Social Context of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw is considered one of the most prominent and known plays in the world. It was published in 1912 in the heart of the United Kingdom. The play addresses social, political, and economic changes experienced by the country during the Edwardian era. From the political point of view, the reign of King Edward VII introduced significant changes and allowed representatives of such social segments as women and common laborers to engage in the political life of the nation. Nevertheless, from the socio-economic perspective, the British society of the time was characterized by a very strict system of social classes. The majority of the countrys population was of the lower class and fewer belonged to the higher class; thus, the middle class did not exist as such. As a consequence of the urbanization and industrialization processes, the population was developing an increasing interest in socialist ideas. People demanded to improve the womens position in the society. Under these historical circumstances, Shaw strived to create a new form that would be distinctive from Victorian plays that he considered meaningless and superficial. According to his point of view, a drama has to communicate ideas and reveal conflicts but only regarding some important issues. Pygmalion is a famous example of Shaws artistic search, in which he satirically addresses burning issues of the Victorian age in terms of the social class, social identity, and the power of language.

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Bernard Shaws Pygmalion tells a story of a young cockney flower girl who turns into a true lady with the help of the phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. The young woman, Eliza Doolittle, desires to improve her life but has no means to achieve this aim. Her future is decided when she meets two gentlemen who are challenging each other about the significance of the dialect in the social standing of a person. One of the gentlemen Henry Higgins lay a wager with Colonel Pickering; he wants to help the flower girl to alter her speech and transform her into a duchess in a short time. Eliza Doolittle overhears their conversation and decides to accept the bet in the desire to change. The girl goes to Professor Higginss house the next morning with the offer to pay the professor to teach her to speak accurately, thus being able to be employed in a flower shop. In addition, Pickering is willing to pay for her expenses for the time she is engaged in the social experiment. Eventually, Eliza is taken to a party where she is a huge hit that makes lots of people believe she is a noble lady. However, when the experiment is over, the flower girl wonders whether and which society she could fit. It appears that Higgins has already accustomed to the place and role of the girl in his life; he takes her for granted. However, Eliza Doolittle has significantly changed; now, this strong woman has her point and leaves his house to be independent. Professor Pygmalion bids farewell to his Galatea Doolittle, and he is not sure whether she will come back or not.

Published in 1912, Pygmalion describes the British life of the beginning of the 20th century, which marked the end of the Victorian period. This historical period was defined by a peculiarly strict social hierarchy and one, which was starting to decay with the rise of the social mobility. This time was characterized by very strict and clear population division into the poor and the wealthy. This separation was so significant that the two groups rarely communicated and interacted. The people lived in different parts of the city, attended different social institutions, and seemed to live in different worlds. However, the wealthy and noble heroes were the ones to be particularly concerned with sustaining class distinctions; it meant more than the only distinction between the wealthy and poor. The play describes a story that happens in the 1900s in London, the heart of the huge British Empire that had a leading position in the world. Even though the society still supported a stiff social hierarchy, it experienced numerous social and political alternations. Primary, these changes considered social classes and their rights, as well as basic privileges and rights of females.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, women strived to change their reality of being disenfranchised and absolutely dependable on their men. The 20th century witnessed the rise of the feminist movement and a number of revolutions. Joint actions allowed females to acquire right to working, studying, and being equal. Suffragettes played a great role in changing the social and political life of the country. The organization was founded in 1903; it struggled for womens rights and general democratization of the society. The feminist organizations encouraged women to take part in the war, as well as study medicine and other disciplines to become the valuable professional. Moreover, females acquired the voting right; this achievement was extremely important.

The moods of that era were perfectly described in Shaw's comedy of manners that satirizes the habits and customs of the Victorian elite. The play shows a society that is divided by education, language, and wealth. Shaw provides some ideas for bridging that gap, both unsuccessful and successful. The author defines Londons society by only two terms: "the rich" and "the poor." Pygmalion shows the gap between the wealthy and poor and critiques social agreements of this historical period. The play is based on social and political diversities that characterize the mood of the era in the best manner. For example, the family of Eynsford Hill is wealthy, and Mrs. Eynsford Hill invites Mr. Higgins who is not so rich to visit many parties because of his occupation and knowledge. Moreover, the importance of social classes is emphasized at the moment when Higgins desires Eliza not to marry Freddy, a man of a much higher class. This separation of social classes in the play is significantly enforced by proper behavior, manners, and unwritten codes. Shaw's play explains how this system of social hierarchy works, as well as emphasized some challenges that it faces. Eliza tried to learn good manners and change her speech in order to get a better job and find a good match. Such a situation was impossible in the Victorian era; however, the 20th-century Britain allowed people to move over the classes on the basis of their knowledge and not the descent as it used to be before.

Pygmalion demonstrates that one's behavior and social class can be false in nature. Shaw explains this issue clearly but ironically; at some moments in the play, the characters of lower-class behave better in comparison with their upper-class, presumably well-mannered, counterparts. For example, the Act Five depicts Pickering explaining that Eliza pretended to be a noble lady better than the true noble ladies whom they encountered. In his turn, usually Mr. Higgins from the upper class seems rigid and even rude. Mrs. Pearce has to admonish him to think over his manners when being close to Eliza. As a result, her manners and behavior are better than his are. In such a way, the author wants to show the descent of a person means little since everyone can learn to become noble in this era of changes. Once again, Eliza's transformation demonstrates that nobility and manners can be mastered. Shaw wants to demonstrate that any social heights can be reached; one can be of any class if trying to perform in certain ways. A good example is Clara Eynsford-Hill; she notes that every person can choose a social class for him or her but everything depends on time, efforts, and desire. In such a manner, Shaw perfectly describes the changing nature of the era that allowed Eliza to choose to change her life just improving her manners and educational level.


