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...
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