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Oliver Goldsmith: She stoops to conquer

Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer has a somewhat farcical element to it which is, on the whole, achieved by a series of contrasts. I would argue, however, that although there are contrasts to be found within the play between age and youth, city and country, and social classes, the contrasts which are most significant are firstly between appearance and reality, and secondly, between what certain characters want to do and what they feel they are obliged to do. I will first deal with the minor contrasts, as these are important for the development of the major themes.

When the play opens the audience is immediately presented with some contrasts. Mrs Hardcastle laments the fact that they never go to town, while her husband thinks the people of the town foolish. Mr Hardcastle clearly represents old-fashioned values, and is entirely unashamed of this, whereas Mrs Hardcastle likes to think she is more modern, although it is implied that she is rather pretentious. Their conflicting attitudes are concisely illustrated in these antithetical statements. Mrs Hardcastle, speaking of her husband's long-winded stories as a method for entertaining guests, states:

I hate such old-fashioned trumpery.

Her husband replies:

And I love it. I love everything that's old: old friends, old manners, old books. old wine

But despite the fact that Mrs Hardcastle considers herself to have a modern approach to life, in matters of importance she is the most old-fashioned character of the play. Both Mr Hardcastle and Sir Charles Marlow are concerned that their offspring marry someone they can be happy with and make it clear that they do not wish to force anyone into an unwanted marriage. Contrariwise, Mrs Hardcastle is intent on marrying her son Tony to Constance Neville because she wishes Constance's jewels to remain within the family. The fact that the only thing which Constance and Tony have in common is a mutual dislike is not a consideration for her, in fact she does not even notice.

In many works of literature contrast between the different social classes is employed. In this play it is not so much the difference between classes which is explored, but rather the extremely different ways in which certain characters treat people according to which class they belong to. This creates many opportunities for humour as there are characters who are of a different class to that which they are believed to be (for example, Marlow believes Hardcastle to be an innkeeper and Kate to be a barmaid), those who are pretending to be of a different class (Kate), and those who are ambiguous as regards class (Tony is happier with 'commoners' in the pub than with his family but does not entirely fit in with either of the two social sets.)

Marlow is the character who acts most differently according to what he believes the social standing of the company to be. Constance says of him:

Among women of reputation and virtue, he is the modestest man alive; but his acquaintance give him a very different character among creatures of another stamp.

Hastings later adds whilst in conversation with Marlow:

But in the company of women of reputation I never saw such an idiot, such a trembler; you look for all the world as if you wanted an opportunity for stealing out of the room.

This behaviour is a great contrast to Marlow's behaviour amongst 'females of another class' with whom he is 'impudent enough of all conscience', Hastings comments. This differing attitude towards women according to class can clearly be seen through his nervousness with Kate when he believes her to be the daughter of the house, and his much more forthright manner when he believes her to be a barmaid. Because of his discrimination between the classes, Kate and her father receive extremely different first impressions of Marlow. Kate comments after her first meeting with him:

Was there ever such a sober, sentimental interview? I'm certain he scarce looked in my face the whole time. Yet the fellow, but for his unaccountable bashfulness, is pretty well too. He has good sense, but then so buried in his fears, that it fatigues one more than ignorance.

She received this impression because he was suffering from the awkwardness he feels when dealing with a woman of quality. However, because Marlow believed Hardcastle to be an innkeeper when they first met. he treated him with the condescending attitude he reserves for 'commoners', and so Kate's father received an extremely different impression. Hardcastle's comments on him are completely different to Kate's, such as:

Such a brazen dog sure never my eyes beheld.

and:

This may be modern modesty, but I never saw anything look so like old-fashioned impudence.

Marlow is also shown to be particularly class-conscious through other incidents in the play. He is obviously enamoured by Kate in her role as a barmaid, but believing her to be a lowly character, he spurns her. He says to her:

the difference of our birth, fortune, and education, make an honourable connection impossible.

He and Mrs Hardcastle are probably the most class-conscious of all the characters. Hastings is so anxious to marry Constance that he does not care whether or not her jewels are in her possession, Sir Charles Marlow is not bothered by the fact that Kate has only a small dowry, Hardcastle does not appear to mind whom his daughter marries as long as she Is happy, and Tony is much more interested in Bet Bouncer than the probably richer and more refined Miss Neville.

