Oliver Goldsmith’s comedic masterpiece, “She Stoops to Conquer,” has long stirred debates among critics regarding its classification as a true comedy or a farce. In the eyes of prominent figures like Horace Walpole and Dr. Johnson, this play posed a conundrum because of its seemingly improbable situations. Farce, often considered a form of low comedy, aims to elicit uproarious, physical laughter through exaggerated circumstances and clownish antics. In contrast, pure comedy stimulates more measured intellectual laughter, frequently rooted in wit and humor, and often carries a more profound purpose. While “She Stoops to Conquer” undoubtedly displays some farcical elements, a closer examination reveals that it primarily aligns with the conventions of pure comedy.
The Farcical Elements:
“She Stoops to Conquer” undeniably contains some farcical elements, as evidenced by three improbable situations within the play:
Marlow’s Mistaken Identity:
One of the most notable farcical moments occurs when Marlow, an educated Londoner, mistakes Mr. Hardcastle’s house for an inn and the sophisticated Kate for a barmaid. This situation strains credulity. How could a man of Marlow’s background make such an egregious error? However, Goldsmith employs subtle justifications to render this farce plausible. Mrs. Hardcastle, in the opening scene, complains that their “old rumbling mansion” resembles an inn, providing a reasonable basis for Marlow’s confusion. Furthermore, Marlow’s comment that many antique houses become, in essence, inns to finance their upkeep adds an additional layer of justification. This seemingly farcical situation is thus given a degree of plausibility.
Mrs. Hardcastle’s Delusion:
Another farcical incident involves Mrs. Hardcastle, who mistakenly believes she is in a notorious location far from her home and that her husband is a highwayman. While this might appear farcical at first glance, it becomes more believable within the context of the play. Mrs. Hardcastle’s initial complaint about the state of her “mansion” and Marlow’s reference to antique houses again set the stage for this delusion. Moreover, Marlow’s disinterest in Kate during their encounter contributes to the plausibility of Mrs. Hardcastle’s actions. The dark and chaotic night further amplifies the chances of such a ludicrous mistake.
Tony’s Literary Endeavors:
The final farcical element revolves around Tony, a country bumpkin with limited literacy skills, composing a song that ridicules Methodists and delves into Latin grammar intricacies. On the surface, this seems improbable. How could someone like Tony craft such a composition? One possible explanation is that Tony may have heard a similar song elsewhere and incorporated portions of it into his own hymn to Bacchus. While this is not an entirely convincing justification, it serves to mitigate the farcical nature of this particular situation.
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The first performance of She Stoops to Conquer raised among critics as to whether the play is a true comedy or a farce. Critics like Horace Walpole and Dr. Johnson declined to accept it as a comic classic because many incidents in the play struck them as improbable. One knows that a farce is a pejorative term for low comedy intended to excite ‘belly laughter’ through improbable situations and clownish antics. Pure comedy, on the other hand, stimulates ‘measured’ intellectual laughter and has a seriousness of purpose. It eschews exaggerated character types and evokes laughter mainly through wit and humour. Though She Stoops to Conquer has some traits of a farce, it is a pure comedy when minutely analysed.
She Stoops to Conquer has three improbable situations which point to its farcical bias. It is beyond perception that an educated Londoner like Marlow will mistake his father-in-law’s house for an inn and a sophisticated beauty like Kate for a barmaid. No less unconvincing is the situation in which Mrs. Hardcastle mistakes her own garden for a distant notorious spot and her own husband for a highwayman. Lest this should seem farcical Goldsmith has rendered them plausible. In the very opening scene, Mrs. Hardcastle complains that their ‘old rumbling mansion’ has the look of an inn. Marlow’s remark that many antique houses come to levy contributions as an inn for its huge upkeep also justifies the mistake. As regards the second improbability it is plausible in the context. Even a belle like Kate may be mistaken for a barmaid because she is dressed in plain clothes. Besides that throughout his ‘sober sentimental interview with Kate Marlow hardly looked in her face removes the streak of farcicality from the incident. There is nothing improbable in the behaviour of Mrs. Hardcastle when she mistakes her husband for a highwayman, falls on her knees and requests him to take compassion on herself and Tony. Drenched in the mud, overturned in a ditch, stuck fast in a slough and ‘jolted like jelly.” she was too upset to be in her sense. Besides, the thick darkness of the night increased the chances for such a ludicrous mistake. However, there is one improbability which can hardly be aesthetically justified. How can a country boor who can scarce read his name compose a song railing at the Methodists and the niceties of Latin grammar? One explanation is that Tony probably heard the same song somewhere else and grafted some portions of it into his own hymn to Bacchus. All these are, therefore, not improbable possibilities. but at best are probable impossibilities which are not out of place in a work of art.
The play also has some features of a true comedy. The characterisation is highly subtle, something rarely found in a farce. Mr. Hardcastle with his antique-obsession, Tony with his dare-devilry and Dionysiac spirit, Marlow with his split personality, with his shy-rash profiles and Kate with her sharpness and Thespian charm are unforgettable comic portraits. Moreover, She Stoops to Conquer teems with humorous situations and witty dialogues typical of a pure comedy. The table-exercise of the servants and the casket episode, for example, are singularly amusing. As regards wit, a splendid example may be found in the exchange of words between Tony’s parents about his health: “Ay, if growing too fat be one of the symptoms.” The intellectual laughter such verbal twist produces is typical of comedy and not of farce. Finally, Goldsmith creates fun also through intrigues or ingenious manipulations of incidents. There is much inventiveness, for example, in Tony’s misguidance of Marlow and Hastings about the way to Mr. Hardcastle’s house and the trick he plays on his mother to befool her. Since, comic intrigue and farcical absurdity are mutually exclusive, She Stoops to Conquer is a pure comedy. though it has farcical patches.
Lastly, Goldsmith injects humor into the play through intricate intrigues and ingenious manipulation of incidents. Tony’s deliberate misguidance of Marlow and Hastings regarding the route to Mr. Hardcastle’s house and the ruse he employs to deceive his mother showcase a high level of inventiveness. Such comic intrigue is at odds with the broad, farcical absurdity commonly associated with low comedy. Therefore, “She Stoops to Conquer” is best classified as a pure comedy, notwithstanding the presence of occasional farcical elements. Goldsmith’s masterful blend of these two comedic styles enriches the play’s appeal, catering to diverse audience sensibilities. The harmonious coexistence of intellectual humor and physical comedy underscores the brilliance of “She Stoops to Conquer,” making it a timeless masterpiece that continues to captivate audiences with its wit and complexity.