Oliver Goldsmith Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3995

The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer were written to spite the prevailing taste in comedy. In an essay written just after he completed the second play, Oliver Goldsmith explained that the comedy of his time, which he called sentimental comedy, was a degeneration of a genre that had been clearly defined since the days of Aristotle. Comedy, Goldsmith lamented, had become a kind of tragedy that sought to influence the audience by appealing to its sympathy.

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Sentimental comedy was a dramatic subgenre that developed at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Restoration comedy of manners, which had delighted audiences with contrasting manners, sharp wordplay, and sexual innuendo, had been attacked by Jeremy Collier and others as immoral. To save drama, some writers began to make sure that every rake reformed by the fifth act and that sober, sensible lovers got as much attention as witty, scandalous ones. Sir Richard Steele, in the influential The Conscious Lovers (pr. 1722), had shown that lovers could be entangled in plots of parental opposition and mistaken identities so complicated that only the playwright could untie the fifth-act knots. Audiences, it seemed, would watch good people suffer through complex but manageable difficulties and would cheer when the protagonists swept all before them. Sentimental comedy was a part of Sensibility , a movement that characterized much literature after 1740. Sensibility invited readers and audiences to prove their humanity by sympathizing with the plight of fictional or dramatic heroes and heroines; it promised that their sympathy would be rewarded because all would work out in the end, leaving viewers with emotions stirred, teased, and satisfied.

In his essay on “laughing comedy,” Goldsmith described the typical sentimental playin which the virtues of private life are exhibited . . . and the distresses rather than the faults of mankind made our interest. . . . In these plays almost all the characters are good, and exceedingly generous; they are lavish enough of their tin money on the stage; and though they want humor, have abundance of sentiment and feeling.

Whatever claim to merit such plays have is reduced by the fact that they—like modern television situation comedies—are too easily written. Goldsmith scoffed that in sentimental comedies, it was enoughto deck out the hero with a riband, or give the heroine a title; then to put an insipid dialogue, without character or humor into their mouths, give them mighty good hearts, very fine clothes, furnish a new set of scenes, make a pathetic scene or two, with a sprinkling of tender melancholy conversation through the whole. . . .

The essay concludes with a lament on the art of making audiences laugh, an art that Goldsmith thought had disappeared with plays of Sir John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber at the start of the eighteenth century. Determined to show that whatever delight sentimental comedies gave, laughing comedies gave better, Goldsmith submitted his own two plays as evidence.

Even without the historical interest, many readers still find Goldsmith enjoyable for his prose style and his sense of humor. He is one of the masters of the middle style; his informal, almost conversational prose and his humane and humorous observations of individuals make his work accessible and pleasurable even to those who have never met a lord or made the Grand Tour. Goldsmith’s characters and comments are rooted in universal experience.

The Good-Natured Man

The Good-Natured Man, which debuted while Hugh Kelly’s latest sentimental play, False Delicacy (pr. 1768), was dominating theatrical London, teased contemporary taste in two ways. First, Goldsmith created scenes that are ironic, farcical, or witty enough to generate laughter. Second, he delineated—that is, in traditional terms, offered up to ridicule—the folly of a culture hero of the age, the “good-natured man.” The good-natured man is the sentimental hero, the one who thinks with his heart rather than his head and who leaps to help solve life’s smallest distresses. This generous instinct, Goldsmith’s good-natured man discovers, has its limitations: One so inclined to sympathize with others may be in danger of losing himself. The twin purposes of the play—literary and moral—actually work together because the laughter that the play generates makes the lesson easier for the audience to accept.

The Good-Natured Man traces Sir William Honeywood’s attempt to test and reform his nephew and heir, whose easy generosity (that is, good nature) has led him into extravagance and foolishness. Sir William’s plan is to involve young Honeywood in enough fictitious distresses that he will be jailed for debt. Young Honeywood, then, the uncle reasons, would learn a valuable lesson by seeing which of his friends come to his assistance and which of them have only been taking advantage of his generosity. Sir William willingly admits that his nephew’s universal benevolence is “a fault near allied to excellency,” but as far as Sir William is concerned, it is still a fault to be corrected.

