She Stoops to Conquer or The Mistakes of a Night was written by Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith to restore the essence of wit and humour that were hugely missing in the sentimental drama of 18th century England.
The prologue uttered by Woodward, (one of the leading actor of those times), points out how “the Comic Muse, long sick, is now a-dying!” thereby referring to the steady dissipation of true comedy by an overdose of morality and sentiment that were in vogue in the sentimental plays. He asserts that “a doctor,” (namely Goldsmith), “has come this night” with his “five draughts,” meaning the five acts of the play, to make the audience laugh heartily.
First performed in London in 1753, this anti-sentimental comedy also satirises the vain class consciousness of the upper-class people of his day, employing the form of a comedy of manners.
She Stoops to Conquer was a huge success, and this was particularly important to Goldsmith for his previous work, “The Good-Natured Man” had been poorly received. Interestingly, Goldsmith flouted the very factor of involving scenes of low behaviour that had led his earlier play to be criticised, by deliberately depicting the alehouse scene where drunkards stress that their kind of life is not at all low. The play is also referred to as a Restoration Comedy for its similarities with the “laughing comedies” of the Restoration period.
Mr. and Mrs. Harcastle, a middle-aged couple reside in their “old fashioned” mansion that reminds one of an inn. Along with them dwell, their daughter Kate, Mrs. Hardcastle’s son from her previous marriage, Tony and their cousin, Constance Neville. Kate is an obedient daughter, who wears as she pleases in the morning, while dresses according to her father’s wishes in the evening. Tony, on the other hand, is a habitual drunk and follower of “low company.” Mrs. Hardcastle strongly wishes to get Tony and Neville married since the latter possesses a small fortune, but both Tony and Neville despise each other.
Act 1 introduces all the characters and prepares the basis on which the complications are going to be established. Thus Mrs. Hardcastle’s comparison of her house with an inn prepares the ground for Marlow’s and Hastings’s misconception. Also, Kate’s unusual dressing routine is a hint to the audience about the scheme of identity reversal that she’d undertake so as to unveil Marlow’s true nature. The audience consequently receives ample occasions to laugh, being aware of the expected follies of the characters. Act 1 also highlights one of Goldsmith’s major themes; the subversion of traditional beliefs and instead of going for a zestful life. A sentimental comedy generally portrayed a virtuous character as its hero. Here, in Act 1 itself, the audience come to know how Marlow is a complicated character, who assumes modesty only to serve his means. It is only Kate who appears admirable and rational. Another character who later seems to be the play’s chief spokesman is Tony, and this is revealed through his alehouse song that directly undermines traditional wisdom and praises base living.
Marlow, accompanied by Hastings loses his way to Mr. Hardcastle’s house, and when they go looking for lodging at the pub, the Three Pigeons, Tony deliberately misguides them by insisting to stay at the old inn down the road, which is, in reality, Mr. Hardcastle’s house. Consequently upon arrival, both Marlow and Hastings behave rudely with Mr. Hrdcastle, believing him to be the inn keeper. Mr. Hardcastle, on his part, is shocked by their impertinence.
In the meantime, Constance, on finding Hastings, attempts to shed light on the matter by suggesting that the folly of mistaken identities is probably a trick of Tony. They finally decide not to reveal it to Marlow to avoid upsetting him and elope together, taking along the jewels. This plan is highly approved of and given impetus by Tony, who solely to escape marriage with Constance, volunteers to steal the jewels himself.
Marlow meets the formally dressed Kate and judging her standard from her attire, indulges in an extremely grave conversation that is entirely boring and meaningless. Kate, however, is attracted to him and as such resolves to unveil his true character.
In Act 2, all the complications unfold, and the characters also can be judged. Thus the folly of the primary character, Marlow, reveals his true nature. Persistently believing in his misguided notion that noble manners must be learned, he appears rude and insolent to Mr. Hardcastle, failing to recognise that he is indeed his host. Constance, on the other hand, is certainly not as vibrant as Kate, but she seems practical enough in valuing money. She resolves to elope with Hastings, only after securing her jewels; which again is a far cry from the heroines of sentimental drama. The act’s pivotal scene is obviously the conversation ensuing between Marlow and Kate. As Marlow engages in a lofty philosophical analysis of love and life, one cannot help but discern how it is a poignant parody of sentimental dialogue.
