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Pygmalion

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English Literature

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved his ideal woman out of ivory and proceeded to fall in love with her. Venus took pity on him and turned the statue into a real woman, Galatea. This legend features in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and has inspired painters, poets, and writers, including Bernard Shaw. Shaw's Pygmalion, a play about a phonetician accepting a bet to teach a young female flower seller how to pass as a young duchess, was published in 1912 and performed on stage in 1913.

One of the many artists inspired to paint Pygmalion was Edward Burne-Jones, a member of the Pre-Raphaelites. Shaw greatly admired the Pre-Raphaelites and regarded himself as a Pre-Raphaelite dramatist.

Pygmalion Overview, Painting of Pygmalion by E. Burne-Jones, StudySmarterPygmalion & The Image - The Heart Desires - E.Burne-Jones, 1878

Hint: As you read or watch the play, see how closely it sticks to the original myth of Pygmalion.

Why did Shaw write Pygmalion?

Shaw decided to make an example of how the English (don’t) speak their own language. The writer's criticism is that while other languages are phonetic, (the speaker can speak it as it is written), English is not (English spelling is notoriously non-phonetic: seeing a word spelt will not automatically show you how to pronounce it).

Shaw wanted to comment on the social divisions that classed people based on how they spoke. He believed the English language and spelling should be simplified and made more egalitarian: if it was easier to spell, it would be easier for children to learn across all levels and would, he felt, lead to a more equal society. His play Pygmalion is social commentary set within a comedy of manners:

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

(G.B.Shaw, Preface to Pygmalion, 1912)

There were several phoneticists around, but Shaw thought Sweet had the right characteristics to serve as a (partial) model for Higgins:

Henry Sweet, then a young man, lacked their sweetness of character: he was about as conciliatory to conventional mortals as Ibsen or Samuel Butler. His great ability as a phonetician (he was, I think, the best of them all at his job) would have entitled him to high official recognition...but for his Satanic contempt for all academic dignitaries and persons in general who thought more of Greek than of phonetics…He was, I believe, not in the least an ill-natured man: very much the opposite, I should say; but he would not suffer fools gladly.

(G.B.Shaw, Preface to Pygmalion, 1912)

He also wanted to show people that they need not be confined by their own expectations or other people's:

Finally, and for the encouragement of people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment, I may add that the change wrought by Professor Higgins in the flower girl is neither impossible nor uncommon. The modern concierge’s daughter who fulfils her ambition by playing the Queen of Spain in Ruy Blas at the Theatre Francais is only one of many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue. But the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first.

(G.B.Shaw, Preface to Pygmalion, 1912)

Pygmalion: characters

Henry Higgins: Higgins is partly based on a real-life phonologist and linguist Henry Sweet:

He was, I believe, not in the least an ill-natured man: very much the opposite, I should say; but he would not suffer fools gladly."

It is possible that Higgins is also partly based on the charismatic music and singing teacher from Shaw’s childhood, Vanderleur Lee, of whom it has been speculated that he was Shaw's natural father.

G. Vandeleur Lee was also one of the original models 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.

In the play, Higgins is quite autocratic and cheerfully rude to people; he likes his own way, and often behaves like a spoilt child (or as Shaw describes him: ‘rather like an impetuous baby’). His mother has clearly indulged him, but he has grown used to his independence. He is ‘of the energetic, scientific type’ (Shaw), totally absorbed in his subject: phonetics, accents, and in fact everything connected to language. The fact that Eliza is a living human being with feelings never occurs to him:

PICKERING [in good-humoured remonstrance] Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?

HIGGINS [looking critically at her] Oh no, I don’t think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about. [Cheerily] Have you, Eliza?

In fact, he treats her as if she were a statue, though not like Galatea in Ovid’s tale.

He is, however ‘so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments.’ (Shaw)

  • Eliza Doolittle: a flower seller who works in the Covent Garden area. Her dream is to one day open a flower shop. She is quick-tongued and quick-witted but impeded from moving up in life because of the way she speaks.
  • Captain Pickering: Higgins's friend and fellow linguist, who has made a wager with Higgins that he cannot teach Eliza to talk like a Duchess in 6 months. He is a kindly soul, who is concerned for Eliza’s welfare and tries to remonstrate with Higgins when he behaves particularly insensitively.
  • Mrs Pearce: Higgins’s housekeeper: matronly, long-suffering, and kindly.
  • Alfred Doolittle: Eliza’s father. A philosopher, a drinker, and dustman who, once Eliza is made an object of worth, becomes entirely amenable to the opportunity.
  • Mrs Higgins: Higgins’s mother, whom he adores, and who is rich, intelligent, dignified, and possessing a cultivated sense of fine art. She also knows exactly what Higgins is like and constantly has to reprimand him.
  • Freddy Eynsford Hill is the son of a friend of Higgins's mother; he doesn’t have much brains, so Eliza can boss him around to her heart’s content (and probably will). He is good-natured and full of admiration for Eliza, and that is the main purpose of his role: to act as a fall-back, or support, for her.

Pygmalion: summary

Let's look at the brief summary of the Pygmalion by shaw.

Acts in Pygmalion

Act wise summary of the Pygmalion, has been summarised in different acts which are as follows:

ACT 1

Pygmalion opens on a rainy night in Covent Garden, London. There has been a play performed at the theatre and people are flocking out, looking for cabs. Several people are taking shelter under a portico

except one man (Higgins) with his back turned to the rest, who seems wholly preoccupied with a notebook in which he is writing busily."

Freddy is looking for a cab for his mother and sister.

Eliza is trying to sell flowers, only people are in a hurry, including Freddy, who pushes past, knocking her flowers from her hand and trampling them by accident. He apologises and rushes off; Eliza laments his lack of manners and Freddy’s mother pays for the spoiled flowers.

Captain Pickering appears and Eliza tries to sell him flowers but he only has 3 halfpennies to give her. One of the bystanders points out to Eliza:

There’s a bloke here behind taking down every blessed word you’re saying."

Eliza kicks up a fuss, accusing Higgins of being an undercover policemen and talking herself into a state. Higgins tells her to be quiet, and explains at large what he does:

You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English. That’s the sort of thing I do for commercial millionaires. And on the profits of it I do genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines.

Pickering introduces himself as a student of Indian dialects. The two arrange to meet for dinner. Eliza tries again to get some money from Pickering (as she’s short for her lodging). Pickering still has no change and leaves. Higgins, who's heard her earlier, accuses her of lying. Eliza, in a fit of pique, throws her basket on the ground :

‘Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence.'

The church clock strikes the second quarter.

HIGGINS [hearing in it the voice of God, rebuking him for his Pharisaic want of charity to the poor girl] A reminder. [He raises his hat solemnly; then throws a handful of money into the basket and follows Pickering].

THE FLOWER GIRL [picking up a half-crown] Ah—ow—ooh! [Picking up a couple of florins] Aaah—ow—ooh! [Picking up several coins] Aaaaaah—ow—ooh! [Picking up a half-sovereign] Aasaaaaaaaaah—ow—ooh!!!’

Eliza goes home in a cab.

ACT 2

Next day.

Higgins has been demonstrating his equipment to Colonel Pickering; they are interrupted by the arrival of Eliza, who demands to be taught to speak ‘more genteel’ so she can get somewhere in life. She offers to pay with the money Higgins gave her the night before.

Higgins, struck by the opportunity to study her accent, agrees to a wager with Colonel Pickering:

PICKERING. Higgins: I’m interested. What about the ambassador’s garden party? I’ll say you’re the greatest teacher alive if you make that good. I’ll bet you all the expenses of the experiment you can’t do it. And I’ll pay for the lessons.

Higgins, excited by the challenge, accepts:

HIGGINS [carried away] Yes: in six months—in three if she has a good ear and a quick tongue—I’ll take her anywhere and pass her off as anything. We’ll start today: now! this moment! Take her away and clean her, Mrs. Pearce. Monkey Brand, if it won’t come off any other way. Is there a good fire in the kitchen?

