What does "arms and the man" mean? 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title "arms and the man" is taken from the opening line of Virgil's Aeneid, "arma virumque cano" (Latin for "I sing of arms and the man"). In Virgil's poem, it signifies that the work belongs to an epic tradition, telling a tale of an ancient hero and brave and heroic deeds.

The "man" of the phrase is Aeneas, the Trojan prince, who, fleeing the fall of Troy, became the mythical founder of Rome. When Shaw was writing his play, every member of the audience was likely to have studied Virgil in school and the educated audience members would have read Virgil in Latin, a language at this period still required for admission to Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Shaw is using the phrase somewhat ironically as Captain Bluntschli is a pragmatic mercenary rather than a legendary figure. On a more profound level though, Shaw is suggesting that his play represents a deeper reality of war and its effects on participants and civilians than epic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title is an allusion to the first line of Vergil's Aeneid. In English, the line translates as "I sing of arms and the man." In Vergil, "the man" is, of course, Aeneas, and "arms" refers to the Trojan War & Aeneas' journey from Greece.

Because Shaw's play is a satire, the title should be looked at ironically. Rather than praising "arms" & the men who use them, Shaw is dissecting the reality of war, showing the futile nature of taking up arms. The characters in Shaw's play, especially Major Sergius Saranoff, serve to underscore the traditional heroism in war of the epic. Saranoff becomes a caricature, desperately clinging to his romanticized ideal of a hero. He struggles to be defined as one himself, but Shaw uses the character to instead suggest that no man could compare to a mythological hero in reality.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial