She Stoops to Conquer

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1905: Kyrle Bellew and Eleanor Robson in a scene from She Stoops to Conquer.
1971: Juliet Mills and Tom Courtenay in a BBC production of the play.

She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy by Oliver Goldsmith, first performed in London in 1773. The play is a favourite for study by English literature and theatre classes in the English-speaking world. It is one of the few plays from the 18th century to have retained its appeal and is regularly performed. The play has been adapted into a film several times, including in 1914 and 1923. Initially the play was titled Mistakes of a Night and the events within the play take place in one long night. In 1778, John O'Keeffe wrote a loose sequel, Tony Lumpkin in Town.


Wealthy countryman Mr. Hardcastle arranges for his daughter Kate to meet Marlow, the son of a rich Londoner, hoping the pair will marry. Unfortunately, Marlow prefers lower-class women, finding them less intimidating than women of high society. On his first acquaintance with Kate, the latter realises she will have to pretend to be 'common' to get Marlow to woo her. Thus Kate 'stoops to conquer', by posing as a maid, hoping to put Marlow at his ease so he falls for her. Marlow sets out for Mr. Hardcastle's manor with a friend, George Hastings, an admirer of Miss Constance Neville, another young lady who lives with the Hardcastles. During the journey the two men get lost and stop at an alehouse, The Three Jolly Pigeons, for directions.8

Tony Lumpkin, Kate's step-brother and Constance's cousin, comes across the two strangers at the alehouse and realising their identity, plays a practical joke by telling them that they are a long way from their destination and will have to stay overnight at an inn. The "inn" he directs them to is in fact the home of the Hardcastles. When they arrive, the Hardcastles, who have been expecting them, go out of their way to make them welcome. Marlow and Hastings, believing themselves in an inn, behave extremely disdainfully towards their hosts. Hardcastle bears their unwitting insults with forbearance, because of his friendship with Marlow's father.

Kate learns of her suitor's shyness from Constance and a servant tells her about Tony's trick. She decides to masquerade as a serving-maid (changing her accent and garb) to get to know him. Marlow falls in love with her and plans to elope but because she appears of a lower class, acts in a somewhat bawdy manner around her. All misunderstandings are resolved by the end, thanks to an appearance by Sir Charles Marlow.

The main sub-plot concerns the secret romance between Constance and Hastings. Constance needs her jewels, an inheritance, guarded by Tony's mother, Mrs. Hardcastle, who wants Constance to marry her son, to keep the jewels in the family. Tony despises the thought of marrying Constance — he prefers a barmaid at the alehouse — and so agrees to steal the jewels from his mother's safekeeping for Constance, so she can elope to France with Hastings. The play concludes with Kate's plan succeeding, she and Marlow become engaged. Tony discovers his mother has lied about his being "of age" and thus entitled to his inheritance. He refuses to marry Constance, who is then eligible to receive her jewels and become engaged to Hastings, which she does.[1]


The original production premiered in London at Covent Garden Theatre on 15 March 1773 with Mary Bulkley as Constantia Hardcastle,[2] and was an immediate success.[3] Lionel Brough is supposed to have played Tony Lumpkin 777 times.[citation needed] Lillie Langtry had her first big success in this play in 1881.[citation needed]

Perhaps one of the most famous modern incarnations of She Stoops to Conquer was Peter Hall's version, staged in 1993 and starring Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Hardcastle.[according to whom?] The most famous TV production is the 1971 version featuring Ralph Richardson, Tom Courtenay, Juliet Mills, and Brian Cox, with Trevor Peacock as Tony Lumpkin. Courtenay, Mills and Peacock also performed in this play at The Garrick Theatre, London, in 1969. The 1971 version was shot on location near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and is part of the BBC archive. This play was one of 13 BBC productions that formed the series called Classic Theatre, the Humanities in Drama. The series was funded in the U.S. by the N.E.H. and used as a study aid on video tape by thousands of U.S. students.

