Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
Early in James Barrie’s play WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS, just after the “agreement” has been signed whereby John Shand will get _GCP_300 from the Wylie family for his education providing he is willing to marry their spinster sister Maggie in five years, the Scotsmen discuss their potential brother-and-son-in-law. They agree that he is canny, though no match for Maggie—a fact best kept from him at this time.
This idea forms the basis of the play and can be phrased as a dramatic question: can an intelligent, but plain woman manipulate her husband into both a successful political career and a satisfying marriage—without letting him know he is being so manipulated? Maggie Shand is convinced that her husband is by nature incapable of succeeding at anything on his own. She is also convinced that his over-serious pride and exaggerated sense of manhood cannot tolerate the idea that he needs help—least of all from his wife.
For most of the play Maggie’s machinations succeed beautifully and the primary irony of the play comes from the continuing contrast between John Shand’s vision of himself and the audience’s awareness of the real basis for his success. But Maggie knows that their marriage is, to John, essentially a business arrangement between two people who admire and respect each other, but who are not in love. Because she thinks herself “plain” and lacking “charm,” she fears that John, in spite of his passionless nature, will become infatuated with another woman and leave her, ruining both of them. When Lady Sybil Tenterden, a lovely, charming aristocrat, enters the picture, Maggie’s talents are put to their supreme test.
Although John Shand’s blindness and insensitivity toward Maggie show him unworthy of such devotion, he is, nevertheless, probably worth saving. John is a decent man with energy, drive, and intelligence; all he lacks is imagination and a sense of humor. The intensity of his ambition is proven by the lengths to which he will go for an education, but his methods are honest and he is never ruthless; he keeps his bargain with Maggie, even after she offers him freedom, although he does not love her and considers her a political liability. His career is at least partly motivated by a desire to serve the public, although the particulars of his political beliefs are unclear (except for his “liberal” views on the “Women Problem”). In his dealings with Maggie, John is always honest, never feigns unfelt affection, and feels extremely guilty about the affair with Sybil. And, finally, he is sincerely willing to forego his political ambitions in the name of love, although he would rather not do so.
But, however intelligent John may be, he is no match for Maggie. She is one of the most vital and fascinating females of the modern stage and is, perhaps, Barrie’s finest characterization. Each act of the play ends with a victory for her, even the third when she seems to be magnanimously giving John up to Sybil. Her intelligence and energy are obvious from the beginning of the play; her complexity and subtle deviousness take a bit longer to appreciate. She is disarming in her honesty, but hedges when strategy requires—such as shaving a year from her age when talking to John.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her personality is the contrast between her “real” self and the role she assumes in public. In part this role is based on her notions about the proper—no, necessary—role of the wife in Edwardian society as well as her reading of John’s emotional needs. But, for all of her confidence regarding her own abilities, she feels deeply insecure about herself; her plain face and figure, her absence of formal education, and her lack of experience in mannered society have made her feel socially inadequate; it is her only misperception. Consequently, she demeans herself at every available opportunity. Thus, the play is not only about the education of a single, unimaginative male, but also about that of a sensitive, dedicated but self-depreciating female.
On the level of simple strategy, even the threat of Sybil Tenterden is fairly easily disposed of. Maggie simply leaves John and Sybil alone together long enough for them to grow tired of each other. That tactic succeeds, but her second design, to keep John ignorant of her intrigues, fails because of the intervention of the play’s other “knowing” female, the Comtesse de la Briere. The Comtesse, seeing Maggie’s role in John’s career, is determined to make it known to the insensitive husband. She sneaks Maggie’s rewritten version of John’s oration to Charles Venables, thus making public Mrs. Shand’s contribution to the speech making and then, to complete the revelation, the Comtesse reads Maggie’s confessional letter aloud to the group.
It is fortunate that she does so, because otherwise John would have gone on heedlessly until he met the next Sybil. But, when Shand finds out the truth, Maggie is surprised to learn he can bear it—with a little help from his wife.Maggie: Every man who is high up loves to think that he has done it all himself; and the wife smiles, and lets it go at that. It’s our only joke. Every woman knows that. . . . Oh John, if only you could laugh at me. John: I can’t laugh, Maggie.
But, after a few moments, he manages to and, in Barrie’s words, “he is saved.” And so is their marriage, his career, and Maggie’s self-respect.
Abandoning his usual whimsy and fantasy, Barrie has written a social comedy that deftly and provocatively explores the relationships between men and women in the modern world with a depth and seriousness that goes much beyond the bulk of his always entertaining, usually successful, but not infrequently trivial plays. In a later time a Maggie Shand might turn her energies directly into politics and so realize her own potential for herself, but in Edwardian England the only possibility was to be the woman behind the man. That was the role that she understood, accepted, and played to perfection.
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