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.