She Stoops to Conquer Themes

The main themes in She Stoops to Conquer are concealment and revelation, class distinctions, and freedom and constraint.

  • Concealment and revelation: Much of the play's plot depends on characters' misinterpretations of reality, usually due to deception. In many cases, such as Kate's disguise, these deceptions allow the truth to emerge.
  • Class distinctions: The play examines the perceived differences between lower and upper classes. In the cases of Marlow and Mrs. Hardcastle, such distinctions define their impressions of others.
  • Freedom and constraint: Tony and Constance both seek to escape the limitations imposed on them by Mrs. Hardcastle and chart their own courses.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

Concealment and Revelation

The primary engine of the play is one of dissimulation. Characters in the play control how they represent themselves or each other for varying reasons. At the beginning of the play, Tony misrepresents his father’s house to Marlow as an inn. Hastings and Constance then maintain this deception for their own plans. Constance also misrepresents her own affections in order to pacify Mrs. Hardcastle. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hardcastle herself misrepresents her own age and Tony’s age as legal leverage against Constance. Mr. Hardcastle is unwittingly misrepresenting his own hospitality as that of an innkeeper’s. Marlow is conflicted and anxious about his own social status, leaving him flustered around upper-class women and unable to commit to lower-class ones. Kate, for her part, misrepresents her identity in order to win Marlow over.

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These deceptions, particularly when devised by Tony, are an abundant source of comedy and irony. As a dramatic function, these characters’ actions also speak to a larger issue at hand, which is the problem of the freedom to be oneself. Their reasons for misrepresenting themselves tend to revolve around unshackling themselves from constraint. In Kate’s case, however, she used deception to unshackle Marlow rather than herself.

Tony’s deceptions stand out from those of the other characters. Unlike the deceptions of others, his aren’t flat-out lies. In fact, they often seem to obliquely suggest the truth. They are revelations concealed by plain sight. For example, when he “redirects” Marlow and Hastings, he actually leads them precisely to their destination. The remarks he makes about the Hardcastle home are also, in some sense, true. The house does indeed look like an inn and Hardcastle is indeed a rich landlord apt to please and regale others with military stories. This pattern continues when he tells his mother to demoralize Constance by saying that the jewels have gone missing and that he can bear witness to it. The irony is that, despite his deception, he has expressed the truth.

In this way, Tony contrasts with his mother, who deceives completely for her own gain while lacking the perspicacity to see the truth of the situation. Tony’s deceptions are perceptive and are perhaps better described as repurposed truths. This modus perhaps finds its fullest expression during the climax, when Tony drives Mrs. Hardcastle around in a circle: He does not really lead her astray; rather, he leads her back home without her knowing.

Class Distinctions

Though the play offers no overt critical investigation of social class, the distinctions of class figure in the natural world of the play. Various people of the country are mentioned and country people of lower-class backgrounds are usually given names that belong to farm animals (e.g., Hogsby). It is possible to argue, however, that the play’s concern with disguises and appearances could count as the play’s critique of social classes. 

Consider, for example, Marlow’s arc throughout the story. From one perspective, Marlow’s humiliations are a product of other people’s deceptions. Conversely, it is also plausible that his humiliations are a consequence of his assumptions and attitudes around class. He is dismissive of Mr. Hardcastle merely because he thinks he is an innkeeper. He also stammers and then becomes contemptuous of Kate when he perceives her as an upper-class woman. He is then romantically precocious with her when he thinks she is a bar-maid. Moreover, he is resistant to pursuing his own attractions in order to conserve his social standing. Throughout these encounters, it appears that Marlow lacks the ability to see through social class and assess people on an individual basis. This is in stark contrast with Tony, Kate, and Mr. Hardcastle, who have more relaxed relationships with social standing. It is this behavior of Marlow’s which Kate creatively tries to bypass through her disguise.

Freedom and Constraint

The play can be thought of as a combination of dramatic and comedic elements. Whereas the function of comedy in the play is accomplished through the concealment and revelation of truth, the dramatic aspect of the play underlines the characters’ freedoms and their constraints. In Kate and Marlow’s story, it is Marlow who is under the constraints of his upbringing and social pedigree. The real protagonists of this drama, however, are arguably Constance and Tony, both of whom are subjugated by Tony’s mother. One wants to pursue Hastings, and the other Bet Bouncer. Both want the freedom to pursue their own ends. 

However, there is a danger to confronting these desires and obstacles head-on. In the same way that Kate stoops to conquer, Constance is obliged “to stoop to dissimulation to avoid oppression.” As Tony expresses it, his mother has a habit of trying to control his moods. Tony, then, is more than enthusiastic enough to subvert his mother. Tony and Constance’s plans fail, however, and Constance and Hastings find their happy resolution not by running but by appealing to Mr. Hardcastle’s better nature. This ending reflects the idea of “kneel[ing] to rise” from the Dryden poem that inspired this play’s title: 

The prostrate lover, when he lowest lies, 
But stoops to conquer, and but kneels to rise.

Indeed, by the end, Kate has stooped to conquer, and Constance has knelt to rise.

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