An improbable series of deceptions and misunderstandings about characters’ identities propels the plot of She Stoops to Conquer, and at the center of these deceptions is the protagonist Marlow’s mistaken belief that the Hardcastle family—an elite family he hopes to impress—are lowly innkeepers. As a comedy of manners, the play uses its deceptions to bring its most pretentious and uppity characters down to earth by stripping them of their pompous self-assurance. More than simply humiliating these characters, however, the play’s deceptions prompt them to realize that they have misjudged themselves and their surroundings. Most notably, Marlow’s rude and condescending treatment of the Hardcastles provides all the play’s upper-class characters an opportunity to become less vain and affected. Thus, deception somewhat paradoxically enables them to see themselves and others for who they truly are.
Throughout the play, seemingly harmless tricks and trivial mistakes accumulate into a tangled mess of misunderstandings. For example, for the greater part of the play, Marlow mistakenly thinks Hardcastle is an innkeeper and treats him as an inferior. Hardcastle, who thinks that Marlow has come to his home to woo his daughter, is understandably shocked and confused by his guest’s rude and inappropriate behavior. This misunderstanding is played for comedic effect, particularly as Hardcastle (who views himself as wise, venerable, and dignified) struggles to make sense of Marlow’s insults. Toward the end of the play, Tony tricks his mother into believing that they are forty miles away in a dangerous neighborhood (when in fact they are in their backyard), which pokes fun at Mrs. Hardcastle’s naïveté and privilege, as the prank reveals that she is unable to recognize her own backyard.
Not every act of deception in the play is lighthearted, but even tricks that are meant to manipulate others are always revealed before serious harm is done. Mrs. Hardcastle pretends that Constance’s inherited jewelry has been lost because she wants to manipulate Constance into marrying Tony, thereby keeping the jewelry in her family. Tony, however, saves Constance from ruin by pulling her aside to reassure her of the jewelry’s whereabouts. Mrs. Hardcastle also deceives Tony about his own age so that she can keep him under her control and continue to pressure him to marry Constance, but when Hardcastle recognizes the unfair way his wife is manipulating her son, he instantly tells Tony the truth. That none of the play’s many tricks ever gets out of hand ensures that the play’s tone remains lighthearted (it is a comedy, after all), and allows the moral lessons that the characters learn to resonate more, since they’re not too hurt in the process of learning.
The connection between deception, mistakes, and moral lessons is made clearest through Marlow, whose social and romantic life is crippled due by his shyness and his vain fear of embarrassment. Through being tricked into believing that Sir Hardcastle’s home is an inn and subsequently mistaking Kate for a barmaid, Marlow humiliates himself publicly, which paradoxically cures him of his worst flaws. Although publicly humiliating Marlow in this way is somewhat cruel (particularly since this is a deep fear of his), the play never casts judgement on those who deceive him, as their actions are lighthearted and not meant to be cruel. For example, when Tony tricks Marlow and Hastings into believing that Sir Hardcastle’s home is an inn, he simply means to get the better of the men (whom he sees as uppity fops from the city) and to pull a funny prank on his stepfather in the process, not to hurt either of them. Though Hastings quickly learns of the deception, he decides to allow Marlow to persist in the misunderstanding because he fears Marlow will be too embarrassed if he learns the truth, and Marlow is unable to cope with embarrassment. This is an ambiguous moral choice, however, since Hastings—who is Marlow’s closest friend—knows that Marlow has come on this visit for the sole purpose of impressing the Hardcastles and will make a fool of himself if he goes on believing they are innkeepers. Hastings’ choice is ultimately vindicated, though, because allowing Marlow to behave in an embarrassing way for so long enables him to finally overcome his own shyness and vanity. Similarly, Kate fooling Marlow into believing that she is a barmaid could be seen as a cruel and humiliating prank, but Kate’s intentions are good. As Kate wants to woo Marlow, but Marlow’s fear of embarrassment leaves him too intimidated by upper-class women to get to know them, she realizes that she can only get his attention by deceiving him about her class background. Unlike Tony, who deceived Marlow as a prank, Kate allows him to continue in his misconception because she believes (correctly) that this it will ultimately lead to his learning something important about himself—namely, that he has feelings for her and wants to marry her.
Ultimately, the sustained ordeal of Marlow’s public embarrassment—which is itself the result of a whole host of mistakes and deceptions—makes him a better person, as he is finally able to laugh at himself and stop living in terror of embarrassment. Although he has behaved rudely to both Kate and her father, they are both willing to look past these mistakes and focus on his positive qualities, which are newly and abundantly self-evident. The family’s certainty that Marlow is worthy of Kate suggests that Marlow’s experiences of deception and embarrassment have benefited him by teaching him to open up to a woman he respects and enabling her to help him become a better version of himself.
Mistakes and Deceptions ThemeTracker
Mistakes and Deceptions Quotes in She Stoops to Conquer
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.