Both Mr. Hardcastle and Kate seem confused with their experiences with Marlow. Mr. Hardcastle proclaims him to be an impudent fellow, while Kate voices her utter disappointment on his lack of liveliness. Kate eventually requests her father to give her an opportunity of revealing the true nature of Marlow. Accordingly, when she appears in a plain dress and is taken for a barmaid by Marlow, the latter not only engages in a fun filled repertoire with her but even tries to embrace her. And Mr. Hardcastle, having observed all these, agrees to let Kate have the night to prove how he’s both respectful and enjoying.
Meanwhile, Tony’s plan to steal the jewels is not known by Constance, who in turn continually begs Mrs. Hardcastle for them. Tony tells his mother to pretend that the fortune has been stolen so as to deter Constance and Mrs. Hardcastle does so, till she realises that they are actually missing.
The plot becomes more complicated in Act 3, and it is solely Goldsmith’s skilled craftsmanship, his use of dramatic irony, for which the happenings, though perplexing, seem natural and acceptable. Thus the various events – Tony’s stealing the jewels and pressing his mother to lie that they are lost and later Mrs. Hardcastle’s mortifying discovery – serve in making the play more amusing. Nonetheless, two important themes are also explored dexterously; the unsettling dilemma faced by both Mr. Hardcastle and Kate regarding Marlow’s ambiguous nature and Kate’s “stooping” to clear it.
The expected arrival of Mr. Charles Marlow creates new problems for Constance and Hastings, for their affair is to be exposed along with the estimation of whether Marlow and Kate are to marry. Now, the jewels that Hastings send through a servant to Marlow for safekeeping are erroneously given by Marlow to Mrs. Hardcastle, thereby prompting Hastings to plan a speedy elopement with Constance. Mr. Hardcastle meanwhile, being thoroughly offended with Marlow’s rudeness, orders him to leave; an attitude that finally makes Marlow wonder that perhaps something is wrong. His misconceptions are corrected by Kate, who emerging again as a barmaid, informs him that it is Mr. Hardcastle’s house and she is a poor relation. Marlow, though claims of beginning to feel for her genuinely, takes her leave for not wishing to get entwined in such a poor relation.
Mrs. Hardcastle, in the meantime, intercepts a letter that Hastings has written to Neville, informing the latter to wait for him in the garden. Infuriated with this new, unexpected development, she plans to take Neville with her. The act finally ends with a heated confrontation involving Marlow, Hastings, and Tony, in which Tony ultimately offers to solve all Hastings’s problems.
All unexpected things occur in Act 4; Marlow is not at all interested in Kate and Constance’s elopement with Hastings is also unsure. This act also critically points at aristocratic hypocrisy through Marlow’s unwillingness in accepting plainly attired Kate, though he unflinchingly declares that he is ready to pay for her honour. Tony’s helping attitude is hinted as he offers to assist Hastings in recovering the jewels.
Sir Charles Marlow after arrival, shares a hearty laugh with Hastings over Marlow’s confusion. Marlow, besides apologising, declares his reluctance in forming any connection with Kate since there has been no purposeful conversation. This surprises Mr. Hardcastle, who has been an active witness of Marlow’s amorous advancements towards his daughter. As Marlow leaves, Kate arrives and assures them of solving the mystery soon. It is from an interview between Marlow and Kate that the two old men, stationed at a place behind the screen, watch Marlow’s colourful character and get along to arrange their wedding.
Now, the events revolving around Hastings and Constance develop at an equally interesting manner. Tony informs Hastings, who is waiting in the garden for Constance, how he has deliberately made his mother and Constance drive all over in confounding circles to convince them they are far off. Mrs. Hardcastle’s apprehension further intensifies as she mistakes her husband for a “highway man.” Hastings and Constance decide not to elope, but rather to seek Mr. Hardcastle’s permission to marry. In the end, all problems end as Kate discloses her true identity to Marlow and Mr. Hardcastle reveals that Tony is “of age” – an advantage that allows him to reject Constance readily.
Act 5 seems to follow the general trend of sentimental comedy in uniting all the estranged lovers and solving the reigning problems. But it is definitely not so. For, Kate’s deliberate scheme in exposing Marlow’s hypocrisy and Tony’s open declaration of refusing to marry Constance, aids in upholding Goldsmith’s views of living life according to one’s wishes rather than the way one observes, thereby making the conclusion of this romantic comedy essentially exciting and enjoyable.
The Two Epilogues
In the first epilogue, Kate asserts how she has “stooped to conquer with success” thereby referring to her winning of Marlow’s heart as well as the success of the play. In the second epilogue, Tony declares how he would gain prosperity in the world by “bringing his lively spirit to London, where he will show the world what good taste is,” thus reminding the audience how “good taste” is a product of liveliness and not morality.