George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is renowned for its sharp wit and humor, elements that are central to the play’s appeal and effectiveness. Shaw’s use of these literary devices not only entertains but also serves to underscore the play’s thematic concerns and social critique. Here’s a short note on how Shaw incorporates wit and humor in “Pygmalion”:
- Satire of Social Classes: Shaw employs wit as a tool for satirizing the rigid class structure of Edwardian society. Through humorous dialogue and situations, he highlights the absurdities and pretensions of the upper classes, as well as the challenges faced by the lower classes. The transformation of Eliza Doolittle from a flower girl to a duchess-like figure becomes a vehicle for witty commentary on social mobility and class distinctions.
- Character Interactions: Much of the play’s humor arises from the interactions between characters, particularly between Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins’ blunt and often insensitive remarks contrasted with Eliza’s spirited responses create a dynamic that is both humorous and insightful. Shaw’s clever dialogue often carries a double meaning, entertaining the audience while providing sharp commentary on gender and class issues.
- Irony and Sarcasm: Shaw’s use of irony and sarcasm adds depth to the humor in “Pygmalion.” Characters often say things that have a double meaning or that are the opposite of what they intend, leading to comedic misunderstandings and situations. This irony is not just humorous but also serves to critique societal norms and expectations.
- Parody of Pygmalion Myth: The play is, in part, a parody of the Pygmalion myth from Greek mythology, where a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has created. Shaw humorously subverts this myth, poking fun at the idea of a man ‘creating’ an ideal woman and then falling in love with her. This parody serves as both a humorous element and a critique of male fantasies and the objectification of women.
- Language and Accents: Shaw also finds humor in the use of language and accents. Eliza’s Cockney accent and malapropisms, contrasted with Higgins’ precise and pedantic speech, create comedic effects. The play’s focus on language as a determinant of social class is explored humorously but also with a critical edge.
- Comedy of Manners: “Pygmalion” is often seen as a comedy of manners, where humor arises from mocking the customs and behaviors of a particular social class. Shaw’s witty dialogue and scenarios lampoon the conventions and mannerisms of Edwardian society, entertaining the audience while inviting them to reflect on the absurdities of social conventions.
If the touchstone of comedy is its capacity to provoke laughter: Shaw is a prince among writers of this type of plays. His plays provide an inexhaustible source of laughter. One may feel that the dramatist is behaving like a down at the places of deliberately saying absurd things, one will admire the ingenuity of the observation and enjoy hearty laugh. This aspect of Shaw is both an asset and liability. For if on the one hand, it expresses the dramatist to the charge of sheer flippancy, it makes his plays amusing in the highest degree. Shaw may have any other weakness as a dramatist but he is never dull. His plays are as readable at home as they ae enjoyable on the stage.
The distinction between wit and humour is never so important as in a discussion of the comic art of Shaw, for he has often been regarded as wit and, therefore, not entitled to a place in the rank of the great humorists of the world. Many attempts have been made to define the different forms of the comical. Without entering into the subtleties of the question and the eccentricities of individual opinion, we shall proceed on the popularly accepted distinction between wit and humour. It is generally thought that wit is concerned with the incongruity and opposition between words phrases, fancies and opinions, while humour delights in abnormalities of sentiments and idiosyncrasies of character. Humour, in contemplating eccentricities, often falls in love with the object of its decision. Humour and wit are both to sentiment, while wit is a pure intellectual exercise. Then again, there is a tone of seriousness in humour that distinguishes it from wit which delights only in the combination of words and fancies, as seen apart from character.
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The native humour of a man who moves independently of convention is best seen in the life of Mr. Alfred Doolittle, father of Eliza in Pygmalion. Society makes a pretense that it distributes its wealth among its members as they deserve, an arrangement which is not only unworkable but also iniquitous. Alfred Doolittle. an original moralist, exposes the injustice of conventional standards which pretend to consider what people deserve to earn rather than what they desire to consume. He is one of the underserving poor and frankly makes his claims on that basis, “I am”, says he, “one of the under serving poor; that is what I am, think, of what the means to a man. It means that he’s up against middle-class morality all the time. If there anything going, and I put in a bit for it, it is always the same story; “You’re underserving so you can’t have it.” But my need is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than deserving man; I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving.” Alfred Doolittle is militantly unbourgeois even when he has suddenly come in for an inheritance. He feels that he will no longer be happy, that he is being intimidated by a morality that is opposed to the spirit of life. “We are all intimidated, says he, intimidated, ma’am; that is what we are Intimidated, what is there for me if I chuck it but the work house in my old age ?….. Happier men than me will call for my dust and touch me for their tips; and I’ll look on helpless, and envy them.” Doolittle is in every respect an ordinary man; it is only his original morality combined with his general incompetence that makes him not only witty in himself but also the cause that wit is in others, and this bring him within the province of humour. Thus, Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion is a humours character. He creates humour by virtue of his oddities and idiosyncrasies.
In summary, Shaw’s wit and humor in “Pygmalion” are key to the play’s enduring appeal. Through satirical commentary, humorous character dynamics, irony, and a playful subversion of traditional narratives, Shaw not only entertains but also provokes thought about important social issues. His wit is not just for amusement; it’s a vehicle for his critique of society’s pretensions and inequities.