As is typical of a comedy of manners, She Stoops to Conquer satirizes its characters’ rigid adherence to contemporary fashions by showing characters who exaggeratedly embody a number of different cultural trends. In the same way that people poke fun at the hipster subculture today, Goldsmith takes aim at the hipster of the 1770s through the character of Marlow the “macaroni”—a fashion-obsessed, travel-obsessed, manneristic type of young man often caricatured at the time. The play also skewers Tony Lumpkin (the country bumpkin), Hardcastle (the old-fashioned and long-winded veteran), and the status-obsessed Mrs. Hardcastle. The various characters’ obsessions with trends ultimately doesn’t serve them well at all, and in several instances creates hardship. Through its most well-adjusted characters (Kate and Hastings), the play suggests that individuals should intelligently weigh the fashions and tastes of the day and flexibly adopt only those parts of the culture that truly fit their situations.
Whether a character is fixated on old-fashioned ways or newfangled styles, the play demonstrates that fixation on any kind of fashion makes people too self-obsessed to pay adequate attention to their surroundings. The play’s two fashion-forward characters, Mrs. Hardcastle and Marlow, often fail to understand what is going on right in front of them. While Mrs. Hardcastle doesn’t visit the cities, she tries to keep up with the fashions described in magazines and asks the advice of her better-travelled friends. A desire to travel to fashionable places outside of the countryside becomes a fixation that keeps her from taking in her surroundings, so when Mrs. Hardcastle’s son Tony drives her in circles around her own house, he is able to trick her into believing she is forty miles away from home in a dangerous area. Marlow, however, has travelled far and wide and he tries to dress to impress by copying the latest fashions. But when he is actually face to face with Kate (the woman his exquisite garments are meant to impress), he is too self-conscious to even look at her face and gauge if he likes her.
However, the play’s characters who adhere to old-fashioned dress and manners are equally silly and unable to handle the world as those who are obsessed with newfangled styles, which shows that any rigid focus on style can make a person seem ridiculous. Hardcastle hasn’t renovated his house and he wears an old-fashioned wig. The old-fashioned style of his house is partially why Hastings and Marlow mistake the home for an inn, and the old-fashioned style of his wig allows him to be the butt of his stepson Tony’s practical jokes. Mr. Hardcastle’s immersion in old ways of doing things doesn’t just make him mockable—it also makes him insensitive to the world around him. He is withdrawn from the political concerns that most men of his class take an interest in, and he refuses to leave his home to travel, instead burying himself in memories of the good old days when he fought in the War of Spanish Succession. He insists on telling the same stories about his experience during the war, even though his listeners are bored with them. Mr. Hardcastle’s old-fashioned attitudes are eccentric for a man who could play a powerful role in the world of his day, so it is no stretch for Marlow to take him for an innkeeper suffering from delusions of grandeur.
While characters who are fixated on new and old styles are shown to be unaware of the world around them, characters who have no interest in matters of style at all are slightly more aware, but also socially dysfunctional. The rustic Tony Lumpkin is barely literate and he offends his step-father with his boorish, rude behavior, but he is able to get the best of characters like his mother and Marlow, because he has innate intelligence and is not distracted from reality by the vain concerns of the fashionable. However, the play is not advocating that everyone become ill-mannered and uneducated. Tony’s provincialism and lack of awareness lead him to be kept under his mother’s thumb, because he doesn’t know that he has already come of age and can collect his inheritance.
Being able to balance an interest in the trends of the present day with an appreciation for the old-fashioned is the hallmark of characters who are good judges of their surroundings, which suggests that people are best-served by maintaining a more moderate relationship to the ever-changing fashions of the day. Mr. Hastings is well-dressed, but he does not take himself or his personal style so seriously that he cannot pay attention to more important things, like wooing the woman he loves. He makes light jokes about the fashion-obsessed people around him, but does not take their concerns to heart. Kate represents the play’s ideal for how an individual should relate to the tastes of her time. She blends an interest in the current fashions with an awareness of the value of tradition, wearing the clothes popular among people of her own age in the morning and the clothes her father prefers at night. When she discovers that her old-fashioned clothing has led Marlow to take her for a barmaid, she turns the situation to her advantage, and, in each of their next encounters, she gradually shifts the persona she is playing until she has won Marlow’s heart.
In poking fun at the ways people do or don’t adhere to fashions, the play emphasizes the importance of individual judgment. It suggests that individuals should follow trends that interest them, and ignore the ones that hold no appeal. Regardless of whether people draw the image of their ideal selves from fashion magazines, they should remember that relationships are more important than being fashionable or maintaining traditions. An awareness of other people and a responsiveness to situations as they unfold should never be sacrificed in the name of trying to play a role.
Fashions and Tastes ThemeTracker
Fashions and Tastes 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.
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. 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.
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.
HARDCASTLE. I tell you, sir, I'm serious! and now that my passions are roused, I say this house is mine, sir; this house is mine, and I command you to leave it directly.
MARLOW. Ha! ha! ha! A puddle in a storm. I shan't stir a step, I assure you. (In a serious tone.) This your house, fellow! It's my house. This is my house. Mine, while I choose to stay. What right have you to bid me leave this house, sir? I never met with such impudence, curse me; never in my whole life before.
HARDCASTLE. Nor I, confound me if ever I did. To come to my house, to call for what he likes, to turn me out of my own chair, to insult the family, to order his servants to get drunk, and then to tell me, This house is mine, sir. By all that's impudent, it makes me laugh. Ha! ha! ha! Pray, sir (bantering), as you take the house, what think you of taking the rest of the furniture? There's a pair of silver candlesticks, and there's a fire-screen, and here's a pair of brazen-nosed bellows; perhaps you may take a fancy to them?
MARLOW. Bring me your bill, sir; bring me your bill, and let's make no more words about it.
HARDCASTLE. There are a set of prints, too. What think you of the Rake's Progress, for your own apartment?
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. 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.