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George Bernard Shaw

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English Literature

George Bernard Shaw was an Irish literary and theatre critic, essayist, comic dramatist, and socialist. He survived a loveless, neglected childhood to become a revered man of letters, and an untiring champion of causes. One of the leading lights of the Fabian Society, he left a theatrical legacy (of over 60 stage plays) that has become a genre of its own: ‘Shavian’. So, who exactly was George Bernard Shaw? Let's take a deeper look.

The Fabian Society: a socialist group that seeks democratic reform gradually and peacefully rather than by revolution.

George Bernard Shaw: Biography

DateEvent

1856

Shaw is born into genteel poverty on 26 July in Dublin, Ireland.

1876

Shaw joins his mother and sisters in London.

1892

Widowers Houses, Shaw’s first play is produced.

1898

Shaw marries Charlotte Payne-Townshend.

1899

Caesar and Cleopatra is performed.

1923

Saint Joan is performed.

1925

Shaw receives the Nobel Prize for Literature.

1950

Shaw dies on 2 November in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire.

George Bernard Shaw: Education

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin into an impoverished aristocratic family. The family origins included English, Scottish, as well as Irish ancestry, whose fortunes failed through mismanagement and, on the paternal side, alcoholism. Shaw grew up in a loveless household; his parents married out of financial convenience, and his mother was uninterested in her son, preferring to pay more attention to her two daughters.

However, through his mother, Shaw learnt about art, literature, and especially music. His mother, Bessie, had a music teacher, whom she eventually followed to London: George (Vandeleur) Lee, the natural son of one Colonel Vandeleur and a brilliant conductor and pioneering singing teacher. ‘Mesmeric’ and ‘daring’ were the words Shaw later used to describe him.2

George Vandeleur Lee was one of the original inspirations for George du Maurier’s character Svengali in his novel Trilby (1894), a mesmeric singing teacher who actually uses hypnotism to train his pupil Trilby for a career as a singer.

Lee had set up a Musical Society in 1852, shortly after Bessie’s marriage to Shaw’s father. He also kept professional rooms only two doors away from Shaw’s childhood home. Lee is described as being a brilliant and witty man, and it is possible that he was Shaw’s natural father. Certainly, some of his closest friends thought so – in her diary, Beatrice Webb writes:

The photograph published in the Henderson Biography makes it quite clear to me that he was the child of G. J. V. Lee - that vain witty and distinguished musical genius who lived with them. The expression on Lee’s face is quite amazingly like G.B.S. [George Bernard Shaw] when I first knew him.

(Beatrice Webb, 12 May 1911)1

Beatrice was the wife of Sidney Webb, fellow Fabian and lifelong friend of Shaw’s, and she also introduced Shaw to his future wife, fellow radical Charlotte Payne-Townshend.

In addition to his mother’s musical influence, Shaw was taught by his uncle, a cleric. After rejecting orthodox schooling at the age of 16, Shaw began working for a land agent’s office. While he was in his early twenties, his mother left his father and moved to London, following George Vandeleur Lee who set up his practice there.

In 1876, Shaw also moved to London and spent the next few years attempting to earn a living as a writer. His attempts at novel writing were met with little success and he survived with financial aid from his mother. He also continued his own education by regularly visiting the British Museum’s reading room. It was here that Shaw worked on his writing for the next eight years, requesting over 300 books a year.

Shaw’s arrival in London led to him becoming a socialist. He saw flaws in how the city was run, and how a new world could not come into being without a change in attitude:

Such wasteful methods, it is safe to predict, will never be altered until London belongs to, and is governed by, the people who use it.

(George Bernard Shaw, 1886)2

George Bernard Shaw: Books

For much of the 1880s, Shaw attempted novel writing, but he was met with little success. Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic rejected his works, either on the grounds of immorality or because they were considered ‘disagreeable’ and ‘unconventional’.2

Alongside Love Among the Artists (1887—1888) which was serialised only, Shaw wrote five novels:

  • Immaturity (1879)
  • The Irrational Knot (1880)
  • Cashel Byron's Profession (1882–83)
  • An Unsocial Socialist (1883)

He was working on one of his novels in 1881 when he fell ill with smallpox, despite being vaccinated as a child. This experience made him feel he had been tricked into having the disease, and he became an anti-vaccinationist. In 1898, the vaccine which had been used was outlawed.

