She Stoops to Conquer

What is the purpose of the prologue in she stoops to conquer?


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Though not written by Goldsmith, the play's prologue is useful in the way it provides insight into Goldsmith's purpose in the play. Obviously, the most explicit purpose is to make the audience laugh. The speaker – Mr. Woodward, who would have been portrayed by a different actor – comes out in mourning, already having been crying, which in a way poses a challenge to the play. If we, as actors and audience, are in a state of sadness, can the play lift our spirits?

However, most relevant is the state of affairs sculpted here. The prologue mirrors the trend in theatre that writers like Goldsmith were desperately trying to change. At the time of She Stoops to Conquer, popular theatre comedy was separated into what was commonly termed "sentimental comedy" and "laughing comedy." The former was concerned with bourgeois (middle-class) morality and with praising virtue. The latter, which dated back to the Greeks and Romans and through Shakespeare, was more willing to engage in “low” humor for the sake of mocking vice.

Woodward suggests that a certain class of actor (and by extension, then, audience and writer) were dying out as sentimental comedy became more popular. So Goldsmith's play has an extra purpose: it must rejuvenate the joy taken in “laughing comedy,” which could be willing to be more stupid, to dramatize base characters and characteristics, and to mock even the characters who profess to be moral.

It's worth reviewing the "About 'An Essay on the Theatre'" section of this ClassicNote that explains in more detail the context of the theatre of the time, since it will provide an even more in-depth understanding of the purpose suggested in this prologue. But even without such extensive historical research, the prologue brings the audience in with a particular question: can this play remind us that true comedy, which is willing to be silly and unpretentious, is the most entertaining of all?