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Essay on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
“Pygmalion was written to challenge the class system, traditional stereotypes and the audience’s own views.”
To what extent can this statement be considered true of the play?
“Pygmalion both delighted and scandalized its first audiences in 1914… It is… a barbed attack on the British class system and a statement of Shaw’s feminist views.” The play proves this quotation in Act One, where Clara, an upper class lady, says to her brother Freddy, “It’s too tiresome. Do you expect us to go and get one ourselves?” This quotation shows that women expect the man to fetch a cab. In the late 1800s until about the mid 1900s it was expected for the man to get wet in the rain searching for a cab while the women waited in the dry.
Pygmalion is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is about a sculptor, Pygmalion, who falls in love with the statue he created. In the myth, Aphrodite brings the statue alive, but Pygmalion forgets that as the statue is now human, she has a mind of her own. You can see how George Bernard Shaw has incorporated the myth into his play, where Higgins is so into making Eliza speak correctly, so she can pass as a duchess so he wins his bet against Pickering, he forgets that Eliza has feelings of her own and her own opinions and thoughts, that she can simply walk out if she wants to.
The upper classes stereotyped how the lower classes lived. They believed they were uncouth and stupid and called them names such as “baggage” and “blackguard.” Professor Higgins calls Eliza a “squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language.” Also, in Act One, when Eliza is leaving Covent Garden for Drury Lane, she stops a taxi and says “I’m going home in a taxi!” The driver tries to hold the door shut against Eliza, but she shows him that she has enough money for the fare. The driver obviously thinks that Eliza is a prostitute and still charges her tuppence extra, but, when they arrive at Drury Lane, the taxi driver humiliates her by not taking the money. He says: “Keep the shilling… with love from all at home.” This shows that he thinks Eliza is below him and doesn’t believe that she can afford the taxi fare.
As we can see from how Shaw portrays Higgins, Shaw is very much a feminist. We can see that in this quotation: “Women upset everything. When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you're driving at another.” This quotation comes from when Higgins and Pickering are discussing women in Act II. This proves that Shaw is a feminist, but it also proves that Shaw is trying to highlight what the upper class are really like, that they are not fair and reasonable, they are belligerent, mean and malicious.
In Shaw’s time of living, there were three classes, the Upper Class, the Middle Class and the Lower Class. The upper class were the social elite, going to all the parties and balls, owning the large houses, traveling in taxis and living like the lower class could only dream of. The middle class was the class in between upper class and lower class. They might work for the upper class, being relatively well paid in their job, which might be as butler, or housekeeper. The middle class were able to get these jobs as they had had proper education, at private schools, unlike the lower class. The lower class couldn’t afford education, and only the luckiest lower class person could read or write. Unlike the upper class, who would learn to read and write French or Latin, the lower class could not even afford to learn how to read and write their native language. Shaw portrays the class system as corrupt, highlighting how the classes lived, and how the upper class, in reality, had no idea of how the lower class actually lived.
People treat Eliza typically of how the upper class treat the lower class. When Freddy knocks into Eliza, we see that he doesn’t help pick up her basket, like a polite gentleman should; instead he just says “Sorry!” and carries on running to hail a cab for his sister and mother. This shows that the upper class just ignore the lower classes, thinking of them as ‘dirt under their feet’ instead of human beings, just like them, who also have a life to live. Freddy doesn’t seem to realize that just running into Eliza and knocking her flower basket onto the ground, may have cost her a days ‘pay’ from selling her flowers in Covent Garden.
Higgins also treats Eliza in the typical upper class – lower class way. He calls her a “Squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language.” Also, when Eliza goes to Higgins to request lessons in how to speak formal English, he says: “Why, this is the girl I jotted down last night. She’s no use… [To the girl] Be off with you: I don’t want you.” This proves that Higgins has already forgotten what he promised Eliza the night before, obviously expecting Eliza to not remember, or just expecting her not to bother coming to him. Whenever Higgins talks to Eliza, he talks down to her, treating her like she is stupid. “Not tǝ-yee, mind: if I ever hear you ever say bǝ-yee cǝ-yee dǝ-yee again you shall be dragged round the room three times by the hair of your head.” This proves that as Higgins knows that the lower class, for example Eliza, does not get education, he contradicts her speech and instead of thinking of Eliza’s colloquial English as another dialect, he thinks of it as an inferior version of English.