Sir William’s plot is intended to demonstrate the need for the sentimental, good-natured man to be shown his follies, and most of the play’s other characters reinforce the same idea. Sir William himself is a not very subtle mouthpiece for the dramatist, expostulating precisely and exactly on the hero’s mistakes. Honeywood’s friend Croaker is the exact opposite of Honeywood; as a man who sees everything gloomily and selfishly, he lets the audience see the defects of the other extreme. Another friend, Lofty, is a character who counterfeits benevolence (pretending to use influence at court on his friends’ behalf) in order to puff himself up in the eyes of the world. Lofty is a conscious pretender, while Honeywood is sincere, but the latter comes to see that “in attempting to please all,” he “fed his vanity” as much as Lofty did.

Once Honeywood has been arrested for debt, Sir William is pleased to learn, Miss Richland, a woman of independent fortune and a close friend, has secured his release. Honeywood, however, does not need his uncle’s conniving to find himself in difficulties. His benevolence, good nature, and sensibility generate other problems, one of the most knotty being his relationship with Miss Richland. Honeywood loves her deeply, but he is content to be only a friend. “Never let me harbour,” he proclaims sentimentally, “a thought of making her unhappy by a connection with one so unworthy her merits as I am.” In addition to being modest about his worth to her, Honeywood fears that he could never please her guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Croaker. Rather than tackle such obstacles directly, as would the witty hero of a Restoration comedy, Honeywood is content to sigh and wring his hands in distress.

Circumstances, however, refuse to let Honeywood remain uninvolved. Honeywood must watch while Croaker tries to marry his son, Leontine, to Miss Richland, despite the fact that Leontine is really in love with Olivia, an orphan whom he has brought to England from France in place of the long-absent sister he was sent to fetch. Honeywood must not only watch Croaker’s matchmaking, but he must also intercede for Lofty’s wooing of Miss Richland. Lofty, pretending to sentimental friendship, calls on Honeywood to court the young heiress for him. Honeywood is on an emotional rack, stretched between the desire to please a friend and the agony of speaking love in another person’s name: “What shall I do! Love, friendship, a hopeless passion, a deserving friend! . . . to see her in the possession of another! . . . Insupportable! But then to betray a generous, trusting friend!—Worse, worse.”

Honeywood’s dilemmas are solved in the last two acts by accident and by Sir William’s intercession. He lends money to Leontine and Olivia that they may elope, but when Croaker intercepts what he thinks is a blackmail letter, Honeywood accidentally sends him after the “blackmailer” to the very inn where the lovers are hiding. Catching his son and “daughter,” Croaker praises Honeywood for his help and Leontine damns him for his apparent betrayal. Meanwhile, in speaking to Miss Richland on Lofty’s behalf, Honeywood coaxes an admission of love from her. Not realizing that the one she confesses to loving is himself, Honeywood decides that “nothing remains henceforward for me but solitude and repentance.”

As the characters gather at the inn for the last act, Sir William sets all to rights on his nephew’s behalf. First, he persuades Croaker to accept Olivia as Leontine’s bride: She is, Sir William testifies, the daughter of an old acquaintance, of good family, and an orphan with a fortune. Next, Sir William exposes the pretensions of Lofty so that Honeywood sees he is no friend. Now that his sentimental dilemma between love and friendship is understood to be no dilemma after all, a pleased but surprised Honeywood receives Miss Richland’s hand in marriage. The events have been a lesson for the good-natured man, who closes the play with the promise that “it shall be my study to reserve pity for real distress, my friendship for true merit, and my love for her, who first taught me what it is to be happy.”

Goldsmith generates “laughing comedy” in the play by several devices: a farcial scene in which a bailiff and his deputy dress as gentlemen, humorous characters such as Croaker and Lofty whose foibles are played on repeatedly, and dialogue at cross-purposes. Dialogue at cross-purposes is one of Goldsmith’s favorite comedic devices, one of several dialogue strategies that had made the Restoration comedy of manners so rich in wit. When characters speak at cross-purposes, they manage to hold what appears to be a logical conversation although each is talking about a different subject. The result is confusion among the characters onstage and delight for the audience, which appreciates the ironic interplay of one attitude with another.

