Big Hair, Historical Wit, Inside Jokes
in She Stoops to Conquer
In the witty repartee of She Stoops to Conquer are historical references, embedded jokes about popular culture, and archaic words. Of course, these would have been familiar to the play’s debut audience in 1773. To us, not so much. So here’s a fun glossary of “who said it” and “what it means.”
Mrs. Hardcastle tells Hastings that her source of London gossip is Scandalous Magazine. (Each issue of Town and Country magazine contained an engraving of the head of a famous man and his mistress, along with scandalous commentary.) She also reads the The Complete Housewife and the Ladies’ Memorandum-Book, a fashion magazine that first appeared in January 1773.
Mrs. Hardcastle has tried to convince her husband to give up his wig, but he has accused her of wanting it for herself to make a tête — a tall, elaborate hair-piece. In the mid- to late-1770s, huge hair became all the rage. The height of these styles was generally about 1 to 1.5 times the length of the face and was styled in what was considered a pyramid shape (it also looks very much like a hot air balloon). In 1774, the Duchess of Devonshire created a sensation when she introduced ostrich feathers into her hair.
“I vow, since inoculation began, there is no such thing to be seen as a plain woman…,” a woman with facial scars from smallpox. In 1714, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (a scientific journal) published a letter from Emmanuel Timonius in Constantinople advocating inoculation for controlling smallpox. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband served as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1718, introduced the practice to England after she witnessed it; she had lost a brother to smallpox and bore facial scars from the disease herself. When a smallpox epidemic threatened England in 1721, she called on her physician to inoculate her daughter. She invited Sir Hans Sloane, the King’s physician, to see her daughter. He gained permission to test inoculation on prisoners at Newgate. All survived and, in 1722, the Prince of Wales’s daughters received inoculation. The practice slowly spread amongst the royal families of Europe, followed by the general adoption.
The alehouse landlord Stingo announces Marlow and George Hastings’s arrival by port-chaise: A closed travelling carriage with the driver sitting on one of the horses.
Longitude: Lost in the countryside, Marlow and Hastings arrive at the Three Pigeons alehouse. The landlord and Tony Lumpkin offer false and complicated directions to their intended destination. Marlow declares: “We could as soon find out the longitude.” In the 1700s, latitude was understood but longitude was still a mystery to ships’ navigators, making ocean travel perilous guesswork. A prize (a longitude reward) of £20,000 had been offered by Parliament since 1714 for a precise means of measuring longitude. It was belatedly awarded to John Harrison, three months after this play opened in 1773, for his invention, in 1761, of a marine chronometer.
In a fit of low self-esteem, Marlow laments his anxiety around cultured women. “This stammer in my address, and this unprepossessing visage of mine, can never permit me to soar above the reach of a milliner’s prentice, or one of the duchesses of Drury Lane.” He refers not to royalty but to immoral women who frequented the Drury Lane theatre district.
Child: When Marlow mistakes Kate for a barmaid, he repeatedly calls her Child. It was a term of affection for a young, usually noble, person – not a youngster.
Ladies’ Club: Marlow claims membership in a fashionable club in the 1770s that met in London’s Albemarle Street and often invited men to visit. He gives its members colorful (presumably fictitious) names, including Mrs. Mantrap.
Hastings hopes to elope with Constance Neville and Marlow is a suitor for Kate. The guys use military terms to describe their wardrobe for impressing the ladies: “Opening the campaign with the white and gold…” In other words, they’ll begin to lay siege to the ladies with the help of a coat and waistcoat in different colors. This clothing trend began and was fashionable in the 1770s.
“If my dearest girl will trust in her faithful Hastings, we shall soon be landed in France, where the laws of marriage are respected,” Hastings tells Constance Neville. In England, because George III’s brothers had made private marriages, the unpopular Royal Marriage Act was passed in 1772 which prevented the King’s relatives from marrying at will. One of the brothers, William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was at the first performance of this play. The audience interpreted this line as an attack on the Marriage Act and applauded it enthusiastically.
Constance says she inherited her fortune of jewels from her uncle, the India Director (director of the East India Company, a powerful and wealthy trading company that eventually controlled portions of the Indian subcontinent and colonized parts of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong).
“Since our betters have hit upon the expedient of electing each other, there’s no business “for us that sell ale.” Mr. Hardcastle likens himself to people of more common or working class, further confusing Marlow, who mistakes the well-to-do gentleman’s home for an inn. Also refers to the practice of electoral candidates giving free drinks to votes. May also refer to the proverbial (at the time) “this it must be, if we sale ale” (if we sale liquor, we must be prepared for the consequences).
Hardcastle tells war stories about John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), commander of the Austrian and English forces against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession; and Prince Eugene (1663-1736), Prince of Savoy and Austrian general. He mentions Denain, where the French defeated the Duke’s forces in 1712.
Upset at Marlow’s affrontery, Mr. Hardcastle offers Marlow his furnishings. “How do you like the Rake’s Progress?” he asks.Rake’s Progress was a series of eight paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth. The canvases were produced in 1732–34, then engraved in 1734 and published in print form in 1735. The series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling, and is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bethlem Hospital (its nickname was Bedlam).
Tony calls his stepfather Mr. Hardcastle a grumbletonian, meaning a grumbler. It was a derogatory nickname given to members of the Country Party by their adversaries in the court party (politicians in power in London). Also defined in a 17th century dictionary of slang as “a malcontent, out of humour with the Government.”
Tony is impatient because he has not reached the age of discretion (also years of discretion) at which a person is considered able to manage his or her own affairs. Under British common law, full majority was reached at the age of 21. Anyone under 21 was legally an infant. Only persons who had reached majority could perform certain legal actions, including buying, selling, or bequeathing land or executing a bond. Some legal actions did not require that a person be 21. For some legal actions, the law merely required that the person be judged capable of discretion. The age of 14 was generally accepted under common law as the age of discretion, and in rare individual cases (particularly females) it could be even lower. At 14, children could apprentice themselves without parental consent.
“I have got you a pair of horses that will fly like Whistlejacket” to aid the elopement, Tony tells his cousin. Whistlejacket was a famous race horse, foaled in 1749. His most famous victory was in a race over four miles for 2,000 guineas at York in August 1759. His owner, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, was a patron of artist George Stubbs, who painted a life-size portrait circa 1762.
Constance Neville is overjoyed that Tony will help her run off with Hastings. He says afterward, “Zounds! How she fidgets and spits about like a catherine wheel” — a pinwheel firework, named after St. Catherine of Alexandria who was martyred on a breaking wheel.
- Kathryn Moncrief, Dramaturg, She Stoops to Conquer.
- Goldsmith, Oliver. She Stoops to Conquer. Ed. Tom Davis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
- The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Drama. Eds. J. Douglas Canfield and Maja-Lisa Sneidern. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001.
- She Stoops to Conquer, Washington Square Press, 1972 edition paperback with glossary.