She Stoops to Conquer takes place in England in the 18th century, a time when British society was still rigidly divided along traditional class lines, but was in the midst of a geographic shift that complicated class distinctions, as both poor and rich were leaving rural areas in droves and moving to the cities. Although the upper class in the city was not technically superior to the upper class living in the countryside, urban aristocrats were seen as more sophisticated, refined, and fashionable than country-dwelling gentry. The gentry (like Hardcastle and his family) were seen as more rustic, and therefore closer in outlook to the lower classes, who had little education. She Stoops to Conquer is an extended interaction between city and country folks as well as between masters and servants, and through this extended interaction the play suggests that those who believe that greater wealth and status make them better or wiser than others are kidding themselves.
Throughout the play, members of the upper class attempt to assert their high status by treating those with a lower social status rudely, or even abusively. This behavior was not considered unusual or inappropriate in 18th century England, but in this play such behavior often backfires, making a fool of the person who acted highhandedly rather than the lower-class person being berated. Marlow in particular treats those he believes to be beneath him with contempt. He treats Hardcastle highhandedly when he believes him to be an innkeeper, interrupting his stories, ordering him around, and generally making himself at home in his house without asking permission to do so. Marlow’s eventual realization that he has been tricked by the rowdy country bumpkin Tony into thinking Hardcastle’s home is an inn is a victory for the countryside over the city—for, even though he is poorly educated and boorish, Tony has gotten one over on the well-educated, cosmopolitan Marlow, which shows that living in the city does not necessarily make someone more intelligent, clever, or sophisticated.
Feeling anxious that his home and family will fail to impress Marlow, Hardcastle sets out to make his high status clear by teaching his servants to be more servile before Marlow arrives. In a haughty and domineering lesson, which he peppers with insults, Hardcastle instructs his servants on how not to act like his equal in front of his guests. However, it’s clear that the relations between him and his servants are typically much more equal and collegial. When Diggory says that Hardcastle must be sure not to tell a certain particularly funny story if he wants the servants to keep from laughing, master and servants immediately share a nostalgic laugh, reflecting the warm relationship that they actually share. In this way, the play lightly mocks both Marlow and Hardcastle by showing how little a person gains by treating others as beneath them.
The play doesn’t simply poke fun at people who are pompous and disrespectful—it also models more egalitarian behavior. Kate in particular (an upper-class woman who pretends to be poor) embodies an unpretentious attitude that mixes the attributes of both country and city, while treating servants with respect. Kate shows an ability to flexibly move between the high and the low when she changes from the fashionable dress of rich, young, city-dwelling women into a more modest and practical dress. She also clearly feels no need to assert her superiority by abusing her servants, as evidenced by her congenial relationship with her handmaid, Pimple, through whom Kate learns that Marlow has mistaken her for a barmaid. Kate speaks confidingly to Pimple about her plan to deceive Marlow, showing her respect for Pimple. Kate also shows a remarkable flexibility in being able to convincingly act out the roles of women with three different social statuses. First, Kate pretends to be a very proper and upright woman, then she pretends to be a poor, uneducated barmaid, and finally she pretends to be a poor relative of the family who works as a housekeeper, but is just as well-born and well-educated as Kate. In each of these roles, Kate also manages to show her wit, her modesty, her sensitivity, and her capacity to love. By shapeshifting across class lines without any loss of her own personality or dignity, Kate shows that class is more of a performance than an innate reflection of a person’s worth.
She Stoops to Conquer is not advocating for a change in British class structure—if it were, Marlow would likely have had to face some retributive justice for his poor treatment of the lower class. Instead, this behavior is considered forgivable, but misguided. Therefore, rather than presenting a full-throated critique of the British class system, the play shows that outward expressions of superiority often make a fool of a person, and that class distinctions, while they shouldn’t necessarily be abolished, shouldn’t be taken too seriously, either.
Class and Geography ThemeTracker
Class and Geography Quotes in She Stoops to Conquer
MRS. HARDCASTLE. I vow, Mr. Hardcastle, you're very particular. Is there a creature in the whole country but ourselves, that does not take a trip to town now and then, to rub off the rust a little? There's the two Miss Hoggs, and our neighbour Mrs. Grigsby, go to take a month's polishing every winter.
HARDCASTLE. Ay, and bring back vanity and affectation to last them the whole year. I wonder why London cannot keep its own fools at home! In my time, the follies of the town crept slowly among us, but now they travel faster than a stage-coach. Its fopperies come down not only as inside passengers, but in the very basket.
