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Staged in the year of 1913, Pygmalion is one of the most recognized plays written by George Bernard Shaw (Ali et al., 2016). The title of the play was being inspired by the Greek play named The Legend of Pygmalion and Gelatea that narrates the ancient story of how Pygmalion feel in love with a sculpted image created by him, and while Pygmalion would be able to carve out something extraordinarily beautiful out of a stone, the Pygmalion of Shaw’s play, Higgins enhances the communication skill of Eliza, who develops her own soul and a sense of fierce independence from her creator or rather groomer here. The central action of the play revolves around the impoverished flower girl, Eliza who lacks an air of gentility or impeccable speech although she aspires to achieve the same for becoming professionally stronger, and a professor of phonetics Higgins, who being challenged by his friend decides to bring about the unthinkable transformation of Eliza (Karakwski et al., 2017).
It should be noted that the Pygmalion not only managed to emerge as one of the most appealing plays of the time, but it also intended to teach the audience about certain important aspects of the society. In fact, it is worthwhile to mention here that in the Preface of the play, Shaw claims that he intends to challenge those critics who believe that successful plays fail to have didactic content, as Pygmalion is essentially didactic in nature (Waeber, 2016). First of all, it should be noted that Shaw himself was essentially a socialist, who believed in the harmonious co-existence of different social classes, and scorned the idea of one class proclaiming its superiority over the other with respect to how they spoke (Batchelor et al., 2016). The specific use of dialect essentially represents the class an individual belongs to, and that is the actual reason why Eliza wishes her phonetic skills to be brushed. Shaw wanted the readers to be more generous towards each other, instead of having a judgmental attitude towards the speech and communication skills of other people. With the help of the character of Higgins, Shaw informs his readers that it is speech skill alone that intends to draw a broad line of demarcation between the aristocratic Duchess and an ordinary flower girl. Even if Shaw was not teaching his readers the importance of equal distribution of wealth in the Marxist way, he successfully taught the readers the importance of treating each one with equal respect and dignity (Thadani, 2016). For being a flower girl, Eliza is often accused of being a prostitute, while Higgins’s mother regards her to be an object of contempt till the end. Shaw wanted his audience to understand as Higgins would put forth later, that it is nurture, and not nature that determines the worth and dignity of an individual in the prevalent society. Shaw challenges the ideas of social superiority of the British society by showing how after being trained and groomed, the flower girl could also easily imbibe the so called virtues of an upper class woman (Chan, 2015).
Besides, being a feminist, Shaw also tries to teach his readers the importance of respecting women with dignity. Shaw’s heroine, Eliza is the modern Galatea who challenges the ideals of her creator, and refuses to live by his orders. Eliza is a woman whose new, confident being is definitely being created by Professor Higgins, and yet she refuses to live in compliance with the male figure of authority (Reynolds, 2016). The Western myth has always spoken of the existent binary among men and women whereby the former essentially holds a superior position over the latter. In accordance with this myth, Eliza’s transformation is more of a challenge for the man, Higgins whereby the woman is being necessarily objectified. However, although Eliza is being trained to speak in a more refined language, her topics are limited to ideas such as health and weather. Shaw intends to show, through the characterization of Eliza, the importance of challenging male ideals, and living life in one’s own terms (Ali, 2016). That is why, at the end, Eliza rejects Higgins for Freddy, thereby asserting her own freedom to choose and decide for herself. While the popular audience wanted a pleasant happy ending to the play, Shaw refused to show the reconciliation of Eliza with her creator. Eliza refuses to embrace the role of the insignificant “other” for Higgins, and blatantly refuses the idea of staying in his “doll’s house”. Her single act of departure at the end challenges the male hierarchical supremacy the society believes in. Shaw intends to tell the readers that it is important to treat women with respect, and it is highly imperative for modern women to get themselves educated, and lead a life of meaning, through self-realization of worth (Karakowsky et al., 2013).
Pygmalion just like Shaw’s other plays is not merely a play that narrates a story, but it essentially captures ideas which he wants to convey to a wider group of audience through his play. Pygmalion is apparently a simple play that shows an ordinary flower girl gaining necessary speech skills that enable her to challenge the class system of the prevalent society. The first and foremost important idea that Shaw deals with here is the idea of an individual’s position in a social set-up that is being judgmental to the individual based on the economic class or gender it belongs to, or the dialect it speaks (Chan, 2015). The play examines how lack of proper articulation and social grace in the working class people is being made a fact of mockery and derision by the upper strata of the society. In case the higher strata come down to help the underprivileged people like Eliza, it is only because of their own personal accomplishments and selfish interests. A white collar gentleman, Higgins grooms Eliza only because he wanted to brag of his teaching expertise before his friend, Pickering, and not because he cared for her. He used her as an object, and that becomes clearly evident when he blatantly refuses to assist Eliza to pursue her career stating: “How the devil do I know what’s to become of you?”. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels also pointed out how the bourgeoisie people would exploit the proletariats for their own benefits, and would look after them as long as their labour serves their personal interests and selfish motives. The pathetic cry of Eliza to achieve social meaning in life is laid out when she creams in vain:
“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated”.