The best of these scenes in The Good-Natured Man are Leontine’s marriage proposal to Miss Richland in act 1, Honeywood’s plea on Lofty’s behalf in act 4, and Honeywood’s interview with the Croakers in act 4. In the first instance, Leontine twists himself into verbal knots as he tries simultaneously to convince his father that he is making an ardent proposal and to make it lukewarm enough to ensure that Miss Richland will reject it. In the second, Honeywood pleads so eloquently for another that Miss Richland is convinced he speaks for himself. In the third, Honeywood counsels Croaker on how to forgive the eloping lovers—counsel that the old man mistakes for advice on how to treat a blackmailer.

She Stoops to Conquer

What Goldsmith does well in The Good-Natured Man, he does brilliantly in She Stoops to Conquer. The second play dispenses with the mouthpiece figure of Sir William, offers more entanglements more dexterously resolved, and satirizes sentimental comedy more subtly. She Stoops to Conquer has no thesis at all in the usual sense. It is a play that is not about something; instead, it is a play that is something: a recipe for laughing comedy.

Talking about She Stoops to Conquer is somewhat like trying to explain a joke. She Stoops to Conquer is an inventory of dramatic tricks for making comedy: juxtaposing high-class and low-class characters, creating farcical situations, putting witty dialogue in the mouths of several characters and having them converse at cross-purposes, establishing several good intriguers to initiate the action, and adding a generous helping of mistaken identities. She Stoops to Conquer is one of the purest pieces of entertainment ever written; it stands above its time and historical circumstances to such a degree that it has been a theatrical staple since its first production. To enjoy Goldsmith’s comedy, an audience needs no special knowledge or moral perspective; it needs only a willingness to react instinctively to high spirits, confusion, and surprise. The play is a delight for actors as well as audience because all the principal characters are good roles; it is a play for an acting company rather than a vehicle for one or two stars. Although there are two plots, they are so nicely balanced that no audience wishes to see one enhanced at the expense of the other.

Goldsmith manages throughout the play to keep the audience informed of all that occurs while the characters onstage usually act under some mistaken impression. By constantly shifting who-knows-what-about-whom, Goldsmith keeps the plot throttle on “full ahead,” the characters in unexpected predicaments, and the audience wide awake. Casting the whole in clever dialogue adds to the delight. In the hands of actors capable of playing the physical comedy broadly, She Stoops to Conquer becomes three hours of fast-paced merriment.

So much seems to be occurring simultaneously that She Stoops to Conquer is a difficult play to summarize. Perhaps reviewing the dramatis personae and sketching the action of the two plots best reveals Goldsmith’s dexterity at introducing contrasting parts while keeping the whole moving forward. This dramatist is a theatrical juggler of rare skill; once set into motion, no character, action, or situation falls from his hand.

“The mistakes of a night” occur at the country residence of Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, a mismatched couple, each of whom is married for a second time. Mr. Hardcastle loves the country and its old-fashioned ways; Mrs. Hardcastle yearns for the city and the latest styles. Like another literary couple grown accustomed to each other’s hobbyhorses, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), each Hardcastle takes an independent path while poking fun at the spouse’s preference.

Living at the Hardcastle residence are three young persons on the verge of independence and love. First, there is Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle’s son by her first marriage. He is about to turn twenty-one and come into his own estate. Mr. Hardcastle regards him as a lazy and useless child, while Mrs. Hardcastle dotes on him, one minute sure he has the makings of a scholar and the next worried that he is consumptive. Tony prefers to ignore both parents and to concentrate on drinking and singing at his favorite tavern, the Three Pigeons. Here he entertains his fellows with practical jokes and lyrics that make clear his values:

Let schoolmasters puzzle their brainWith grammar, and nonsense, and learning;Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,Gives genius a better discerning.

Tony, the alehouse hero, is rather a bold protagonist for Goldsmith to portray to audiences accustomed to central male characters dressed in fine linen and attentive to providing themselves with life’s essentials: a pretty wife and a sufficient income.

