She Stoops to Conquer Analysis

  • Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer represents an alternative to the popular theater of the late 18th century: sentimental comedy, a form that uses earnest, stock characters to convey clear morals. Goldsmith's comedy, by contrast, features flawed characters who are both humorous and relatable.
  • The play's plot is driven by a series of deceptions, some of which depend on outright lies and others which employ the truth but in a confusing context. In many cases, characters' deceptions ultimately reveal truth, especially in the case of Kate's bar-maid disguise, which draws out Marlow's uninhibited character.

Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089

She Stoops to Conquer was, to a great extent, an adverse response to a specific type of drama popular during Oliver Goldsmith’s time: the sentimental comedy (or sentimental drama). The prologue of the play itself suggests as much, with Goldsmith proclaiming that She Stoops to Conquer seeks to resuscitate the genre. During the late 1700s, the sentimental comedy dominated the European theater scene. Its defining features are a cast of common folk and moral or virtuous instruction, which is reflected in its highly formalized language. In Goldsmith’s “An Essay on the Theatre or a Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy,” published in The Westminster Magazine a few months before She Stoops to Conquer was first performed, he denounces how the sentimental comedy romanticizes, instead of ridicules and pokes fun at, the flaws and follies of the common folk. He draws on Aristotle’s Poetics to make these assertions:

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If they happen to have Faults or Foibles, the Spectator is taught not only to pardon, but to applaud them, in consideration of the goodness of their hearts; so that Folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the Comedy aims at touching our Passions without the power of being truly pathetic.

Goldsmith’s assertions are given life in She Stoops to Conquer, whose central characters, Charles Marlow and Kate Highcastle, are far from the typical sentimental hero and heroine. Their flaws, made bare, are the source of the play’s mocking, tongue-in-cheek humor. Unlike the sentimental comedy, She Stoops to Conquer does not seek to lift up its characters as tragic, virtuous beings. It is, rather, comically upfront about its characters’ imperfections, eliciting from the audience both laughter and sympathy.

The play is set during the course of one night and is limited to three settings: the local inn, the Hardcastle manor, and its backyard. Given the play’s narrow boundaries of time and space, its secondary plot (Constance Neville and Hastings’ plans of elopement) serves to bring variety to the play. The relationship of Constance Neville and Hastings also serves as a point of comparison to the principal lovers: Marlow and Kate.

She Stoops to Conquer is a play of deceptions, both minor and major. The central deceptions are: 1) Tony Lumpkin’s tricking Marlow and Hastings into thinking that the Hardcastle manor is but an extravagant wayside inn, and 2) Kate Hardcastle’s tricking Marlow into thinking that she is a common bar-maid. Other, lesser deceptions—Constance Neville and Hastings’ planned elopement, Mrs. Hardcastle’s keeping Tony in ignorance of his real age, and Tony’s elaborate deception with Mrs. Hardcastle’s carriage ride—decorate the play. The central comic irony of the play hinges on these deceptions, as they all eventually serve to reveal some sort of truth regarding the characters, particularly Tony Lumpkin and Charles Marlow.

Tony Lumpkin, for example, can be considered the prime mover of the play. This is because he brings to motion the main premise. Tony tricks Marlow into regarding the Hardcastle manor as an inn and subsequently treating Mr. Hardcastle as an innkeeper and Kate Hardcastle as a bar-maid. Tony also plays a substantial part in the subplot. Seeking to escape his engagement with Constance Neville, he volunteers to help the latter elope with Hastings, deceiving his mother, Mrs. Hardcastle, in the process. Tony’s deceptions are motivated by revenge, if not self-interest. He deliberately misdirects Marlow and Hastings in order to upset his stepfather, who treats him like a worthless troublemaker. Tony also helps Constance Neville and Hastings elope out of spite for his mother, whose matchmaking attempts and overbearing nature disgust him. While almost all the characters of the play view and treat Tony as a simpleton, he is, in fact, the primary engineer of the “mistakes of the night.” In the epilogue, Tony clarifies that he has ambitions as well, one of which is proving to the landed gentry that he is capable of class and sophistication:

We'll set the fashions too, to half the town;
And then at auctions—money ne'er regard,
Buy pictures like the great, ten pounds a yard;
Zounds, we shall make these London gentry say,
We know what's damn'd genteel, as well as they.

Marlow, meanwhile, can be considered the victim of the play, as he deceives no one and yet is deceived by almost all the others characters at some point: Tony misdirects him to the Hardcastle manor (with Hastings and Constance Neville taking part in this deception at some point), Kate Hardcastle tricks him into thinking she is a barmaid, and Mr. Hardcastle and Sir Marlow deceive him by hiding behind the curtain and eavesdropping on his conversation with Kate. Although he is the one of the two leads, Marlow’s lack of self-awareness makes him particularly easy to deceive. This is a key source of humor in the play. Marlow claims that he is “an observer upon life,” yet he is humorously blind to the machinations of everyone around him.

To an extent, Marlow is also a parody of the hero of the sentimental drama, who typically regards women of high social station with sensitivity and deference. In Marlow, however, this attitude is exaggerated to a ridiculous degree. Moreover, whereas Marlow is nervous and withdrawn with women of the same station, he is quite forward and rambunctious—arguably his true self—with women of a low or common station. Marlow possesses a conflicting duality which Kate Hardcastle helps him reconcile through donning a disguise, by which she also assumes a sort of duality. Kate does this because he sees Marlow’s potential to be a suitable husband, and so she takes it upon herself to prove to her father that Marlow possesses “only the faults that will pass off with time, and the virtues that will improve with age.”

From her first appearance in the play, it can be inferred that Kate Hardcastle, while dutiful, is capable of negotiating in order to get her way. In the first act, for example, the audience learns that she is given permission to wear elaborate clothing during the day so long as she dons modest clothing in the evening, an arrangement she negotiated with her father. Kate’s cunning and willfulness help her to win over the bashful Marlow in a deliberately roundabout way. In the end, he proposes to her as a social equal. It is thus that Kate Hardcastle has “stooped to conquer.”

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements