The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer were written to spite the prevailing taste in comedy. In an essay written just after he completed the second play, Oliver Goldsmith explained that the comedy of his time, which he called sentimental comedy, was a degeneration of a genre that had been clearly defined since the days of Aristotle. Comedy, Goldsmith lamented, had become a kind of tragedy that sought to influence the audience by appealing to its sympathy.
Sentimental comedy was a dramatic subgenre that developed at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Restoration comedy of manners, which had delighted audiences with contrasting manners, sharp wordplay, and sexual innuendo, had been...
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Washington Irving wrote of Goldsmith that his genius “flowered early, but was late in bringing its fruit to maturity.” However, an abundance poured forth during the last fifteen years of Goldsmith’s life. Numerous studies have examined his separate contributions as essayist, novelist, dramatist, biographer, philosopher, and poet.
Goldsmith’s literary career was launched in the April, 1757, issue of the Monthly Review, but his first important work did not appear until two years later with the publication of his first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe. The author published it anonymously, and for good reason, since he was aiming at the decline of learning in general. Goldsmith’s work was self-serving. It allowed him to attack his enemies, particularly the pedantic critics who judged English literature by classic Greek or Latin standards. Needless to say, he raised a hornet’s nest of criticism and received the serious literary attention that he craved.
Goldsmith is difficult to categorize as a writer because he wrote so well on so many topics and in so many genres. William Hazlitt said of him:Goldsmith, both in verse and prose, was one of the most delightful writers in the language. His verse flows like a limpid stream. His ease is quite unconscious. Everything in him is spontaneous, unstudied, yet elegant, harmonious, graceful, nearly faultless.
Goldsmith was not a radical thinker like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but he infused his work with moderation, sensibility, and irony. In his essays, he denounced the evils of capital punishment, cruelty to animals, and excessive gambling; he noted the stupidity of revenge and the negative effects of luxurious living; and he made sensible suggestions about children’s education. He had strong feelings about the prevalence of sentimental comedy, which he despised and tried to destroy by bringing back boisterous humor to the English stage.
In verse, Goldsmith was certainly skilled. He could pen poetical epistles, prologues, epilogues, and ballads, as well as more conventional poems. His versifying was always spontaneous and humorous, and it reflected dignity. Goldsmith’s poetry could demonstrate strength, as well. In The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society (1764) and The Deserted Village (1770), he employed the similar theme of a man isolated from others, longing for his home. Goldsmith’s use of a narrator in these poems also appears in The Vicar of Wakefield. He engaged the device of speaking directly to the reader so that the vicar could comment on the criminal code and penal system. Such is his artistry, however, that the character always remains a true literary creation.
Poverty fueled Goldsmith’s genius. All his life, he struggled to survive. It was only his writing that kept him out of the poorhouse or debtors’ prison. The lack of financial resources helps explain why he was so prolific. To be blunt, Goldsmith was also a hack writer. Samuel Johnson says of Goldsmith that he was always able to adorn the most menial labor. Publishers often requested certain types of work, which may explain his versatility and why he never stayed with one genre for long. It was not uncommon for him to write in several genres at the same time. In 1766, he published his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, and began his first comedic play, The Good-Natured Man (pr., pb. 1768).
A worse criticism of Goldsmith, besides the serious charge of hack writer, is that he often plagiarized others. The accusation was first leveled at him in 1759, when he became sole contributor to the Bee, a weekly magazine whose pages he had to fill. Week after week, he wrote a number of essays, many of which were lifted from volume 5 of the French Encyclopédie. Goldsmith never defended his practice, justifying it as hack work, not literature. Even his famous series of “Chinese Letters” was lifted or adapted from several other sources, particularly Lettres Chinoises (1739-1740) by Jean Baptist de Boyer, marquis d’Argens. In his lengthy two-volume An History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son (1764), Goldsmith borrowed heavily from Voltaire, Paul Rapin de Thoyras, Tobias Smollett, and Edmund Burke. He freely admitted “borrowing” the character Croaker in his play The Good-Natured Man from Johnson’s periodical, The Rambler. He stole ideas, characters, words, and paragraphs from others throughout his career.
Goldsmith was no saint. He was highly irritable, possessing a mercurial temperament, envied other writers, gambled heavily, drank...
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