Pygmalion Questions and Answers
by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion book cover
Start Your Free Trial

How does Shaw criticize the British class system in his play Pygmalion?

Expert Answers info

Kathryn Draney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2015

write109 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Law and Politics, and History

  • In his play Pygmalion, Shaw criticizes the British class system by depicting situations that show that it is nurture, not nature, that influences the worth of a person.
  • For example, Eliza is transformed and fools high society, proving that her poor genes do not actually affect how society views her if she wears the right clothes and acts the right way.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2016

write11,347 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

Shaw skewers and satirizes (makes fun of) the British class system in Pygmalion through its protagonist, Eliza Doolittle. A class-based ideology asserts that certain people are naturally better than others because of who their parents are. Henry Higgins, through Eliza, shows that it is nurture, not nature (parentage) that determines worth. Higgins takes on Eliza, an uneducated, lower-class flower seller who lives a marginal life in ragged clothes, rents a cold room and has never seen a bathtub. He cleans her up, dresses her in fine clothes, and, most of all, teaches her to speak proper English. He then introduces her into British society as an upper-class woman. His peer group falls for Eliza completely: her conquest of the British ruling class is unchallenged.

Shaw also uses Higgins to attack the British class system. Higgins, as a typical representative of his class, is cruel, cold-hearted and uses lower-class people like Eliza as conveniences that can be thrown away indifferently when he is finished with them. He feels no responsibility toward his fellow man or towards conditions in England that leave so many people poor.

Finally, Shaw skewers middle-class moral hypocrisy through Mr. Doolittle, Eliza's father, a poor street sweeper who comes into money. Shaw is at pains to show that Doolittle's reformed moral character has nothing to do with innate traits he was born with and everything to do with how much money he has. As Doolittle and Shaw fully understand, the moral judgments of the middle class, such as insisting the poor behave in a "deserving" and servile manner, function primarily as a way to keep the poor oppressed.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial