She Stoops to Conquer

"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no fibs," declares Tony Lumpkin as he conveys a box full of stolen jewels to his friend Hastings in the third act of She Stoops to Conquer (1773). The quotation gives a good indication of the central mechanisms of Oliver Goldsmith's most popular play, in which assumptions, fibs, misunderstandings, and mistakes conspire with results that have tickled audiences through the centuries.

She Stoops to Conquer She Stoops to Conquer

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Table of contents

    She Stoops to Conquer Plot Summary

    A play in 5 acts, She Stoops to Conquer tells the story of how a young man is tricked into thinking that the house of the woman he wants to marry is an inn. Despite the misunderstanding and inappropriate behavior that ensue, his potential fiancée sees the good in him. Meanwhile, an arranged marriage between two other characters is thwarted.

    She Stoops to Conquer, Original 1773 playbill British Library, StudySmarterThe original playbill for She Stoops to Conquer. British Library.

    Act 1

    After Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle argue about the merits of the country versus the city, Mrs. Hardcastle tries to prevent Tony from spending the evening drinking at a pub, but he drags her offstage, protesting. Mr. Hardcastle tells his daughter, Kate, that Marlow will be visiting her that evening as a potential marriage suitor. Kate and her cousin Constance gossip about Marlow, who Constance says is shy in formal settings but has something of a reputation outside of them. She complains about her aunt’s insistence on setting her up with Tony, who she has no romantic interest in, for the sake of keeping her inheritance of precious stones in the family.

    While Tony is drinking at an alehouse with his friends, Hastings and the young Marlow arrive, having lost their way. Tony wants to have some fun at their and Mr. Hardcastle’s expense, so he misdirects the two of them, telling them that the way to the Hardcastle estate is difficult and complicated. He gives them directions to his house, which is close by, telling them that it is an inn whose owner likes to be treated as a gentleman.

    Act 2

    Marlow and Hastings arrive at Mr. Hardcastle’s, thinking it's an inn. Mr. Hardcastle, who is expecting them, greets them by name, which they assume he’s learned from the servants. They are surprised that an innkeeper expects to chat and keep company with them, and Mr. Hardcastle is in turn surprised by their demanding food and drink.

    Marlow insists on seeing their lodgings with Mr. Hardcastle. While he is gone, Constance comes in. She and Hastings are equally surprised to see each other. Once Constance realizes what has happened, she tells Hastings. The two of them decide to have some more fun with Marlow.

    Marlow and Kate return at the same time. Hastings tells him that the ladies have come to the same inn for dinner by coincidence and suggests they dine together. Marlow is extremely nervous, begging Hastings to help him, but Hastings immediately leaves for some alone time with Constance. Marlow is awkward, fumbling, stuttering, and makes minimal eye contact with Kate, who does her best to keep the conversation going.

    Tony, Constance, Mrs. Hardcastle, and Hastings enter, with Hastings shamelessly flattering Mrs. Hardcastle while Tony and Constance bicker like siblings. After Tony offends his mother by saying he doesn’t want to marry Constance, she runs off crying. Constance follows. Hastings approaches Tony and proposes a deal in which he will get Constance off his hands.

    Act 3

    Kate and her father discuss Marlow, and both of them are surprised by their completely contrary impressions of him. Kate likes Marlow and asks her father for time in order to prove that he’s not as bad as he seems.

    Tony arrives having stolen Constance’s jewels from his mother’s cabinet. He gives them to Hastings, who leaves. Shortly afterward, Constance and Mrs. Hardcastle enter. When Mrs. Hardcastle discovers that the jewels are missing, she is extremely upset and runs off stage in a panic. Tony lets Constance know that he’s given her jewels to Hastings.

    Kate puts on a plain dress, and Marlow, not having looked at her face during their conversation, mistakes her for the barmaid. She plays along, adopting the accent and vocabulary of a maid. Marlow is extremely forward, forcibly trying to kiss her and carry her off to a bedroom. Mr. Hardcastle witnesses some of this. Already deeply offended by what he thinks is Marlow’s presumptuousness in treating him like a servant, this is the last straw for him. He plans to kick Marlow out of the house within the hour.

    Act 4

    Constance and Hastings have received news that Marlow’s father plans to visit that night, necessitating that they speed up their plan lest he be recognized. Tony has agreed to provide them with horses, and they plan to elope with the basket of jewels, which Hastings has entrusted to Marlow. Marlow, thinking it unsafe to leave the jewels in his room, entrusted them to Mrs. Hardcastle, thinking she was the landlady. She, of course, was relieved to find the jewels returned.

    Mr. Hardcastle confronts Marlow about his servants’ behavior, as they have been getting drunk. When Marlow insists that he ordered them to drink as much as possible, Mr. Hardcastle snaps, ordering him to leave instantly. The two of them argue, Marlow eventually consenting to leave and requesting a bill. Mr. Hardcastle mentions that he was led to expect a polite, well-bred gentleman from his friend’s son, then storms off.

