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Portrayal Of British Society In Victorian Era In The Play Pygmalion

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For many years, people have come to criticize other people’s aspects without being aware of why they are that way. In English society, especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, social status has always been viewed as something significant. In this society power was determined by the way the language was spoken, the more proper the more power. This play is based off the play My Fair Lady. This play is about a man that idolizes a sculpture and imagines that they are together. Pygmalion however, shows the relationship between two real people and how one molds the other into what they think society should see them as. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw uses Eliza Doolittle’s character along with others to show a parallel between language and power.

The characters in this play illustrate the relationship between social class and the expectation of each other. All of the characters are put in this situation and it shows the importance of them being able to define their social standing. For example, the mother is depicted as the world would see a woman of that time, expecting others to doing things for her. “You really are very helpless, Freddy. Go again; and don’t come back until you have found a cab” (Shaw 11). Mrs. Higgins is a lady and in this era it would not be socially acceptable for her to catch her own cab. She is showing her social authority in a lady like manner all the while showing how she should be treated. She does this through belittling others who aren’t respecting of it. This is how the mother uses her power and language to increase her social power.

Arguably the main character of this story, the flower girl named Eliza, displays how Shaw uses language to influence power and society. From the beginning of the play Eliza is taken by Mr. Higgins to learn how to properly speak. As a flower girl she is seen as a part of low society that cannot interact with the higher class. The main thing that is holding her back is her dialogue. For example Eliza says “Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel’s flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’them?”(Shaw 11). In this quote it shows the natural speech that Eliza uses in her society. In this era, the high English society did not speak like this they used more complex words and pronounced them properly. This is a reason that the lower and upper class cannot mix. The lower class often used words that were used by others but in a slang sounding way so that they could speak around the upper class. Lower class had their own code. They do not understand each other’s dialogue, which influences their positions of society.

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The way Eliza speaks and acts continues through the play and clearly shows the lack of linguistic competence. Through social grace and language, Shaw is showing the vulgarity of the lower class language. The importance of power in language is further brought into view when Eliza, the flower girl, meets Mr. Higgins in the street. This is an important moment because Mr. Higgins distinguishes character’s origins from their accent. “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech (Shaw 27).” In this quote, because Mr. Higgins is putting Eliza in her place. He is telling her that her way of speech and dialogue has no right being where she is, but that she could speak correctly if she tired. Mr. Higgins knows that in order to hold a good job one needs to be able to speak as though they are part of the that high society. This is Shaw showing once again that language supports power in this English society. Without being able to speech and act with dignity you will not make it.

Eliza is not the only character that Shaw uses to exploit power and language, Mr. Higgins plays a big role in this. Shaw uses Mr. Higgins in a clever way to show the vulgarity of dialects and criticize the lower class all while showing the superficiality of upper class. He belongs to the upper class of society and is a very diverse man. His main claim in this play is that he is a gentlemen and speaks Standard English with clear flawless pronunciation. This level of sophisticated language paired with class, made it feel acceptable to him to act rudely with lower classes in order to feel superior. He shows this through the way he talks with them, especially Eliza. Mr. Higgins uses degrading to refer to Eliza and lower class people. For example, “draggletailed guttersnipe”, “Squashed cabbage pig”, “Bilious pig” and many more. Shaw showed through this character that his higher class status and level of speech that it gave him the opportunity to speak to the lower class like this.

Mr. Higgins and Eliza are two characters that show the journey of language and power throughout this play. Higgins boasts in the beginning of the play about being able to build people up from the bottom. He creates a new identity for Eliza, bridging the “gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” by training her speak correctly and dress like a lady. This arrangement however, continues to show the class distinction in this play. Eliza does not achieve higher social status just because of her new accent, she gains the manners and habits. Higgins points this out to her in this quote “…the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earing her own living without giving her a fine lady’s outcome (Shaw 31).” After this transformation Eliza is seen as a kind of misfit in the higher class society. Which is odd to the reader because Shaw this entire play is preaching to us that language and power of high class society go together. Even though Eliza has all the skills to be a part of this upper class, she is incapable of finding a place for herself in the higher strata of society. Shaw has shown in this character that you can achieve higher class status with language and power.

In conclusion, Bernard Shaw shows a Victorian era British society in transition, where he hopes that equality of classes can be reached. However, language, power of social class and stereotypes are what run this era. In the end Shaw show that being a part of the upper class isn’t all that great and special. Eliza finds herself reliant on others and a misfit in her new society, but she refuses to let this be the final destination for her. Mr. Higgins has given her power to be in a higher society and obtain a better job through her speech that he has taught her. Eliza takes this gift and decides to be her own person. Shaw uses these two characters to show the power of language. The way that it can alter how others perceive you in this era of time. One of Shaw’s main points in this play was to show how language and social class power went together. He accomplished this through Eliza and Mr. Higgins.

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Portrayal Of British Society In Victorian Era In The Play Pygmalion. (2021, September 13). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
“Portrayal Of British Society In Victorian Era In The Play Pygmalion.” Edubirdie, 13 Sept. 2021,
Portrayal Of British Society In Victorian Era In The Play Pygmalion. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Portrayal Of British Society In Victorian Era In The Play Pygmalion [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 13 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from:
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