Article Title

Theatricality and Cosmopolitanism in Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In act 3 of Hannah Cowley’s 1780 comedy The Belle’s Stratagem,1 the character Hardy contemplates the choice of a costume for an upcoming masquerade:

Let me see.—What shall my dress be? A Great Mogul? No.—A Grenadier? No;—no, that I forsee, would make a laugh. Hang me, if I don’t send to my little Quick, and borrow his Jew Isaac’s dress:—I know the Dog likes a glass of good wine; so I’ll give him a bottle of my Forty-eight, and he shall teach me. Aye, that’s it—I’ll be the Cunning Little Isaac! If they complain of my want of wit, I’ll tell ‘em the cursed Duenna wears the breeches and has spoiled my part. (3.1, p. 40)

The humor of this scene relies on a metatheatrical in-joke: Hardy was originally played by the versatile actor John Quick (1748–1831), who had played not only the role of Isaac Mendoza in Sheridan’s The Duenna (1775) but also Tony Lumpkin in a 1773 production of She Stoops to Conquer.2 Cowley counts on her audience to recognize the transparency of Hardy’s announcement: Quick both calls attention to the idiosyncrasies of his previous role and reminds us that he only plays at being Hardy here. This metatheatrical moment is consistent with Cowley’s attempt to foreground performance throughout her comedy as she encourages her audience to recognize a Shakespearean paradox: if human subjectivity is defined by constant role-playing, then only on the stage do people really appear as what they are. The actor is the only truly sincere being since her performance is the explicit demonstration of ever-shifting human potential.


1 Hannah Cowley, The Belle’s Strategem, in The Plays of Hannah Cowley, ed. Frederick M. Link (1782; facsimile reprint, New York: Garland Publishing, 1979), vol. 1. References are cited parenthetically in my text by act, scene, and page number.

2 See Mark S. Auburn, “Theatre in the age of Garrick and Sheridan,” in Sheridan Studies, ed. James Morewood and David Crane (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 22–24.

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