    Marlow now realizes that he’s been deceived. Seeing Kate again, he asks where he is and if she’s really a barmaid. She explains that this is Mr. Hardcastle’s house but claims to be a poor distant relative. He now behaves much more civilly towards her. She proposes that they continue their relationship. He insists that, were it not for the difference in wealth and social status, he certainly would.

    Mrs. Hardcastle intercepts a letter from Hastings to Tony detailing their plan to elope and referring to her as a hag. Furious, she decides to send Constance to her aunt’s house, where she’ll be kept in confinement. Marlow approaches Hastings and asks why he went along with the deception that made him look so foolish. While everyone is distressed, Tony announces that he has a plan as the act ends.

    Act 5

    Sir Charles Marlow arrives, laughing with Mr. Hardcastle about the mix-up. The younger Marlow apologizes profusely, but they are completely understanding and think that the marriage plans should proceed if Marlow and Kate like each other. Marlow, still unaware that he mistook Kate for the barmaid, insists that they have only had a formal and dispassionate conversation. He leaves. Kate arrives, claiming that he has, in fact, repeatedly professed his love for her. Kate devises a plan to demonstrate Marlow’s passion to Sir Charles and Mr. Hardcastle.

    Meanwhile, Tony has driven Constance and Mrs. Hardcastle in circles around the estate but tells them they have traveled 40 miles in the direction of their aunt’s house. Mrs. Hardcastle, confused and disoriented, sees a man in the dark and thinks he’s a thief, but it turns out to be Mr. Hardcastle on a walk. He informs her that she has not left her own backyard.

    With Mr. Hardcastle and Sir Charles hiding behind a screen, Kate talks to Marlow and manages to elicit a profession of love for her. They emerge from their hiding place and accuse him of being a liar, at which point he finally realizes that he’s been talking to Mr. Hardcastle’s daughter and is mortified.

    Tony, Constance, Mrs. Hardcastle, and Hastings have arrived. Sir Charles is excited to see Hastings, exclaiming what a good character he has. Mr. Hardcastle informs Tony that, despite what was thought earlier, he has been a legal adult for three months. Tony immediately declares that he will never marry Constance.

    Mrs. Hardcastle now accepts Constance’s marriage to Hastings. Marlow and Kate also decide to marry each other, and the whole party vows to forgive, forget, and hold a big party the following morning.

    She Stoops to Conquer Characters

    She Stoops to Conquer centers around the Hardcastle family, their friends, and marriage suitors.

    She Stoops to Conquer, Cast at Uark Theatre 2013, StudySmarterThe cast of a 2013 production of She Stoops to Conquer at the Uark Theatre. Wikimedia Commons.

    Mr. Hardcastle

    The somewhat grumpy and curmudgeonly patriarch of the Hardcastle family, he has a strong preference for the life of a country gentleman and complains of the corruption and decadence of the French and the city. He often argues with his wife, and while he loves their daughter, Kate, he is dismissive of his son-in-law, Tony. He is fond of taking walks around his estate at night.

    Mrs. Hardcastle

    Somewhat vain and pretentious, Mrs. Hardcastle dislikes country life and dreams of wealth and refinement. She has a son from a previous marriage, Tony. She is a loving mother, but is willing to try to force her son and her niece to marry for the sake of increasing the family fortune.

    Miss Kate Hardcastle

    The Hardcastles' daughter, she is young, intelligent, easy-going, and attractive. She likes entertaining guests, wearing fine silk dresses, and is open to her father’s suggestion of a marriage arrangement.

    Constance Neville

    Mrs. Hardcastle’s niece, Constance has a good relationship with both of her cousins but has no interest in marrying Tony. She is playful, fond of gossip, and willing to cross her aunt if that’s the only way to marry the man she wants, Hastings.

    Tony Lumpkin

    Mrs. Hardcastle’s son from a prior marriage, he spends most of his time drinking, riding horses, and gambling. Despite being fond of pranks and rebelling against his mother and father-in-law’s authority, he is good-natured, affectionate, and loyal. Though not academically gifted, he is quick-witted and intelligent.

    Hastings

    Constance Neville’s secret lover, Hastings is a close friend of the younger Marlow and is well-known by his father but unknown to the Hardcastle family. While he is willing to temporarily deceive Marlow, he is a faithful friend and lover.

    Charles Marlow, Jr.

    An attractive young man of high social standing, the younger Marlow is extremely nervous and shy around women whose wealth and class make them potential marriage partners. Among lower- and working-class women, however, he is quite forward. He generally treats his social inferiors somewhat poorly, which turns into a source of serious embarrassment for him.

    Sir Charles Marlow

    Charles Marlow’s father and a close friend of Mr. Hardcastle, Sir Charles proves to have a good sense of humor when he learns about the circumstances that led to his son’s odd behavior and apparent deceitfulness.