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Despite the cruelty of the behavior and attitude of representatives of the higher class, which are described vividly in the play, Eliza and her father shows the opportunity of the social changeability. Not only Eliza transforms into an honorable lady but also her father becomes rich when inheriting a huge amount of money of the wealthy American woman, Ezra Wannafeller. Wannafeller represents the entire American nation that is a counterexample to the 20th-century England as the US managed to implement the American ideal of the social changeability. Here, a person can go up the social ladder thanks to hard work and efforts. This scene was used by Shaw to compare the two societies, the American and British ones, and encourage fellow citizens to change the status. For example, Mr. Doolittle was given money that allowed him to become a person of the middle class. Nevertheless, Mr. Doolittle himself disputes the assumption that this social movement is good. This example shows the reality of the middle class in contemporary England; these people had money but did not possess proper manners and behavior to join the elite. He continues to criticize the middle-class ethics and complains all the troubles and anxieties that his new fortune brings. In the end of the play, Eliza having become a higher class lady misses her past life of a flower-girl that was simple and straight. Consequently, Shaw's play challenges not only the validity of the cruel social theocracy but also the eligibility of the high social class.

The actions of Pygmalion take place in England that experiences the rise of feminist movements; women strive to secure some rights for all females. They just want to become equal to men at work, education, and public engagement, including voting. The play addresses the social theme of gender roles in the Victorian era. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce are largely limited by their families and households. However, those women represent the mannered and well-behaved females of the time. Mrs. Pearce runs Higgins' home and is on duty of his manners; while Mrs. Higgins picks up Eliza at the moment she leaves Pickering and Higgins, and assists in solving the main problem at the end of the play. Both characters demonstrate how females might help each other in the oppressive society of the age. However, despite any improvements of the women's place in the society, females cannot flee the limitations of the contemporary sexist world. Consequently, after the experiment, Eliza has to make her choice: whether to live with her father, to stay with Mr. Higgins, or to marry Freddy. Anyway, her future is under the male control. The play reveals a burning issue of this society, in which women strongly depended on men. Eliza tells Higgins that she wants some independence and freedom. However, despite being a strong person with clear desires, she does not obtain any self-determination in the play. Eliza has transformed, but it would require even more transformations of the society in the 20th century for a female like Eliza to acquire true independence.

Along with social themes, Shaw addresses the political issues of 20th-century England. At the time, politics were concerned with the armed and administrative issues, not paying much attention to the social problems of its citizens. Even in the period of Suffragettes movement, the politics reacted not immediately. As a result, it took the country long to change the attitude towards women and provide them with equal rights. Such social and political movements of the 1890s and 1900s imbued Shaw to write Pygmalion. Partially, the theatre was his tool to induce changes in England. The main characters in the play, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, represent conservatism and reform. Professor Higgins provides Eliza with the opportunity to alter her reprobate cockney behavior and become a true lady. However, it happens long after the publication of Pygmalion. All the changes of Eliza made to attain some independence were not successful. Even becoming educated, the woman had to obey the men.

Shaw reveals the true Higgins intentions concerning the young girl. In the play, Elizas father is a crucial character. Importantly, when Higgins sends Mr. Doolittle for Eliza, he is assured that the girl is of an age of interest. Pygmalion repeatedly reveals the dual nature of the connection between the social reform and young unmarried women. In this scene, the author shows the mindset of the Edwardian and Victorian time period, as well as clashing segments of the British society. Shaw is sure that revealing such thoughts in theatrical and comedic settings might revolutionize populous perceptions of people. During the play, there are various references to the Maiden Tribute as Shaw also left a twist at the end of the play. He was rather peculiar when he did not want Eliza to return to Higgins. Shaw attempted to show the girl as a self-determined and strong character. This issue is emphasized at the end of the play when Eliza rejects Higgins' marriage proposal. The young woman even threatens him that she will retain by telling that she will marry Freddy as soon as she will be able to support him. Shaws play ends when Eliza leaves and does not return to Higgins home. She wants to prove that despite limited options, she can make her choice as an independent individual. Shaw allowed the audience to understand and interpret his play in many different ways and utilized diverse scenes to make social and political claims.

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Pygmalion was written in the 20th century when England stood on the verge of the social and political transformation; thus, it reveals all problems facing the British society at that time. The society of the period was strongly concerned with the issues of class and social perceptions as people were separated by the social abilities they could demonstrate. Shaw places Eliza, the flower girl in the middle of social and political conflicts. Being a lower class girl, she wanted to achieve more in life; thus, she agreed to learn manners and change her dialect with the help of Mr. Higgins. Moreover, Shaw wants to demonstrate the issues of the gender inequality in the situation of Elizas inability to be independent but having to rely on her father or a future husband. However, the girls behavior reveals that the time of feminist movements to revolutionize the society and bring gender equality was to come in the nearest future. She wants to marry Freddy and support him despite all the difficulties and bans. Thus, Shaw in comedian and satirical way showed the contemporary society with its troubles, prejudice, and stereotypes. Also, one can note that the play is still relevant and depicts some peculiarities of the current society; this topic is to be researched in details.

Mar 4, 2021 in Literature
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