MRS. HARDCASTLE. Ay, your times were fine times indeed; you have been telling us of them for many a long year. Here we live in an old rumbling mansion, that looks for all the world like an inn, but that we never see company. Our best visitors are old Mrs. Oddfish, the curate's wife, and little Cripplegate, the lame dancing-master; and all our entertainment your old stories of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough. I hate such old-fashioned trumpery.
HARDCASTLE. And I love it. I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine; and I believe, Dorothy (taking her hand), you'll own I have been pretty fond of an old wife.
HARDCASTLE. Diggory, you are too talkative.—Then, if I happen to say a good thing, or tell a good story at table, you must not all burst out a-laughing, as if you made part of the company.
DIGGORY. Then, ecod, your worship must not tell the story of Ould Grouse in the gun-room: I can't help laughing at that—he! he! he!—for the soul of me. We have laughed at that these twenty years—ha! ha! ha!
HARDCASTLE. Ha! ha! ha! The story is a good one. Well, honest Diggory, you may laugh at that—but still remember to be attentive. Suppose one of the company should call for a glass of wine, how will you behave? A glass of wine, sir, if you please (to DIGGORY).—Eh, why don't you move?
LANDLORD. There be two gentlemen in a post-chaise at the door. They have lost their way upo' the forest; and they are talking something about Mr. Hardcastle.
TONY. As sure as can be, one of them must be the gentleman that's coming down to court my sister. Do they seem to be Londoners?
LANDLORD. I believe they may. They look woundily like Frenchmen.
TONY. Then desire them to step this way, and I'll set them right in a twinkling. (Exit Landlord.) Gentlemen, as they mayn't be good enough company for you, step down for a moment, and I'll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon. [Exeunt MOB.]
TONY. No offence; but question for question is all fair, you know. Pray, gentlemen, is not this same Hardcastle a cross-grained, old-fashioned, whimsical fellow, with an ugly face, a daughter, and a pretty son?
HASTINGS. We have not seen the gentleman; but he has the family you mention.
TONY. The daughter, a tall, trapesing, trolloping, talkative maypole; the son, a pretty, well-bred, agreeable youth, that everybody is fond of.
MARLOW. Our information differs in this. The daughter is said to be well-bred and beautiful; the son an awkward booby, reared up and spoiled at his mother's apron-string.
TONY. He-he-hem!—Then, gentlemen, all I have to tell you is, that you won't reach Mr. Hardcastle's house this night, I believe.
TONY. It's a damn'd long, dark, boggy, dirty, dangerous way. Stingo, tell the gentlemen the way to Mr. Hardcastle's! (Winking upon the Landlord.) Mr. Hardcastle's, of Quagmire Marsh, you understand me.
HASTINGS. You have lived very much among them. In truth, I have been often surprised, that you who have seen so much of the world, with your natural good sense, and your many opportunities, could never yet acquire a requisite share of assurance.
MARLOW. The Englishman's malady. But tell me, George, where could I have learned that assurance you talk of? My life has been chiefly spent in a college or an inn, in seclusion from that lovely part of the creation that chiefly teach men confidence. I don't know that I was ever familiarly acquainted with a single modest woman—except my mother—But among females of another class, you know—
HASTINGS. Ay, among them you are impudent enough of all conscience.
MARLOW. They are of us, you know.
HARDCASTLE. If he be what he has shown himself, I'm determined he shall never have my consent.
MISS HARDCASTLE. And if he be the sullen thing I take him, he shall never have mine.
HARDCASTLE. In one thing then we are agreed—to reject him.
MISS HARDCASTLE. Yes: but upon conditions. For if you should find him less impudent, and I more presuming—if you find him more respectful, and I more importunate—I don't know—the fellow is well enough for a man—Certainly, we don't meet many such at a horse-race in the country.
HARDCASTLE. If we should find him so——But that's impossible. The first appearance has done my business. I'm seldom deceived in that.
MISS HARDCASTLE. And yet there may be many good qualities under that first appearance.
HARDCASTLE. Ay, when a girl finds a fellow's outside to her taste, she then sets about guessing the rest of his furniture. With her, a smooth face stands for good sense, and a genteel figure for every virtue.
MISS HARDCASTLE. I hope, sir, a conversation begun with a compliment to my good sense, won't end with a sneer at my understanding?
