What are the themes discussed by George Bernard Shaw in Arms and the Man?

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Arms and the Man is an anti-war play wrapped within a romantic comedy. Its primary theme is the senselessness of war, and an important secondary theme is women’s burden in maintaining civil society during wartime.

As a pacifist, George Bernard Shaw frequently wrote and spoke against war. At the time...

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Arms and the Man is an anti-war play wrapped within a romantic comedy. Its primary theme is the senselessness of war, and an important secondary theme is women’s burden in maintaining civil society during wartime.

As a pacifist, George Bernard Shaw frequently wrote and spoke against war. At the time he wrote Arms, which premiered in 1894, the late nineteenth century saw Europe pushed and pulled by constant conflicts as alliances were formed, broken, and reformed; Germany vied with the expanding Austro-Hungarian empire, and a Franco-Russian alliance was formed in 1891.

The two male protagonists embody different kinds of bravery and cowardice in war. In addition, by making two of the central characters female and giving them opposite personalities, Shaw pointed out not only age differences, but class differences that shape women’s understanding of armed conflict. Raina matures—to the extent this is likely to occur in a comedy—as she moves from infatuation with the dashing soldier Sergius, through questioning his ability in battle, to a love for Bluntschli that includes admiration for his anti-war stance. While at first she branded him a coward and deserter, she comes to see his position as more principled than Sergius’s glory-seeking and unthinking jingoism.

Sergius is also exposed as hypocritical in his personal life. Although engaged to Raina, he flirts with the Petkoff family’s housemaid, Louka. The vain Sergius, who seems to be trying on identities that include brave soldier, refers to himself as “a half dozen Sergiuses” and to his own “handsome figure.” She plays a pivotal role in advancing the plot, both through gossip and her general outspokenness in challenging the class structure. Her desire to advance her position—which could be called social climbing—is one reason she rejects the family’s male servant, Nicola. While she and Sergius end up as a couple, whether their relationship is based on love remains unresolved.

At the play’s beginning, Raina, her mother Catherine, and Louka are in the Petkoff family home while the men are off at the front. Meanwhile they are responsible for keeping the homefires burning. Although Blunthschli turns out to be a noble character, his intrusion into Raina’s bedroom in act 1 shows the woman’s vulnerable position. In this theme, Shaw follows an established tradition of addressing war from a female perspective, dating back to ancient Greece and Euripides's play The Trojan Women.

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Shaw is also satirizing traditional notions of masculinity in this play and capitalism, too.  He suggests that war, capitalism, and sexism are all linked, all defining each each other.  Capitalism makes possible the machines of war, war turns boys into men, men find meaning about who they are by the wars they fight.  Shaw was a pacifist and a Fabian, which is a kind of socialist.  He was very interested in women's rights, and in understanding the roles of women he began to dramatize how notions of gender depend on other institutions in our culture.  In his play Mrs. Warren's Profession, for example, he explored how prostitution depended upon capitalism and restricted opportunities for women.

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One of the themes is the romanticism of war. Shaw satirizes the romantic ideas of war that seem to help glorify such a grim event. Because Bernard Shaw uses a comic tone, it is important to realize the horrific situation that the soldier had just endured. It seems as if he is trying to dispel the idea of the "hero" of war.

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