A well-crafted play, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer weaves several strands of action. Although the story transpires in not much more than one night, the play is densely packed with activity. This of course accounts for the play’s subtitle, “Mistakes of a Night.”
Two of the play’s strands are of particular importance, both about bringing lovers together. There are two sets of lovers: One couple, Hastings and Constance Neville, have been in love for some time, but their hopes are thwarted by Mrs. Hardcastle’s insistence that Constance marry her son, Tony Lumpkin. The only recourse appears to be eloping, a scheme that Tony happily aids and abets. The other couple, Marlow and Kate Hardcastle, is brought together by an arrangement between their respective fathers, Sir Charles and Mr. Hardcastle, as a way of confirming their friendship. Here, the problem is the awkward shyness of the young Marlow upon meeting ladies. Knowing that the shyness evaporates when he confronts a woman of lower station, Kate literally “stoops to conquer.” Both strands of the play are thus deftly resolved: The elopement becomes unnecessary once Tony is revealed to be of age and free to reject Constance, and the marriage of Kate and Marlow can take place, now that Marlow’s eyes are open to the truth.
All this might seem contrived were it not for the comic ironies and misunderstandings among the characters and the grace and wit with which Goldsmith portrays them. She Stoops to Conquer is very much a group play, as there is no protagonist in the usual sense. Tony provides most of the machinations that propel the plot. Kate brings Marlow to a crucial realization, and he suffers more than anyone from the mistaken identities and false assumptions. However, none of these characters is really central. Instead, together they draw parallels and contrasts between marriages, not only the two that come to pass but also the one of the Hardcastles and, for that matter, the fact of Tony’s opting out of any marriage.
This charming play has entertained audiences since its first performance at Covent Garden in London in 1773, a time when sentimental comedies dominated the English stage, and had done so since Sir Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (pb. 1723) in 1722 had provided what its author called, “a pleasure too exquisite for laughter.” These are plays calculated to inspire tears in the eyes of audiences as they witness love overcoming all obstacles. Goldsmith and Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan had declared war on such insipid drama, calling for a return to laughing comedy by producing pamphlets, articles, and plays, including some of the best comedies of the century: Sheridan’s The Rivals (pr., pb. 1775) and The School for Scandal (pr. 1777, pb. 1780) and Goldsmith’s The Good Natured Man (pr., pb. 1768) and She Stoops to Conquer.
Goldsmith died in 1774, one year after She Stoops to Conquer was first performed, thus leaving no other plays. Despite his position against sentimental comedy, She Stoops to Conquer has a gentle and amiable tone. It promotes the idea of honest humility and does so with humane good humor. These values, too, are typical of the eighteenth century, which exalted feeling and intuition and grace in opposition to the severe rationalism of the previous century.
Goldsmith was haunted by poverty and was irritable and envious; he also had a great wit, was generous, and had an essentially lovable nature—all of these contradictory characteristics are reflected in his writings. Hopelessly impractical, especially in money matters, he wrote with genius and Irish liveliness in many different forms and left a legacy of at least four masterpieces. He was forced to plod away as a literary hack, trying to survive in London’s Grub Street literary world. He did editorial work for booksellers, wrote essays and criticism, and gradually gained a modest reputation. The Citizen of the World (1762; first published in The Public Ledger, 1760-1761), a collection of fictional letters, brought him even more recognition for their charm, grace, humor, and good sense.
Although this success somewhat eased the pinch of poverty, Goldsmith continued to find it necessary to write pamphlets and miscellaneous journalism. A philosophic poem, The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society (1764), brought high praise from Samuel Johnson, and the book of poems, The Deserted Village (1770), was a wide success. In 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield, written to pay the rent, brought Goldsmith fame as a novelist, but his money troubles continued. She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith’s second comedy, received a flattering public response, but the financial returns paid off only a fraction of his huge debts.
Johnson saw this first performance and remarked, “I know of no comedy for many years that has answered so much the great end of comedy—making an audience merry.” One may well agree and say that one or two comedies of the time might be considered superior, but none is merrier. Certainly, it reflects Goldsmith’s own rich and genial personality.