Type of comedy[edit]

When the play was first produced, it was discussed as an example of the revival of laughing comedy over the sentimental comedy seen as dominant on the English stage since the success of The Conscious Lovers, written by Sir Richard Steele in 1722. In the same year, an essay in a London magazine, entitled "An Essay on the Theatre; Or, A Co Laughing And Sentimental Comedy", suggested that sentimental comedy, a false form of comedy, had taken over the boards from the older and more truly comic laughing comedy.

Some theatre historians believe that the essay was written by Goldsmith as a puff piece for She Stoops to Conquer as an exemplar of the laughing comedy which Goldsmith (perhaps) had touted. Goldsmith's name was linked with that of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, as standard-bearers for the resurgent laughing comedy.[citation needed]

The play can also be seen as a comedy of manners, in which, in a polite society setting, the comedy arises from the gap between the characters' attempts to preserve standards of polite behaviour and their true behaviour.[citation needed] It is also seen by some scholars as a romantic comedy, which demonstrates how seriously young people take love, and how foolishly it makes them behave, (similar to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream). In She Stoops to Conquer, Kate's stooping and Marlow's nervousness are good examples of romantic comedy, and Constance Neville's and George Hastings' love and plan to elope are also examples of romantic comedy.[citation needed]


The title refers to Kate's ruse of pretending to be a barmaid to reach her goal. It originates in the poetry of Dryden, which Goldsmith may have seen misquoted by Lord Chesterfield. In Chesterfield's version, the lines in question read: "The prostrate lover, when he lowest lies, But stoops to conquer, and but kneels to rise."


  • Charles Marlow – The central male character, who has set out to court the young attractive Kate Hardcastle. A well-educated man, "bred a scholar", Marlow is brash and rude to Mr. Hardcastle, owner of "Liberty Hall" (a reference to another site in London), whom Marlow believes to be an innkeeper. Marlow is sophisticated and has travelled the world. Around working-class women Marlow is a lecherous rogue, but around those of an upper-class card he is a nervous, bumbling fool.
  • George Hastings – Friend of Charles Marlow and the admirer of Miss Constance Neville. Hastings is an educated man who cares deeply about Constance, with the intention of fleeing to France with her.
  • Tony Lumpkin – Son of Mrs Hardcastle and stepson to Mr Hardcastle, Tony is a mischievous, uneducated playboy.
  • Mr. Hardcastle – The father of Kate Hardcastle but he is mistaken by Marlow and Hastings as an innkeeper.
  • Mrs. Hardcastle – Wife to Mr. Hardcastle and mother to Tony, Mrs. Hardcastle is a corrupt and eccentric character. She is an over-protective mother to Tony, whom she loves, but fails to tell him he's of age so that he is eligible to receive £1,500 a year.
  • Miss Kate Hardcastle – Daughter to Mr. Hardcastle, and the play's stooping-to-conquer heroine.
  • Miss Constance Neville – Niece of Mrs. Hardcastle, she is the woman whom Hastings intends to court.
  • Sir Charles Marlow – A minor character and father of Charles Marlow; he follows his son, a few hours behind.


Goldsmith's friend and contemporary, Samuel Johnson greatly admired the play. James Boswell quoted him as saying, "I know of no comedy for many years that has so much exhilarated an audience that it has answered so much the great end of comedy – making an audience merry".[4]


There have been a number of film and television adaptations of the play over the years:

The play was adapted as an opera by George Macfarren.[6]


  1. ^ She Stoops to Conquer, New Mermaids edition
  2. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Bulkley née Wilford; other married name Barresford, Mary, by John Levitt
  3. ^ The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21), Volume X. The Age of Johnson, IX. Oliver Goldsmith, § 23 She Stoops to Conquer. Retrieved 21 May 2009.
  4. ^ James Boswell; Roger Ingpen (1791). The Life of Samuel Johnson. Hutchinson. p. 179.
  5. ^ Billington, Michael (28 March 2011). "The Kissing Dance – review". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
  6. ^ "Victorian English Opera Macfarren Page". Retrieved 14 November 2018.

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