To what extent can dramatic comedy offer serious criticisms of contemporary social conventions? Discuss with reference to ‘Pygmalion’, by George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw uses dramatic comedy to criticise the mannerisms and conventions of Victorian society. He uses certain aspects of comedy to make serious criticisms of society and its views. This becomes very apparent in how George Bernard presents certain characters to draw attention to the serious point of how society conducts itself in this context. In the first act of ‘Pygmalion’ Shaw presents the Daughter as being ignorant towards society. She is insulting and unfavourable towards Freddie, she says ‘you selfish pig’ because he cannot find her a cab.
Eliza is mistaken for a prostitute by The Mother and is stereotyped as a typical Flower Girl. She often says on several occasions, ‘I’m a good girl I am’ and Shaw uses Eliza to criticise society’s opinions on the working class. There is a contrast between the Daughter and Eliza, as although the Daughter is in a higher class than Eliza in society, the Daughter is very ill mannered towards society where as Eliza is only criticised for her appalling accent.
Shaw uses Higgins to criticise the working class, this is conveyed through the humiliation of Eliza when he mocks her accent. His views on Eliza and her dialect is arrogant and portentous, he describes her as having ‘no right to live’ and as ‘crooning like a bilious pigeon’. Shaw uses the character Higgins to reflect the attitudes of the patriarchal society in the context of the play. In the second act Shaw uses the roles of Mrs Pearce and Doolittle to criticise Higgins’ attitude towards the working class.
Although Mrs Pearce is a servant she has an important role as she is wise and sensible, she says ‘oh don’t say that…to do anything foolish’, she predicts that something may happen later on. She shows us how Higgins treats women, he tells Mrs Pearce that ‘I walk over everybody! ’ and to ‘Put her [Eliza] in the dustbin’. Higgins’ ideas about women are stereotypical for the context of the play; he says ‘I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious’.
Shaw uses Higgins dismissive attitude towards women to present the criticisms of the upper classes prejudice ideas about women. Doolittle is introduced as a typical working class man and is stereotyped by Higgins as an alcoholic. Shaw presents the sexist attitude of men using a dramatic parallel between Higgins and Doolittle as they are both using Eliza for financial gain. He uses Doolittle’s character to represent the serious point of how the working class were judged as the ‘undeserving poor’.
Higgins and Eliza represent the differences between her life, as a working class woman, and Higgins’s life, as an upper class man. Eliza says, ‘I tell you it’s easy to clean up here…wish they could see what it is for the like of me! ’. She isn’t used to the how the upper class live, she is surprised at how much she enjoys having a wash whereas upper class women are used to it which emphasises the difference between the different classes in society. Shaw also uses subversive comedy to criticise the moralities of Eliza’s father, Doolittle says ‘Me!
I never brought her up at all…your free-and-easy ways. ’, he is harsh and has immoral views on how the working class should be treat, he exposes the hypocrisy of the Victorian society and their moralities. Shaw uses Eliza to represent the whole of the working class, an example is when she takes her first bath at Higgins’s home, she says ‘Gawd! What’s this? ’, she’s unaware that it’s a bath which exaggerates the point that the working class didn’t know cleanliness as the majority of them lived in such extreme poverty that they couldn’t afford it.
Eliza’s room is described as sad and pathetic at the end of act 1 and this is juxtaposed with Mrs Higgins’s living arrangements, exaggerating the extreme poverty in which the working class lived in the context of the play. Shaw uses Mrs Higgins to poke fun at upper class values, ‘it is Mrs Higgins’s at home day’ which is where upper class women invite less fortunate people to their homes to discuss typical subjects. Shaw uses Mrs Higgins’s vanity to show that upper class women believed they were above all other classes.
Higgins’s speech in act 3, ‘you see we’re all savages…what the devil do you imagine I know of philosophy? ’, makes the serious point that, due to the cultured society at that time, the working class and middle class were differently educated and differently sophisticated. Shaw also uses Pickering and Higgins to poke fun at the upper classes attitude towards the working class women of the Victorian society. Pickering says to Higgins, ‘I hope it’s understood that no advantage is to be taken of her [Eliza] position. ’ to which Higgins replies, ‘What?!
That thing! ’. Higgins doesn’t see Eliza as a human; he sees her as an object and believes he is above her affections, ‘I might as well be a block of wood’. There is a tragic comedy to Higgins’s views, which is that as he was born into an upper class family, he cannot help but have these views because he doesn’t see his views as being ‘immoral’. At Mrs Higgins’s at home day Eliza has her first test on her speech and dialect, but she soon returns to her old dialect, she says ‘they done the old woman in’ and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in’.
The Eynsford Hills and Mrs Higgins cannot understand Eliza’s accent, which emphasises the class differences, but the Eynsford Hills accept her dialect as the new small talk to fit into society because they want to be accepted. Shaw uses tragic comedy to show that Higgins is using Eliza’s situation by trying to transform her into a perfect example of an upper class woman, but she cannot help but stick to her roots, again emphasising the difference between the working and upper classes.
In the fourth act Higgins and Pickering treat Eliza brutally by being ignorant towards her and her feelings. Higgins objectifies her, ‘She wasn’t nervous. I knew she’d be alright. ’ He is aware that she is in the room but is ignorant towards her. He is only concerned for himself, ‘I felt like a bear in a cage’; he is being selfish and is unaware that his ignorance is affecting Eliza. Higgins’s character represents the stereotypical male of this context, his attitude towards women is patronising and undermining.
Shaw gives Eliza’s character a voice in this act to show that even working class women can have power over men , she ‘drinks in his emotion like nectar’ because she knows she has finally touched his nerve but decides to walk away from it all and take responsibility for her situation which is en-powering for women in society. Shaw uses irony to make the serious point that even though Higgins could never treat Eliza as an equal, when he loses Eliza he feels lost, when he phones the police to search for her his Mother says, ‘I suppose he’s lost something’.
Shaw uses Higgins’s misogynistic attitude to portray the patriarchal society of the context and the hypocritical nature of society, ‘She doesn’t belong to him. I paid five pounds for her. ’ he is totally unaware of women and just treats them as slaves. He often refers to the working class as ‘creatures’ and just see’s Eliza as his ‘thing’. He refuses to behave how upper class expect him to behave, he says ‘Eliza: you’re an idiot…which you please. ’ he doesn’t belong to society and he is isolated because of this.
Another example of how Higgins represents men’s attitudes towards women is when Eliza believes she can make a good wife for Freddie; Higgins says ‘Can he make anything of you? That’s the point’. Higgins is portrayed to believe that it’s a man’s right to make something of a woman. Shaw’s play is an example of feminist literature, Eliza emerges into this independent woman who has a voice and isn’t afraid to speak up for women. She says to Higgins ‘don’t you be too sure that you have me under your feet to be trampled on and talked down.
She is finally speaking up for herself and given a voice of her own, and is respected by Higgins when she does this. Eliza’s attitude for affection is desperate, so she accepts the affection from Freddie instead because she knows she will never get any love or affection from Higgins. He makes this clear when he says ‘I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners’, he treats everybody with the same mannerisms and Eliza realises that he could never treat her as an equal. This emphasises the criticisms of how society differs in this context and how women were viewed in the Victorian society.