Shaw was very careful about what he drank: no alcohol, no coffee, no tea. He also became a vegetarian after his final novel was rejected, and he began to ‘renew’ himself, in both diet and politics. Shaw threw himself into socialism, in particular the Fabian Society. The Fabians were a pacific group of intellectuals that wanted to improve the social and economic conditions of life for the people without a shot being fired.

George Bernard Shaw: Plays

In 1895, Shaw began writing for the Saturday Review. His experience as a theatre critic led him to write more works for the stage, not only out of interest but also out of his impatience with English drama, which he saw as absurd and stuck in a regressive cycle of unconvincing melodrama and farce. For Shaw, English drama was dominated by artificiality, and he called for more works by realist writers such as the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen.

Melodrama: fictional narratives with sensational events and dramatic characters to evoke strong emotions in the audiences or readers. An example of a melodrama is Franz Schubert's The Magic Harp (1820).

Farce: a type of drama that entertains audiences with absurd, comical situations and exaggerated characters, often playing with the notion of stereotypes.

Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses (1893) had an underwhelming response, and this was made worse as he was unable to perform the play in England due to censorship (this also happened with Mrs Warren’s Profession (1902) which was about organised prostitution). However, his wit and social criticism brought with them a fresh voice, and his later plays, including Arms and the Man (1894), The Devil's Disciple (1897) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1901), began to gain him a reputation, although they were often performed abroad first.

John Bull's Other Island (1904) was his first real London success as the critics were finally won over by his wit (if not for Shaw's fondness for reform). Pygmalion (1913) saw Shaw becoming firmly established as a notable playwright both in Europe and the United States of America.

Shaw's plays are conversations, and the conflicts in them are about thoughts, beliefs, and changing or overturning people’s convictions through words, not violence. Shaw also understood the value of comedy and humour in the art of persuasion. He avoided tragedy in his plays, with one exception: Saint Joan (1923). Saint Joan is the story of the medieval leader Joan of Arc and her trial. Defined as a tragedy by Shaw, it has no villains. In Shaw’s interpretation, Joan stands between two levels of truth and both are right.

George Bernard Shaw: Marriage

In 1896, Shaw’s close friends, the Webbs, introduced him to the heiress and fellow radical Charlotte Payne-Townshend. The two developed a close friendship, and Charlotte undertook secretarial work for Shaw. The relationship took various turns until 1898, when Charlotte went on a trip to Italy for a few months.

After Shaw developed an abscess on his foot and had to have minor surgery, Charlotte returned early from her trip and nursed him, and they married later in 1898. The marriage appears to have been one of companionship and, while Charlotte continued to go on jaunts abroad, Shaw continued to develop strong emotional ties with various women, mostly actresses. Their marriage lasted until Charlotte’s death in 1945.

George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion

Pygmalion (1913), Shaw's best-known and possibly most loved play, was written partly as a criticism of social divisions based on wealth and poverty. Shaw had long been a staunch supporter of reform in language as well as society and politics. He believed in simplifying spelling and pronunciation as a social leveller. Pygmalion was, for Shaw, a live experiment that could be played out night after night, and an opportunity to show how the science of phonetics could break the archaic class system and change the status quo for the better. He firmly believed that equality would overcome inequality. The real-life phonetician and philologist Henry Sweet was the model for Pygmalions Henry Higgins, possibly mixed with the charisma of George Vandeleur Lee.

The ancient Greek legend of Pygmalion is about the lonely sculptor who carved a woman and fell in love with her. In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Higgins creates a faux Duchess out of a London flower girl. However, the new Duchess is also a New Woman. She is independent, and Higgins refuses to marry her although he would quite like to keep her as a kind of trophy and mirror to his own genius.

George Bernard Shaw, Visualisation of Higgins, Eliza & Freddy, StudySmarterHiggins created a faux Duchess out of a flower girl - JW created with Canva, StudySmarter Original.

Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and continued to write plays until his death in 1950 (he was working on a play when he died at 94).

Despite his often fragile health, Shaw continued to campaign for various causes: vegetarianism, social injustice, women's rights, social and educational improvement, disenfranchisement, socialism, an end to poverty, and Fabianism. His writings became an institution, both of stage as well as on.

