appear to be cases of Pope mocking the male mentality. The baron is viewed as obsessive and ill-developed. For example “As long as Atalantis shall be read… so long by honour, name and praise shall live!” mirrors Shakespeare’s sonnet 18. This mirroring is replicated in canto 5 of the poem, “when after millions slain, yourself shall die;\ when those fair suns shall set, as set they must, \ And all those tresses shall be laid in dust;\ This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame, \ And midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name.” The mirroring of Shakespeare follows his mock epic technique of mirroring great works of literature, furthermore, by comparing the trivial act of cutting hair with Shakespeare’s great work, Pope highlights the ridiculous notion that cutting hair will grant the Baron’s name immortality. The Baron is made out to be self-absorbed and ignorant, hardly a good quality. Yet the text remains witty and not malicious.
One clear difference between the two texts, and perhaps wit and malice, comes in the opening. Whist Pope talks to, and involves, the audience, “What mighty contests rise from trivial things,”, Sheridan directly, and openly, attacks their society, “A school for scandal! Tell me, I beseech you, Needs there a school this modish art to teach you?” This appears to highlight the difference of subtlety, whilst both writers attempt to mock the society they view around them, Sheridan is far more open and blatant in his goings. In the opening lines he mocks fashion “modish art” and the relationship that women hold with each other “a school for scandal!” Pope, in contrast, appeals to the intelligence of his audience to notice the trivial things that society makes seem important.
It is highly difficult to find a passage in either text which is purely malice and not at all witty. This might suggest that malice is always witty, though wit is not always malicious. Wit in the absence of malice appears to be cleverer and more subtle, this is a clear difference between the two texts.