English Literature
/
Pygmalion

Pygmalion

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Greek Mythology Inspires Bernard Shaw's Critique of English Society in Pygmalion

Ancient Greek mythology tells the romantic tale of Pygmalion, a highly respected sculptor who created a stunning masterpiece, a woman made of ivory. He was so captivated by his creation that he fell deeply in love with her. In response to his devotion, the goddess Venus transformed the statue into a living woman named Galatea. This timeless story has been retold and adapted by many artists, including the famous playwright Bernard Shaw, in his renowned play, Pygmalion.

Shaw was a great admirer of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and its emphasis on beauty and realism. He was particularly drawn to the themes of transformation and love in the story of Pygmalion. Inspired by these elements, Shaw published his play in 1912, and it was staged the following year. The play revolves around a bet between a phonetician and a young flower seller, where the former must teach the latter how to pass as a duchess in high society.

As you immerse yourself in the world of Pygmalion, you'll notice its striking resemblance to the original myth. Shaw's motivation for writing this play stemmed from his desire to critique the way the English language is spoken and taught. He firmly believed that while other languages were phonetic, English was not. The irregularities in spelling and pronunciation made it challenging for children to learn and created a social divide based on one's speech.

In his play, Shaw cleverly blends comedy with social commentary to highlight the English's disregard for their language and their unwillingness to teach it properly. He advocated for simplifying and equalizing the language, believing it would lead to a more harmonious and fair society.

To portray the character of Professor Higgins, the phonetician, Shaw drew inspiration from Henry Sweet, a skilled linguist who shared his views on the English language. Sweet's sharpness and lack of diplomacy made him the perfect candidate for Shaw's portrayal of an unconventional, yet charismatic character.

Shaw also wanted to emphasize the power of self-transformation and breaking societal expectations. In the play, the flower seller, Eliza, is groomed by Higgins to conform to the standards of the upper class. It proves that with determination and proper training, one can overcome their upbringing and achieve their goals.

Higgins' character is also heavily influenced by Shaw's childhood music teacher, G. Vandeleur Lee, who has been speculated to be Shaw's biological father. Much like the character of Svengali in the novel Trilby by George du Maurier, Lee was known for his charismatic and hypnotic teaching style, which helped Shaw shape the character of Higgins.

In the play, Higgins' behavior is often depicted as childish and rude, a reflection of his spoiled upbringing by his mother. This adds depth to his character and highlights his independence and strong will.

Overall, Shaw's Pygmalion is a thought-provoking and entertaining commentary on the English language and society. It continues to inspire audiences and artists alike, showcasing the timeless themes of transformation, love, and breaking societal expectations.

The Social Experiment: Eliza's Transformation

It was a rainy night in Covent Garden as the play opened, and the bustling streets were filled with people rushing to find cabs after a theatre performance. Among the crowd were Higgins, who was preoccupied with his notebook, and Freddy, who was trying to get a cab for his family. Eliza, a flower seller, was also there, but no one seemed to have the time to stop and buy her flowers. Even Freddy accidentally knocked over her basket in his rush, but when he apologized, Eliza was upset by his lack of manners. It was then that Pickering appeared, and Eliza saw an opportunity to make a sale. But all Pickering had was a few coins, barely enough for a bouquet. As a bystander pointed out that Higgins was taking note of everything Eliza said, she accused him of being an undercover policeman. In response, Higgins explained that he could transform her "kerbstone English" into proper aristocratic speech in just three months. Pickering, who introduced himself as a student of Indian dialects, was intrigued by the idea, and the two arranged to have dinner.

As Eliza tried to get some money from Pickering to pay for her lodging, he realized he still had no change and left. Higgins then accused Eliza of lying, and in a fit of anger, she threw her basket on the ground. The clock struck, and it reminded Higgins of his lack of charity towards Eliza. Feeling remorseful, he threw some money into her basket and followed Pickering, leaving Eliza in awe as she picked up the coins.

In conclusion, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is a satirical play that delves into the topics of social class, language, and the transformative power of education. Through the characters of Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering, Shaw highlights the importance of empathy and sensitivity towards others, regardless of their social status.

The Language Experiment: Eliza's Transformation Continues

Eliza returned home in a cab, counting the coins she had collected from her sales. The next day, she arrived at Professor Higgins' house, interrupting his demonstration of his phonetics equipment to Colonel Pickering. She begged to be taught how to speak "genteel" and offered to pay for lessons with the money Higgins had given her.

The two men came up with a wager - Pickering bet that Higgins couldn't pass Eliza off as a lady at the ambassador's garden party. Excited by the challenge, Higgins accepted, confident in his ability to transform Eliza's speech. He declared that he could do it in three months, if she had a good ear and a quick tongue. And so, their experiment began right then and there.

