Even though the four plays were written in four different eras, there are quite a few phenomena they have in common. Written in the 16th century, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare is the oldest among the four dramas. Goldsmith wrote She Stoops to Conquer in 1773, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was published in 1895, while Mrs Warren’s Profession by Bernard Shaw was written in 1893. It is obvious that each era imposed a particular world view on the writer, therefore a brief historical outlook when talking about the plays is more than essential. On the other hand, it is also true that the subject matters these playwrights deal with are universal topics which are bound to happen any time and any place, with no reference to historical and social barriers. There is no doubt that the attitude of most human beings do not differ from each other when it comes to feelings such as love, hate, anger, jealousy, happiness. And these are the characteristics that make these comedies popular and imperishable.
The name of William Shakespeare is mostly associated with the title of being the father of English comedy. However, scholars investigating Shakespeare’s narrative sources usually give the impression that he must have looked about for fresh material nearly every time he had to write a new play, and most of his ideas were inspired by particular in some respects it seems like as though the choice of the subjects was Shakespeare’s personal choice, conscious and deliberate. Nevertheless, he could not free himself from the society he was living in, therefore the situations and the problems were that of his age.
It is not clearly stated when the plot of his play Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place, but this question pales into insignificance since his art must have been shaped by medieval traditions first and only secondly by classical and renaissance conventions. The whole atmosphere of the opening scene of Midsummer Night’s Dream reminds us of the conventions of the Middle Ages, whereas the knot itself is not only out of ordinary, but it also suggests the possibility of a potential scandal. It is obvious that the vast majority of law abiding citizens in Shakespeare’s time would have preferred to read about well-balanced and calm marriages based on respect and stable financial background. He shows little interest – taking his writing as a whole- in the comic possibilities of a plot dealing with a long-married couple. In Shakespeare’s era love without marriage was absolutely out of question, while marriage based on love and nothing else was merely a romantic daydream. Love in his comedies always leads to marriage, marriage in accordance with the Elizabethan ideal of a free choice of suitable partners and mutual love and trust.
His comedies are essentially celebrations of marriage, of the approach of marriage, which he presents in a social as well as a personal aspect. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, the father Egéus wants her daughter Hermia to marry a rich Athenian, Demetrius. This kind of marriage is totally pre-arranged, it is presumably based on financials and social titles. Like most women in the ancient times, Hermia has no choice of her own. The law supports this evil tradition, since daughters who refuse to marry the men chosen by their parents can be sent to nunnery or might be even punished with death penalty. Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a political or social drama trying find a solution to the problem of pre-arranged marriages, but it certainly is an easy-going comedy playing around with the renaissance ideals of youth and innocent caprices. It is somewhat hard to believe that Egéus who was ready to sacrifice his daughter in the beginning, suddenly gives his permission to Hermia and Lysander’s marriage.
The love between Titania and Oberon has little to do with money. It seems like as though the selfish world of banknotes and stock markets was a distant and incomprehensible world in the life of the fairies. The quarrel about the Indian servant proves to be a harmless and innocent game. Since the writer’s main purpose was not to draw a colorful picture of the advantages and disadvantages of pre-arranged marriages in ancient Greece, little attention is given to the subject matter from this approach.
Mrs Warren’s Profession was written in 1894 to draw attention to the fact that prostitution is caused, not by female malignancy and male lecherousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together. Probably due to his family background, Bernard Shaw was deeply concerned with social dilemmas. Unlike Shakespeare, he got involved in politics and fought against the sanctimonious and hypocritical life of the aristocracy and the Church. This worldview certainly had a strong impact on his works, especially since towards the end of the 19th century, a large number of people among the aristocrats tended to get lost in externalities of all kinds. Affectation and pretence played the most important roles in their lives. Money, titles and reputation were much more significant to them than real, insightful and honest personal emotions.
Marriage of convenience was not only a typical way of arranging one’s life in the Shakespearean era, but it was quite common to marry someone for money in the Victorian times as well. People of noble families who happened to be in dept tried to gain money by taking the financial background of their husband-or wife to-be into consideration, instead of letting their feelings take their course. This phenomenon was not only true in the case of the aristocrats, but it was a part of everyone’s common sense. While in Shakespeare’s time the majority of marriages were arranged by the parents without the desire to take a step forward on the ranking scale, the Victorian times made people even more aware of the advantages of a “good party”.
In Mrs Warren’s Profession the two most typical types of uninhibited males’ attitude are personified. Frank has been going out with Vivie for quite a while. He seems to be a fine young gentleman with honest intentions and the purpose of marriage. It is not until towards the end of the play that we get to know the true colors of his ill-mannered personality. Behind his innocent looks there is a pathetic fortune hunter whose only chance to make a living of his own is to marry a rich girl. He definitely is the most hypocritical character in the play, because all he cares about is the reputation of his name and the money behind his ill-flavoured fame. Frank’s philosophy is rather nasty:
“I haven’t any money, nor the smallest turn for making it. If I married Viv now she would have to support me; and I should cost her more than I am worth.”
The other flat character who would like to marry Vivie is Crofts. This ageing man would do anything to own Vivie’s youth and passion. First and foremost he tries to convince her by offering her his entire fortune.
