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SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER AS A RESTORATION COMEDY

She Stoops to Conquer or The Mistakes of a Night is an anti-sentimental drama that was
written during late 18th century and was first published in 1771 and performed in 1773. The
drama with its hypocritical characters and ideologies mirrored the political and historical
background of England at that age.

After the restoration of monarchy in England in 1660, the theatres which were closed in 1642
were reopened. This lift of ban on staging of drama led to the coming up of the popular
Restoration Comedies or the Comedy of Manners. These, largely satirised the behaviours of
society through situational humour. The Comedy of Manners was known for its
representation of immoral and sexual content which reflected the end of Puritan rule along
with their strict moral codes.

By early 18th century, England came back in the hands of Puritan rule and with that the
immoral and aristocratic plays began to be unpopular and the neoclassical concept of
rationalism came up. As a part of this, the sentimentalism movement started becoming
popular. Sentimentalism believed that people are essentially good and they can keep up this
virtue by appealing to their virtuous or pure feelings.

But the Georgian era was a hypocritical age where the middle class supported the Puritan and
Protestant values which banished any element of obscenity thus, refining the dramas to suit
their “values”. It is to be noted that this was the very age when slave trades and avaricious
indulgences in commerce were at large. The same people who expected sentimental value in
the literatures of that time ignored their own society’s dreadful conditions. David Thomas in
his work Four Georgian and Pre-Revolutionary Plays comments on the hypocritical nature
of Georgian era –

“Underneath the veneer of polite manners, gentility and sentimental attitudes in
literature, there was a hard streak of selfishness and brutality just below the surface of
Georgian society” (9)

This statement is greatly reflected in both Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and Oliver
Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.

She Stoops to Conquer

The principle characters include Mr. Hardcastle who likes everything old- old places, old
friends, old manners and old wine. His wife, Mrs. Hardcastle, is overly fond of her son from
her previous marriage, Tony Lumpkin. Tony is an idle and ignorant fellow who is cunning
and mischievous at the same time. Mr. Hardcastle enjoys a close and fond relation with his
daughter Kate Hardcastle and proposes a match with his old friend Sir Charles Marlow’s son
Young Marlow. Young Marlow along with his friend Mr. Hastings sets out to visit the
Hardcastles and having lost their way, ends up at a pub called Three Jolly Pigeons where
Tony is a frequenter. Tony mischievously directs them to the Hardcastle’s house saying it’s
an inn. Large part of the comedy of this play revolves around this very misunderstanding.
Marlow mistakes Mr. Hardcastle as the keeper of the inn and treats him the same and he also
attempts to seduce Miss Hardcastle believing she’s one of the servant. This contrasts with his
bashful attitude when he actually meets Miss Hardcastle where he is too shy to even look at
her face. Mrs. Hardcastle on the other hand was forcing the match between her niece, Miss
Neville and Tony where neither of them was ready to accept the match. Meanwhile, Mr.
Hastings and Miss Neville were having their own share of love affair amidst this confusion.
With the arrival of Sir Charles, the misunderstandings come to the surface and everything
ends well.

Oliver Goldsmith and She Stoops to Conquer

Restoration comedy was known for its depiction of the society’s vices and follies.
Goldsmith’s own experiences provided him with a base for his play. Oliver Goldsmith was an
Irish playwright born to a poor clergyman and a doting mother. Goldsmith, like Tony, took
advantage of his mother’s affection and treated her selfishly and ungratefully. Personal
experiences influenced his writing drastically. Goldsmith’s sister Mrs. Hodson claims that the
incident of mistaking a private residence for an inn was an actual incident that happened to
Oliver Goldsmith in his younger days.

David Thomas says that Goldsmith was a “walking contradiction” which is an undeniable
reflection of the Georgian society itself. He was envied and mocked at the same time by
people for he was a man of fine feelings when it came to his works and was a lonely figure
afraid of his own feelings when it came to his personal life. He gambled and splurged on
expensive clothing and at the same time he talked about corruption and greed in his works.
He also mirrors the character Marlow in his dual personality based entirely on social
conditioning and status. Goldsmith, himself, was lively in the company of barmaids but timid
when it came to women of his own class.

Restoration Comedy, Sentimental Comedy and Laughing Comedy

Restoration comedy begins with the Comedy of Manners which is a type of comedy that
depicts the manners and fashions of particular class. They often satirises the middle or upper
classes who were the very audience that watched these plays. These reflected the complex
code of conduct in society that gave importance to outward behaviour and appearance than
true moral characteristics. The subject matters included lust, gossip and rumours, greed and
materialism, false pretensions and hypocritical nature of people. Themes including love,
marriage, adultery and fortune hunting were quite common in these plays.

Then came the movement ‘Sentimentalism’ and brought with it an off shoot known as the
Sentimental Comedy. They provided realistic depictions of life instead of just farcical
elements and are often criticised for being overly virtuous and pathetic. This type of comedy
was more popular because of the realism involved than of its comedy. It clearly emphasised
the morality and virtuousness of people through the characters.

As a reaction to the sentimental comedy came Anti-Sentimental Comedy, and this was
largely popularised by Sheridan and Goldsmith. The prologue of She Stoops to Conquer
serves to reflect Goldsmith’s essay “An Essay on the Theatre; Or, A Comparison Between
Sentimental and Laughing Comedy” which was an attack on the Sentimental Comedy.
Goldsmith, who detested Sentimental Comedy at its extremes, in his essay defines
sentimental comedy as something -

“in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed; and
the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece.”

