SQUIRE HARDCASTLE’S second wife is quite determined that her spoiled and not too brilliant son, Tony Lumpkin, shall marry her niece, Constance Neville. In this way she will be enabled to keep in the family Miss Neville’s fortune which consists of a casket of valuable jewels. The young people, however, have other plans, especially Miss Neville who is secretly pledged to one, Hastings.
Mr. Hardcastle, likewise, has plans for his own charming daughter, Kate, whom he wishes to marry the son of his old friend, Sir Charles Marlow. It is young Marlow’s misfortune to be dumb in the presence of ladies of his own social status. He is, however, a master of clever repartee when talking to bar maids and girls of like station.
The Hardcastle family are momentarily expecting the arrival of young Marlow and his friend, Hastings. The approaching travellers stop at the village inn to inquire their way. Tony Lumpkin, who is there as usual with his cronies, conceives the idea of persuading the young men that they have lost their way and will have to spend the night at an inn. He directs them to the Hardcastle house which he highly recommends if they will excuse the eccentricities of the owner and his family.
Neither young Marlow nor Squire Hardcastle senses that both are victims of a hoax and the squire is much incensed at the bold and impudent behavior of his friend’s son. Young Hastings, as soon as he sees Constance, puts two and two together. This pair agree to keep Marlow in ignorance and pretend that Constance and Kate simply happen to be stopping the night at the inn.
When introduced to Kate young Marlow can find little to say and stumbles over that. In his embarrassment he never once looks at her face. It is not surprising, therefore, that later in the evening when he sees her going about the house in the plain house dress her father insists on, he takes her for the bar maid. She encourages the deception in order to find out if he is really as witless as he seems. In her bar maid’s guise she is pleasantly surprised to find him not dumb but, indeed, possessed of a graceful and ready wit. When she reveals herself as a well born but poor relation of the Hardcastle family he acknowledges his love for her.
Further comic situations are created by Tony’s attempts to help Constance and her lover elope with her casket of jewels. When through ludicrous misunderstandings these come to naught, Squire Hardcastle benignly sets everything right for both pairs of lovers.
Charles Marlow, bashful with women of his own class but uninhibited with those of lower rank, is traveling to meet Kate Hardcastle, his prospective wife. He is accompanied by Hastings, who loves Constance Neville, a niece and ward of Kate’s mother.
When they stop at an alehouse for directions, Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle’s son, directs them for lodging to a supposed inn, which really is the Hardcastle home.
When they arrive, Hastings sees Miss Neville and learns that Tony duped them; however, he does not tell Marlow, thus setting the stage for Marlow’s pursuit of Kate, whom his father has chosen for him, but whom he thinks is a servant.
Hastings and Constance want to wed, but her aunt hopes to match Tony with the girl. Since Tony does not want to marry, he helps orchestrate Constance’s elopement.
In the final act, Tony again demonstrates that though illiterate, he is not an oaf, and he cleverly forestalls his mother’s attempt to remove Constance to another aunt for safekeeping. The arrival of Marlow’s father also moves the plot to its proper conclusion, for he and Hardcastle confront the young man with the real identity of the girl he has been wooing.
Mrs. Hardcastle finally releases Constance’s inheritance when Hardcastle’s revelation that Tony is of age enables the young man to renounce Constance as his prospective wife. All are reconciled and look forward to the two marriages.
Goldsmith’s play is a rejection of the morally uplifting sentimental comedy popular through much of the 18th century and a return to the older tradition of laughing comedy. Therefore, it is more closely related in subject matter and technique to Shakespeare’s comedies and those of the Restoration than to its 18th century predecessors.