Candida by George Bernard Shaw is a problem play in the sense that it either challenges a posture or unveils an issue that is latent but persistent in society. In this case, the issue is the presentation of the role of women in a way that greatly differs from the rigid expectations bestowed upon them by society. In Shaw's generation, around 1890, women had to follow strict rules of prudence and decorum that would show the world that they were "virtuous."
Yet, the last decade of the 19th century, the start of the Progressive Era for women, brought with it deep social changes that began to manifest in the psyche of the people. Two questions posed by social reformers were as follows: In a changing society, will the strict roles imposed upon women also get a chance to change and expand into something better? Will women be forever relegated to the same roles in a society that is becoming more modern and seems to invite them to join in and become a part of the change?
Several works of literature from this time were already presenting female characters with personality traits that removed them almost completely from the idea of the Victorian "angel of the household." Take, for example, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which ranked higher than any other play in 1895, and included the peppery and feisty characters of Cecily and Gwendolen: two women who challenged the ideas of marriage, courtship, and even loyalty to their men.
To return to Shaw, the play Candida concerned itself with a similar gender-based topic (although it was produced before Wilde's play, in 1890). It deals with a woman, Candida, who cannot be placed in the social mold in which women were intended to be placed.
- Candida was not portrayed as a typical "damsel in distress."
- She is not portrayed as helpless or clueless or in need of a man's guidance.
- In her marriage, she was obviously the stronger character when compared to her husband.
- She takes on a lover and still lets him go, choosing her husband in the end, "the weaker of the two men."
- There is no intense romance that makes Candida lose her mind or lose her sense of self, as we see in Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, for example. Conversely, Candida is more coolheaded than her own husband, who even seems overwhelmed by her strong personality—even though she owes most of her personality to him and his guidance.
These factors really make Candida clash with the idea of "what women should be." The reason why Shaw is bringing this up is because he wants to converse with the social progressives of his time, and he wants to present the argument that women are much more than just docile, marriageable creatures; they feel, want, need, suffer, desire, and love just like any other human being and deserve to be acknowledged for it.