” I shant live for ever; and I’ll take care that you shall be well off when I’m gone. “
He thinks he can buy a woman for money; amazingly enough, he is not even prepared to be refused. Even though nearly all the elder males in the play have rather fond memories of Mrs Warren’s velvet bed, they are all scandalized by the mere idea of showing up with her. They all play the roles of respectable gentlemen, thinking their money and their fine manners allow them to give their needs and desire a free flow. Vivie’s character is the finest counter-example of this attitude. Her figure is just the opposite of the average 19th century lady, because she is resolute, stubborn and determined to make a living on her own. She is not dependent on anyone, she does not need any help, especially not the help of the possible husbands-to be, whose only concern is money and convenience. In this respect, her character is similar to Cecily and Gwendolen, the independent young ladies of The Importance of Being Earnest.
As a matter of fact, it is quite obvious that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest derives from the same period as Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. In spite of this similarity, Wilde is disappointed with the morals of his era and gives us license to believe that moral judgement has not yet been invented and probably never will be, there is no need for it. The characters in the play are without an exception flat characters that lack any contact with reality. Even though marriage is the central topic of the drama, there is no need trying to find a serious meaning behind the author’s words. Marriage is only a secondary question which is not much more important than anything else in the play.
The gravity of money comes into consideration only in the case of Jack and Gwendolen. Just like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in She Stoops to Conquer, the parents are the ones who insist on arranging their children’s life according to their own will. Jack is a flighty young man who is not ready to give up his freedom and marry a girl. He would prefer to continue his volatile and capricious lifestyle, though there is no doubt that he is in love with Gwendolen. Jack personifies the kind of person who does intend to hurt anyone; all he wants to do is having fun and enjoying his youth and beauty. It certainly is not a virtuous and honorable behavior, but his youth might be an excuse for his restlessness.
He is not a typical fortune-chaser, money seems to be a secondary question for him. He is not at all concerned with financials, as long as he is capable of doing the things he likes to do (“bunburying”, for example). However, the overflow of personal questions asked by Gwendolen’s mother (Lady Bracknell) do not come as a surprise to Jack. As an expert in the field of conquest, he must be prepared to hear motherly questions concerning his background. Lady Bracknell does not pose her questions in most polite and suitable manner:
“I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact. However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires. “
She goes on in natural way, as though love would not mean a thing:
“A countryhouse! How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterwards. You have a townhouse, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature like Gwendolen could hardly be expected to reside in the country.”
Lady Bracknell is not at all ashamed of claiming “at least one parent”, after having found out that Jack was found in a handbag in cloakroom at Victoria Station:
“I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent of either sex before the season is quite over.”
The Importance of Being Earnest is a witty and entertaining comedy without the desire to change the world and draw conclusions. It was not meant to open anyone’s eyes, that is probably the reason why Shaw mentioned at one point that “reading Wilde’s plays is more like being tickled” instead of the joy of understanding an insightful joke.
Similarly to Wilde, Oliver Goldsmith does not intend to engage in deep and philosophical discussions on the deplorable decay of society and its morals. The plot of the drama is based on the situation comedy, and all he wants to do is entertain the reader with the farce.
She Stoops to Conquer is a drama where marriage and money are not closely associated with each other. Money itself does not play an important role in the plot of the play, but it definitely is the main cause of the confusion and the intrigue. In the play, there are two couples who intend to get married. The marriage of Kate and Marlow was arranged by their parents. They fall in love with each other without Marlow knowing who Kate really is. Kate makes sure to find out whether Marlow is truly in love with her by telling him that she is only a plain barmaid who has no fortune and no name. In spite of this, Marlow proves to be an ardent husband-to-be, who does not pay attention to the financial background of Kate and is ready to marry her anyway.
It is not until act five that the great recognition scene takes place and everyone gets to realize that the confusion was caused by a stupid lie of Tony, the brother of Kate. In the case of Miss Neville and Hastings money is the cause of the misunderstandings as well, but their love is not motivated by the desire to get wealthy. As a whole, She Stoops to Conquer is the comedy that has little to do with the historical background of the author. The plot could take place nearly any time and at any place, the fact that it was written in the restorational era is not particularly significant.
In conclusion, it is clear that the question of money in marriage has always been a popular subject to deal with. Depending on the historical background of the playwrights, each of them had a different approach when it came to this topic. Shakespeare created an entertaining mixture of medieval conventions and renaissance ideals. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he presents a typical medieval conflict by using classical elements. A father forcing his daughter to marry a man of his choice used to happen on an everyday basis in Middle Ages, but the way Shakespeare solves the problem reminds us of the ancient fairy tales or myths and legends. It is evident that he was concerned with the problem of pre-arranged marriages and the role of love in marriage, but he does not at all focus on the possible social explanations and solutions. The plot itself is much more important than the philosophy behind it. Shaw, on the contrary, admits that his works do not lack strong social criticism.
He is disappointed with the era, but he does give a definite solution to the problem. Unlike Shakespeare, he presents the failures of his contemporaries and seems to be interested in public life. Just like Shaw, Oscar Wilde writes about the same problem, but in his case neither criticism nor solution is the aim. Marriage as such is not in the centre of the whole play. The play does not make us contemplate and ponder; its only “purpose” is to entertain. Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer meet on the common ground of the desire to entertain the reader. However, neither of them gets deeply into the topic of marriage. There is no doubt that all comedies are meant to entertain the audience, but some of them do it in a more serious and considerate manner, focusing on the most striking matters of the writers’ age.