Candida Summary

Candida is an 1894 play by George Bernard Shaw.

  • Candida is the wife of the Reverend James Mavor Morell. Eugene Marchbanks, an eighteen-year-old poet whom Morell had found sleeping outside the previous year and brought home, falls in love with her.
  • The play then follows the love triangle as Candida is forced to choose between her husband and her lover. She ultimately chooses her husband, explaining that he needs her love more than Marchbanks does.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Act 1

It is “a fine October morning” in the suburbs of Victorian London. The Reverend James Mavor Morell—a “first rate” “Christian Socialist clergyman of the Church of England”—is working in his drawing room in St. Dominic’s parsonage with his secretary, Miss Proserpine Garnett. Morell’s windows look out onto Victoria Park, an “oasis” in the “desert of unattractiveness” that is his neighborhood. As Morell and Proserpine attempt to find a day in Morrell’s schedule for him to give a lecture, it becomes evident that he is a very busy man and lectures often. The Reverend Alexander Mill, who is Morell’s curate and whom the other characters call “Lexy,” arrives, late for work. He is surprised to hear that Morell’s wife, Candida, is returning early from her vacation with her children and expresses concern about catching measles from the children. Morell praises his wife and suggests that Lexy find a wife for himself, as Morell believes marriage to be a great blessing. After Morell leaves, Proserpine voices her annoyance at Morell’s constant praise of Candida to Lexy. Lexy defends Candida’s beauty; Proserpine accuses him of thinking her jealous of Candida. 

Mr. Burgess, Candida’s father, arrives to visit Morell, and Proserpine and Lexy leave. Burgess and Morell do not get along, and this is the first time that Burgess has visited in three years. They begin an old argument: Morell had criticized Burgess for paying his employees extremely low wages and had prevented him from acquiring a large contract. Though Burgess has now raised his employees’ pay, Morell sees that it is not because of a true reformation. He calls Burgess “an apostate with [his] coat turned for the sake of a County Council contract,” and Burgess accuses him of having an “hunforgivin’” (unforgiving) spirit. Still, they are able to find common ground.

The two men have just resolved their dispute when Candida appears. She is accompanied by Eugene Marchbanks, an eighteen-year-old poet whom Morell had found sleeping outside the previous year and brought home. Burgess is eager to meet Marchbanks, having learned that Marchbanks is the nephew of an earl. Marchbanks is a timid man—he struggles to talk to strangers and gets nervous about tipping cab drivers. Burgess leaves for the train, and Candida goes to look over the state of the house. Insisting that he cannot stay for lunch, Marchbanks emotionally tells Morell that he loves Candida. Morell laughs at this, calling it “a case of calf love.” Marchbanks retorts that Candida’s soul craves “reality, truth, freedom” but instead received “sermons” and “mere rhetoric.” They argue violently, and Morell orders Marchbanks to leave. Candida returns as Marchbanks is walking out the door, and she insists that he stay for lunch. Marchbanks agrees.

Act 2

Marchbanks is alone in Morell’s drawing room. Proserpine enters, and Marchbanks reflects on the difficulty of expressing one’s longings. Though irritated by Marchbanks’s poetic monologues, Proserpine is strongly affected and implies that she herself is in love. She refuses to confess whom she is in love with, but Marchbanks realizes it is Morell. Marchbanks asks if it is possible for a woman to love Morell, who has “nothing in him but… pious resolutions.” Proserpine resolutely replies, “Yes.”

Burgess comes in, and he and Proserpine exchange some unpleasant words before she is called away. When Morell enters the drawing room, he is delighted at Proserpine’s reported frankness. Marchbanks expresses horror at the fact that Candida is doing household chores. Candida arrives, and Morell grows concerned about Marchbanks’s ability to counter his arguments and begins to see the younger man as a possible threat to his marriage. Candida worries that Morell is working too hard; when everyone else but Morell has left the drawing room, she expresses her concern. Candida asserts that everyone, including Proserpine, is in love with Morell. She feels that her love might be more suitable for a man without so much love—someone like Marchbanks, perhaps. This upsets Morell greatly. 

Morell had canceled the lecture he was supposed to give that night. It is the first time the others can ever remember him canceling an event, but he explains that he simply wanted “ONE night at home, with [his] wife, and [his] friends.” It is implied that Morell has canceled his appearance in order to keep an eye on Marchbanks and Candida. However, he changes plans again, and in order to test Candida and Marchbanks’ love for each other, Morell agrees to give his lecture and leave them at home alone. 

Act 3

Candida and Marchbanks are sitting by the fire, and he is reading poetry to her. When Marchbanks realizes he is boring her and puts his poetry aside, Candida encourages him to state his true feelings. She wants him to speak from his “real self,” not “a gallant attitude, a wicked attitude, or even a poetic attitude.” By the time Morell returns home, Marchbanks has not yet told Candida that he loves her. Candida leaves to inform the maid that she may go home for the night, and Morell asks Marchbanks if he revealed his sentiments. Marchbanks replies that he did not and exclaims, “Oh, you are not worthy to live in the same world with her.” As Marchbanks expresses his confusion at why Candida married Morell and praises her in poetic terms, Morell becomes impatient and demands to know what happened while he was gone. Marchbanks responds that he “wanted nothing more than the happiness of being in such love,” and Morell realizes that Candida’s true sentiments toward Marchbanks are still unknown. Morell fears that if Candida leaves him for Marchbanks, she will have no one to protect her. Marchbanks contradicts this notion, claiming that it is Candida who wants someone to protect—and that that person should be himself.

Marchbanks urges Morell to call Candida to the drawing room so that she may choose between them. Candida enters, sees Morell’s distress, orders Marchbanks to stop upsetting him, and declares that she “will protect him.” After a brief interruption from Lexy, Burgess, and Proserpine, who have been at dinner, Morell informs Candida of his argument with Marchbanks and insists that she make her choice. Candida, stating that it appears she is “up for auction,” asks both men to make a “bid.” Morell offers his strength, provision, and authority; Marchbanks offers his “weakness” and “heart’s need.” Candida declares that she gives herself “to the weaker of the two.” Marchbanks realizes that Candida has chosen her husband.

Candida, having made her decision, urges Morell and Marchbanks to sit down so she can explain. Though Marchbanks has lived a life “without comfort or welcome or refuge,” Morell needs her love more than he does. To Morell, Candida is “mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one.” She states that she “make[s] him master here, though he does not know it,” which Morell gladly affirms. Candida has chosen Morell because he needs her care more than Marchbanks does, for Marchbanks “has learnt to live without happiness.” Accepting Candida’s choice, Marchbanks leaves, saying he has a “secret” in his heart. Candida and Morell embrace.

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Act Summaries