The second resident is Constance Neville, Mrs. Hardcastle’s orphaned niece. Constance is treated with as much restraint as Tony is indulged. She is eager to marry George Hastings but cannot, because her dowry, a substantial sum in jewels, is closely kept by her aunt. Mrs. Hardcastle is reluctant to give the jewels into Constance’s care because she hopes to force her niece to marry Tony. Mrs. Hardcastle’s matchmaking is having no luck: The sober Constance and the lighthearted Tony thoroughly dislike each other. Constance is a typical dramatic heroine of the time: pleasant but not especially bright, rich but without control of her fortune, and restless but not very disobedient.

The third person is Kate, Hardcastle’s daughter by his first marriage. She and her father get along much better than do mother and son or aunt and niece. They are honestly affectionate with each other and speak frankly to each other; they care enough for each other to indulge each other’s preferences. Kate, for example, who shares her stepmother’s interest in fashion, moderates her indulgence by dressing for one half of the day in current styles and the other half in a plain country style that pleases her father. Mr. Hardcastle, in turn, has allowed Charles Marlow, the son of an old friend, to become Kate’s suitor only after knowing that he is financially sound, handsome, and modestly spirited. As the play begins, Kate anxiously awaits her first look at this prospecting and prospective husband.

When young Marlow and Hastings (the man Constance loves) arrive at the Hardcastle house, they mistakenly believe that they are at a public inn. This false impression is entirely Tony’s fault. Tony recognizes the two London beaux when they stop to ask for directions at the Three Pigeons. Irritated by their affected manners, desirous of playing a trick on his stepfather, and anticipating no consequences but a solid embarrassment, Tony directs them to his stepfather’s house, telling them that he is sending them to the best inn of the neighborhood. This first mistake of the night begins a series of events that will turn the household topsy-turvy.

Expecting the modest young men described by his old friend Sir Charles Marlow, Hardcastle greets the two weary travelers generously and familiarly. Surprised at the supposed innkeeper’s behavior, Marlow and Hastings react with hauteur and sarcasm. To Hardcastle’s every offer of hospitality, they respond with increased demands. This scene (act 2, scene 1) is a classic instance of Goldsmith’s spectacular handling of dialogue at cross-purposes.

Soon afterward, Hastings encounters Constance and learns how Tony has deceived him and Marlow. The reunited lovers plan to elope as soon as Constance can gain possession of her jewels; to protect their plot, they decide to keep Marlow in the dark about where he is. They introduce him to Miss Hardcastle as if she had just alighted at the inn. Throughout the play these two couples will maintain distinct characteristics. Constance and Hastings, whose mutual affection is a given, will struggle against external obstacles; Marlow and Kate, having just met, will try to discover what mutual affection, if any, exists between them.

Kate is eager to meet the man who has come to court her. In a complete reversal of the bold, brash character that he showed to Mr. Hardcastle, Marlow becomes shy and stuttering in Miss Hardcastle’s presence. It seems that proper young ladies of rank intimidate Marlow with their genteel and sentimental conversation. He bumbles his way through a conversation, saved only by Kate’s promptings:Miss Hardcastle: You were going to observe, Sir— Marlow: I was observing, Madam—I protest, madam, I forget what I was going to observe. Miss Hardcastle: . . . You were observing, sir, that in this age of hypocrisy—something about hypocrisy, sir. Marlow: Yes, madam. In this age of hypocrisy, there are few who upon strict inquiry do not a-a-a- Miss Hardcastle: I understand you perfectly, sir. Marlow (aside): Egad! and that’s more than I do myself. Miss Hardcastle: You mean that in this hypocritical age there are few that do not condemn in public what they practise in private, and think they pay every debt to virtue when they praise it.

While Constance enlists Tony’s help to get the jewels from his mother and thus free both of them from her matchmaking, Kate and Mr. Hardcastle try to decide who is the real Marlow: the overbearing puppy who insulted his host or the tongue-tied dandy who courted the daughter? The mystery begins to clear a little when Kate, now wearing her plain country dress, meets Marlow a second time. The young man makes his second mistake of the night. Not recognizing Miss Hardcastle in what appears to be a barmaid’s outfit, Marlow is immediately and frankly attracted to the pretty servant. He proves not shy at all in the presence of lower-class women. With them he can wittily compliment, flirt, and steal a kiss. When Mr. Hardcastle sees Kate receiving this impudent attention, he is ready to order Marlow from his house. Kate, however, having seen what a charming wooer the young man can be, protests that this is the same modest man she interviewed earlier. She asks her father for the chance to show Marlow’s real character; he begins to wonder if the usually sensible Kate is not now afflicted by that same malady that makes all young people undecipherable by their elders. At a second interview, Marlow begins to fall in love with the girl he assumes to be a household servant.

For one frantic moment the two plots intertwine before going separate ways. Tony filches Constance’s jewels from his mother’s bureau and gives them to Hastings. To get them out of sight, Hastings hands the jewels to Marlow. Thinking that such valuable gems must not lie around unguarded, Marlow gives them to Mrs. Hardcastle for safekeeping. Mrs. Hardcastle, alerted by the odyssey of the jewels that something is afoot, is quickly suspicious when her illiterate Tony receives a letter. Neither Constance’s extemporaneous excuses nor Tony’s obstinacy can prevent Mrs. Hardcastle from snatching the letter and discovering instructions from Hastings about the elopement. Determined to frustrate her niece and Hastings, Mrs. Hardcastle orders her carriage made ready for a trip to London: Constance is going to be taken where she can be better watched.

Thus, by the end of act 4, Goldsmith has every character’s fate up in the air. The dramatist who knotted things into such a delightful tangle, however, has enough legerdemain to unravel the confusion. Goldsmith will not have to step in to rescue the characters: Kate by her stooping and Tony by his prankstering will set all to rights.

Kate has quite a tangle to undo: first, her father’s impression that Marlow is a rude guest and an inconsiderate lover; second, Sir Charles’s fear that the son he thought to be honest and modest is really the lout that Hardcastle has described and an indifferent lover to his friend’s daughter; third, Marlow’s belief that he can be gallant in the pantry but must act standoffish in the parlor. She accomplishes all three ends by having the fathers witness the third interview of Kate the maid and Marlow. He professes his love for her—and learns to his shock that he has wooed the redoubtable Miss Hardcastle as well as the pliant Kate.

Meanwhile Tony has been frustrating his mother’s flight to London. In the darkness, he has led her carriage on repeated rounds of the estate before driving it into a pond; Mrs. Hardcastle is convinced that she is stranded “forty miles from home.” Determined to torment her further, Tony leads his mother into a gloomy thicket where even Mr. Hardcastle, out for a walk in his yard, may look like something more sinister. Although Tony’s prank is soon exposed, he at least has had the pleasure of exhausting his mother.

Tony has exhausted the eloping lovers as well. Constance and Hastings decide it will be easier to talk Mrs. Hardcastle into compliance than to escape her this evening. All the cold and sore wanderers in the night return to the house and find Kate and Marlow engaged while the fathers stand beaming. When Mrs. Hardcastle threatens revenge on Tony and Constance, Mr. Hardcastle breaks another surprising bit of news: Tony has already reached the age of majority. The Hardcastles had kept this fact secret to keep the irresponsible Tony from squandering his inheritance, but Mr. Hardcastle now resents his wife’s misuse of her authority. Tony’s first act as an independent gentleman is to renounce any claim to Constance. George Hastings quickly grabs the marriageable hand that Tony surrenders. Everyone except Mrs. Hardcastle now sees that the mistakes of a night have turned out happily indeed.

Even this account of the play omits some of its brighter moments: Hardcastle’s amusingly futile efforts to turn rough farm laborers into stylish drawing-room valets, the rousing but innocent debauchery of Tony’s friends at Three Pigeons, and Kate’s dumb-show wooing that quickly heals Marlow’s embarrassment after his mistakes were revealed. Actually nothing but reading or viewing can give a complete idea of the brilliance of She Stoops to Conquer. It is a rare play, in which no situation is unexploited, no detail wrong, and no word wasted.

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