Wealthy countryman Mr. Hardcastle arranges for his daughter Kate to meet Charles Marlow, the son of a rich Londoner, hoping the pair will marry. Unfortunately, Marlow prefers lower class women, finding them less intimidating than women of high society. On his first acquaintance with Kate, the latter realises she will have to pretend to be 'common' to get Marlow to woo her. Thus Kate 'stoops to conquer', by posing as a maid, hoping to put Marlow at his ease so he falls for her. Marlow sets out for Mr. Hardcastle's manor with a friend, George Hastings, an admirer of Miss Constance Neville, another young lady who lives with the Hardcastles. During the journey the two men get lost and stop at an alehouse, The Three Jolly Pigeons, for directions.
Tony Lumpkin, Kate's step-brother and Constance's cousin, comes across the two strangers at the 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 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 extremely disdainfully towards their hosts. Hardcastle bears their unwitting insults with forbearance, because of his friendship with Marlow's father.
Kate learns of her suitor's shyness from Constance and a servant tells her about Tony's trick. She decides to masquerade as a serving-maid (changing her accent and garb) 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 somewhat bawdy manner around her. All misunderstandings are resolved by the end, thanks to an appearance by Sir Charles Marlow.
The main sub-plot concerns the secret romance between Constance and Hastings. Constance needs her jewels, an inheritance, guarded by Tony's mother, Mrs. Hardcastle, who wants Constance to marry her son, to keep the jewels in the family. Tony despises the thought of marrying Constance — he prefers a barmaid at the alehouse — and so agrees to steal the jewels from his mother's safekeeping for Constance, so she can elope to France with Hastings.
The play concludes with Kate's plan succeeding: she and Marlow become engaged. Tony discovers his mother has lied about his being "of age" and thus entitled to his inheritance. He refuses to marry Constance, who is then eligible to receive her jewels and become engaged to Hastings, which she does.
The original production opened in London at Covent Garden Theatre on 15 March 1773 and was an immediate success. Lionel Brough is supposed to have played Tony Lumpkin 777 times. Lillie Langtry had her first big success in this play in 1881.
Perhaps one of the most famous modern incarnations of She Stoops to Conquer was Peter Hall's version, staged in 1993 and starring Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Hardcastle. The most famous TV production is the 1971 version featuring Ralph Richardson, Tom Courtenay, Juliet Mills and Brian Cox, with Trevor Peacock as Tony Lumpkin. It was shot on location near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire and is part of the BBC archive.
The type of comedy which She Stoops to Conquer represents has been much disputed. However, there is a consensus amongst audiences and critics that the play is a comedy of manners (see below for details). It can also be seen as one of the following comedy types:
When the play was first produced, it was discussed as an example of the revival of laughing comedy over the sentimental comedy seen as dominant on the English stage since the success of The Conscious Lovers, written by Sir Richard Steele in 1722. In the same year, an essay in a London magazine, entitled "An Essay on the Theatre; Or, A Co Laughing And Sentimental Comedy", suggested that sentimental comedy, a false form of comedy, had taken over the boards from the older and more truly comic laughing comedy.
Some theatre historians believe that the essay was written by Goldsmith as a puff piece for She Stoops to Conquer as an exemplar of the laughing comedy which Goldsmith (perhaps) had touted. Goldsmith's name was linked with that of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, as standard-bearers for the resurgent laughing comedy.
The play can also be seen as a comedy of manners, in which, in a polite society setting, the comedy arises from the gap between the characters' attempts to preserve standards of polite behaviour, that contrasts to their true behaviour.
It is also seen by some scholars as a romantic comedy, which demonstrates how seriously young people take love, and how foolishly it makes them behave, (similar to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream); in She Stoops to Conquer, Kate's stooping and Marlow's nervousness are good examples of romantic comedy, and Constance Neville's and George Hastings' love and plan to elope are also examples of romantic comedy.
Alternatively, it can be seen as a satire, where characters are presented as either ludicrous or eccentric. Such a comedy might leave the impression that the characters are either too foolish or corrupt to ever reform, hence Mrs. Hardcastle.
The play is sometimes described as a farce, an exaggerated comedy and a comedy of errors, because it is based on multiple misunderstandings, hence Marlow and Hastings believing the Hardcastles' house is an inn.
The dramatic technique of Classical unities is employed by Goldsmith to some extent in She Stoops to Conquer.
The Unity of Action – This is the one Unity that Goldsmith does not rigorously follow; the inclusion of the subplot of Constance-Hastings eloping distracts from the main narrative of the play. However, it shares similar themes of relationships and what makes the best kind (mutual attraction or the arrangement of a parent or guardian). Furthermore, the subplot interweaves 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 more stimulating as well as lending more plausibility to the series of unlucky coincidences that conspire against the visitors.
The Unity of Place – While some may question whether She Stoops to Conquer contains the Unity of Place – after all, the scene at "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 backdrop. 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 travellers do not leave the mansion gardens, the Unity of Place is not violated.