Tony Lumpkin provides a stark contrast to Marlow. He appears to have renounced all the social values of his family (particularly his mother) and is happiest when with the low-life at the pub and playing practical jokes. The carefree, jovial atmosphere of the pub also provides a contrast to the much more tense atmosphere at the house, created by the series of misunderstandings. However, Tony does not entirely fit in with the commoners at the pub; they see him as being above them, referring to him as 'The Squire', whilst his family see him as being slightly beneath the rest of them. This shows how a contrast can be achieved merely by regarding one person or situation from two different viewpoints. This idea is furthered when Mrs Hardcastle finds her garden to be a place of terror, merely because she believes it to be Crackskull Common, inhabited by highwaymen.

Another form of contrast which manifests itself in various ways throughout the play is the difference between appearance and reality. Deception and misunderstanding are rife, and this enables the audience to see how certain characters react in different situations (particularly Marlow with his attitude towards the different classes.) The various deceptions also provide humour in the play and make people look foolish (such as Mrs Hardcastle being terrified of her own garden, or Marlow behaving in such a condescending manner towards Mr Hardcastle, not realising that he is a gentleman.) Other deceptions include Constance pretending to be in love with Tony in order to humour and pacify his mother, Mrs Hardcastle pretending that the jewels have been stolen, which is immediately followed by her being deceived in the same way by her son Tony pretending that the house is an inn, and Kate pretending to be a barmaid. Another extremely humorous example of this is the scene in which Hardcastle is trying to train his servants to act as if they are used to receiving guests. Hardcastle tells them:

Well, I hope you're perfect in the table exercise I have been teaching you these three days. You all know your posts and your places, and can show that you have been used to good company, without ever stirring from home.

Even Hardcastle, who hates the pretensions of the town, wishes to give the impression of something which is not. These are the types of contrast which inject a farcical element into the proceedings. They are mainly plot devices rather than working on a higher level although, as previously mentioned, the deceptions do, to a certain extent, reveal the more foolish or snobbish aspects to some of the characters, in particular, Marlow and Mrs Hardcastle.

Another important device of contrast used in the play is the difference between what people want to do and what is dictated that they should do, whether by society, their peers or their family. There are many examples of this. Kate wears a housewife's dress in the afternoons to please her father. However, he and she have obviously reached a compromise in this matter:

You know our agreement, sir. You allow me the morning to receive and pay visits, and to dress in my own manner; and in the evening, I put on my housewife's dress to please you.

As previously mentioned, Marlow is reluctant to form an attachment to the 'barmaid' because of her class. However, by the end of the play he has become confused as to whether following the wishes of society is the correct thing to do. Kneeling at her feet, he asks:

Does this look like security? Does this look like confidence? No, madam, every moment that shows me your merit, only serves to increase my diffidence and confusion.

Tony completely disregards the wishes of society and does as he pleases, and so provides a contrast to his peers. Constance comes close to eloping with Hastings, but at the last minute 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. She tells him:

Prudence once more comes to my relief, and I will obey its dictates. In the moment of passion, fortune may be despised, but it ever produces a lasting repentance. I'm resolved to apply to Mr Hardcastle's compassion and justice for redress.

However, both Hardcastle and Sir Charles Marlow want their children to be happy. It is only really Mrs Hardcastle who retains the more old-fashioned approach to love and marriage, so, at the end of the play, everyone gains who and what they wished for (except for Mrs Hardcastle). Perhaps the message here is that even if the children do not deliberately follow the rules of their parents or society, they eventually do it of their own accord, as all the characters are paired up with 'suitable' partners (apart from Tony, who is quite happy vying for the attentions of Bet Bouncer).

The other important message appears to be that the younger generation all made their own choices and, it is assumed, will be happy. In the end no one was forced into anything. A contrast to this is provided by the fact that Mrs Hardcastle was continually trying to pair up Tony and Constance. Had she been successful it would indubitably have led to an unhappy marriage.

To conclude, that the play does work by a series of contrasts. The characters are contrasted with each other, and classes and attitudes towards classes are examined. However, the most important contrasts are clearly between appearance and reality, and between what people want to do and their 'duty'. These contrasts provide the humour in the play through deception and exposure of the foolishness and snobbery of various individuals. They also carry a moral message; they make it clear that society in general is too quick to judge people or places on appearances. The 'inn' was not an inn, the 'barmaid' was not a barmaid. If the gentlemen of the town had not viewed the place and its inhabitants with so many pre-judged bigoted ideas. the mistakes of a night could undoubtedly have been avoided.

© Catherine Cooper, April 2001