Eliza is removed by Mrs Pearce under instructions to wash her, burn her clothes, and get her new ones.

Monkey Brand: a household soap used for scouring and polishing.

A new visitor is announced: Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. He has come about Eliza, and Higgins assumes he has come to take her away.

Eliza comes in, clean, in a blue Japanese kimono. Doolittle fails to recognise her at first; Eliza explains to Higgins that her father only came to get money out of him for drink. Doolittle tells Higgins he can try to improve Eliza’s mind if he wants to and promises to visit her. Higgins gives Doolittle 5 pounds on the condition that she can stay.

Eliza’s new clothes arrive, and she rushes off to try them on, followed by Mrs Pearce.

Higgins and Pickering agree that they have ‘taken on a stiff job’.

ACT 3

It is Mrs. Higgins’s at-home day."

An at-home day: a day kept especially free on your calendar for visitors.

Social activities were arranged around visits to people’s homes, as well as going to exhibitions, galleries and theatre.

Shaw is very detailed and specific in his description of what one sees on stage; Mrs Higgins' drawing-room is styled on the Arts and Crafts Movement: uncluttered, with Burne Jones prints, William Morris fabrics, and Chippendale furniture.

Mrs. Higgins is writing at a table when her son Henry arrives. He begins boasting about how much he has taught Eliza and wants to try her out at one of his mother’s homes. Immediately. Just as Higgins is explaining about Eliza, the guests are announced: Mrs and Miss Eynsford Hill, followed by Freddy (Eynsford Hill).

Eliza is announced and astounds everyone with her perfect pronunciation, combined with her unorthodox figures of speech.

When asked about the weather:

LIZA. The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move slowly in an easterly direction. There are no indications of any great change in the barometrical situation."

Or when people start discussing health:

LIZA [darkly] My aunt died of influenza: so they said.

MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [clicks her tongue sympathetically]!!!

LIZA [in the same tragic tone] But it’s my belief they done the old woman in. MRS. HIGGINS [puzzled] Done her in?

LIZA. Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you! Why should she die of influenza? She come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.

By changing the accent of Eliza, Shaw impishly orchestrates a satirical comedy of manners: Mrs Higgins’ guests have no idea of Eliza’s origins, but because she sounds like them, they imagine she is speaking the ‘new small talk’. As Freddy says: ‘You do it so awfully well.’

Higgins coughs and looks at his watch as a signal for Eliza to leave, which she does in style. When Freddy asks if she will be walking, she replies:

Walk! Not bloody likely. [Sensation]. I am going in a taxi. [She goes out]."

Freddy’s sister Clara convinced this is the latest fashion, copies her with Higgins' encouragement:

HIGGINS: ‘Good-bye. Be sure you try on that small talk at the three at-homes. Don’t be nervous about it. Pitch it in strong.'"

After the visitors have left, Higgins asks his mother what she thinks of Eliza. Mrs. Higgins explains that Eliza will hardly be suited at a garden party because of the language Higgins keeps using. Higgins continues to describe how busy they are with Eliza, teaching and training her. At this point Shaw alludes to the Pygmalion myth:

MRS. HIGGINS. You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll."

She attempts to make Henry understand:

MRS. HIGGINS. …the problem of what is to be done with her afterwards."

Higgins and Pickering do not see any problem, Pickering suggests there are plenty of openings in employment. They leave Mrs HIggins gripping her writing-table, saying ‘Oh!! Men, men, men!!!’

ACT IV

Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza return from a ball, where Eliza has been passed off as an aristocrat. Eliza is subdued, exhausted.

Higgins and Pickering spend some time congratulating each other on the evening’s success; ignoring Eliza. Eliza tolerates it until after Pickering has left for bed; Higgins tells her to switch off the lights and leaves the room to look for his slippers.

Eliza gets as far as the lights, then throws herself on the floor in a tantrum, and throws his slippers at him.

When he demands an explanation she tells him:

LIZA. Because I wanted to smash your face. I’d like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn’t you leave me where you picked me out of—in the gutter? You thank God it’s all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you? [She crisps her fingers, frantically].