Eliza's cleanliness was now entrusted to Mrs. Pearce, who was instructed to use the household soap Monkey Brand if necessary. While she was being groomed, a new visitor arrived - Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle. He had come to ask for money from Higgins, assuming that his daughter had been taken away. When Eliza returned, clean and dressed in a Japanese kimono, her father didn't even recognize her at first. She explained that he had come to collect money for drinking, not to take her away.

In a rare moment of generosity, Higgins gave Doolittle five pounds on the condition that Eliza could stay. As she tried on her new clothes, Higgins and Pickering marveled at the challenging task they had taken on. Meanwhile, Mrs. Higgins was busy writing at her drawing-room table. In Shaw's detailed description, the room was adorned with elements of the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as Burne Jones prints, William Morris fabrics, and Chippendale furniture.

When Mrs. Higgins' son Henry arrived, boasting about his success with Eliza, she agreed to let them try her out at her at-home day. These days were kept free on the calendar for visitors, as it was a popular social activity to visit people's homes. Just as Higgins was discussing Eliza's progress, their guests arrived - Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill, followed by Freddy Eynsford Hill.

As Eliza was announced, she astounded everyone with her perfect pronunciation and unorthodox figures of speech. When asked about the weather, she confidently replied with a detailed forecast. And when the conversation turned to health, she darkly mentioned her aunt dying from influenza and her belief that she was "done in". As the guests marveled at her impeccable manners and speech, Freddy remarked, "You do it so awfully well."

As the conversation continued, Higgins signaled for Eliza to leave by coughing and checking his watch. She then gracefully exited the room, leaving a lasting impression on the visitors. Freddy's sister, Clara, was convinced that Eliza's way of speaking was the latest fashion and even imitated her, with Higgins' encouragement.

The Perception of Transformation in Shaw's Pygmalion

After the last guest departed, Professor Higgins turned to his mother for her thoughts on Eliza's metamorphosis. Mrs. Higgins simply replied, "She is undeniably a triumph of your determination and system." Higgins then pointed out that Eliza would not fit in at a garden party due to his use of language. He proceeded to describe the intense teaching and training they had undertaken with Eliza. This reminded Mrs. Higgins of the Pygmalion myth and she humorously remarked that they were like "a pair of babies" playing with their live doll. However, she also attempted to make Higgins understand the potential consequences of his experiment with Eliza. Unfortunately, Higgins and his companion, Colonel Pickering, were too caught up in their own success to grasp the gravity of the situation. In fact, Pickering even suggested that there were numerous job opportunities available for Eliza. Frustrated, Mrs. Higgins exclaimed, "Oh!! Men, men, men!!!" After a long night at a ball where Eliza was disguised as a wealthy lady, she returned home exhausted and resigned. While Higgins and Pickering congratulated each other on their successful evening, they completely ignored Eliza. She tolerated their behavior until Pickering retired for the night. Then, she threw a tantrum and even hurled Higgins' slippers at him. When he demanded an explanation, Eliza unleashed her anger and frustration, expressing her desire to smash his face and even kill him. She also questioned why he did not leave her in the gutter where he found her. At first, Higgins dismissed her outburst and suggested that she get some rest. But when he brought up the possibility of finding a husband for Eliza, she reminded him of her past as a flower seller and how she refused to sell herself. Now, as a "lady," she felt out of place and wished that Higgins had never intervened in her life. This led to a heated argument and Eliza returning all the jewelry, including the ring, that Higgins had given her. Angrily, Higgins threw the ring on the floor and stormed off to bed. Eliza, feeling victorious, searched for the ring on the floor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Higgins sat at her writing table in the drawing room. In a state of panic, Higgins and Pickering burst in, realizing that Eliza was nowhere to be found. Mrs. Higgins suggested that their constant praise and disregard for Eliza may have frightened her. Just then, Eliza's father arrived, dressed as a gentleman. He scolded Higgins for ruining him by introducing him to middle-class society. As it turned out, Higgins had written to an eccentric millionaire in America about Doolittle, resulting in him inheriting a large sum of money. Doolittle now saw the flaws of middle-class morality and claimed that he now lived for others, not for himself.Meanwhile, Higgins, dressed to marry Eliza's stepmother, had a plan for taking care of Eliza's future. When Doolittle claimed that he was now responsible for Eliza, Higgins confidently declared that he had already paid him five pounds for her, absolving him of any responsibility. Shocked, Mrs. Higgins scolded her son and informed him that Eliza was upstairs. Doolittle left, and Eliza returned, looking comfortable and carrying her workbasket. She conversed with Colonel Pickering, thanking him for teaching her proper manners. However, she also admitted that she could not unlearn everything she had been taught and now felt like a stranger in her own country. Doolittle returned, inviting everyone to his wedding, and they all left, except for Higgins and Eliza. There was an uncertain reconciliation between them, and Mrs. Higgins came back to ensure that they were on their way to the wedding. Higgins ordered Eliza to buy him some gloves and a tie, but she refused and left. Mrs. Higgins offered to buy them for her son, but Higgins confidently declared that Eliza would buy them for him. They shared a kiss, and Mrs. Higgins left. Left alone, Higgins chuckled to himself, feeling self-satisfied. Shaw purposely left the ending open, with Higgins still laughing to himself. In the published version of the play, Shaw continued the story in a sequel, revealing the fate of the characters in the future.

