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She Stoops to Conquer

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy by the Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, first performed in 1773. The play is a great favourite for study by English literature classes in Britain. It is one of the few plays from the 18th century to have an enduring appeal, and is still regularly performed today. It has been adapted into a film several times, including in 1914 and 1923.

Initially the play was titled 'Mistakes of a Night', indeed the events within the play happen during the very limited timeframe of one night.

In essence, the play is a farce and Comedy of errors, based on multiple misunderstandings.


The central plot of the play follows Charles Marlow, a wealthy young man who is being forced by his family to consider a potential bride whom he has never met. He is anxious about meeting her; he suffers from shyness around women of some wealth, but around women of the lower classes transforms into a positively lecherous rogue. He sets out for the Hardcastle's manor with a friend, George Hastings, himself an admirer of Miss Constance Neville, another young lady who lives at the Hardcastle's. During the journey the two men become lost and stop at The Three Pigeons for directions.

Tony Lumpkin (one of literature's great comic characters), comes across the two strangers at an Alehouse, and realising their identity, plays a practical joke by telling them that they are a long way from their destination and will have to stay overnight at an inn. The "inn" he directs them to is in fact the home of his parents, the Hardcastles. When they arrive, the Hardcastles, who have been expecting them, go out of their way to make them welcome. However, Marlow and Hastings, believing themselves in an inn, behave in a fashion not suited to such manors (even if Liberty Hall is crumbling).

Meanwhile, Tony's sister, Kate, our bride-to-be, learning of the error and also acquainted with her suitor's shyness, masquerades as a serving-maid in order to get to know him. Marlow falls in love with her and plans to elope with her but because she appears of a lower class acts in a very bawdish manner around her. All misunderstandings are resolved by the end, thanks to an appearance by Sir Charles Marlow, and Marlow and Kate live happily ever after.