    She Stoops to Conquer as a Play

    She Stoops to Conquer, Drury Lane Theatre British Library, StudySmarterDrury Lane Theatre is one of the first venues that produced She Stoops to Conquer. British Library.

    Oliver Goldsmith took an enormous risk with She Stoops to Conquer, as it rejected the then-fashionable sentimental comedy, which aimed more for high emotions and moral significance than laughter, for a style more akin to William Shakespeare and Renaissance comedy.

    Goldsmith had trouble finding actors willing to take part in such a play, with the notable exception of his close friend, the star David Garrick (1717-1779). The risk paid off. The play was an instant hit, becoming the season’s most successful play at Covent Garden theater. It delighted critics as well as theatergoers and raked in enormous profits.

    She Stoops to Conquer remained a go-to comedy for years and is still a common production over two centuries later. Productions of the play in 1993 by Peter Hall and 2012 by Jamie Lloyd received widespread critical acclaim. It has also had numerous television and movie adaptations.1

    She Stoops to Conquer Themes

    She Stoops to Conquer addresses a number of historically significant themes, such as arranged marriages versus marriage for love, the differences between the city and the country, the relationship between the English aristocracy and lower classes, and England's colonial relationship with Ireland.

    Marriage

    The play centers around Kate's marriage to Marlow, in which parental choice of a marriage partner happily aligns with the preference of the couple that is to be married. Mrs. Hardcastle's treatment of her son Tony and her niece Constance, however, reminds us that arranged marriages were still a reality in the late 18th century. By showing the triumph of marriage based on love and attraction and casting arranged marriages in as absurd a light as possible, She Stoops to Conquer clearly sends the message that young women and men should be able to marry whomever they choose.

    The Country and the City

    The play opens with the Hardcastles arguing about the relative merits of the country and the city, and this theme echoes throughout the play. Marlow and Hastings, two sophisticated young men from town, come to the country to find marriage partners. But the play turns the stereotype of rural simplicity and urban sophistication upside-down. The townsfolk turn out to be more clever than they appear. Thanks to Tony's deception, Marlow is the one who looks ill-mannered and boorish as he violates every rule of social decorum imaginable. In the end, the differences between these two camps turn out to be minor as they apologize when needed, reconcile, and marry one another.

    Social Class

    The play uses dramatic irony—revealing facts to the audience as they remain unknown to key characters—to play with class differences in 18th century England. The comedy of the play depends on Marlow treating his (supposed) social inferiors poorly. When he commands his potential father-in-law and gropes his potential fiancée, we laugh at the inherent absurdity of the situation. We may also find it absurd, though, that Marlow would treat anybody that way. In this sense, the play is a warning against the dangers of class prejudices. It is a mild warning, however, as Marlow is instantly forgiven for his transgressions by Mr. Hardcastle and, more importantly, Kate.

    One interesting more interesting theme in the play is colonialism. The play can be read as an allegory for the English colonization of Ireland, with the Hardcastles representing Ireland and Marlow the imperious Englishman who mistakenly thinks he's the owner of someone else's house.2 Can you find any other parallels between colonization and the events in the play?

    She Stoops to Conquer - Key takeaways

    • Written by Oliver Goldsmith in 1773, She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy that makes extensive use of mistaken identity and dramatic irony.
    • The plot centers on the Hardcastle family, particularly their young daughter Kate and her potential marriage suitor, Charles Marlow.
    • After Charles is tricked into believing that the Hardcastle's house is an inn, he treats everyone rudely but is ultimately able to prove his interest in Kate to everyone's satisfaction.
    • The play was a risky departure from the sentimental comedy that was popular when it was written but proved enormously successful.
    • It deals with important themes such as arranged marriages versus marriage for love, the differences between the city and the country, the relationship between the English aristocracy and the lower orders, and English colonization.

    References

    1. D. Maybank. “An Introduction to She Stoops to Conquer." British Library, 2018.

    2. N. Clarke. Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. Harvard UP, 2016.

    Frequently Asked Questions about She Stoops to Conquer

    When was She Stoops to Conquer written?

    She Stoops to Conquer was written in 1773.

    Who wrote She Stoops to Conquer ?

    Oliver Goldsmith wrote She Stoops to Conquer.

    What is she She Stoops to Conquer about?

    She Stoops to Conquer is about Marlow, a marriage suitor who is tricked into believing that the house of the family he's trying to visit is an inn. Despite his rudeness, his potential match, Kate, likes him. She plays along with the joke and pretends to be a maid because this allows him to express his true feelings for her. 

    What is the main theme of the play She Stoops to Conquer?

    There are several important themes in She Stoops to Conquer, including arranged marriages versus marriage for love, the differences between the city and the country, and the relationship between the English aristocracy and the lower orders

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was She Stoops to Conquer first performed?

    All of the following are members of the Hardcastle family EXCEPT

    Which of the following best characterizes Tony Lumpkin?

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