Instead of writing a biography of his life and his views, Shaw wrote a play, choosing instead to subtly portray his views through the character’s speech and actions. Shaw seems to play slightly with Higgins’ character, sometimes writing Higgins’ speech toward Eliza kind and courteous, other times writing Higgins’ speech to her as cruel and callous. “Somebody is going to touch you, with a broomstick, if you don’t stop sniveling. Sit down… Here [he offers her his silk handkerchief]! ” This shows that Shaw is varying Higgins’ character, making Higgins appear as volatile and capricious as the weather. Shaw likes to show his opinions about women and how they are treated by men through how Higgins treats Eliza. Higgins can be very patronizing towards Eliza, for example: “What on earth will she want with money... She’ll only drink if you give her money... She’s incapable of understanding anything.” This shows that he has ideas of what the lower classes are like and how they live. He automatically assumes that money Eliza earns, she will squander on alcohol, and he also assumes that she doesn’t know anything.
At the beginning of the play, Bernard Shaw shows us how the upper class should treat the lower class through Colonel Pickering. When Higgins is being very patronizing to Eliza, Pickering says, “Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?” This shows that Pickering does have some respect for Eliza, even though she is of a lower status than him, but he still says “the girl” instead of Miss Doolittle, or Eliza which shows that he knows his place, and his place is higher in the social hierarchy than Eliza’s. At the end of the play, Pickering starts to become more like Higgins, patronizing Eliza, and acting like he was much higher above Eliza. A quotation at the beginning is “[very courteous] Won’t you sit down?” while a quotation at the end is “[to Higgins] Still, it’s been a great occasion, a triumph to you. Goodnight. [he goes]” This proves that he doesn’t bother complimenting Eliza on how well she has done, and does not even say goodnight to her, only congratulating and addressing Higgins. This type of behavior is more similar to how Higgins acts, not Pickering.
Through Eliza, Shaw shows how the lower classes live and react to how the upper classes treat them. Eliza is quite radical and stands up to what she believes in. Eliza has a very strong character and tries her best to stand up to Higgins, even though he patronizes her and tries to lead her on. “Oh, we are proud! He aint above giving lessons, not him… If my money’s not good enough I can go somewhere else… It’s a lie: nobody ever saw the sign of liquor on me.” This shows that Eliza is insulted at Higgins’ accusation that if she was given money she would only spend it on alcohol, instead of saving it or spending it on something worthwhile. Where Liza says “And if my money’s not good enough I can go somewhere else” shows that if Higgins doesn’t want to help her, or is going to over charge her, she is willing to go somewhere else, where she will be more respected.
Mrs Pearce is middle class, which is also known as working class. She is of a higher status of Eliza, but she is of a lower status than Higgins and Pickering. This means that she can order Eliza round, and scold Eliza, but she must know her place when she is with Higgins and Pickering, as they are upper class, meaning they are of a higher eminence than Mrs Pearce. “[To Higgins] A young woman wants to see you sir… [To Eliza] You know you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re… dirty… outside.” This quotation shows that Mrs Pearce respects Higgins but is quite strict towards Eliza, showing her class, above Eliza, but below Higgins.
Shaw highlighted the errors in people’s ideas of how the lower classes lived, and highlighted all the social prejudice, including stereotypical views of women and of the poor. Instead of writing a book about the prejudice and stereotyping, Shaw used the characters in his play, Pygmalion, to put forward his opinions. Pygmalion also showed that whatever class you were in, whether you were born rich or poor, you had a chance to succeed, as we can see with Mr Doolittle and Eliza, where Doolittle is given money by Ezra D. Wannafeller and becomes middle class. When Doolittle ‘sells’ Eliza to Higgins for £5, Higgins offers him £10 and Doolittle says, “Ten pounds is a lot of money: it makes a man feel prudent like; and then goodbye to happiness.” This proves that lower class people felt that if they were to have more money than they needed then they would lose who their personality and become a stereotypical upper class person, having to stay without the higher class’s boundaries and following the rules.
Pygmalion did contradict the audience’s views, as the type of people who would read Pygmalion or see it in the theater would be the upper class, as the middle class and the lower class wouldn’t be able to afford it. The upper class were outraged at Shaw’s accusations and portrayals of the upper class. “Pygmalion… scandalized it’s… audiences in 1914.” This quotation is absolutely true; Pygmalion teaches us how the upper class ostracized the lower class, and the outrageous and demoralizing way in which the lower class were treated. Pygmalion did challenge the traditional stereotypical views of the 20th century and the class system. Mostly, Shaw explains to us through Higgins, where Higgins is being condescending, contradicting and demoralizing towards Eliza, including where he says: “I wonder where… my slippers are! ‘Eliza looks at him darkly; then rises suddenly and leaves the room… Eliza returns with a pair of… slippers… Higgins…catches sight of the slippers… and looks at them as if they has appeared there of their own accord.’” This shows that Eliza is annoyed at having to fetch Higgins’ slippers for him when he does not even notice that she has brought them to him.