Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem was first produced in 1780 and is considered her most famous play. It is a lighthearted comedy about manners and courtship, set in the fashionable society of late-eighteenth-century London. Scholars often note that Cowley’s style in The Belle’s Stratagem is suggestive of her predecessors. Even the title of this play pays homage to one such Augustan playwright, George Farquhar, and his play The Beaux’s Stratagem.
Many of the stories from the Restoration and Augustan playwrights juxtapose two storylines; The Belle’s Stratagem is no different. The two plotlines are Letitia Hardy’s ingenious scheme to entrap and win the heart of her arranged husband, Doricourt, and the marital problems of the insanely jealous Sir George Touchwood and his wife, the sheltered and beautiful Lady Frances. Both plots focus on men learning to respect women; however, there is added depth to this story, as it is also layered with questions about identity and feminism. The role of the masquerade as a metaphor for the many masks women must wear within society becomes an important element in both plotlines. The two juxtaposed stories meet with a crescendo at the masquerade ball, creating a bewildering parody of fashionable society, marriage, and the role of women in the eighteenth century.
The Belle’s Stratagem opens at Lincoln’s Inn, where Saville is looking for his good friend, Doricourt, who has recently returned from travels. While waiting, Saville talks with a townsman, Courtall, about the plentiful unmarried women throughout town. They also discuss how the unwed women are extremely eager to marry because so many young men are away fighting the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Saville tells Courtall that Doricourt is to marry Letitia Hardy. Courtall is excited that Doricourt is to be wed, because Doricourt is a heavily courted young man. His marriage will free the minds of many women for other men.
Later, at Doricourt’s, Crowquill, the author of a local gossip column, attempts to pry scandalous information from Doricourt’s porter. It is to no avail as, according to the porter, Doricourt is free of such trifle. Saville arrives, still looking for Doricourt, and eventually he is taken to see his friend’s apartment by a Frenchman employed by Doricourt.
At the apartment, Doricourt and Saville discuss servants. Doricourt employs French and German servants because he believes they are less intelligent and, thus, more loyal. Saville disagrees, and the two men change topics, discussing instead marriage and women of the world. Doricourt explains that he finds Letitia Hardy attractive, but he believes her soul is lacking fire and lust. Doricourt speaks of the beautiful women of France and Italy, while expressing his indifference for British women. Again, Saville disagrees. The two men end the conversation agreeing that British men do, in fact, make the best friends, companions, and business partners.
Meanwhile, at an apartment owned by the Hardy’s, Flutter, Villers, and Mrs. Racket discuss the upcoming marriage between Doricourt and Letitia. Eventually their conversation shifts to the marital problems between Sir George Touchwood and his wife, Lady Frances. Mrs. Racket finds Touchwood to be an excessively jealous brute. Villers and Flutter believe Mrs. Racket is being a bit too dramatic. Flutter tells a wildly embellished story, whereupon Villers says, “I never believe one tenth part of what you say,” exposing Flutter as an extravagant gossip.
Letitia makes her first appearance and complains that Doricourt expressed indifference for her at their first meeting. She is disappointed, but Mrs. Racket reminds her that Doricourt has courted and been courted all throughout Europe and that the young Letitia should not expect much from him at first. Hardy, Letitia’s father, enters the room and professes that Doricourt loves his daughter. Letitia begs to differ and sets in motion a plan to truly win Doricourt’s heart. She plans to first make Doricourt hate her, then to transform his hate into passionate love, because, Letitia believes, “‘tis much easier to convert a sentiment into its opposite than to transform indifference into tender passion.”
At Sir George Touchwood’s house, Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle confront Sir George about his jealousy, claiming that he is oppressive and that his beliefs in marriage are a century and a half old. Lady Frances remains quiet until Flutter reveals that Sir George released her favorite bullfinch, out of jealousy for the bird. Lady Frances becomes upset, and for the first time leaves her husband’s side to go about town with Mrs. Racket and Miss Ogle. The three women visit an auction house owned by Silvertongue. While there, Courtall spies Lady Frances and begins to lust after her....
(The entire section is 1460 words.)