The Aftermath of Transformation in Shaw's Pygmalion

In the end, Eliza marries Freddy and, with the support of Colonel Pickering, they open a flower shop. Despite her new business and family, Eliza still meddles with the household duties at Wimpole Street. In secret, she dreams of escaping to a deserted island with Higgins, away from all responsibilities, to see him behave like an ordinary man. However, despite her love for Freddy and Colonel Pickering, she does not feel the same affection towards her father or Higgins.

The Mysterious Ending of Pygmalion

In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.” These words, penned by Shaw over a century ago, still hold true in the play's ambiguous ending that leaves the audience wondering about the fate of the characters.

The Transformation of Eliza

At its core, Pygmalion is a story about transformation. Henry Higgins, a linguist and Eliza's mentor, takes on the task of turning the lowly flower girl into a duchess by molding her speech and appearance. This leads to Eliza's acceptance into high society and opens up new opportunities for her. However, the deeper message that Shaw conveys is that appearances can be deceiving, as Eliza is able to pass as a lady simply by changing her speech.

A Commentary on Society

Shaw was a strong advocate of equality and used Pygmalion to criticize the social conventions of his time. Through the character of Higgins, he highlights how social status is determined by factors such as speech and appearance, rather than one's true abilities. The scene at Mrs. Higgins' "at-home day," where Eliza is able to convince the guests of her high social standing solely through her speech, is a commentary on the superficial nature of society.

A Modern Fairy Tale

The play can also be seen as a fairy tale, with Eliza as the Cinderella figure and Higgins and Pickering as her fairy godmothers. However, the question of who her Prince Charming is remains unanswered. Is it the weak and infatuated Freddy, or the intellectually matched Higgins, who gives her freedom and independence?

Allegory and Literary Devices

Shaw cleverly weaves in literary devices, such as allegory, to add depth to the play's themes. The legend of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation, serves as a parallel to Higgins' transformation of Eliza. This also highlights the emotional detachment Higgins has towards Eliza, treating her as a mere object to shape and mold.

In the end, Shaw leaves the audience with an open-ended conclusion that serves as a cliffhanger. Will Eliza choose Freddy or Higgins? Or will she forge her own path? The decision is left to the audience to ponder and interpret.

The Legacy of Pygmalion

Pygmalion was first published in 1912 and performed in 1913. The character of Higgins is said to be based on real-life linguist Henry Sweet, adding another layer of intrigue to the play.

Overall, Pygmalion is a thought-provoking play that explores themes of transformation, social commentary, and conventions, while utilizing literary devices to deliver Shaw's messages. Its open-ended ending leaves a lasting impression on the audience and sparks discussions on the complexities of love, power, and society.

The Myth and Message of Pygmalion: A Satirical Commentary on Social Norms and Language

Pygmalion is a play that draws upon the Greek legend of a statue being transformed into a human woman. Written by George Bernard Shaw, it centers on the relationship between the phoneticist, Higgins, and the flower girl, Eliza, as he teaches her how to speak and behave like a duchess. However, the play's ending is left open-ended, leaving the audience to ponder over Eliza's future choices. A satirical commentary on societal norms and attitudes towards language, Pygmalion conveys the idea that one's speech should not determine their place in society.

The Transformation: From Myth to Play

The origins of Pygmalion can be traced back to the Greek myth of a king in Cyprus, who sculpted a woman out of ivory and prayed for her to be brought to life. In Shaw's version, Eliza is the "sculpture" that undergoes a transformation with the help of Higgins. Similar to the myth, the play explores the concept of transforming one's identity and status.

The Plot of Pygmalion

The play follows the journey of Eliza as she is taken under the wing of Higgins, who is determined to teach her proper speech and etiquette. Through rigorous training and social events, Eliza successfully becomes a duchess-like figure, proving that speech and behavior can be learned and mastered. However, as the play ends, Eliza's future remains uncertain, leaving room for interpretation and reflection.

The Message of Pygmalion

Pygmalion serves as a satirical commentary on societal norms and attitudes towards language. It challenges the idea that one's social standing and opportunities are determined by their speech and accent. Shaw's witty and provocative writing highlights the absurdity of such divisions and calls for a more inclusive society.

The Significance of Pygmalion

Aside from being a commentary on social issues, Pygmalion also highlights the power of transformation and the innate desire for change and growth. Eliza's evolution from a flower girl to a duchess-like figure showcases the potential for personal development and advancement. This serves as an inspiring message for the audience.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime