Class-Crossing Characters

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Introduction to Character Type

The "Class-Crossing" group contains characters that transcend class or gender barriers to achieve their aims. The plays' plot developments are often dependent on temporarily overcoming social norms, but these characters usually revert to their former social positions at the play's resolution. The motives and methods of class-crossing are primarily based on a character's gender. In order to achieve the love matches they desire, female characters change their social status or flout gender roles by dressing up as men. In contrast, the male characters who engage in class-crossing often impersonate members of other classes to achieve pecuniary, rather than romantic, ends.

The "Stooping to Conquer" phenomenon is seen primarily among female characters in Oliver Goldsmith's canonical work and in other plays. In She Stoops to Conquer (1773), the refined Kate Hardcastle, who has been mistaken for a barmaid, assumes that role in order to win the affections of Marlow, who is terribly shy of her in her own persona. (In contrast, Louisa Dudley in Richard Cumberland's The West Indian (1771) refuses to go along with her suitor's impression that she is a woman of easy virtue.) Also "stooping to conquer", the titular character of Cumberland's Amelia (1768) pretends to be a simple country girl and a madwoman rather than assuming her real position as a member of the nobility in order to be closer to Young Withers, whom she "love[s...] to distraction" (Cumberland 9). Likewise, in Hannah Cowley's The Runaway (1776), the protagonist refuses to reveal her social status as she fears that her uncle will force her into an unwanted marriage. In a variation on this theme, Arthur Murphy makes Maria, the brilliant and beautiful heroine of his comedy The Citizen (1761; published 1763), impersonate a dunce and a bluestocking to repel her evil suitor George Philpot.

Cross-dressing, an integral part of the English comedic tradition, is employed primarily by female characters in this selection of plays (the only exceptions are Tukely, who dresses up as a woman in Garrick's The Male Coquette (1757), and Granger, who pretends to be a mantua-maker in Cowley's Who's the Dupe? (1779)). Cross-dressing is used as a way for a woman to achieve proximity to a lover to ascertain his true feelings. In The Male Coquette, Sophia dresses up as an Italian nobleman to discern whether Daffodil is really as foppish as she has been led to believe. Female characters often impersonate young soldiers, as Charlotte and Nancy do in Kemble's The Female Officer (1763) and in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Camp (1778; published 1795), to test their lovers' faithfulness. However, the women always return to their usual dress and social status at the plays' inevitably matrimonial conclusions.

In contrast, the male characters who employ class-crossing strategies usually do so for their own gain. The Runaway's cross-class courtship between the Justice and Susan, a maid, is paralleled in Amelia, in which the aging Sir Anthony Withers tries to seduce the rustic "Clara". Thinking of marriage as a strictly financial proposition, Sir Miles Mowbray of Cumberland's First Love (1795) only considers his son's old lower-class flame as a real prospect after she has been wealthily widowed by Lord Ruby. The servant-class "Lord Janus", in Cumberland's The Imposters (1789), takes on the identity of his former master to secure marriage with the daughter of a baronet. French characters are especially prone to class-crossing: the hairdresser M. Ragou of Thomas Sheridan's The Brave Irishman (1742) pretends to be a lord in England, while the Marquis in Foote's The Englishman in Paris (1753) is a language-master employed to act as Buck's rival for Lucinda's affections. Some male characters are motivated by other reasons to adopt personas of upper-class characters: like Sapling, a clerk in Cumberland's The Note of Hand (1774), they may simply be 'living the dream'. Alternatively, they may be a confusing amalgamation of social roles, as is Captain Le Brush in Reed's The Register Office (1761):

You must know, Sir, I am an Ensign in a new-rais'd Ridgmen , to which Post I was advanced through the Interest of my very Good Friend and Acquaintance, Lord Pliant , whom I had the Honour to serve many Years in the Capacity of a Valet de Chambre---But, Sir, tho' formerly a Servant, I am a Gentleman born, and have had the Honour of a University Iddication (Reed 23).

The language of the characters in their new personas reflects the social transitions they have made: Kate Hardcastle's diction is less complex, Sophia swears gratuitously, Charlotte barks out drills to recruits, and Maria cries at the thought of being called a "virtuoso", thinking her virtue has been called into question. Among the male characters, the language variation is less noticeable, save for Lord Janus's elevated love-making and Le Brush's obviously flawed "Iddication" as he quotes "Sockratas", "Pluto" and "my friend Shakespear" (26) . Aside from this last example, the class-crossing characters of the plays in this collection assume different social and gender roles to advance the action. The class-crossing character trend is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Works Cited:

Cumberland, Richard. Amelia. London: J. Dodsley and W. Johnston, 1768. Literature Online. 7 August 2008.

Reed, Joseph. The Register Office. London: T. Davies, 1761. Literature Online. 7 August 2008.

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List of Plays

The Maid of the Oaks (Burgoyne)

The Runaway (Cowley)

The Note of Hand (Cumberland)

The Imposters (Cumberland)

First Love (Cumberland)

Lovers' Resolutions (Cumberland)

Amelia (Cumberland)

The Englishman in Paris (Foote)

The Male Coquette (Garrick)

She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith)

The Female Officer (Kemble)

The Citizen (Murphy)

The Register Office (Reed)

The Camp (R.B. Sheridan)

The Brave Irishman (T. Sheridan)

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©2008 Arden Hegele