Back to: LITERATURE IN ENGLISH SS2
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In today’s class, we will be talking about reading and textual analysis of non-African drama: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. Enjoy the class!
Reading and Textual Analysis of Non-African Drama: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
The plot of this play centres on the misunderstandings encountered by Marlow on his way to the home of Mr Hardcastle where he intends to meet with his proposed wife. Sir Charles Marlow had made plans for his son to marry the daughter of his friend, Mr Hard castle. He sends Marlow in the company of his friend, Hastings, to Hardcastle’s house as an advance team with the hope of joining them later. The visitors missed their way. They meet Tony Lumpkin, a member of the Hardcastle’s family. He is aware of their mission but mischievously directs them wrongly because he has an axe to grind with the step-father. He directs them to the house as an inn. In the supposed inn, Marlow and Hastings behave differently. Mr and Mrs Hardcatle are disappointed at the behaviour exhibited by their much-cherished future son-in-law. But Kate has a different opinion of Marlow. She has related to Marlow in two capacities within the short time they had stayed in the inn. Marlow is flirtatious with her when she disguises as a barmaid.
Meanwhile, Constance Nelly, Mrs Hardcastle’s cousin, discovers the mistake of Marlow and Hastings. They thought they are in an inn. Kate Nelly and Hastings conspire to keep the information from Marlow. Nelly is in love with Hastings and plans to elope with him. But Mrs Hardcastle was grooming her for her son, Tony. This is because she wants the jewels of Nelly to remain in the family. Tony does not like the idea. He offers to help Hastings elope with Nelly. He steals the jewels from her mother’s drawers and gives it to Hastings. Hastings gives the stolen jewels to Marlow for safekeeping but he mistakenly gives it to a servant who gives to Mrs Hardcastle. The situation is messed up when Hastings’ letter about the elopement plan gets to Mrs Hardcastle. She is angry and decides to take Nelly to her aunt in London. Tony foils the plan by driving around the house. With Nelly, Hastings decides to appeal to Mr Hardcastle. Marlow is still ignorant of the relationship between him and Kate. At the end of the play, the mistake of the night is revealed as Sir Charles and Hardcastle come to the rescue.
CHARACTERIZATION AND THEMES IN THE WORK
- Young Charles Marlow is a major character in the play. He is a friend of Hastings. He is not a stable character. He is in love with Kate.
- Hastings is a friend of Marlow and future husband of Nelly. He plans to elope with her.
- Miss Kate Hardcastle is the daughter of Mr and Mrs Hardcastle. She is the character that stoops to conquer her true love, Marlow.
- Mr Hardcastle is the patriarch of the Hardcastle’s family. He has planned to give the hand of the daughter to Sir Charles’ son, Marlow.
- Mrs Hardcastle is the mother of Tony and Kate. She is materialistic and inconsiderate.
- Tony Lumpkin is the son of Mrs Hardcastle. He is mischievous and uneducated.
- Miss Constance Nelly is an orphan and niece to Mrs Hardcastle.
- Sir Charles Marlow is the father of young Marlow and an old friend of Mr Hardcastle.
- Diggery is the Hardcastle’s head servant.
- Jeremy is Marlow’s servant.
THEMES IN THE WORK
She Stoops to Conquer has a variety of themes. Appearance versus Reality permeates the play because the main character Marlow can only feel comfortable in his own skin when he is the company of people who are not his peers.
Since Marlow cannot accept his reality, and he needs “the look” of something to find his comfort zone, it is safe to argue that he is guided by the appearance of lower-class folk rather than by the real personality of people.
This theme is also evident in the way that Kate had to transform herself to get to Marlow. When she “stoops” and poses as a barmaid to get to know Marlow’s real personality the roles become reversed and it is she who is basically fooling him.
Similarly, other characters seem to break with the expected social conventions that make men and women behave in a very specific way during courtship. This means that they adopt a personality in public and another personality in person. For example, Kate acts quite proper as her father tells her, but once this ends she is committing the unthinkable by actively pursuing Marlow. Again, this is indicative of the false versus real personalities that the characters adopt.
Other sub-themes include courtship, social conventions, gender roles, and family relationships, but notice how the theme of appearance and reality still affects these subtopics because the basic problem of the play, which is to bring Marlow and Kate together, can only occur when one of them adopts a fake persona.
While the play is not explicitly a tract on class, the theme is central to it. The decisions the characters make and their perspectives on one another, are all largely based on what class they are a part of. Where Tony openly loves low-class people like the drunks in the Three Pigeons, Marlow must hide his love of low-class women from his father and “society.” His dynamic relationship with Kate (and the way he treats her) is defined by who he thinks she is at the time – from high-class Kate to a poor barmaid to a woman from a good family but with no fortune. Hastings’ and Marlow’s reaction to Hardcastle is also a great example of the importance of class—they find him impudent and absurd because they believe him to be of low class, but his behaviour would be perfectly reasonable and expected from a member of the upper class, as he truly is.