HARDCASTLE. Pardon me, Kate. But if young Mr. Brazen can find the art of reconciling contradictions, he may please us both, perhaps.
MISS HARDCASTLE. Did he? Then as I live, I'm resolved to keep up the delusion. Tell me, Pimple, how do you like my present dress? Don't you think I look something like Cherry in the Beaux Stratagem?
MAID. It's the dress, madam, that every lady wears in the country, but when she visits or receives company.
MISS HARDCASTLE. And are you sure he does not remember my face or person?
MAID. Certain of it.
MISS HARDCASTLE. I vow, I thought so; for, though we spoke for some time together, yet his fears were such, that he never once looked up during the interview. Indeed, if he had, my bonnet would have kept him from seeing me.
MAID. But what do you hope from keeping him in his mistake?
MISS HARDCASTLE. In the first place I shall be seen, and that is no small advantage to a girl who brings her face to market. Then I shall perhaps make an acquaintance, and that's no small victory gained over one who never addresses any but the wildest of her sex. But my chief aim is, to take my gentleman off his guard, and, like an invisible champion of romance, examine the giant's force before I offer to combat.
MARLOW. So then, all's out, and I have been damnably imposed on. O, confound my stupid head, I shall be laughed at over the whole town. I shall be stuck up in caricatura in all the print-shops. The Dullissimo Macaroni. To mistake this house of all others for an inn, and my father's old friend for an innkeeper! What a swaggering puppy must he take me for! What a silly puppy do I find myself! There again, may I be hanged, my dear, but I mistook you for the bar-maid!
MISS HARDCASTLE. I hope, sir, I have done nothing to disoblige you. I'm sure I should be sorry to affront any gentleman who has been so polite, and said so many civil things to me. I'm sure I should be sorry (pretending to cry) if he left the family upon my account. I'm sure I should be sorry if people said anything amiss, since I have no fortune but my character.
MARLOW. (Aside.) By Heaven! she weeps. This is the first mark of tenderness I ever had from a modest woman, and it touches me. (To her.) Excuse me, my lovely girl; you are the only part of the family I leave with reluctance. But to be plain with you, the difference of our birth, fortune, and education, makes an honourable connexion impossible; and I can never harbour a thought of seducing simplicity that trusted in my honour, of bringing ruin upon one whose only fault was being too lovely.
MISS HARDCASTLE. (Aside). Generous man! I now begin to admire him.
MISS HARDCASTLE. Then go, sir: I'll urge nothing more to detain you. Though my family be as good as hers you came down to visit, and my education, I hope, not inferior, what are these advantages without equal affluence? I must remain contented with the slight approbation of imputed merit; I must have only the mockery of your addresses, while all your serious aims are fixed on fortune.
Enter HARDCASTLE and SIR CHARLES from behind.
SIR CHARLES. Here, behind this screen.
HARDCASTLE. Ay, ay; make no noise. I'll engage my Kate covers him with confusion at last.
MARLOW. By heavens, madam, fortune was ever my smallest consideration. Your beauty at first caught my eye; for who could see that without emotion? But every moment that I converse with you, steals in some new grace, heightens the picture, and gives it stronger expression. What at first seemed rustic plainness, now appears refined simplicity. What seemed forward assurance, now strikes me as the result of courageous innocence, and conscious virtue.
MISS HARDCASTLE. Yes, sir, that very identical tall squinting lady you were pleased to take me for. (Curtseying.) She that you addressed as the mild, modest, sentimental man of gravity, and the bold, forward, agreeable Rattle of the Ladies' Club. Ha! ha! ha!
MARLOW. Zounds! there's no bearing this; it's worse than death!
MISS HARDCASTLE. In which of your characters, sir, will you give us leave to address you? As the faltering gentleman, with looks on the ground, that speaks just to be heard, and hates hypocrisy; or the loud confident creature, that keeps it up with Mrs. Mantrap, and old Miss Biddy Buckskin, till three in the morning? Ha! ha! ha!
MARLOW. O, curse on my noisy head. I never attempted to be impudent yet, that I was not taken down. I must be gone.
HARDCASTLE. By the hand of my body, but you shall not. I see it was all a mistake, and I am rejoiced to find it. You shall not, sir, I tell you. I know she'll forgive you. Won't you forgive him, Kate? We'll all forgive you. Take courage, man. (They retire, she tormenting him, to the back scene.)