She Stoops to Conquer is a five-act comedic play with a prologue first acted in 1773 in London. The prologue starts with Mr Woodward—known to Goldsmith’s contemporaries as a comic actor—weeping because comedy is supposedly dead. He hopes Goldsmith’s play will make him laugh, obtaining the comic arts back to life. It’s important to note that this prologue was written by David Garrick, an actor and producer in the 1770s.
Act One starts with the character Mr Hardcastle. He has selected a husband for his daughter, Kate, whom neither of them has met. Kate’s future husband is good-looking and the son of Mr Hardcastle’s old friend Sir Charles Marlow.
The second scene shows Tony Lumpkin (Hardcastle’s stepson) in a trance at Three Pigeons Tavern. Marlow and Hastings arrive to report that they have lost their way. They are searching for Hardcastle’s home. Tony decides to make a joke about them and gives them directions. However, he describes his stepfather’s house as an Inn. He says it’s owned by an eccentric man who considers himself a gentleman.
Act Two: Hardcastle gathers his farmhand servants and explains that he expects a visit from his future son-in-law, Marlow. He instructs his servants to behave like a gentleman’s servants, which confuses them on the way to Hardcastle’s house, which he believes is an inn. Meanwhile, Marlow reveals to Hastings that it is challenging to be around proper women. Marlow and Hastings arrive at Hardcastle’s house thinking he is an innkeeper. Hastings meets Miss Constance Neville, who is Mrs Hardcastle’s niece. He tells her that they are not at Hardcastle’s inn. He responds by trying to convince her to marry him. She doesn’t want her inheritance to be lost. They devise a plan to get her jewellery so that they can elope. Hastings decides not to tell Marlow that he isn’t at an inn, as Marlow would be embarrassed and ruin Hastings and Constance’s plans.
Hastings introduces Marlow to Constance and Kate Hardcastle, with whom Marlow is exceedingly shy. Despite his handsome features, Kate finds his reticence off-putting and wonders if she can be happy as his wife. Mrs Hardcastle arrives, and Hastings teases her need for more connection to London and the fashionable society there. Then, while talking to Tony, Hastings discovers that Tony’s mother is pressing him to marry Constance to keep Constance’s inheritance in the family. Tony hates the idea, so he promises to help Hastings recover Constance’s inheritance and elope with her.
Act Three again opens with Hardcastle, who needs clarification as to why his friend, Sir Marlow, would recommend his son for Kate since he finds young Marlow rude. Kate and her father discuss Marlow as though he’s two different people since Marlow treats Hardcastle rudely, as he would an innkeeper, and is reserved and shy around Kate because he knows her to be a lady. Meanwhile, Tony sends Constance’s jewels to Hastings. Without knowing their plan, Constance asks Mrs Hardcastle if she can wear her jewels, intent on taking them with her when she elopes. Tony tells his mother to tell Constance that the jewels are lost, which she does.
Kate finds out about the joke Tony has been playing on Marlow and Hastings by telling them the house is an inn. She doesn’t reveal the deception but instead insists on perpetuating it. Marlow mistakes Kate for a barmaid and flirts with her. Hardcastle catches them flirting, and Marlow runs off, but Kate, who now likes Marlow, is sure she can prove he is respectable.
In Act Four, Constance informs Hastings that they expect Sir Marlow to visit. Meanwhile, Hastings has sent Constance’s jewels to Marlow for safekeeping, but without any instructions, so Marlow gives them to one of the servants, thinking she is the inn’s landlady. The servant brings the jewels to Mrs Hardcastle. Marlow is telling Hastings about the barmaid he fancies—Kate—when Hastings asks about the jewels. Marlow answers that he returned them to the landlady. Hastings decides that he and Constance will have to elope without the jewels.
After Hardcastle is upset about Marlow’s encouragement of the servants to drink, Marlow realizes that the house isn’t an inn. Kate confirms the fact but pretends she is still a barmaid. Marlow says he would marry Kate if society and his dad allowed it. But he insists that this is unlikely. Constance is now married to Mrs. Hardcastle ‘s son as his mother has Constance’s jewels. Tony had already prepared horses for Constance so she could elope with Hastings. Mrs Hardcastle learns about the elopement and takes Constance to her Aunt Pedigree. Marlow is furious with Hastings because he didn’t tell him that the home wasn’t an inn. Hastings becomes angry at Marlow for returning Mrs Hardcastle the jewels. Tony has a plan, however, and Constance is gone.
Act Five features Sir Marlow and Hardcastle discussing Marlow’s and Kate’s wedding. Tony must go to Aunt Pedigree to pick up Constance and Mrs Hardcastle as he is supposed. He leads them back to their original starting point. Constance decides not to elope, but she hopes the Hardcastle’s will approve of her and give her an inheritance so she can honourably marry Hastings. Marlow discovers their true identity of Kate. Both couples are married at the end of the play.