At first, Higgins simply suggests she will have plenty of opportunities and suggests she have a good night’s sleep. Eliza stares at him speechless. Higgins then suggests she will find someone to marry -

HIGGINS [a genial afterthought occurring to him] I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well—

LIZA. We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.

HIGGINS [waking up] What do you mean?

LIZA. I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me.

They argue, and Eliza returns the jewellery she was wearing, including the ring Higgins once bought for her. Higgins dashes the ring on the floor and leaves for bed in high dudgeon; Eliza triumphs, then crouches down looking for the ring.

ACT V

We return to Mrs Higgins at the writing table in her drawing room. Higgins and Pickering come in, panic-stricken that they cannot find Eliza. Mrs Higgins suggests they frightened her. Eliza’s father arrives, dressed as a gentleman. He berates Higgins, accusing him of ruining Doolittle, by tying him up and delivering him ‘into the hands of middle-class morality’.

It turns out that Higgins had written to an eccentric millionaire in America about Doolittle, and as a result, Doolittle inherited the millionaire’s fortune. As a result, Doolittle has begun to discover the horrors of middle-class society:

I have to live for others and not for myself: that’s middle-class morality."

Higgin is dressed to be married to Eliza’s current stepmother.

It seems that Doolittle can now look after Eliza’s future, only Higgins says she is not Doolittle’s any longer as Higgins gave him 5 pounds for her. Mrs Higgins reproves Higgins and tells him that Eliza is upstairs.

Doolittle withdraws; finally, Eliza comes in with her workbasket, very much at home. She chats with Colonel Pickering and reminds him how she learned nice manners from him. She also cannot unlearn all that she has learned: she is now a foreigner in the place she was brought up in:

...I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours.

Doolittle comes back in and invites everyone to his wedding. Everyone leaves except for Higgins and Eliza who come to an ambiguous reconciliation. Mrs Higgins pops back in to make sure they are on their way to the wedding. Higgins orders Eliza to buy him some gloves and a tie. Eliza tells him to buy them himself and leaves. Mrs Higgins offers to buy them for him, but Higgins says:

HIGGINS [sunnily] Oh, don’t bother. She’ll buy em all right enough. Good-bye. They kiss. Mrs. Higgins runs out. Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner."

Shaw deliberately left the ending open; all stage action ends with Higgins chuckling to himself. In the play’s published form, Shaw continues the story in a novelesque sequel, describing the future of the various characters. Eliza marries Freddy, and with the Colonel’s help they open a flower shop; Eliza continues to ‘meddle in the housekeeping at Wimpole Street in spite of the shop and her own family.’

However, she dreams sometimes of getting Higgins on a desert island ‘away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man.’

Ultimately, though she loves Freddy and Colonel Pickering, she does not like her father or Higgins:

Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable."

Painting of Pygmalion et Galatée,  byJean-Léon Gérôme, StudySmarterJean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

What is Pygmalion about?

The play has no real definite ending: Shaw offers an explanation at the end as to what he thinks will happen.

A part of Pygmalion is based on Shaw’s personal life at the time of writing. Although married to Charlotte Payne-Townshend, theirs was an open marriage based on companionship. Charlotte was fond of travelling and continued to do so after her marriage, leaving Bernard free to have affairs with other women.

At the time of writing Pygmalion, Bernard was developing a relationship with Stella Campbell, a young actress performing the part of Eliza. A part of the play’s ambiguous ending may reflect the emotional uncertainties that Stella was bringing into his life.

Pygmalion: themes

Transformation

Higgins ‘transforms’ Eliza from a flower girl to a duchess. He does this by training her to sound like an aristocrat. Shaw’s underlying comment throughout is how appearances can be deceptive. Eliza can be trained to sound educated, and based on this, she can work in a flower shop or one day even follow her dream and open a flower shop.

Social commentary also underpins the text with the notion that nothing actually separates a duchess from a flower girl other than the way they speak.

Note: even an aristocrat can do without money because they can borrow. Eliza, a flower girl, would be too self-respecting to borrow.

