illustration of a woman standing in a corset with a large scarf wrapped around her neck

Mrs. Warren's Profession

by George Bernard Shaw

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Themes and Meanings

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In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw set out to challenge the complacency of his audience and subvert some of their most ingrained notions. In his preface to the play, he said that it was written “to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.” He argued that Mrs. Warren’s defense of herself was valid, although it was not meant to be a justification of the vice in which she was involved. In the play Shaw draws attention to the hypocrisy of a society in which a man like Crofts is considered respectable because no one of any breeding would be so indelicate as to inquire about the nature of his business activities. Shaw also suggests, through Mrs. Warren, that in a capitalist society that denies opportunities to women, even the relations between “respectable” women and their men are morally not very different from those between a prostitute and her client. All women are dependent on men in one way or another: A respectable upper-class girl must marry a rich man so that she can enjoy his wealth; the only difference between her and the working-class girl or the prostitute is that the latter cannot expect the men of means to marry them.

Another theme in the play is the emergence of the emancipated “New Woman”: resourceful, independent, career-oriented. Shaw was responding to a suggestion made by his friend Beatrice Webb that he “should put on the stage a real modern lady of the governing class—not the sort of thing that theatrical and critical authorities imagine such a lady to be.” The result was the cigar-smoking Vivie Warren, who is a complete contrast to the submissive, sentimental heroine to which popular Victorian taste had become accustomed. Vivie is self-assured and knows exactly what she wants: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I dont believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they cant find them, make them.” Vivie has reached a point at which she can exercise freedom of choice, and she chooses the pleasures of productive work over those of love or family ties.

An underlying theme is incest. It is conveyed in the suggestion that Vivie and Frank may be half brother and sister, although it is not clearly established that they are, and neither of them believes that they are. Some critics have argued that the theme is brought in unnecessarily, and Shaw has also been criticized for bringing it in but not developing it. Shaw insisted, however, that it was a necessary part of the play. In an early draft the theme was much more explicit—there was no doubt that Vivie and Frank were half brother and sister, and they became mildly sexually involved before Vivie broke off the relationship.


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Poverty and Wealth
Shaw knew well the consequences of poverty in Victorian England, the hypocrisy of the wealthy, and the interdependence of the rich and poor. He writes in his ‘‘Apology,’’ ‘‘as long as poverty makes virtue hideous and the spare pocket-money of rich bachelordom makes vice dazzling, their daily hand-to-hand fight against prostitution . . . will be a losing one.’’ Mrs. Warren’s poverty forces her into prostitution, which wealthy men pay for. ‘‘Good’’ society rejects her but overlooks, as Crofts points out, the...

(This entire section contains 323 words.)

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corruption involved in the upper class’s acquisition of its own wealth.

Oppression and Freedom
The play presents an ironic interplay of oppression and freedom. Mrs. Warren gains financial freedom and a measure of independence as she moves away from the oppression of her poverty by the exploitation of her sex, which reinforces society’s oppression of women. Shaw presents further irony in the fact that Vivie’s education has been bought by this oppression, which, when discovered, prompts her to leave her mother and so gain absolute independence.

Mother/Daughter Relationship
The complexity of the two main characters creates a difficult mother/daughter relationship. Throughout most of the play, Vivie refuses to play the dutiful daughter along with any other conventional feminine role. Initially, she appears cold to a mother who spent little time with her when she was growing up, sending her off to boarding schools and the care of nannies. She refuses to allow her mother to dictate her life, which frustrates Mrs. Warren’s motherly instincts. Yet, when her mother explains the circumstances that led her to her profession, Vivie becomes the loving, supportive daughter, at least until she discovers that her mother does not have the strength to give up her comfortable life. Yet, Mrs. Warren did meet her responsibilities as a parent: she provided a fine education and stable environment for her daughter and kept Vivie away from the sordid world of her profession.