Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200

The primary theme of John Bull’s Other Island is the harmful effects of colonialism. As part of this theme, George Bernard Shaw considers both the personal effects, including the identity of Laurence Doyle and his friendship with Tom Broadbent, and the broader social effects, in this case on Ireland. “John Bull” is a character who represents the United Kingdom, especially England. He was made popular in the early 18th century. Shaw uses this title satirically to indicate the English attitude toward “owning” Ireland. In addition, the theme of friendship is explored.

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Doyle’s Anglophile attitudes seem to help him fit into society while he is living in England, and he does not realize he is losing his identity. Irish-ness has become a nostalgic abstraction, and he believes his broadened perspective will benefit his fellow countrymen when he returns home. Broadbent, despite his affection for his friend, takes a condescending attitude toward all Irish people, and Doyle is both surprised and hurt to find himself lumped together with the others. The more Broadbent claims he gives the people, the more he is actually taking. When he finally even takes his friend’s fiancée, Doyle can see his own self-delusion.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

John Bull’s Other Island is a satirical comedy about national character. The fact that George Bernard Shaw’s characters, as in so many of his plays, are not merely incessant talkers but indeed inveterate speech-makers helps elucidate Shaw’s themes.

In his sixty-page “Preface for Politicians,” Shaw sketches his view of the English and Irish characters. In contradiction to the received national mythology, he argues for the sentimentality of the English as against the more fastidious imaginativeness of the Irish, who combine a greater sense of the real with a debilitating sense of futility. This analysis is animated in the play, which presents the Union of England and Ireland as a marriage between the kindly, if brutally efficient, English husband and his sensitive Irish mate—in which role Doyle serves as much as Nora.

The presentation is evenhanded and unsentimental; Matt Haffigan, for example, is an unpleasant specimen, for all of his sufferings. Nevertheless—in contradiction to the critical charge that Shaw is incapable of portraying human pain—the play’s sympathy extends even to Haffigan’s Glaswegian relative, who sheds tears of joy at the thought of how much drink can be bought with a five-pound note. Furthermore,...

(The entire section contains 607 words.)

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