The title refers to Kate's ruse of pretending to be a barmaid to reach her goal. It originates in the poetry of Dryden, which Goldsmith may have seen misquoted by Lord Chesterfield. In Chesterfield's version, the lines in question read: "The prostrate lover, when he lowest lies, But stoops to conquer, and but kneels to rise."Charles Marlow – The central male character, who has set out to court the young attractive Kate Hardcastle. A well-educated man, "bred a scholar", Marlow is brash and rude to Mr. Hardcastle, owner of "Liberty Hall" (a reference to another site in London), whom Marlow believes to be an innkeeper. Because Marlow's rudeness is comic, the audience is likely not to dislike him for it. Marlow is sophisticated and has travelled the world. Around working-class women Marlow is a lecherous rogue, but around those of an upper-class card he is a nervous, bumbling fool. Thus, his interview with Kate exploits the man's fears, and convinces Miss Hardcastle she'll have to alter her persona drastically to make a relationship with the man possible. The character of Charles Marlow is very similar to the description of Goldsmith himself, as he too acted "sheepishly" around women of a higher class than himself, but among "creatures of another stamp" acted with the most confidence.George Hastings – Friend of Charles Marlow and the admirer of Miss Constance Neville. Hastings is an educated man who cares deeply about Constance, with the intention of fleeing to France with her. However the young woman makes it clear that she can't leave without her jewels, which are guarded by Mrs Hardcastle, thus the pair and Tony collaborate to get hold of the jewels. When Hastings realises the Hardcastle house isn't an inn, he decides not to tell Marlow who would thus leave the premises immediately.Tony Lumpkin – Son of Mrs Hardcastle and stepson to Mr Hardcastle, Tony is a mischievous, uneducated playboy. Mrs. Hardcastle has no authority over Tony, and their relationship contrasts with that between Hardcastle and Kate. He is promised in marriage to his cousin, Constance Neville, yet he despises her and thus goes to great effort to help her and Hastings in their plans to leave the country. He cannot reject the impending marriage with Constance, because he believes he's not of age. Tony takes an interest in horses, "Bet Bouncer" and especially the alehouse, where he joyfully sings with working-class people. It is Tony's initial deception of Marlow, for a joke, which sets up the plot.Mr. Hardcastle – The father of Kate Hardcastle but he is mistaken by Marlow and Hastings as an innkeeper. Hardcastle is a level-headed countryman who loves "everything old" and hates the town and the "follies" that come with it. He is very much occupied with the 'old times' and likes nothing better than to tell his war stories and to drop names, such as the Duke of Marlborough, into conversations. Hardcastle cares for his daughter Kate, but insists that she dress plainly in his presence. It is he who arranges for Marlow to come to the country to marry his daughter. 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.Mrs. Hardcastle – Wife to Mr. Hardcastle and mother to Tony, Mrs. Hardcastle is a corrupt and eccentric character. She is an over-protective mother to Tony, whom she loves, but fails to tell him he's of age so that he is eligible to receive £1,500 a year. Her behaviour is either over-the-top or far-fetched, providing some of the play's comedy. She is also partly selfish, wanting Constance to marry her son to keep the jewels in the family; she's blissfully unaware however, that they despise each other, and that Constance is in fact planning to flee to France with Hastings. Mrs. Hardcastle is a contrast to her husband, which provides the humour in the play's opening. She loves the town, and is the only character who's not happy at the end of the play.Miss Kate Hardcastle – Daughter to Mr. Hardcastle, and the play's stooping-to-conquer heroine. Kate respects her father, dressing plainly in his presence to please him. The formal and respectful relationship that she shares with her father, contrasts with that between Tony and Mrs. Hardcastle. Kate enjoys "French frippery" and the attributes of the town, much as her mother does. She is both calculating and scheming, posing as a maid and deceiving Marlow, causing him to fall in love with her.Miss Constance Neville – Niece of Mrs. Hardcastle, she is the woman whom Hastings intends to court. Constance despises her cousin Tony, she is heir to a large fortune of jewels, hence her aunt wants her to remain in the family and marry Tony; she is secretly an admirer of George Hastings however. Neville schemes with Hastings and Tony to get the jewels so she can then flee to France with her admirer; this is essentially one of the sub-plots of She Stoops to Conquer.Sir Charles Marlow – A minor character and father of Charles Marlow; he follows his son, a few hours behind. Unlike his son, he does not meet Tony Lumpkin in the Three Pigeons alehouse, 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 enjoys the follies of his son, but does not understand these initially. However, he is quite upset when his son treats Kate as a maid.She Stoops to Conquer, a 2003 video presentation recorded live on stage in Bath, Somerset, EnglandShe Stoops to Conquer, a 2008 television adaptation directed by Tony Britten and starring Tim Bell, Simon Butteriss, Judi Daykin and Mark Dexter