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...
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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...
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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,...
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