We hear language in all its forms in Pygmalion: everything from slang and "small talk," to heartfelt pleas and big talk about soul and poverty. Depending on the situation, and depending on whom you ask, language can separate or connect people, degrade or elevate, transform or prevent transformation.
Language, we learn, doesn't necessarily need to be "true" to be effective; it can deceive just as easily as it can reveal the truth. It is, ultimately, what binds Pygmalion together, and it pays to read carefully; even something as small as a single word can define a person.
Pygmalion represents Shaw's attempt to not just use words and language to create art and raise questions, but to force readers to examine the power and purpose of language itself.
Reading Pygmalion, we come to learn that communication is about more than words, and everything from clothing to accents to physical bearing can affect the way people interact with each other.
This one may seem like a no-brainer: Pygmalion's all about turning a poor girl into a duchess, right? Well, sure, and Eliza's metamorphosis is stunning. You could even go so far as to call it a Cinderella story.
But remember: Cinderella turned back into a poor girl before she finally found her prince. Pay attention and you'll notice that not all the attempts at transformation here are successful. There are plenty of false starts and false endings. By play's end, Shaw's made one thing very clear: be careful what you wish for.
Pygmalion is ultimately a story about the transformative, and sometimes problematic, power of education.
In Pygmalion, Shaw asserts that nature, not nurture, is the more important factor in the development of intelligence and skill.
Every single day we talk about ourselves, saying "I did this," "I did that," "I am," and "I'm not," but we don't usually think about what "I" means. In Pygmalion, Shaw forces us to think this through. Some characters want to change who they are, others don't want to change at all.
Things get even more complicated when identities are made up, constructed. The play wants us to ask ourselves what I really means to think about different versions of the self, and whether that self can ever really be changed.
Eliza's identity is, from the very beginning, fixed. It is only her circumstances that change.
Higgins's reluctance to change reflects a deep insecurity in regard to identity, an insecurity fostered by his own life-changing abilities.
Is beauty only skin deep? Is it in the eye of the beholder? Or is it the consequence of social circumstances? Shaw's more interested in dealing with the big questions – like that last one – than with old saws.
In Pygmalion, anything from a pair of boots to a bath to an expensive dress can tell us important stuff about a character, like their place in the world or their state of mind. They can reveal what might normally be hidden from view, or hide that which might normally be obvious. So appearances can be deceiving, and the trick is learning how to judge what is true and what is false. The thing is, it's not an easy skill to pick up.
In Pygmalion, we learn that even the smallest changes in appearance can have a great effect on how a person or thing is perceived.
In constructing Pygmalion around the classic rags-to-riches plot, Shaw fools us in the same way Eliza fools the upper classes. We expect the plot to resolve itself in the conventional way until, suddenly, we realize that the play we are watching will not resolve itself at all.
In Pygmalion, we see different types of influence and control, sometimes literal and other times metaphorical: the teacher training his student, the artist shaping his creation, the con artist fleecing his mark, the child playing with his toy. That said, these roles aren't always well-defined; they can change easily, without warning.
Sometimes the master becomes the slave and the slave the master, in the blink of the eye, while other times the two simply become equals. Shaw wants us to observe the consequences of control, to see how these changes occur.
Shaw asserts that manipulation and coercion are presented as natural, necessary modes of action. Without them, real change – personal and societal – would not be possible.
In recognizing Eliza as his equal at play's end, Higgins is really recognizing the extent to which he has manipulated his subject. Eliza has changed, yes, but Higgins's perceptions have changed even more.
In Pygmalion, we observe a society divided, separated by language, education, and wealth. Shaw gives us a chance to see how that gap can be bridged, both successfully and unsuccessfully. As he portrays it, London society cannot simply be defined by two terms, "rich" and "poor."
Within each group there are smaller less obvious distinctions, and it is in the middle, in that gray area between wealth and poverty that many of the most difficult questions arise and from which the most surprising truths emerge.
Shaw argues that societal change can and must begin on the personal, spiritual level, that change can be affected with words, not weapons.
Pygmalion allows us to observe a society in flux and understand the problems which crop up in an "age of upstarts."
A lot, as you've probably guessed, has changed in the last century. Back when Shaw wrote Pygmalion, women couldn't vote in the United Kingdom; in 1918 women over the age of thirty were given the right, and it took another ten years for all women to be given a voice.
Shaw's depiction of women and attitudes toward them is impressively and sometimes confusingly varied. They are shown in conventional roles – as mothers and housekeepers – and as strong-willed and independent. The play pays special attention to the problem of women's "place" in society (or lack thereof), and Shaw offers no easy answers to the tough questions that arise.
In Pygmalion, Shaw portrays a society in transition, in which progressive notions of femininity clash with more established, traditional ideas about gender roles.
In asserting her independence from Higgins and the usual conventions regarding marriage, Eliza nonetheless ends up confirming established gender stereotypes.
Mick Jagger was right when he sang, "You can't always get what you want." It's true, sometimes just by trying you can get what you need, but that's not always the way it works. What if you get what you want only to find out it isn't what you imagined it would be? What if your dreams come true, only to turn into nightmares?
That said, Pygmalion also shows us what happens after everything ends up wrong. This play offers no quick fixes, but he does leave room for hope.
Eliza only completes her transformation when she realizes that her original dreams were unrealistic; that is, she can only really function as an individual when she is forced to reconsider the usefulness of her education.
Eliza's own aspirations are frustrated by the very conditions which should have, supposedly, enabled them. By agreeing to participate in Higgins's bet, she also agrees, ultimately, to compromise.