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Mrs. Warren's Profession

by George Bernard Shaw

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Are there similarities between "Mrs. Warren's Profession" and "The Importance of Being Earnest"?

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Both plays are turn-of-the-20th-century social satires written by Anglo-Irish men living in England. Both premiered in London. Mrs. Warren's Profession was published in 1898 and first produced in 1902; The Importance of Being Earnest was written in 1894 and first produced in 1895. Both plays explore the hypocrisy of fashionable and respectable society and the disparities between appearance and reality. Although Mrs. Warren earns her living by arranging for sexual encounters between men and women, she has earned enough money--and proved she can keep their secrets--to gain a respectable place in society. Her hypocrisy is keeping knowledge of her profession from her daughter, who imagines that she is the unconventional one.

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Both plays are turn-of-the-20th-century social satires written by Anglo-Irish men living in England. Both premiered in London. Mrs. Warren’s Profession was published in 1898 and first produced in 1902; The Importance of Being Earnest was written in 1894 and first produced in 1895. Both plays explore the hypocrisy of fashionable and respectable society and the disparities between appearance and reality.

Although Mrs. Warren earns her living by arranging for sexual encounters between men and women, she has earned enough money—and proved she can keep their secrets—to gain a respectable place in society. Her hypocrisy is keeping knowledge of her profession from her daughter, who imagines that she is the unconventional one. George Bernard Shaw draws attention to hypocrisy by contrasting Kitty Warren to Frank Crofts in terms of the reputation of their business dealings. The danger of hiding behind false appearances is accentuated with Reverend Gardner, whose youthful dalliance might have resulted in Vivie’s birth.

For Oscar Wilde, the deceptive appearances are embodied in two fake characters: Jack Farthing has invented Ernest as an alter ego for his convenience in enjoying the high life in London, while his friend Algernon Moncrief has invented Bunbury, a “sick” friend he must periodically visit. Although their shams seem relatively innocent, the play’s plot also revolves around the consequences of untruthful behavior, often years before, when it catches up with people. Lady Bracknell is the embodiment of hypocrisy as her disapproval of her niece’s marriage is predicated on social connections rather than the suitor’s inherent worth.

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Both plays are from the same period and use comic techniques hinging on issues of false identities. More importantly, both plays address the "woman question." For both Wilde and Shaw the issues of women and careers were twofold. First, there was the practical issue of how women could earn their livings outside marriage, and second was the issue of how rich women who did not need to work, could employ their intelligence productively. Mrs. Prism shows the limitations of the traditional female occupations of novelist and governess, albeit humorously. Cecily, in Earnest, is potentially a "New Woman" like Vivie, but relegated to use her education in the trivial arena of high society. Although Mrs. Warren succeeds in amassing wealth froim her brothel, she fails to model a viable option for the new woman because ideologically she remain mired in the conventional role of supporting herself by pleasing men, and in the end proves less willing to break gender role conventions than her daughter Vivie.

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