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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Justify the title "She Stoops To Conquer" and its subtitle "The Mistakes of a Night".

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The title "She Stoops to Conquer" and its subtitle "The Mistakes of a Night" aptly reflect the play's themes and plot. The main character, Kate Hardcastle, "stoops" by disguising herself as a lower-class maid to win the affections of Marlow, who is more comfortable with women outside his social class. This act of stooping to conquer encapsulates the play’s larger narrative of overcoming social barriers and misunderstandings, which occur throughout "the mistakes of a night" where characters grapple with mistaken identities and social faux pas. The title also cleverly plays on the contrast between stooping, a gesture of lowering oneself, and conquering, typically associated with victory and elevation.

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  • Goldsmith's comedy itself "stooped to conquer" as its prologue pronounces that the play's purpose is solely to make the audience laugh, while at the same time, the presentation pokes fun of its author by using the term "Doctor" and the metaphor of "Five Draughts" for five acts since Goldsmith was...

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  • rumored to have practiced medicine although he was not really a doctor: 

I give it up--morals won't do for me;
To make you laugh, I must play tragedy.
One hope remains--hearing the maid was ill,
A Doctor comes this night to show his skill.
To cheer her heart, and give your muscles motion,
He, in Five Draughts prepar'd, presents a potion:

In addition, the manager of Covent Garden, George Colman, who had anticipated failure for the play, was "conquered" by the immediate success of the comedy. Thus, Colman also made "mistakes of the night."

  • Within the play itself there are "mistakes of the night," especially the initial one of Marlow and Hastings believing that the home of the Hardcastles' is an inn.
  • Then, they do not conduct themselves with decorum to the gentleman, Mr. Hardcastle as they believe he is the innkeeper. They order the food they want, demand that their rooms be prepared, etc.
  • In Act III, Kate Hardcastle changes into the modest clothes that her father wishes her to wear in the evening, so she appears different from the lady whom Marlow has been introduced to by Miss Neville. With her father, she discusses the boorish behavior of young Marlow, but she also notes his shyness, "his mauvaise honte," as she calls it. As they converse, Kate senses something awry with Marlow's contradictory behavior to her father and to her.
  • When Kate discovers that Tony has deceived Marlow and Hastings, she decides to play some pranks of her own and disguises herself as a barmaid, knowing that Marlow, to whom she is attracted, is more relaxed when not in the company of gentlewomen. Learning more of Marlow's true personality in her guise as a barmaid, Kate realizes his better qualities as well, and she determines to make him her husband.

I never knew half his merit till now. He shall no go, if I have power or art to detain him. I'll still perderve the character in which I STOOPED TO CONQUER; but will undeceive my papa, who perhaps may laugh him out of his resolution (Act Four)

Therefore, "she stoops to conquer" as she places herself in a lower social position in order to win Marlow's heart and correct "the mistakes of a night" made between Marlow, Hastings, and her father.

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What is the most suitable title: "She Stoops to Conquer" or "The Mistake of the Night"?

She Stoops to Conquer was originally titled The Mistake of the Night. She Stoops to Conquer is a far better title, in my opinion, because it is catchier and because it more clearly expresses the subject and theme of the play.

The words "she stoops to conquer" come from a Dryden poem. The juxtaposition of two words with opposite connotations, "stoop" and "conquer," piques our interest. Normally people don't "stoop," which is a symbol of abjection and surrender, in order to "conquer" or win. We immediately wonder what is going on.

The title exactly captures the core of the main plot in a way the original title doesn't: Kate Hardcastle realizes that her love interest, Marlow, is afraid of women of his own class, but bold and flirtatious with lower-class women. Kate decides to "stoop," to pretend to be a lower-class maid, in order to "conquer" Marlow's heart. This ruse wins the day.

The seeming contradiction or oxymoron in the words "she stoops to conquer" also represents the zany, madcap, upside-down world of the play, where Marlow and his friend George Hastings believe the Hardcastle estate is an inn, Kate, a woman, takes control of the wooing, and little is at it seems.

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What is the most suitable title: "She Stoops to Conquer" or "The Mistake of the Night"?

Well, in my personal opinion, She Stoops to Conquer is a much more artistic and clever title for this play. The Mistake of the Night is okay—but which mistake? Marlow's belief that Constance is a barmaid? Mrs. Hardcastle's lie about the missing jewels? The fact that they turn out to truly be missing?

The term stoops is great—it means to lower something or someone. Kate lowers herself to the position of a working-class woman to test Marlow's feelings for her. Marlow is uptight around women of the higher classes and is not himself. But working women were subjected to the sexual advances of men and more often able to see their true nature. Kate stoops to find the real Marlow.

Kate also stoops to deception. She chooses to play a role to sneak a peek into Marlow's real nature. It is a risky choice, because if the relationship works out, she has started it with a lie. It could have backfired on her, as well. Marlowe could have been incensed that she put one over on him and never talked to her again.

But, in the end, She Stoops to Conquer is the right title, because by lowering her status, Kate finds out that the real Marlow is someone she can love.

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