George Bernard Shaw World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3724

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Shaw became a playwright who knew the conventional tricks of the theater but was determined to use drama as a means of shaking audiences out of their complacencies, hypocrisies, and thoughtless acquiescence to all kinds of social evil. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw presented the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen as a realistic and reforming playwright who addressed problems of modern life and introduced genuine discussion in his dialogue, qualities that Shaw admired and emulated. Shaw was not drawn to Ibsen’s more profound and symbolic plays but valued instead those that attacked middle-class conventionality and hypocrisy. In the wake of Ibsen, Shaw abandoned the Victorian idolization of William Shakespeare and opened British theater to social criticism and political debate. He wanted to displace the artificialities of the Victorian stage (which he called “Sardoodledom” after the French playwright Victorien Sardou) with a theater of vital ideas about society and ethics.

Following what he considered to be the quintessence of Ibsen, Shaw saw his role as that of a prophet who must suggest to his society ways of developing into a better civilization. He once proclaimed, “I am by profession what is called an original thinker, my business being to question and test all the established creeds and codes.” Therefore he undertook a moral analysis of contemporary civilization. Like the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, one of his influences, Shaw wanted to be a radical reformer as well as a synthesizer of all that was best in the thinking of his time. While he was joined in his critical and humorous look at contemporary society by fellow Irishman and dramatist Oscar Wilde, Shaw’s ultimate goal was reform, whereas Wilde’s was ridicule.

Although he did not reject all traditional norms and commonly accepted standards, Shaw questioned everything. Through dramatic action and intellectual debate in dialogue, his early plays often initially persuade the audience that the conventional hero is the villain and the conventional villain is the hero. Then Shaw usually swings everything around again so that the conventional hero can again become the hero. What now makes him a hero has been drastically redefined. Shaw follows this pattern in Candida, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Arms and the Man. He shows paradoxes that arise from the conventional views and hypocrisies of his audience. Having thus destroyed the audience’s self-confidence, Shaw then allows one of his very vital heroes to proclaim the Shavian vision of society or politics or religion.

This vision was shaped by Shaw’s socialism and his secular religion, which is based on a belief in humanity’s will to improve. Shaw adopted the view that willpower is the driving force of human existence from the German pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Shaw called this energetic will the Life Force, which became the God of his secular religion. In Shaw’s life-preserving philosophy, the will to improve is collective. The desire for personal well-being is subordinated to the desire for the common good. Yet the will to live better lives is imperative. In “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” which is contained in Man and Superman, Shaw writes that the eighteenth century believed in adeus ex machina, the god who helped those who could not help themselves, the god of the lazy and incapable. The nineteenth century decided that there is indeed no such god; and now Man must take in hand all the work that he used to shirk with an idle prayer.

Since humanity is responsible for its own destiny, it needs to rely on the Life Force to guide it toward an improved kind of existence.

Shaw has created a variety of characters that embody this Life Force or parts of it. In Man and Superman, which is concerned with the breeding of a superman as the ultimate goal of willed evolution, Don Juan is the spokesman for the Life Force in the play’s “Don Juan in Hell” sequence. He defends the ecstasy of philosophical thought and the joy of humanity’s creative evolutionary urge for a better world and for self-improvement against Everyman’s barren worldliness and the Devil’s view that humankind is destroying itself. Shaw admires Don Juan as a strong character who is driven by his own will instead of having anything forced on him and as someone who believes that humanity is improving and must be further improved.

The theme of creative evolution is further explored in Back to Methuselah. Shaw himself considered this play his masterpiece. Here the Life Force enables people to perfect their species to the point where they can live for three hundred years, long enough to acquire enough experience and wisdom to become disembodied intellects. Unlike the evolutionist Charles Darwin, who had argued that evolution is a process of adapting to one’s environment, Shaw believed that people are driven to change by their will to live better lives. In his preface to the play, Shaw wrote that:God helps those who help themselves. This does not mean that if Man cannot find the remedy no remedy will be found. . . . What it means is that if Man is to be saved, Man must save himself. There seems no compelling reason why he should be saved. He is by no means an ideal creature.

Shaw considered it his task to make his spectators and readers more ideal creatures by compelling them to question conventions and traditional belief systems. His plays achieve this education through intellectual discussions between the characters that are enriched by Shavian wit and comedy.


