Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
The plot of Candida is a simple one: A woman must make a choice between two men in her life. This may be one reason for the popularity of the play during the 80 years since it was first produced in London. But, as always, Shaw turns the situation upside down. The Reverend James Morell--a highly regarded and popular public speaker and an imposing figure of a man--actually cannot function without his wife. Candida, his vivacious wife, dominates the household with subtlety and cleverness.
The young, idealistic poet Eugene Marchbanks is the catalyst who moves into this situation and sets the wheels of the plot spinning. The sensitive, ranting, dreamy youth worships Candida and is convinced that he is the only man worthy of her. But sensible Candida realizes that this is not the issue. She decides to bestow herself and her many virtues on the man who needs her the most.
The three major characters in the play learn something in the course of the drama. Marchbanks learns that he is stronger than he believed and leaves with a more powerful conviction of his own grandiose destiny. Morell becomes more humble, respects his wife, and realizes that he is but a man who, like any other man, needs a woman to take care of him. And Candida discovers that service is more important than contentment, triumphing in the fact that she is needed.
This brilliantly constructed drama, with its sparkling dialogue and clever situations, challenges the conventions of society as effectively as Shaw’s more openly revolutionary plays. However, he is more insidious here, ridiculing conventionality more subtly and praising the unconventional with less fury then usual. In the end, Shaw leaves no doubt that his money is on the poet, Marchbanks, who will produce great works of art. Candida and Morell will continue together, the one serving both his ego and his congregation, the other serving the needs of her husband.
Carpenter, Charles A. “Critical Comedies.” In Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals: The Early Plays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. Treats Candida as a sentimental comedy and discusses the conflict of ideals in the play. Devotes much space to an analysis of Candida’s character and to her ability to use sympathy to dominate the other characters in the play.
Crompton, Louis. “Candida.” In Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Discusses the social, philosophical, and especially historical backgrounds of Candida. A clear presentation of Shaw’s ideas and their sources in the nineteenth century intellectual tradition.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw: The Search for Love. New York: Random House, 1988. This first volume of the standard biography of Shaw details the connections between Shaw’s life and thought and his works. Indispensable.
Merritt, James D. “Shaw and the Pre-Raphaelites.” In Shaw: Seven Critical Essays, edited by Norman Rosenblood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971. Focuses on the character of Marchbanks and on the various references in the play to art, which Merritt relates to the Pre-Raphaelites and the art-for-art’s-sake movement of the 1890’s.
Stanton, Stephen. A Casebook on Candida. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1962. Very useful as an introduction to the play. Contains not only the text of the play and its sources but also selected prefaces and notes by Shaw and a wide variety of brief interpretations and criticism.