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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What is the moral lesson of She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith?

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The moral lesson of She Stoops to Conquer is the importance of genuine relationships.

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A main moral message of this play is that truth does not necessarily appear on the surface, but has to be searched out. Although it can often seem immoral to use stratagems to discover the truth about people, this play shows that sometimes truth only appears in a roundabout way—and that's OK. The important point is to find out a person's true nature.

As the title of the play indicates, Kate Hardcastle finds out that Sir Charles Marlow is a suitable mate by use of a stratagem: she stoops to conquer. She "stoops" by pretending to be a lower-class bar maid when, in fact, she's a lady. By doing so, she is able to ferret out the true nature of Marlow, who was reduced to stuttering shyness around her when he thought she was a woman of his own class. At first, he goes in the other direction around "barmaid" Kate (whom he doesn't recognize), being rude and acting like a womanizer. But by getting him finally to relax, Kate discovers that Marlow is truly a delightful figure and not really shy—or boorish—at all. And because Marlow thinks she is a barmaid, he is able to tell her he loves and propose.

The moral is that is important to get past people's facades—be they seemingly good or bad—to find out what they are truly like inside.

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The moral lesson of this play needs to be understood within the context of the times in which it was written. Obedience to one's parents, particularly in the issue of marriage, is a major theme of this brilliant comedy. The play presents a very hierarchical relationship between parents and children, with parents expecting their children to be obedient. However, Goldsmith complicates this simple presentation of power, which traditionally would have been held in the hands of the parents alone, by suggesting that such obedience needs to be based on respect and love rather than unthinking servility. Parents need to act in the best interests of their children. Although it is clear that Kate and her father disagree about ideas of fashion and what she should and should not be wearing, at the same time it is clear that he wants what is best for her. By contrast, Tony deliberately disobeys Mrs. Hardcastle and does everything he can to ruin her scheme of marrying Constance to himself. Note what his first action is at the end of the play when he realises that he is legally of age:

Witness all men by these presents, that I, Anthony Lumpkin, Esquire, of BLANK place, refuse you, Constantia Neville, spinster, of no place at all, for my true and lawful wife.

This action frees Constance to marry Hastings and also frees Tony to marry whoever he pleases. Tony is allowed to frustrate his mothers plans because her desire for this marriage is shaped by avarice alone, as she wants to maintain possession of Constance's jewels and is not bothered about finding somebody who will make her son happy. The play shows that in her case she does not deserve obedience, and Tony is therefore presented as being right in resisting her plans. The moral lesson of this play therefore concerns parenting and obedience. On the one hand, children should respect the wishes of their parents, but on the other hand, parents need to earn the respect and obedience that they expect from their children.

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What is the moral lesson of She Stoops to Conquer?

If She Stoops to Conquer features any kind of moral lesson, then it is that it is important to be genuine in relationships. Much of the story revolves around the gulf between appearance and reality. The Hardcastle house is mistaken for an inn. Mr. Hardcastle is mistaken for an innkeeper, and Kate is mistaken for a barmaid. Ironically, these errors help reveal the true character of Kate's suitor, Charles Marlow, a young man who appears impudent and rakish in some scenarios and cripplingly timid in others. Initially, these qualities form an inconsistent picture of Marlow and hinder his relationship with Kate.

Marlow appears to be shy, but in reality, his charm and intelligence are repressed by his fear of rejection. He is unable to be himself around women of his own class because he fears being humiliated by them, while he is more at ease among working-class girls who do not hold the same amount of social power. When he thinks Kate is a barmaid, he is able to be himself and allow their romance to blossom. By the end of the play, Kate knows Marlow's true self and Marlow learns that his beloved barmaid is high-born. Now that he knows she can accept him as he is, they can happily wed.

While it is easy to write the story off as frivolous farce, the moral rings clear: relationships between people who are comfortable being themselves are most likely to flourish.

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