First produced: 1897 (first published, 1898)

Type of work: Play

The socialist speaker, reverend Morell, comes to realize that it is his wife Candida who makes his success possible.

Candida: A Mystery is included among “Plays: Pleasant” in George Bernard Shaw’s first collection of plays, Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898). Like each of the other “Plays: Pleasant” (Arms and the Man, The Man of Destiny, and You Never Can Tell), Candida presents a youthful figure whose informal moral reflections help other characters to understand their lives better. This youth is the nervous eighteen-year-old nobleman Eugene, who returns with Candida to her house and husband in London. Candida’s husband is the socialist reverend Morell, a famous speaker who also runs his household in an egalitarian fashion; since there is only one maid, Morell, his wife, and his secretary assume some of the household chores. Morell seems very much in control of his world until Eugene tells him that he (Eugene) is in love with Candida and that she is probably repulsed by Morell. Eugene’s revelation and reflections undermine Morell’s apparent security and control and show his fragility. An additional complication arises when Morell’s despised father-in-law, the unscrupulous businessman Burgess, comes to talk to Morell for the first time in three years. Burgess is appalled at Morell’s suggestion that they would get along fine if they agreed to be honest with each other. Morell should openly consider Burgess a scoundrel and Burgess should openly call Morell a fool.

Morell and Eugene ask Candida to choose between them. After expressing her indignation, Candida chooses the weaker of the two men, her husband. She reveals that while she does everything to make Morell believe that he is the master of the house, the responsibility for their family and household rests in fact on her shoulders. She knows that Morell has always been spoiled by success and that she therefore has to act as his mother, his sister, his wife, and the mother of his children all at the same time. Morell’s security crumbles as he realizes how dependent his prominent position is on his protective wife. While at the beginning of the play his heroism seemed to be based on his own strength and skills, ultimately it rests on the recognition of his own weakness and on his acceptance of Candida’s hidden protective leadership.

Shaw referred to Candida as his version of Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). Unlike Ibsen’s play, Shaw’s version presents the man and not the woman as the doll. Morell is the one controlled by Candida, not vice versa. Shaw considered this situation reflective of English society, which he saw as ultimately in the hands of women.

Candida is Shaw’s most naturalist play. Naturalist drama shies away from discussions of abstract ideas and seems to be concerned only with the scene and characters shown on the stage. Like Ibsen in his plays, Shaw had to find covert means in Candida to comment on the dramatic situation and characters and to show the wider social implications of this situation. Although Candida seems as simple and straightforward as its heroine, the play is Shaw’s most elaborately written and enigmatic early dramatic work. When it was published in 1898, Shaw subtitled it A Mystery, whereas he had called it “A Domestic Play” in the original manuscript.

Major Barbara

First produced: 1905 (first published, 1907)

Type of work: Play

An arms producer convinces his family that his business is necessary rather than immoral and that it helps eradicate poverty, the worst of evils.

Major Barbara is a literary use of myths and their cultural references. Its conception was facilitated by the two-volume 1890 publication of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and its treatment of the Christian Gospel story as only one myth among others. Shaw based Major Barbara on several Christian legends; the myth of Barbara, the patron saint of gunners and miners, is linked with a version of Christ’s mission, betrayal, passion, and ascension. These Christian elements are combined with the myth of Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power. The combination and alteration of these myths as well as numerous discussions on ethics and religion make Major Barbara one of Shaw’s most ambiguous plays, one that continues to provoke rival interpretations.

In a kind of drawing-room comedy, the play’s first act introduces the Undershaft family: the bourgeois Lady Britomart, a caricature of the grande dame; her husband, the weapons producer Andrew Undershaft, from whom she has been separated for decades; their daughters Barbara and Sarah and their fiancés; and the slow-minded, pampered son Stephen. Lady Britomart invites her husband to her house in order to ask him for more money to support their children and to make him reconsider his decision that in keeping with tradition his weapons enterprise can be inherited only by a foundling. Their daughter Barbara, a Salvation Army major, invites Undershaft to see her shelter. He agrees to do so if she will visit his weapons factory.

