She Stoops to Conquer, like most comedies of its time, is a story about courtship and the obstacles couples overcome on their way to marriage. Unlike other plays, however, this play satirizes the exaggeratedly complex obstacles often faced by lovers in other dramas of the time, and emphasizes instead how an individual’s psychology can create impediments to developing a romantic relationship. Through the character of Marlow, who is unable to interact with women of his own class because he is so afraid of embarrassing himself, the play explores the battle that goes on inside someone who is anxious about courtship and marriage. In the end, the play provides solid dating advice: don’t be scared to be yourself, give new people a chance, and when trouble arises be sure to forgive and forget.
Many of the romantic comedies of the period were sentimental comedies: they often chronicled star-crossed lovers who were separated by tyrannical parents, class difference, and other dramatic obstacles. Goldsmith found these works overblown and a bit ridiculous, and made a point of deciding to write about three relatively normal couples in this play. Constance and Hastings love each other. They are of same class and were even given Constance’s father’s blessing before his death. However, Constance’s guardian Mrs. Hardcastle seeks to impede their marriage because she wants Constance to marry her son Tony, thereby keeping Constance’s inheritance in her family. In most melodramatic plays of this type, Constance would be likely to elope with Hastings, saying she would rather live in poverty with him than be rich without him. Constance undermines this convention, arguing quite practically that they will regret it later if they give up her fortune now. Even more unusual for the dramatic conventions of Goldsmith’s day, the two other couples have few real obstacles to marriage. Kate and Marlow both have parents who promise not to force them to marry anyone they do not like, and they are both from the same class. Marlow has plenty of money and his family doesn’t care that Kate doesn’t have as much. Their path to matrimony is almost comically clear. Similarly, Tony thinks that he is unable to marry the girl of his choice, Bet Bouncer, because he is not old enough to marry without his mother’s permission. When his stepfather informs him that he is actually older than he thought, all obstacles are removed.
The true obstacle to the central couple’s happy union is Marlow’s shyness. Marlow is afraid to court a woman he might actually like and respect because he fears rejection and humiliation. Rather than face the nerve-wracking process of pursuing a serious relationship, he turns to one-night stands with women he doesn’t care about. The women Marlow chooses for his one-night stands are lower-class women, whom he hits on aggressively and often pays to sleep with him. The sexual aggression of young, wealthy men towards poor women was common in 18th century England, and while such behavior would now certainly be seen as sexual harassment, assault, or prostitution, at the time people thought that “boys will be boys” and believed that the bad behavior would end once a man was happily married. This is certainly the expectation for Marlow, who says that what he really wants is a relationship with a respectable woman, but he is too nervous and self-conscious to pursue one. In his initial conversation with Kate, Marlow is so uncomfortable that he loses his normal eloquence and can hardly speak. Although he never looks at Kate for long enough to even see her face clearly, he comforts himself that she was not attractive and there was no opportunity wasted. By presenting herself first as a lowly barmaid, then as a housekeeper, and finally as a well-bred woman, Kate gradually draws Marlow out of his shell and learns about his personality and values in the process. She likes what she sees. Once Marlow learns that Kate is not likely to sleep with him on a whim, he speaks eloquently and shows that he has values which she shares. He expresses respect for her, and then love. Once Kate reveals her true identity to Marlow, she teases him for the two very different ways he treated her when he thought she was two different women. But this is the affectionate teasing of someone who likes a person and finds their faults endearing, not the mocking rejection he always feared.
In the end, the play drives home that the obstacles to intimacy within an individual can be just as challenging to overcome as the dramatic, external obstacles the world puts in love’s way. It shows that a courtship is often not a process of two fully formed and self-assured people finding each other and then fighting to be together. Instead, the play shows a character for whom the hardest part of falling in love is allowing someone he respects grow close enough to see who he really is.
Courtship and Love ThemeTracker
Courtship and Love Quotes in She Stoops to Conquer
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.
HASTINGS. 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 of stealing out of the room.
MARLOW. Why, man, that's because I do want to steal out of the room. Faith, I have often formed a resolution to break the ice, and rattle away at any rate. But I don't know how, a single glance from a pair of fine eyes has totally overset my resolution. An impudent fellow may counterfeit modesty; but I'll be hanged if a modest man can ever counterfeit impudence.
HASTINGS. If you could but say half the fine things to them that I have heard you lavish upon the bar-maid of an inn, or even a college bed-maker—
MARLOW. Why, George, I can't say fine things to them; they freeze, they petrify me. They may talk of a comet, or a burning mountain, or some such bagatelle; but, to me, a modest woman, drest out in all her finery, is the most tremendous object of the whole creation.
MARLOW. Yet, George, if we open the campaign too fiercely at first, we may want ammunition before it is over. I think to reserve the embroidery to secure a retreat.
HARDCASTLE. Your talking of a retreat, Mr. Marlow, puts me in mind of the Duke of Marlborough, when we went to besiege Denain. He first summoned the garrison——
MARLOW. Don't you think the ventre d'or waistcoat will do with the plain brown?
HARDCASTLE. He first summoned the garrison, which might consist of about five thousand men——
HASTINGS. I think not: brown and yellow mix but very poorly.
HARDCASTLE. I say, gentlemen, as I was telling you, be summoned the garrison, which might consist of about five thousand men——
MARLOW. The girls like finery.
HARDCASTLE. Which might consist of about five thousand men, well appointed with stores, ammunition, and other implements of war. Now, says the Duke of Marlborough to George Brooks, that stood next to him—you must have heard of George Brooks—I'll pawn my dukedom, says he, but I take that garrison without spilling a drop of blood. So——
MARLOW. What, my good friend, if you gave us a glass of punch in the mean time; it would help us to carry on the siege with vigour.
HARDCASTLE. Punch, sir! (Aside.) This is the most unaccountable kind of modesty I ever met with.
MARLOW. Perhaps so, madam. But I love to converse only with the more grave and sensible part of the sex. But I'm afraid I grow tiresome.
MISS HARDCASTLE. Not at all, sir; there is nothing I like so much as grave conversation myself; I could hear it for ever. Indeed, I have often been surprised how a man of sentiment could ever admire those light airy pleasures, where nothing reaches the heart.
MARLOW. It's——a disease——of the mind, madam. In the variety of tastes there must be some who, wanting a relish——for——um—a—um.
MISS HARDCASTLE. I understand you, sir. There must be some, who, wanting a relish for refined pleasures, pretend to despise what they are incapable of tasting.
MARLOW. My meaning, madam, but infinitely better expressed.
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.
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.)
HASTINGS. (To HARDCASTLE.) For my late attempt to fly off with your niece let my present confusion be my punishment. We are now come back, to appeal from your justice to your humanity. By her father’s consent, I first paid her my addresses, and our passions were first founded in duty.
MISS NEVILLE. Since his death, I have been obliged to stoop to dissimulation to avoid oppression. In an hour of levity, I was ready to give up my fortune to secure my choice. But I am now recovered from the delusion, and hope from your tenderness what is denied me from a nearer connection.
MRS. HARDCASTLE. Pshaw, pshaw! this is all but the whining end of a modern novel.