Anti sentimental comedy or laughing comedy is a kind of low comedy that is concerned with
exposing the vices. This laughing comedy is similar to comedy of manners but at the same
time it is devoid of obscene and sexual content.

She Stoops to Conquer as a Restoration Comedy

Large parts of the comedies in this play are achieved by a series of contrasts and among these
there are two most important ones. The first one is the contrast between appearance and
reality and the second one is the contrast between what certain characters want to do and
what they feel they are obliged to do.

The play begins with the contrast of Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle. Mrs. Hardcastle says that they
never go the towns and Mr. Hardcastle on the other hand believes the town people to be
foolish. Here, he clearly stands for old fashioned beliefs but his wife, who although believes
herself to be modern, is rather pretentious. But when it comes to the questions of marriage,
Mr. Hardcastle wants his children to marry whomever they wishes and, on the other hand, his
wife forces Tony to court Miss Neville so that the family riches remain within the family
despite the fact that Tony and Miss Neville share a mutual dislike for each other.

Another major comical element is based on the treatment of characters according to the social
status they thought the other belonged to. This is highlighted in the treatment of Mr.
Hardcastle by Marlow, when he thought him to be an inn keeper. Marlow’s bashful behaviour
towards Miss Hardcastle and the outspoken attitude towards Kate when she takes the role of
barmaid also bring out this same element. There is also a comical element present when Kate
stoops to the level of a barmaid in order to conquer the genuine love that she knew Marlow
had for her.

Tony Lumpkin, who even though belongs to the upper class, is more comfortable and at ease
with the commoners in the pub but the society nevertheless considers him according to his
social standing and thus feels alienated at home as well as at the pub. At the pub, the
commoners call him ‘the squire’ and treat him well above their level and at home he is ‘the
graceless rogue’ and the whole family considers him a mischievous fellow well below his
social status. Tony’s practical jokes are the ones that keep the comical confusion in action.
He’s the one who sends Marlow and Hastings to Hardcastle’s house saying it’s an inn from
which all the confusion begins. When Miss Neville asks for her jewels, Tony tells Mrs.
Hardcastle to lie that the jewels were stolen so that she can keep them for herself. Tony also
says that he will bear witness to that. When Mrs. Hardcastle finds that the jewels are really
stolen, Tony sympathetically teases his mother by repeating “I can bear witness to that” when
in reality, he’s the one who stole them. Tony, later in the play, takes his mother on a circular
ride at the dead of the night in order to confuse her. This gives rise to a comical element when
Mrs Hardcastle finds her garden to be a place of terror, merely because she believes it to be
Crackskull Common, inhabited by highwaymen and thugs.

Pretension has a huge hand in the comedies especially in instances when Mrs. Hardcastle
pretends her jewels are stolen, and when Mr Hardcastle is trying to train his servants to act as
if they are used to receiving guests. Constance pretending to be in love with Tony in order to
humour and pacify his mother, when in reality both Constance Neville and Tony Lumpkin
cannot stand each other is another example of pretension acting out in the play.

The false pretensions and the hypocritical nature along with the character’s contrasting views
have provided the audience with comedy that can be categorised under comedy of manners.
We can also see instances of sentimental comedy in this play and these instances are more
likely to be a kind of farcical element or parody as Olive Goldsmith wrote this play as an
anti-sentimental comedy. Among these instances is the one in which Kate meets Marlow for
the first time. In Kate's presence Marlow becomes a 'man of sensibility' and the slightest
gestures from her are dealt with such modesty that the audience may end up questioning the
dual personality of Marlow later in the play. Another instance is when Constance comes close
to eloping with Hastings. At the last minute, she changes her mind. She tells Hastings she
cannot 'face any new danger' by disobeying her guardians and says she hopes that he will
wait for her. Here the sentimental nature or the virtuous qualities of the characters come to
light.

With elements from comedy of manners and parody of sentimental comedy, Goldsmith has
succeeded in bringing the laughing comedy through his play She Stoops to Conquer. Without
any doubt this play can be classified well under “restoration comedy”. Although it was first
performed at a time when sentimental comedy was at its peak, it managed to gain the hearts
of the audience with its charming wit, repartees and characters. The grand success of the play
can be derived from the mere words of Dr. Johnson himself-“I know of no comedy for many
years that has so much exhilarated an audience, that has answered so much the great end of
comedy — making an audience merry." (Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson). Through the
elements of miscommunication and mistaken identities, Goldsmith achieved his well
deserved praise from the audience despite criticisms from faithful sentimentalists. She Stoops
to Conquer has been and will continue to remain one of the greatest faces of restoration
comedy.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. London: Printed by H. Baldwin for C. Dilly,
1791.

Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops to Conquer. Project Gutenberg, 2013.

Oxford Companion to English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ranger, Paul. Macmillan Master Guides: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.
London: Macmillan Education, 1985.

Thomas, David. Four Georgian and Pre-Revolutionary Plays. London: Macmillan Press,
1998.

Articles

Goldsmith, Oliver. ‘An Essay on the Theatre; Or, A Comparison Between Sentimental and
Laughing Comedy.’ 1772.

Web Pages

‘Theatre History.’ Northern Virginia Community College. 18 May 2002. 27 Sep 2017
<http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/spd130et/thhist.htm>.

‘What is Comedy of Manners.’ Pediaa 2 Oct 2016. 28 Sep 2017 <http://pediaa.com/what-is-
comedy-of-manners/>.