The play’s second act is set in Barbara’s Salvation Army shelter, a Dickensian illustration of poverty. While looking for his girlfriend, the strong, unruly Bill Walker slaps two women. He feels remorse for his deed and offers one pound to be forgiven, but Major Barbara does not accept his money. She wants to convert his soul instead. As she is about to convert him to the Salvation Army and to Christian behavior, her superior accepts five thousand pounds each from a whiskey distiller and from Undershaft. These donors embody alcoholism and violence, evils that Barbara has been fighting. She resigns over this undermining of principles. Simultaneously, a man who had apparently been converted to the Salvation Army only hours earlier steals Bill’s pound. Barbara loses her grip on Bill’s soul and must realize that she has failed in her work as a missionary.

Shaw stressed in his preface that in Andrew Undershaft he has created a man who understands that “the worst of our crimes is poverty” and that humanity’s foremost endeavor must be to avoid poverty. Upon seeing the poor in his daughter’s soup kitchen, Undershaft says that,Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences; strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound or smell of it. . . . [The millions of poor people] poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss.

Therefore the eradication of poverty is Undershaft’s main goal. He can achieve it in his own factory town, in which the play’s third act is set, through the production of weapons, which he sells indiscriminately to anyone who can pay for them. While Barbara is preserving her moral ideals but failing in her battle against poverty, Undershaft is presented as disregarding traditional morality but succeeding in using the profits of an objectionable business for providing for all the needs of his workers. Although Undershaft announces that his philosophy is based on “money and gunpowder,” describing himself as “a profiteer in mutilation and murder,” he is doing more good for his workers than Barbara is for the poor in the Salvation Army shelter.

The happiness of its inhabitants, and its deadly purpose, make Undershaft’s factory town an ambivalent place between heaven and hell. When the inheritance is discussed again, Barbara’s fiancé Adolphus Cusins, an unemployed professor of Greek, turns out to be a foundling. Cusins accepts the inheritance of the tempter/devil Undershaft even though he is still planning to “make war on war.” Barbara realizes that the factory town will be a better place than the Salvation Army to save souls because there nobody will convert out of a need for charity or food.


First produced: 1913, in German; 1914, in English (first published, 1912)

Type of work: Play

A phonetics professor teaches a flower girl to talk like a duchess but fails to treat her like one.

Like The Doctor’s Dilemma (pr. 1906, pb. 1911), Pygmalion is a problem play that examines a social issue. Shaw deals here with the assumptions of social superiority and inferiority that underlie the class system. He demonstrates how speech and etiquette preserve class distinctions. As he wrote in the play’s preface, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Pygmalion therefore tries to illustrate the arbitrariness of basing a person’s worth on his or her pronunciation.

The phonetics professor Henry Higgins is an expert in dialects and accents. At Covent Garden he phonetically transcribes all that the innocent flower girl Eliza Doolittle says. Since he boasted of his successes in educating social climbers in speech, Eliza comes to Higgins’s house the next day, asking to be taught to speak like a lady so that she might be employed in a classy flower store. A fellow phonetics professor, Colonel Pickering, offers to cover the expenses of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at a garden party six months later. Sure of his abilities, the tyrannical and condescending Higgins is enticed by the Frankensteinian challenge “to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her.”

While Higgins is successful in transforming Eliza in terms of speech, his rough manners, rudeness, and swearing do not teach her the accompanying social etiquette. Eliza betrays her lack of refinement at a parlor party not through her pronunciation but through what she says. The comic climax is reached when she uses the vulgar expression “Not bloody likely,” although she pronounces it in a ladylike manner.

Higgins and Pickering seem unaware that their experiment has transformed Eliza not only in terms of her speech. Even after she has successfully passed for a lady at a garden party, Higgins still does not treat her like a lady. Higgins’s excuse is that while Pickering may treat a flower girl like a duchess, he would also treat a duchess like a flower girl, since he believes in treating everyone equally, regardless of his or her social class. Feeling disappointed and humiliated, Eliza leaves Higgins by night, no longer willing to be treated like a servant. She believes that she has risen to a higher social class and claims that social class is not determined by one’s pronunciation but by the respect with which one is treated.

In the meantime, money has been left to Eliza’s father by a rich American. This unexpected wealth has transformed him from an alcoholic dustman into a middle-class man in terms of behavior and ideology, although not in terms of pronunciation. Since it is based on money and not on accent, his character transformation seems more secure than his daughter’s, although both seem ambivalent about their new status.

Although the play leaves Eliza and Higgins’s future open, Shaw wrote in his afterword that she will marry the petit bourgeois Freddy and open a flower and vegetable shop with him instead of continuing to endure Higgins’s unrefinement and rudeness. She has been struggling throughout the play to liberate herself from the professor’s tyranny.

In Pygmalion, Shaw links the Cinderella story of a transformation from rags to riches with a Frankensteinian creation of a new life. Underneath the play’s comedy, questions are raised about the justifiability of social distinction and the role of women in a patriarchal society. Although Shaw felt ambivalent about the feminist movement of the early twentieth century, he presents Eliza as suffering degradation and escaping from it with the help of Pickering’s civility, Mrs. Higgins’s understanding, and her own awakened self-reliance. Pygmalion was later made into the popular musical comedy My Fair Lady (1956).

Saint Joan

First produced: 1923 (first published, 1924)

Type of work: Play

The country girl Joan assumes command of the French army in the fight against the English; after leading France to victory, she is burned as a heretic.

In the protagonist of Saint Joan, Shaw has created his most lasting embodiment of the Life Force, a figure who is superior in character and vision and who tries to elevate ordinary people to her level by becoming their leader. Shaw’s Saint Joan is funny and self-confident; she is guided by practicality and common sense but does not fit the traditional image of a religious martyr. Although Saint Joan is filled with comic moments, it is considered Shaw’s only tragedy. Yet it has also been called a comedy containing one tragic scene.

Joan’s legend had been revived in France during World War I; an ambitious Hollywood film, Joan, the Woman, had been released in 1917; and in 1920 Joan was canonized. The ensuing interest in Joan of Arc also seized Shaw and especially his wife. In Joan’s assertion of her will against institutional restraints Shaw recognized so many of his convictions that, as the famous drama critic-historian Eric Bentley has written, Shaw would have had to invent Joan had she never existed. In the play’s preface, Shaw praises “the vigor and scope of her mind and character, and the intensity of her vital energy.”

Although she is a warrior, Joan is also a preserver of life. As she appears on the scene, the hens start laying eggs again. In her enthusiasm she appeals to the French soldiers because “she’s so positive.” Joan’s affirmation of life and the indestructibility of her vital energy are felt throughout the play. Even when Joan is burned as a witch, the executioner admits thatHer heart would not burn; and it would not drown. I was a master at my craft . . . but I could not kill The Maid. She is up and alive everywhere.

Guided by voices, the eighteen-year-old country girl Joan is set on liberating France from the English, who are occupying half of the country in 1429. Through perseverance and persuasiveness she manages to be appointed commander of the French army by the Dauphin Charles. Joan leads the soldiers to victory by giving them back their courage. In something of a miracle, Orleans becomes the first city to be freed from English occupation.

When the English are losing battle after battle, the Earl of Warwick and his chaplain persuade Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, that Joan must be a witch because she could not have been so successful otherwise. He calls her death a “political necessity.” While Cauchon is not convinced that Joan’s military victories make her a heretic, he is angered by what he perceives to be Joan’s pride and her disregard for the Church. He blames her for asserting that she is guided by God and not by the Church and for crowning Charles herself in the cathedral of Rheims. What her accusers also cannot accept is Joan’s unwomanly behavior and attire. She dresses as a soldier and protests, “I will never take a husband. . . . I am a soldier: I do not want to be thought of as a woman.”

Joan falls victim to the Church’s intolerance of nonconformists and to the revenge of the English. In the figures of Warwick and his chaplain, Shaw criticizes English nationalism and patriotism. At her trial Joan is unwilling to put her obedience to the Church above her obedience to God. She refuses to comply with the Church’s demand that she denounce her voices as those of the devil. Although Joan is pronounced guilty, the Inquisitor, in private, calls her “innocent.” Nonetheless she is burned as a witch.

In the play’s epilogue Joan appears to King Charles in a dream twenty-five years after her execution. Her guilty verdict has been annulled. She is joined in Charles’s dream by those responsible for her death and is universally hailed. Finally, a papal messenger of the year 1920 announces that Joan has just been made a saint. As she offers to come back into the world, however, all shy away. Joan must realize that she is ahead of her time. Her famous last words are: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” Shaw believed that the ordinary world was not yet sufficiently prepared for the superior being he envisioned. His epilogue makes Saint Joan less a historical play than a passion play, reminiscent of Christ’s Passion. It connects the past to Shaw’s present, illustrating that little has changed. Saint Joan remains Shaw’s most popular play, although he himself did not rate it that highly.


Principal Works


Criticism: General Commentary