George Bernard Shaw

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Pygmalion Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was born in 1856, in Dublin. His father was a civil servant and his mother was a singer. He changed schools several times as he grew older, and developed a strong dislike of schools and formal education. When he was a teenager, his mother moved to London and he remained in Dublin with his father for some time. But in 1876, he moved to London to join his mother. There, he began writing, starting with novels (though he found no success as a novelist). He also became somewhat politically active, an ardent supporter of socialism. It was only in the 1880s that Shaw turned to drama. He finally found some writing success with his plays, which often involved social critiques. Shaw was a very prolific writer, writing over 50 plays in addition to articles, reviews, essays, and pamphlets. His popularity rose in the early 1900s and he started to become a famous, well-respected playwright. In 1925, he was recognized for his work with the Nobel Prize in Literature and he died 25 years later, at the age of 94.
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Historical Context of Pygmalion

The play is set in the early 20th century, at the end of the Victorian period. During this time, London was the capital of the wide-reaching, powerful British Empire. Victorian society was characterized by a rigid social hierarchy, but as the 20th century began social change was on the horizon. Importantly, women had not yet gained many basic rights and privileges. Shaw's comedy of manners, which satirizes the customs and habits of the Victorian elite, plays with and critiques the social conventions of this historical moment.

Other Books Related to Pygmalion

Shaw's play takes its title from the myth of Pygmalion, which is told in Ovid's epic Latin poem of mythological transformations, the Metamorphoses. In the myth, Pygmalion makes a sculpture of his ideal woman, named Galatea. He falls in love with his beautiful statue, which then comes to life. With his title, Shaw implies that Eliza is a kind of Galatea, molded by Pickering and Higgins into the ideal lady of Victorian society. Pygmalion is Shaw's most popular play and has spawned a number of adaptations (including a film version). Most famously, it is the inspiration for the Broadway musical and following movie My Fair Lady.
Key Facts about Pygmalion
  • Full Title: Pygmalion
  • When Written: 1912
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1912
  • Literary Period: Victorian period
  • Genre: Drama, comedy, comedy of manners
  • Setting: London
  • Climax: In act four, after winning the bet concerning Eliza, Higgins says he has been bored with his experiment, and treats Eliza poorly. Infuriated, Eliza throws Higgins' slippers at him and argues and fights with him.
  • Antagonist: While Eliza and Higgins argue with each other, they both cooperate in order to fool London's high society. The rigid hierarchy of social classes in Victorian England can be seen as the antagonist against which all the characters struggle, as they deal with issues of class and wealth.

Extra Credit for Pygmalion

Double Threat. George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have ever won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar. He won the Oscar for his work on a film adaptation of Pygmalion.

Thanks But No Thanks. At first, Shaw declined to accept the Nobel Prize. He later changed his mind, but still refused the prize money, wanting it instead to fund translations of Swedish literature into English.