Social attitudes and conventions

Shaw was a staunch supporter of Fabian socialism, which encouraged equality for all. For Shaw, this included equality in speech. Shaw was an advocate of simplifying the English language and making it phonetic (spelling it as it sounds, saying it how it is spelt). Pygmalion is not only about transformation, it is also about how people perceive status and what that perception is based on: how you speak and how you dress.

During Mrs Higgins's 'at-home day', Higgins wants to test Eliza out on the other visitors.

Eliza has the right voice for society but the wrong expressions. Because she sounds like one of them, the other guests accept Higgins' claim that her expressions are part of the 'new talk' and therefore the height of fashion. This is not unlike the Emperor's new clothes: a prank played on the vain and fashion-conscious to try out invisible clothes.

The fairy tale

Pygmalion is also a princess/rags-to-riches fairy-tale: Eliza starts off as Cinderella, poor, ragged, with neglectful parents and even a stepmother thrown in for good measure (although she never appears). Higgins and Pickering wave their magic wands and Eliza is transformed into a duchess: beautiful clothes, high society, and even a ball. But where is Prince Charming? Is he Freddy, who is weak and rather pathetic? Or is he Higgins, who matches her in energy and intelligence, and who ultimately gives her independence?

What do you think happens after the curtain falls?

Pygmalion: literary devices

Allegory

Shaw's play Pygmalion is an allegory of the legend of a sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. The king fell in love with his own creation. Venus took pity on him and turned the statue into a real woman. The legend is about loneliness, love, and transformation.

Shaw took the legend and interpreted it in modern terms: Higgins, an expert, or 'sculptor' of phonetics, has the power to transform Eliza from flower girl to duchess, by teaching her speech and changing the way she dresses. The play is a satire, and, instead of the statue turning into a woman, we have a human who is treated almost like a statue, as Higgins does not regard Eliza's feelings.

This failure is not through cruelty (he is in fact a generous, cheerful character) but through carelessness and lack of thought. Shaw turns the legend on its head, and also shows what can really happen when a dream (Eliza's) becomes reality.

By the time the play ends, the audience has discovered the depth of feeling between mentor and student, man and woman, scientist and flower girl. Has the creator fallen in love with his own creation? Or Galatea with the creator? The last word rests with Higgins: Shaw leaves the ending tantalisingly open, allowing the audience to make its own mind up.

HIGGINS [sunnily] Oh, don’t bother. She’ll buy em all right enough. Good-bye.

They kiss. Mrs. Higgins runs out. Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner.

The cliffhanger

By leaving the play open-ended, Shaw creates a cliffhanger:

A cliffhanger is an incomplete ending, which leaves the audience in suspense and asking for more.

The open ending of Pygmalion did not please everyone; critics were divided on whether the ending worked or not. Some were convinced Eliza was about to run off to Freddy, which didn't make dramatic sense to them. Some were convinced Eliza would marry Higgins. Others felt that Shaw had written the right ending after all.

Pygmalion - Key takeaways

  • Pygmalion was published in 1912 and performed in 1913.
  • Higgins is partly based on real-life linguist Henry Sweet.
  • Pygmalion is based on the legend of the sculpture transformed into a living woman.
  • In the play, Higgins trains Eliza how to sound like a duchess.
  • Shaw deliberately left the ending of Pygmalion open.
  • Pygmalion is a satire on social conventions and attitudes to language.

Pygmalion

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

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

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

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

Pygmalion was a king of Cyprus who carved a woman out of ivory; Aphrodite brought the statue to life.

Final Pygmalion Quiz

Question

What is the main idea of Pygmalion?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

What is the meaning of the play Pygmalion?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

What is Pygmalion about?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

How does Pygmalion end?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

What is the myth of Pygmalion?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

Who is Eliza?

Show answer

Answer

Eliza is a flower seller in Covent Garden.

Show question

Question

What does Higgins bet with Colonel Pickering?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

Higgins is partly based on  real-life linguist 

Show answer

Answer

Henry Eynsford Hill.

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

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.’

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

Eliza.

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

gloves

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

Mrs Higgins, to Higgins and Pickering.

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

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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