George Bernard Shaw - Key takeaways

  • George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856.
  • Shaw rejected formal education and instead educated himself by regularly visiting the British Museum in London.
  • Shaw became a socialist and joined the Fabian Society in the late 1890s.
  • Shaw's experience as a theatre critic later influenced the theatrical works he wrote.
  • Pygmalion was first performed in 1913 and remains Shaw's most famous work.
  • Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925

1 Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw: The New Biography, 2011.

2 Brian Tyson, Bernard Shaw's Book Reviews, 1991.

George Bernard Shaw

His play Pygmalion.

Shaw wrote over 60 plays.

George Bernard Shaw was an essayist, theatre critic, socialist, and playwright.

Saint Joan.

Shaw wrote Pygmalion as a social commentary on class divisions.

Final George Bernard Shaw Quiz

Question

What is George Bernard Shaw most famous for?


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Answer

His play Pygmalion.

Show question

Question

How many plays did George Bernard Shaw write?


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Answer

Shaw wrote over 60 plays

Show question

Question

Who is George Bernard Shaw?


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Answer

George Bernard Shaw was an essayist, theatre critic, socialist and playwright.

Show question

Question

Which is the only tragedy written by George Bernard Shaw?


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Answer

Saint Joan.

Show question

Question

Why did George Bernard Shaw write Pygmalion?


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Answer

Shaw wrote Pygmalion as a social commentary on class divisions.

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Question

Who was Shaw married to?


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Answer

Charlotte Payne-Townshend.

Show question

Question

Throughout his life, what did Shaw refuse to drink? More than one answer is possible.

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Answer

Cocoa

Show question

Question

True or false: when Shaw had a problem with his foot, Charlotte returned early from her trip to Spain and nursed him.

Show answer

Answer

False: Charlotte returned early from her trip to Italy and nursed him.

Show question

Question

True or false: Shaw was born into a wealthy family.

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Answer

False: Shaw was born into genteel poverty.

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Question

Shaw understood the value of comedy and humour for persuasion and avoided tragedy in his plays, with one exception: 

Show answer

Answer

Pygmalion

Show question

Question

Choose (more than one answer is possible): Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins was based on...

Show answer

Answer

Sidney Webb

Show question

Question

True or false: Pygmalion was Shaw’s first real London success.


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Answer

False: John Bull's Other Island was Shaw’s first real London success.

Show question

Question

What is the main idea of Pygmalion?

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Answer

That society should not be divided by the way people sound when they speak.

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Question

What is the meaning of the play Pygmalion?

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Answer

Like the Greek legend, it is a story about transformation.

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Question

What is Pygmalion about?

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Answer

The phoneticist Higgins trains the flower girl Eliza to speak like a Duchess to broaden her opportunities in life.

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Question

How does Pygmalion end?

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Answer

Pygmalion has an open ending; does Eliza go back to Higgins, or does she marry Freddy? (Or does she do both?)

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Question

What is the myth of Pygmalion?

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Answer

Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory; Aphrodite brought the statue to life?

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Who is Eliza?

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Answer

Eliza is a flower seller in Covent Garden.

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Question

What does Higgins bet with Colonel Pickering?

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Answer

The two men wager Higgins can’t teach Eliza to be a duchess in 6 months.

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Higgins is partly based on  real-life linguist 

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Answer

Henry Eynsford Hill.

Show question

Question

True of false? Pygmalion was published in 1913 and performed in 1912.

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Answer

False: Pygmalion was published in 1912 and performed in 1913.

Show question

Question

Complete: Higgins, left alone, … his cash in his pocket; …; and disports himself in a highly … manner.’

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Answer

Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner.’

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Who says this? ’ I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours.’

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Answer

Eliza.

Show question

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Choose: Higgens orders Eliza to buy him some … and a …. Eliza tells him to buy them himself and leaves. 

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Answer

gloves

Show question

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Who says this line, and to whom? 'You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.'

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Answer

Mrs Higgins, to Higgins and Pickering.

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Choose: Higgins and Pickering visit Mrs Higgins, panic-stricken that they cannot find Eliza.Mrs Higgins suggests that Eliza

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Answer

is hiding.

Show question

Question

Complete: Mrs Higgin’s drawing-room is styled on the Arts and Crafts Movement: uncluttered, with … prints, … fabrics and … furniture.

Show answer

Answer

Mrs Higgin’s drawing-room is styled on the Arts and Crafts Movement: uncluttered, with Burne Jones prints, William Morris fabrics and Chippendale furniture.

Show question

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