  • Charles Marlow - The central male character, the main plot revolves around Marlow as he attempts to woo Miss Kate Hardcastle. A well-educated fellow, Marlow presents himself as brash and rude to Mr. Hardcastle, owner of Liberty Hall, whom Marlow believes to be an innkeeper. Around women of a lower social standing Marlow is a lecherous rogue, but around women of class he shutters up completely, struggling to speak and stuttering. It is this fact, along with his mistaking of Kate's identity and the his mistaking Liberty Hall for an inn, which creates the backbone of the plot.
  • George Hastings - Friend of Charles Marlow and the love of Miss Constance Neville. George and Constance together discover Tony's trickery. Hastings and Constance work with Mrs. Hardcastle and Lumpkin to continue to deceive young Marlow while Kate pursues him. Meanwhile, George and Constance work with Lumpkin to obtain Constance's jewels from Mrs. Hardcastle. Hastings is actually a little jealous of Lumpkin.
  • Mr Hardcastle - Mr Hardcastle, who is mistaken by Marlow for the innkeeper, is a rumbling, bumbling man, stuck in his crumbling mansion. He is very much occupied with the 'old times' and likes nothing better than to tell his war stories and drop names, such as the Duke of Marlborough. He doesn't care for the new fashions of the cities, and all that 'fopperie' and insists that his daughter, of whom he is very fond, dress plainly in the evenings. Mr Hardcastle is a man of manners and, despite being highly insulted by Marlow's treatment of him, manages to keep his temper with his guest until near the end of the play. Hardcastle also demonstrates a wealth of forgiveness as he not only forgives Marlow once he has realised Marlow's mistake, but also gives him consent to marry his daughter. Hardcastle is chief in restoring normal order and clearing up the various mistakes in the play.
  • Mrs Hardcastle - Somewhat of a pantomime character, Mrs Hardcastle is presented as the overbearing nuisance mother who interests herself heavily in other people's business — often against their wishes. Because of this she is somewhat a figure of ridicule within the play. She spoils her son Tony and makes excuses for him not being all that clever; later on she offers herself to a supposed highwayman in order to protect her son. Apart from this selflessness, Mrs Hardcastle can also be seen as a very selfish character — she plans on marrying her niece to her son purely to keep a jewel fortune in the family, even though it is readily apparent that neither Tony or Constance cares at all for the other in anything other than a platonic sense. Mrs Hardcastle is obsessed with the city of London and the affairs of high society there. This helps highlight the divide between town and country, a major theme of the play. Mrs Hardcastle is presented, however, as being decidedly behind the times in terms of fashion, although she remains convinced she is at the cutting edge. Her superfluous use of French phrases such as 'tete-a-tete' only serves to increase this perception. Mrs Hardcastle is the only character who is not happy at the end of the play.
  • Miss Kate Hardcastle - The object of Marlow's affection, Kate is ordered to dress plainly by her father in the evenings. When Marlow first meets her she is in fashionable dress, as she enjoys the 'fripperies of town' as much as her mother. Our lead male stumbles and stutters over his words in front of her, so embarrassed in refined ladies' company that he cannot even look upon her face. Later on in the evening Marlow meets Kate in plain dress and thus he mistakes her for a lower class woman (the barmaid). She plays along with this in order to see if he is as witless as he seems and describes herself as a poor relation of the Hardcastle's (a common figure in 18th century literature). Marlow quickly falls in love with her and even decides to elope with her despite her supposed lower-class status.
  • Miss Constance Neville - Niece of Mrs Hardcastle and cousin to Tony, Constance is heir to a large fortune of jewels. She is secretly an admirer of George Hastings, but is promised — against her wishes — to be married to her cousin Tony. Constance attempts to elope with Hastings in one of the many dramatic follies of the play. This is essentially the sub-plot of 'She Stoops to Conquer'.
  • Tony Lumpkin - The main comic character, Tony is the son of Mrs Hardcastle and step-son of Mr Hardcastle. He is promised in marriage to his cousin, Constance Neville, a match neither member of the pair approves of. As Tony is not 'of age' he cannot yet refuse such a union, which was concocted by Mrs Hardcastle purely to keep Constance's considerable fortune of jewels within the family. Tony is not very clever and seems to spend a large amount of his time at 'The Three Pigeons', the local alehouse. Tony is a mischieveous scamp with his heart in the right place (demonstrated by Hastings coming to like Tony by the end of the play). He is at one end of a spectrum of education and appropriate behaviour; Hastings represents the opposite end, the height of academia and gentlemanly behaviour, whilst Marlow appears somewhat in the middle. It is Tony's initial deception of Marlow, for a joke, which sets up the plot.
  • Sir Charles Marlow - Father of Charles Marlow, he follows his son, a few days behind. Unlike his son, he does not meet Tony Lumpkin in the Three Pigeons, and thus is not confused. He is an old friend of Mr. Hardcastle, both of them once having been in the British military, and is quite pleased with the union of his son and his friend's daughter. Sir Charles Marlow enjoys the follies of his son, but does not understand these initially. However, he is quite upset when his son treats Kate as a barmaid.

The Three Unities

The dramatic technique of the three Unities is employed by Goldsmith in 'She Stoops to Conquer' to respectable degree. A structure typically orgininating in Ancient Greek drama, the Unities comprise of three aspects that the play must observe: the unity of action (one plot line preferably); the unity of time (typically 24 hours), and the unity of place (the play takes place in one setting).

The Unity of Action - This is the one Unity that Goldsmith does not rigorously follow; there is the inclusion of the Constance-Hastings eloping sub-plot that distracts from the main narrative of the play. However, it shares similar themes of relationships and what makes the best ones (mutual attraction or the arrangement of a parent or guardian). Furthermore, the sub-plot is inter-weaving with the main plot, for example, when Hastings and Marlow confront Tony regarding his mischief making.

The Unity of Time - The alternative title of 'Mistakes of the Night' illustrates that the Unity of Time is carefully observed. With all of the events occurring in a single night, the plot becomes far more stimulating as well as more plausibility being lent to the series of unlucky coincedences that conspire against the visitors.

The Unity of Place - Whilst some may question whether 'She Stoops to Conquer' contains the Unity of Place — after all, the scene at the "The Three Pigeons" is set apart from the house — but the similarity between the alehouse and the "old rumbling mansion, that looks all the world like an inn" is one of close resemblance; enough that in past performances, the scenes have often doubled up the use of the same set back drop. Also, there is some debate as to whether the excursion to "crackskull common" counts as a separate setting, but since the truth is that the travellors do not leave the mansion gardens, the Unity of Place is not violated.

External link

  • She Stoops to Conquer, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • She Stoops to Conquer: Cummings Study Guides
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