The West has witnessed a sudden surge of Feminism in the 1960s onwards, whereby the women started challenging the patriarchal meta-narratives handed down to them over the ages. A woman is being objectified in the society, and here also Shaw shows how the society tends to objectify Eliza time and again (Reynolds, 2016). While she is being treated as a prostitute by some, she is being treated as an object of experiment to win bait over a friend, by Higgins. One of the important ideas here is that the play continually shows how women are being used for their own benefits by the people, who are indifferent to acknowledge the female will. However, at the very same time, Shaw also puts forth the idea that it is only through proper education can a woman gain access to her rights and privileges. Through her training by Higgins, Eliza does succeed in her efforts to metamorphose herself from being a mere flower girl into the “duchess” she dreams of becoming. This not only provides her with the necessary social prestige and dignity, but helps her emerge as a self-reliant, professional woman, whose personal evolution demonstrates her capability to survive life in her own terms (Thadani, 2016). At the end of the play, Eliza realizes that she does not need Higgins to make her life fulfilling, and she refuses to stay with her, and Shaw successfully shows how a woman if nurtured well and educated properly, can easily challenge and vanquish the patriarchal social set-up (Pirnajmuddin & Arani, 2013).
Education is also an important idea employed by Shaw in the play. In this play, Shaw shows how education implies true liberation, as it is a tool that helps a working class woman emancipate herself from the stereotypical barriers of her society. However, an important idea underlying the play is that education is meaningless, if it is not accompanied by the learner’s courage to question and transcend the age old ideas passed on to him over the ages. Here, despite being educated by her Pygmalion, Eliza does not show unnecessary gratitude or compliance to the orders of her master (Gregory, 2017). Rather she learns to challenge the very foundation of what her teacher instructs her to do, and her rejection to comply with the wish of her ‘master’ paves way for her true liberation and enlightenment, the desired outcome of education (Gilbert, 2013).
To conclude, it should be remembered that Pygmalion is one of the most remarkable plays of Shaw, and the popularity of the play is not accredited to its theme of social exploitation and challenge of social order, but to the playwright’s capacity to exhibit a series of ideas. While the play gives an insight into the social generalities of the time, and the contemporary parochial thoughts of people, it also highlights the importance of challenging such stagnant social ideals by pursuing proper education.
Ali, A. E. S. H. (2016). Investigating The Social Conflict Between Upper Class And Lower Class In Pygmalion Play By G B. Shaw (Doctoral dissertation, Sudan University of Science and Technology).
Batchelor, G. S. E. (2016). Pygmalion.
Chan, S. K. Y. (2015). Identity and Mobility: Move Over, Mrs. Markham! and Pygmalion. In Identity and Theatre Translation in Hong Kong (pp. 181-201). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Gahan, P. (2017). 1905: Poverty, Salvation and the Poor Law Commission. In Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb on Poverty and Equality in the Modern World, 1905–1914 (pp. 11-18). Springer International Publishing.
Gilbert, W. S. (2013). Created in Our Own Images. com. Pygmalion and Galatea (1876). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 82, 1037-1042.
Gregory, F. (2017). Hybrid Creatures: Mrs Patrick Campbell’s Contributions to Pygmalion. Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 1748372716650204.
Karakowsky, L., DeGama, N., & McBey, K. (2017). Can Professor Higgins be replaced? Gender bias in the Pygmalion phenomenon. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 32(1).
Li, K. (2016). Chinese Film Adaptations of Shaw’s Plays. In Bernard Shaw’s Bridges to Chinese Culture (pp. 125-139). Springer International Publishing.
Mishra, N. (2016). Feminism in the plays of George Bernard Shaw Pygmalion Candida Saint Joan and Mrs Warren Profession.
Pirnajmuddin, H., & Shahpoori Arani, F. (2013). The play of codes and systems in pygmalion: Bernard Shaw and Roland Barthes. 3L; Language, Linguistics and Literature, The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies., 19(3), 21-34.
Reynolds, J. (2016). Shaw's Pygmalion: The Play's the Thing. Shaw, 36(2), 238-255.
Thadani, D. (2016). Eliza-Higgins Relationship in Pygmalion. Motifs: An International Journal of English Studies, 2(2), 110-113.
Waeber, J. (2016). A'HISTORICALLY INFORMED'PYGMALION. Eighteenth-Century Music, 13(1), 148.
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