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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Advancements in the Era

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Not accidentally, ages of great social change frequently leave behind great comedy. Oliver Goldsmith' s She Stoops to Conquer provokes laughter— often at situations that are quite serious. Parent/child relationships and marriage stand at the center of Goldsmith's play, as the characters attempt to strike some balance between authority and freedom, obedience and independence. While Goldsmith treats these themes lightheartedly, the play's humor conceals a somber undercurrent. By the time Goldsmith's play debuted in the late 18th century, England had undergone great political, economic, and social transformations. These changes created what came to be know as the "marriage market," which provides the backdrop for She Stoops to Conquer. Simply put, the comedy asks how, at a time when many people married for money rather than love, can marriage join people who are both economically and emotionally compatible?

During the 17th century, England's Civil War moved the nation from a government by strong monarchy to one which balanced power between king and parliament. A series of wars with the United Dutch Provinces and France positioned England's ascent as a colonial power. The agricultural and industrial revolution had brought progress. By the mid-18th century, England had become an increasingly prosperous nation occupying a central position on the world stage.

These changes did not occur without costs, however. The agricultural revolution resulted in generally greater supplies of higher quality, lower priced food but drove many farmers off their land and into the factories created by the industrial revolution. England's mercantile economy provided the impetus needed to drive industrialization, but rural migrants often found that urban life and factory work compared unfavorably with agricultural work in the country. While some became impoverished, others prospered and rose to join England's growing middle class.

In general, these changes decreased the wealth among old, rural, titled families, and increased that of the newly rich commercial urbanites. As a result, children from old families, who were titled, married with those of untitled, cash-rich but land-poor commercial families. Such marriages created unions with money, land, and title. In She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith examines this "marriage market," seeking some balance between love and money,

The play's opening scene introduces the conflict between old and new, between country and city. Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle discuss people who take trips to London, as they do not. Mr. Hardcastle remembers the days when rural life kept away the follies of town but no longer, for today, follies "travel faster than a stagecoach." Significantly, Tony's practical jokes reflects the long-standing comic jousting between the country bumpkin and the city slicker that goes back at least to the playwright Juvenal's satires of the late Roman empire. Mr. Hardcastle identifies himself as a barrier against the changing times, saying, "I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine," and even his "old wife." As the times change, human relationships like marriage change with them, though not necessarily for the better. While traditional, Mr. Hardcastle seeks for his daughter a marriage with both financial and emotional security; Mrs. Hardcastle's mercenary attitudes resemble those of fashionable London society's marriage market. This conflict between husband and wife represents a conflict between traditional and colonial value systems.

Different styles of parenting have produced different kinds of children. By spoiling Tony, Mrs. Hardcastle prevented him from growing up. Tony is disobedient. On his way out to the Three Pigeons alehouse, he refuses Mrs. Hardcastle's request that he stay home "for one night at least." More legitimately, he also refuses to obey her command that he marry Constance. Mrs. Hardcastle conceals from Tony...

(This entire section contains 1398 words.)

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the fact that he's come of age. She uses deceit to manipulate him into a loveless marriage to Constance which permits Mrs. Hardcastle to keep controls of the Constance's jewels. While Mr. Hardcastle wants the best for his daughter in marriage, Mrs. Hardcastle concerns herself not with Tony's happiness but with the money and status the jewels might bring.

Mr. Hardcastle, on the other hand, seems honest, if stuffy, and his daughter Kate behaves honestly toward him (she may not tell him everything, but at least she never lies to him). Where Tony is obstinate, Kate is accommodating. While Kate wants to dress fashionably, Mr. Hardcastle wants her attire to be simple. They compromise: she dresses as she pleases during the day, when she receives visitors, and as he likes in the evening.

The play's action advances when Mr. Hardcastle announces, "I expect the young gentleman I have chosen to be your husband from town this very day." Kate's father assures her that he would never control her choice, but she responds anxiously, worried at the formality of their meeting will prevent her from feeling "friendship or esteem.'' During the 18th century, entirely arranged marriages were unusual, though a young women rarely had the right to select a husband entirely on her own. More customarily, a women's parents—primarily her father— selected a prospective husband, whom the daughter had the right to accept or reject. The young man Hardcastle has in mind, Marlow, is the son of an old friend, Sir Charles Marlow, but Hardcastle assures Kate he would never control her choice.

