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she stoops to conquer

11 june 2023

She Stoops to Conquer, though one of the most celebrated English-language plays, has a number of plot holes, as Arthur Friedman points out in the 1966 Oxford edition.

There are small things: a character worries about his name being revealed, when he knows that the people he wants to hide it from have known it for a couple of acts. But there are also things that strain against even the conventions of farce. The worried character, Hastings, has arrived with his friend Marlow at the house of the Hardcastles, who are expecting them and unsurprised to see them. But Marlow and Hastings take the Hardcastles for innkeepers. The Hardcastles' names never come up. Even if the initial misunderstanding is plausible, why do the travelers never learn their hosts' names in the course of the protracted misprision?

Marlow has come to meet Miss Hardcastle, earmarked to become his wife. He is introduced to her in her real persona, taking it in stride that she's somehow also stopped by this "inn." But the central gimmick of the play depends on Marlow meeting Miss Hardcastle, and exchanging a scene of dialogue with her, while never looking her in the face, nor apparently listening much to her voice either.

These lapses are in character for Marlow. In one of the more contrived "humors" of dramatic history, Marlow is agonizingly timid among women of quality, while being quite the rake among non-ladies. The overall dynamic rings true – some people really are different in different class contexts, and the division of womanhood into angels and whores is a long-standing problem of masculinity. But the plot point doesn't. You can't imagine anyone, however shy, meeting somebody at length and then being clueless as to their identity the next time he sees and hears them.

Miss Hardcastle stoops to conquer because Marlow won't say boo to a lady, but becomes quite an exciting boyfriend prospect for a woman who thinks a lot of this lady stuff is nonsense, and can pass herself off as an inn's serving girl. One wonders why Goldsmith didn't simply omit the initial meeting scene and have Miss Hardcastle somehow learn of Marlow's foibles ahead of time.

But then one wonders what she sees in Marlow anyway. Even though he and Miss Hardcastle hit it off and he learns to discount the pedestal his class prejudices have placed her on, what sort of future does she think they'll have? Marlow will still be tongue-tied among ladies, and will still feature an annoying tendency to chase the chambermaids.

Of course I raised a similar objection to Goldsmith's Good Natur'd Man. There too, we are expected to believe that the awkward hero's disqualifying humor will suddenly vanish at play's end. In Restoration comedies, where rake and worldly woman get together at curtain-time, we're not expected to believe that they'll change much: both start out weary and knowing, surrounded by couples who serially cheat on one another, and one imagines they'll simply join the larger libertine culture. But by 1773, things had to end in a sweeter way.

There are good moments in She Stoops. Hardcastle, a genial bore, is a funny foil for the guests whose behavior wouldn't be rude in an inn but is intolerable in a private home (a clever commentary on the way people have treated hospitality workers since forever).

And much of the energy of the play comes from its most famous character. Tony Lumpkin is one of those dramatic characters who become proverbial, like Sosie or Mrs. Malaprop. Tony is the boobiest of booby squires, Hardcastle's stepson and the intended husband for his cousin Miss Neville. Miss Neville in turn is in love with Hastings, leading to a labored farcical subplot. But Tony Lumpkin is not a blocking character, or a side of a love triangle. Far from it; he wins us over immediately because he can't stand the thought of marrying Miss Neville, and does everything in his idiotic power to ensure that she will end up with Hastings. The tactical alliance that Miss Neville strikes up with Tony is the play's cleverest character dynamic.

Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops to Conquer, or, The mistakes of a night. 1773. In Arthur Friedman, ed., Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith. Vol. V. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. 102-217.