What are some examples of humor in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion contains many examples of humor; the play lampoons the rigid British class system of the Victorian era.

Because this play satirizes the types that the characters represent, the personage of Professor Henry Higgins is that of the intellectual who is impatient with society and prone to sarcasm. When Colonel Pickering proposes a wager that he can teach the flower girl they encounter to speak so well that she will fool the upper class at the ambassador's garden party, Higgins looks at Liza and is tempted. 

This dialogue between Higgins and Pickering in act 2 demonstrates sarcasm:

HIGGINS [tempted, looking at her] It's almost irresistible! She's so deliciously low—so horribly dirty—
LIZA [protesting extremely] . . . I ain't dirty: I washed my face and hands afore I come, I did.
PICKERING You're certainly not going to turn her head with flattery, Higgins.

Professor Higgins grows excited at the prospect of molding "a guttersnipe" into a fake "duchess." He tells Mrs. Pearce, his housekeeper, to take Liza away and "clean her." He also instructs Mrs. Pearce to burn Liza's clothes. Then he instructs Mrs. Pearce to call his servants and have them procure new clothes. In the meantime, he dismissively suggests that Mrs. Pearce simply "[Wrap] her up in brown paper" until these clothes arrive.

Further, Shaw satirizes the upper-class snobbery when Pickering asks Higgins if it has ever occurred to him that "the girl has some feelings."

HIGGINS [looking critically at her] Oh no, I don't think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about. [Cheerily] Have you, Eliza?

Ironic humor is also part of Shaw's satire, and, in act 3, there is this irony when Shaw ridicules the falseness of the upper class when Higgins has Liza come to his mother's house where she has invited some guests. The guests are impressed with the loveliness of Liza, who poses as Miss Doolittle. The conversation goes well until Mrs. Eynsford Hill brings up the subject of influenza, and Liza comments that her aunt died of influenza. However, Liza, who falls back into her own dialect, adds that she thinks those with whom her aunt lived were responsible for "doing her in" because this same aunt had survived diphtheria.

When Mrs. Hill asks what "doing her in" means, Higgins quickly "explains" that this is the "new small talk" for killing her. Liza continues to speak in her real dialect, elaborating upon her aunt's death. She explains the relationship her uncle had with her aunt, saying his conscience always bothered him while he was sober, but if he had "a drop of booze," he became happy. Unfortunately, when his wife came down with influenza, he kept "ladling gin down her [the aunt's] throat until the poor woman sat up, bit the spoon, and died." Among her listeners is Freddy Eynsford Hill, the son of the lady to whom Liza speaks. He is delighted, believing that she is conversing figuratively and colorfully.

FREDDY The new small talk. You do it so awfully well.

Professor Higgins clears his throat nervously as he rises from his chair, and Liza quickly glances at him and understands.

LISA Well I must go. So pleased to have met you. Goodbye.
FREDDY. [opening the door for her] Are you walking across the Park, Miss Doolittle? If so—
LIZA Not bloody likely. . . . I am going in a taxi.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL (After the door closes.) Well, I really can't get used to the new ways.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An overarching example of the play's humor comes from how easily British society believes Eliza Doolittle, a lower class flower seller, is a member of the upper classes based on her new accent and clothing, giving lie to the idea that social class is inborn.

Shaw finds more specific ways, however, to poke fun at the superficiality of the middle classes. When Higgins brings Eliza to his mother's to see if she will "pass" as middle class, the middle-class Eynesford Hills are there. They had previously scoffed at Eliza as a flower girl on the streets. Now they don't recognize her, but are in awe of her beauty when she presents as a middle-class lady. When she uses the vulgar term "bloody," comedy ensues when they think they should adopt the word as the latest fashion.

Shaw also has fun with the supposed gentility of the middle classes in this scene. Higgins presents as his usual rude, boorish self, sits on the edge of the writing desk, which threatens to break it, almost breaks the divan, insults the guests and gets away with it all because no one questions his class status.

Another example of humor comes through Eliza's father, Mr. Doolittle. When he receives a stipend that puts him in the middle class, rather than being happy about it, he does nothing but complain about the stresses of middle-class life: he has to behave respectably, he suddenly acquires all sorts of relatives who are after him for money, and doctors, now that he can pay, want to treat him for all sorts of medical conditions. He can't get a moment's peace.

Throughout the play, Shaw skewers middle-class pretensions.