This exchange establishes the parameters of a successful parent-child relationship. The good father, Mr. Hardcastle offers guidance without being tyrannical, while Kate, the good daughter, seems willing to be compliant—but not at the price of marrying without emotional attachment. Here, we realize another difference between Mr. and Mrs., Hardcastle, While he selects an appropriate husband for his daughter, according to what he believes will make her happy, his wife has selected a zero (her own son) for Constance's fiancé, a decision dictated not by concern for her own good, but by a selfish desire for gain.

She Stoops to Conquer portrays three strategies for parent-child relationships. In Tony's attitude toward his mother, Mrs., Hardcastle, we see resistance and deception, Likewise, deception characterizes her treatment of both Tony and Constance, and Finally, the play offers the preferred option of compromise, as exemplified by Mr., Hardcastle's attitude toward his daughter Kate. This seems the best way for families to cope with decisions: insight and empathy on the part of the parents, intelligence and compromise on that of the child.

The play also offers three types of marriage. One possibility: a loveless, parentally-enforced marriage, as that arranged by Mrs. Hardcastle between Tony and Constance. Another option: marriage for love, but against parental wishes, as seen in Hastings's plans for eloping with Constance. Finally, the best solution, compromise between parent and child, as in Kate's marriage with Marlow—a marriage based on affection but also sanctioned by paternal authority.

The compromise solutions in She Stoops to Conquer reflect the 18th century's general validation of reasonable compromise and balance of power. During the 17th century, traditional writers like Robert Filmer argued for the divine right of kings based on the Great Chain of Being. According to nature, God ruled over man, kings over peasants, men over women, and fathers over families. Natural hierarchies justified both monarchy and patriarchy. In She Stoops to Conquer, the viewer sees a model of private sphere compromise between Kate and Mr. Hardcastle in regard to her clothing (and more importantly, her marriage). This attitude echoes the public sphere power-sharing arranged between king and parliament after the Restoration of 1660 and Glorious Revolution of 1688. Goldsmith's play balances tradition and structure with freedom and innovation.

Goldsmith's attitude toward marriage reflects other aspects of his social moment, however. While Marlow and Kate's wedding unites two old money families, Mrs. Hardcastle's efforts to wed Tony and Constance are an attempt to link traditional and colonial wealth. In effect, Mrs. Hardcastle attempts to colonize Tony and Constance in marriage, simultaneously extracting his Submission (playing the good son) and her jewels. The play's action makes this impossible but does not reject colonial wealth. It merely aligns colonial wealth in a marriage for love rather than in a forced, arranged marriage. Constance marries Hastings instead of Tony. Marriage itself still serves the same economic function of combining landed and colonial wealth.

In She Stoops to Conquer, comedy is serious business with serious social and monetary consequences. While raising legitimate issues about the responsibilities between parents and children, it also calls to mind the cultural and historical moment which produced it.

Source: Arnold Schmidt, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale 1997.

Overview Originally Published in 1773

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On Monday the 15th of this month [i.e. March] was first performed at this theatre a new comedy, called She Stoops to Conquer, or The Mistakes of a Night, written by Dr. Goldsmith...

Mr. Hardcastle is a plain honest country gentleman. His wife is well-meaning, but foolish and positive, and so indulgent to her son, Squire Lumpkin, that she has given him no education for fear of hurting his health. This Squire is quite a spoiled child, regardless of his mother, fond of low company, and full of mischievous humor. Miss Hardcastle is a lively and amiable young lady, whom her father is desirous of marrying to young Marlow the son of Sir Charles. This Marlow is a fashionable young fellow, who has constantly lived in the pleasures of the town; and by being accustomed to the company of courtesans only, is in great dread of modest women, and behaves in their presence with a very awkward bashfulness. Miss Neville is a niece of Mrs. Hardcastle's, has a good fortune, and lives in the family. It is the purpose of the relations to have this young lady married to Squire Lumpkin; but this couple have not the least regard for each other. On the contrary, the Squire is enamored with a vulgar country-beauty; and Miss Neville has a strong penchant for Mr. Hastings, the friend of Young Marlow. These two gentlemen had never been at Hardcastle's, but the former is expected every moment from London; and Hastings, by an agreement with Marlow, was to accompany him thither as his friend, but in fact to have an opportunity of seeing and conversing with his mistress, Miss Neville.

Thus the whole story is situated at the beginning of the play; near which time the young Squire is discovered in an ale-house, reveling with his pot companions. At this time the landlord enters to inform him, that two gentlemen were at the door enquiring their way to Mr. Hardcastle's. He, on seeing them, guessed Marlow to be one of his coarse jokes upon the travelers, mischievously informs them that as it was late, and they cannot be accommodated that night at the ale-house, if they will walk on for about a mile, they will come to a very good inn, which they might know by seeing a pair of stag's horns over the gate. This, in truth, was Hardcastle's; but the Squire wanted fun, and he got it; for when the gentlemen arrived there, thinking themselves in an inn, they used very great freedom, to the utter astonishment of Hardcastle; for he accidentally heard Marlow named, and knew him; but he resolved to hold his tongue.

Soon after their arrival here, Hastings meets with Miss Neville, who undeceives him with respect to their mistake; but he begs her to conceal it yet from Marlow, whose natural diffidence would force him to quit the family immediately, which he had so freely, though unwittingly used. Miss Neville informs her cousin Miss Hardcastle of the whole; and this lady (being obliged to dress herself very plainly every evening to please a whim of her father's) agrees to pass herself upon Marlow as the bar-maid of the inn, in order to carry on the plot. From these different dispositions arise all the Mistakes of the Night.

After many laughable scenes which arise from the mutual misunderstanding of the several parties, Hardcastle at length flies into a violent passion, and accidentally mentions some circumstances to Marlow which alarm him. Marlow, in short, discovers his error, and consequently undergoes much confusion and agitation; but the arrival of his father adjusts every difference, and he receives with joy the hand of Miss Hardcastle, who, m her character of barmaid, had greatly charmed him, and who, in consequence, might be said to have Stooped to Conquer.

While these things are transacting, the counterplot goes on successfully. Hastings gains over the Squire to his interest, and this hopeful son contrives to steal Miss Neville's jewels out of his mother's bureau, and gives them to Hastings, who was preparing to run away with his mistress. But the jewels being very valuable, he is unwilling to carry them with him on so hasty a journey, and gives them to Marlow to keep for him: Marlow, from the same laudable motives of security, consigns them to the keeping of Mrs. Hardcastle, whom he at this time supposed to be the landlady of the inn. Thus the old lady recovers the jewels; by which, and by means of a letter from Hastings to the Squire, which she read, she discovers the plot laid by the lovers for an elopement.

This plot known, Mrs. Hardcastle is greatly alarmed, as it threatened the destruction of her favorite scheme of marriage between her son and Miss Neville. She therefore determines to carry her that very night to her aunt's, about forty miles off. She soon hurries the young lady into the coach, and sets off under the guidance of the Squire on the horseback. Before their departure, however, the Squire whispers to Hastings not to despair yet, for he was still his friend, and would meet him behind the garden at a certain time which he named. Having set off, he leads his mother through danks, bogs, and quagmires, in a dirty condition, round through lanes and by-roads, till he landed her just at the back of her own garden, and then told her she was at least 40 miles from home, and upon a heath. Here, after a variety of roguish tricks with which he alarmed her, Hardcastle advances, and, after some misunderstanding, the parties recognize each other. In the mean time Hastings fled to his mistress, who was left in the coach; but they agree, instead of running away, to return to the family, and throw them- selves upon the generosity of the Hardcastles. Mrs. Hardcastle will by no means consent to their union, insisting that Miss Neville cannot be married till her son is of age, who by articles was either to accept or refuse her hand—articles upon which her fortune depended. Hardcastle, however, obviates this, by informing the Squire that he has been already of age three months, and that he may do what he pleases. Lumpkin willingly refuses her, and her hand is consequently given to Hastings: with which the play concludes.

This comedy is not ill calculated to give pleasure in the representation; but when we regard it with a critical eye, we find it to abound with numerous inaccuracies. The fable (a fault too peculiar to the hasty productions of the modern Comic Muse) is twisted into incidents not naturally arising from the subject, in order to make things meet; and consistency is repeatedly violated for the sake of humor. But perhaps we ought to sign a general pardon to the author, for taking the field against that monster called Sentimental Comedy, to oppose which his comedy was avowedly written. Indeed, the attempt was bold, considering the strength of the enemy; and we are glad to observe that our author still keeps the field with flying colors.—But, {metaphor apart) it appears that the Doctor was too ardent. Well considering that the public were long accustomed to cry, he resolved to make them laugh at any rate. In aiming at this point, he seems to have stepped too far; and in lieu of comedy he has sometimes presented us with farce.

These redundancies are certainly the chief blots in his play. A stricter consistency in the fable, and a better attention to the unity of time in particular, would have exalted the comedy to a good and just reputation.

Source: Review of She Stoops to Conquer (1773) in Goldsmith: The Critical Heritage, edited by G. S. Rousseau, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974, pp. 119-22.

Prime Example of the Theatre Era From Which it Emerged

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Oliver Goldsmith stands quite high in English literature, and a little apart, by reason of his three-pronged claims to recognition. There is his extremely famous poem, The Deserted Village; his extremely famous novel, The Vicar of Wakefield; his extremely famous play, She Stoops to Conquer. To have achieved three unquestioned classics that jointly run to about the length of an average-sized book is a notable example of how to travel down the ages with the lightest of luggage.

But though all three remain unquestioned classics, they no longer—if we are to be honest—enjoy a quite equal esteem or popularity. The Deserted Village has come to be a bit of a deserted poem. Certain of its lines and couplets have passed into the language, their authorship rather obscured; but the poem itself seems to be gradually passing out of circulation. Even as a high-school standby I suspect it is being replaced by something less pastoral and more vibrant. The Vicar of Wakefield has fared better, as it deserves to have done. For it has much of Goldsmith's kindliness and charm; and in any at all exhaustive journey through the English novel, one that stops at picturesque towns as well as populous cities, it must always have a place; it must, indeed— like Cranford, like Our Village—survive as the kind of minor work whose value rests on its being minor. Its voice may not carry far, or instantly rivet attention, but it is a genuinely individual one.

But of Goldsmith's three classics, it seems pretty certain that She Stoops to Conquer is much the best entrenched. It has so unequivocally survived as to seem, again and again, worth reviving; only a short time ago the Phoenix Theatre revived it in New York. So long as actors eye juicy character parts, they must glance at Tony Lumpkin; so long as producers eye time-tried comic plots, they must give thought to Goldsmith's; and in any journey through the English comic theatre, even one confined to Principal Points of Interest, it must surely have a place. Between 1728 and the 1870's, which is to say between The Beggar's Opera and Gilbert and Sullivan, The School for Scandal and The Rivals are its only rivals; and The Rivals, to my mind, is its inferior. She Stoops to Conquer is an extraordinary work on a very odd basis: that, without there being anything the least bit extraordinary about it, it stands alone of its kind among the comic classics of the English stage. Surely there should be at least a dozen She Stoops to Conquer s, a dozen farce comedies written between the age of Anne and the age of Victoria that, without ever seeming brilliant, are almost consistently lively; that, without ever turning bawdy, are not simpering or prim; that, with no great claim to wit, have a robust sense of fun; that, without being satirical, can spoof certain human weaknesses; and that, without being sentimental, remain friendly and good-natured.

Yet, unless they are moldering in unopened books on dust-covered shelves, far from there being a dozen such plays, where unmistakably is there another? What others manage (which is die crucial point) to sustain their good qualities throughout an entire evening? What others don't creep through a first act or crumble during the last, or don't plague us with a deadly subplot, or weary us with dialect jokes, or pelt us with petrified epigrams, or try our patience with spoonfuls of morality? The Rivals, for example, besides belonging to a different category or—what with mixing the satirical, the farcical, and the romantic—-belonging to no category at all, makes us put up with Faulkland and Julia, who are decidedly bores. Goldsmith's lovers keep us far from breathless, but, by virtue of the uses Goldsmith puts them to, they are seldom boring.

