Illustration of Kate Hardcastle in high society attire on the left, and dressed as a barmaid on the right

She Stoops to Conquer

by Oliver Goldsmith
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How is She Stoops to Conquer a satire? 

She Stoops to Conquer satirizes the inability of the landed gentry to adapt to a changing world, placing too much emphasis on class distinctions and a marriage market based on money and class rather than love and compatibility.

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At a time of rapid industrialization, when urban industrialists were getting rich, the land-owning classes were being left behind. The play satirizes the gentry's unwillingness to adapt to new circumstances. At a moment when the patriarchal country squire was held up as exemplar of traditional values, Goldsmith takes a gamble and satirizes Hardcastle. Hardcastle can't improve his home because he doesn't have the money, but he clings to the notion of being "old-fashioned" as a virtue. He is too caught in the past to get into the money-making wine trade. He is satirized for not realizing he is living in a new world, where he, a grand country squire, could be mistaken for an inn-keeper. There is comedy in this but also a critique of those who won't adapt.

The play also satirizes placing too much importance on class in Charles Marlow's stumbling inability to woo a lady of his own set but his easy confidence with lower class women. Kate Hardcastle is the same person, whether she is her landed gentry self or a barmaid, but Marlow suddenly is able to relate to her easily when she "changes" her class status. The play implies we are better off to treat people as people, not as members of a certain class. This leads to a deeper critique of a marriage market based on money and status, not love or compatibility.

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Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, a comedy of manners, satirizes the hypocrisy and the baseness in the high-bred characters who are so class-conscious. This satire is most apparent in Tony Lumpkin, the son of Mrs. Hardcastle from her previous marriage, whose base nature is exemplified in the tavern scene. It is also rather apparent in the vain and materialistic character of Mrs. Hardcastle.

Goldsmith clearly employs the character of Charles Marlow, the son of an old friend of Mr. Hardcastle, to satirize the English preoccupation and emphasis on class distinctions. The pretensions of his class prevent Charles from enjoyment in the company of polite society, while he is able to enjoy himself whenever he is with barmaids. This is clearly exemplified in his awkwardness with Kate when he meets her in her finery. Then he can only tell her,

"I have lived, indeed, in the world, madam; but I have kept little company. I have been but an observer upon life, madam, while others were enjoying it." (Act II)

But, when he mistakes Kate for a servant girl, he easily engages in lively conversation with her, and she, in turn, is delighted with his natural and open side.

In satire, irony is also employed, and Goldsmith employs this literary tool best with the character of Mrs. Hardcastle. For instance, in her discussion with Hastings about the high society of London, Mrs. Hardcastle intends to demonstrate her knowledge and sophistication. However, her confusion in Act II between fashionable and unfashionable areas—she mentions a friend on Crooked Lane, which was not far from the slaughter yards—demonstrates her actual ignorance of high society, a condition that makes her comments ironic. More irony occurs in Act II with the perception that Marlow and Hastings have of Mr. Hardcastle as, believing that he is merely the landlord of an inn, they assume that he cannot possibly be a gentleman (when, of course, he is). Because of their misconceptions about Mr. Hardcastle they are blinded in their judgment of him.

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A satire is a work of literature where irony and exaggeration are used in order to highlight a particular failing or social custom that is questionable. In this play, Goldsmith is clearly holding up the way that society viewed women not as independent humans in their own right but only in terms of what they could bring to the state of marriage. In Goldsmith's day, marriage was seen not as a matter of emotions but a financial matter where men would hope for economic gain through their wife. This is satirised in the way that Mrs Hardcastle tries to get Constance to marry her son, Tony, not because of Constance's character or beauty, but because of the jewels she will inherit and which she has charge of until Constance comes of age. Note how this is commented on in Act I scene 1 by Kate to Constance:

A fortune like yours is no small temptation. Besides, as she has the sole management of it, I'm not surprised to see her unwilling to let it go out of the family.

This play therefore is a satire in the way that Goldsmith highlights the way in which marriages were made not based on emotions or feelings, but on economic motives alone. Mrs Hardcastle's attempts to marry her son off to Constance, even though neither can stand the other, is a hilarious and exaggarated example of this failing in society.

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