One of the factors that keep the play pragmatic even when it veers close to contrivance and sentiment is the unavoidable importance of money. While some of the characters, like Marlow and Hardcastle, are mostly unconcerned with questions of money, there are several characters whose lives are largely defined by a lack of access to it. Constance cannot run away with Hastings because she worries about a life without her inheritance. When Marlow thinks Kate is a poor relation of the Hardcastle’s, he cannot get himself to propose because of her lack of dowry.
And Tony seems to live a life unconcerned with wealth, although the implicit truth is that his dalliances are facilitated by having access to wealth.
One of the elements Goldsmith most skewers in his play’s satirical moments is the aristocratic emphasis on behaviour as a gauge of character. Even though we today believe that one’s behaviour – in terms of “low” versus “high” class behaviour – does not necessarily indicate who someone is, many characters in the play are often blinded to a character’s behaviour because of an assumption. For instance, Marlow and Hastings treat Hardcastle cruelly because they think him the landlord of an inn, and are confused by his behaviour, which seems forward. The same behaviour would have seemed appropriately high-class if they hadn’t been fooled by Tony. Throughout the play, characters (especially Marlow) assume they understand someone’s behaviour when what truly guides them is their assumption of the other character’s class.
Throughout the play runs a conflict between the refined attitudes of town and the simple behaviours of the country. The importance of this theme is underscored by the fact that it is the crux of the opening disagreement between Hardcastle and his wife. Where country characters like Hardcastle see town manners as pretentious, town characters like Marlow see country manners as bumpkinish. The best course of action is proposed through Kate, who is praised by Marlow as having a “refined simplicity.” Having lived in town, she can appreciate the values of both sides of life and can find happiness in appreciating the contradictions that exist between them.
Most characters in the play want others to be simple to understand. This in many ways mirrors the expectations of an audience that Goldsmith wishes to mock. Where his characters are initially presented as comic types, he spends time throughout the play complicating them all by showing their contradictions. Most clear are the contradictions within Marlow, who is both refined and base. The final happy ending comes when the two oldest men – Hardcastle and Sir Charles – decide to accept the contradictions in their children. In a sense, this theme helps to understand Goldsmith’s purpose in the play, reminding us that all people are worthy of being mocked because of their silly, base natures, and no one is above reproach.
Though it is only explicitly referred to in the prologue, an understanding of Goldsmith’s play in context shows his desire to reintroduce his audience to the “laughing comedy” that derived from a long history of comedy that mocks human vice. This type of comedy stands in contrast to the then-popular “sentimental comedy” that praised virtues and reinforced bourgeois mentality. Understanding Goldsmith’s love of the former helps to clarify several elements of the play: the low scene in the Three Pigeons; the mockery of baseness in even the most high-bred characters; and the celebration of absurdity as a fact of human life.
Much of this play’s comedy comes from the trickery played by various characters. The most important deceits come from Tony, including his lie about Hardcastle’s home and his scheme of driving his mother and Constance around in circles. However, deceit also touches to the centre of the play’s more major themes. In a sense, the only reason anyone learns anything about their deep assumptions about class and behaviour is that they are duped into seeing characters in different ways. This truth is most clear with Marlow and his shifting perspective on Kate, but it also is true for the Hardcastle’s and Sir Charles, who can see the contradictions in others because of what trickery engenders.
LANGUAGE AND STYLE IN THE PLAY
- Comedy of manners: The play is a comedy of manners which is set in polite society. The comedy arises from the gap between the characters’ attempt to preserve standards of polite behaviour that contrasts to their true behaviour. While She Stoops to Conquer contains elements of farce. Its comedy also stems from poking fun at the manner and conventions of the aristocratic, sophisticated society.
- Satire: Alternatively, it can be seen as a satire, where characters are either ludicrous or eccentric. Such comedy might leave the impression that the characters are either too foolish or corrupt to ever reform, hence Mrs Hardcastle.
- Foreshowing: Goldsmith uses foreshadowing to create expectations and explain consequent developments. For example, Mrs Hardcastle in act one describes their house as “an old rumbling mansion that looks for the world like an inn” (p. 1). This helps the audience to understand what gave Tony the idea for his practical joke.
- Dramatic irony: Being a device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the drama is unaware of, thus placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. From a close study of the text, abundant use of irony is seen.
- Prologue and epilogue: The prologue in the play is used to prepare the audience and guide their expectations. The epilogue gives a concluding statement.
- Considered the drama as a mistake of a night.
- Analyze the plot of the work.
In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Analyzing African Poetry: “Vanity” by Birago Diop. We hope you enjoyed the class.
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