Hence, instead of being recurrent in the English classic theatre, She Stoops to Conquer verges on the anomalous—a full evening's worth of good clean fun. It chiefly owes its vivacity, of course, to the farce idea that galvanizes it, the idea of having two young men directed to a private house—the very house they have been invited to visit—under the impression that it is an inn. The original title and surviving subtitle of the play, "The Mistakes of a Night," suggests the quick, cumulative nature of the plotting, and the frank nature of the farcicality. Goldsmith sticks to the possibilities in his hoax, which means that he ingeniously keeps exploring and extracting them. (pp. v-viii)

[The central incident] had particular stage value by virtue of its comic reversal of values. To mistake a private house for an inn, as against mistaking one private house for another, starts off with confusion on one side that can quickly spread to the other, and that creates not just personal misunderstandings but social "situations" and gaffes. ... The plot thickens, of course, and the fun fattens by having the' 'landlord'' stand aghast at the behavior of his guests; and the practical joke is kept going by the lubricating propinquity of the practical joker. Tony Lumpkin always stands ready to deceive or abet deception; no farce ever had more of a misleading man, whether at one moment by pretending to be in love with Miss Neville, or at another by driving Miss Neville and his mother over hill and dale in virtually their own backyard.

Tony, in the end, is much less a great character creation than a fat character part with pothouse tastes and prankster ways. But what is so lumpish in Tony is the more misleading thing about him: it conceals, it half denies, what is so sharp-witted. His mind must not be inferred from his manners. He is a booby who lays booby traps for others; he is the card-table simpleton who walks off with the winnings. The scene where he pretends to think his mother is shamming about the stolen jewels reveals how little of a fool he is and how greatly (in the theatre, above all) he can contribute to the fun.

Goldsmith does very well by Tony, and by us, in giving him Mrs. Hardcastle for a doting mother; theirs is perhaps the most enjoyable relationship in the play. The two pairs of lovers are to be praised, I think, not so much for qualities of character as for so lightly and briskly advancing the plot. Even Marlow's being altogether at his ease with wenches and hopelessly shy with young ladies scores best as an amusing plot device. Plot, as it must be in farce, is the real motive power of the play. But it proves the saving grace of the play as well, in that the plot, really, always calls the tune, always sets the level, refusing to halt for any detailed picture of manners or for more than a surface coat of romance.

Nothing is better known than that in She Stoops to Conquer—as earlier in The Good-Natur'd Man —Goldsmith was waging an assault on the sentimental comedy that had held the boards for upwards of fifty years. And the comedy of She Stoops to Conquer quite escapes being sentimental. But this, it seems to me, is chiefly through favoring plot situations over personal ones; which means, in the end, through flesh and blood no less than sighs and tears. And if She Stoops to Conquer also escapes seeming genteel, it is chiefly from a certain air of the bucolic and rowdy—a sort of taproom indecorum that conceals the total absence of boudoir indecency. Where, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, George Farquhar had let the hero of The Constant Couple mistake a private house for a bordello, Goldsmith scarcely suggests that his private house has bedrooms. But Farquhar's racier amusement lasts for only a scene of two (which is all the situation proves worth) and his play, as a whole, is decidedly mixed and uneven; whereas Goldsmith's situation does last out a whole play; and his effect, if on occasion tame, is never jumbled.

What in the long run has so much helped She Stoops to Conquer must at the outset have seemed destined to harm it—its old-fashioned countrified look, its genial humorist's good nature, its lack of something very new that must come to seem dated, of something very chic that in time must seem tacky. She Stoops to Conquer has its incidental merits: its best dialogue is thoroughly bright, it makes observations not just sound but astute, it contains social details that are revealing and vivid. But such things are just frequent enough to remind us that Goldsmith was a real writer, a man of real parts and cultivation. At the same time they are unobtrusive enough not to halt the flow of the fun— that immemorial fun born of human beings at cross-purposes and of situations gone askew and awry, (pp. viii—xi)

Source: Louis Kronenberger, introduction to She Stoops to Conquer: or The Mistakes of a Night, by Oliver Goldsmith, Heritage Press, 1964, pp. v-xi


Critical Overview