Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 14, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

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The late 18th century marked a period of great transition for England. Between 1640 and 1688, the nation fought a civil war, executed its king, and restored its monarchy; it then established a government which balanced power between monarch and parliament. England had also fought a series of wars with the United Dutch Provinces and France, setting the stage for English dominance as a colonial power. The American Revolution loomed on the horizon, but most historians agree that the loss of the colonies had limited political or economic impact. England became an increasingly prosperous nation occupying a central position on the world stage.

The Shift to Industrialism

That said, not everything in this transition went smoothly. The agricultural revolution had begun in the 16th century with developments in farming and animal husbandry. By the 18th century, these improvements resulted in generally greater supplies of higher-quality, lower-priced food. Still, hunger persisted because bad harvests, war, and inflation caused food supplies and prices to vary from region to region. Further, the change from a system of many small farms to fewer large farms drove many farmers off their land and into the factories created by the industrial revolution. Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village elegizes one such village that became vacant as England shifted from an economy largely rural and agricultural to one more urban, based on manufacturing and trade.

England's mercantile economy provided the impetus needed to drive the industrial revolution, just as surely as inventions like James Watt's steam engine drove the factories themselves. Still, new,

largely unplanned cities sprung up around these factories. Rural migrants found they had left farm life behind for factory work that often offered lower wages and a diminished quality of life for themselves and their families.

England's Changing Economy

Changes in England's industrial, agricultural, and colonial economies translated into a demand for English goods and services. While some became impoverished, others flourished, as these changes stimulated the rise of the middle class. This led, among things, to the increasingly literate population which supported a new generation of writers like Goldsmith.

In general, these changes decreased the wealth among those landed and titled, and increased the wealth among those connected with commerce. As a result, children from old, titled, landed families married with those of untitled, cash-rich, but land-poor commercial families. It is this "marriage market" which provides the backdrop for Goldsmith's examination of the various motives for marriage in She Stoops to Conquer.

Sentimental Times and Goldsmith's Comedy

Finally, an explanation of the tone of Goldsmith's play, a comedy rooted in things quite serious. The 18th century's validation of empiricism offered a challenge to religious belief based solely on faith. Many people sought an accommodation between reason and faith. One such accommodation was Deism, which accepted as true certain observable "facts"—for example, the world had been created, so there must be a creator—but resisted specifics about the nature of religious doctrine. Such beliefs posed a problems, however: how can society develop a code for ethical conduct independent of the ten commandments? Sentimentalism, pioneered by Lord Kames, Francis Hutchinson, and Adam Smith, offered a psychological solution. They suggested that ethics arise from human sentiments, from sympathy and empathy.

Sentimental ethics work like this. A person contemplates an action—murder, for example— and wonders if it is wrong. To decide, one imagines the crime, first placing oneself in the victim's position, empathizing with the person's suffering. Then, one takes the objective position of an observer, attempting to feel sympathy for the person killed, for their family and loved ones. These two perspectives lead one to understand the emotions (the sentiments) involved and to condemn the action as evil.

Sentimentalism became a powerful force during the 18th century. It provided the philosophical underpinning for the American Revolution, which substituted the more Sentimental right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" for John Locke's "Life, Liberty, and Property." It also motivated reform of the slave trade, prisons, and insane asylums. In the theatre, however, this philosophy led to the creation of the Sentimental Comedy, called so not because it provoked laughter, but because it ended happily. (For the same reason, Dante titled his poem The Divine Comedy). The Sentimental Comedy provided Goldsmith's target in She Stoops to Conquer, as he attempted—and succeeded—in writing a comedy that provokes not sympathetic tears but actual laughter.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274

1700s: During the 18th century, entirely arranged marriages were rare, but a young women rarely had the right to select a husband entirely on her own. More customary was for the father to select the prospective husband, while the daughter had the right to accept or refuse him. In She Stoops to Conquer, Mr. Hardcastle has selected Marlow, the son of an old friend, but he assures Kate he would never control her choice.

Today: The majority of people who marry make their own decisions and join together primarily for love.

1700s: India was a British colony ruled largely by the East India Company, for whom Constance's uncle was a director.

Today: India is one of the world's largest democracies.

1700s: Mr. Hardcastle complains that life in the country has changed since he was a young man and offers no protection against the corruption of London life. Better roads and coaches carry mail and newspapers, connecting the city and country. London fashions and manners infiltrate even rural estates.

Today: Many people live in suburbs which he between urban and rural areas. Not only mass transit, but mass media and the Internet connect communities throughout the world.

1700s: Mrs. Hardcastle's comment that "since inoculation began, there is no such thing to be seen as a plain woman" refers to the fact that, with advancing medical science and the advent of numerous vaccines against diseases, very few women were scarred by smallpox. A case of smallpox as a child left its mark on Goldsmith.

Today: Children receive inoculations against a host of diseases, including measles and polio, which for earlier generations caused illness, disfigurement, and death.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


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