How George Bernard Shaw uses the power of language to make his audience think about social change Essay

Give a lecture to Swindon College students explaining how George Bernard Shaw uses the power of language to make his audience think about social change.

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George Bernard Shaw explores ideas on these subjects in his play Pygmalion.

He also uses language to make the audience think about social class and change, that is what I am going to try and tell you about today.

In Act I, initially the characters are not given names, but stereotypical titles such as ‘The Flower Girl’ and ‘The Note-Taker’ (Henry Higgins)

Already this is showing divides between these people before we are told that they are going to feature as major characters in the play; for instance, a flower seller is a very degrading, lower class job for people who didn’t have the right opportunities as a child, for whatever reason, or whose status in society wasn’t high enough to enable them to get a job which would have rewarded them with much more respect.

Higgins’ title, however, of ‘The Note Taker’, indicates to the audience that he is a well educated, probably Middle Class man who has a highly regarded job, very much unlike Eliza, even (as was first thought) a policeman’s lookout.

Language is major feature in class divisions, especially on the streets of London. There is a huge gap between the language and the structure of the language, of the Lower classes compared to the Middle and certainly Upper Classes. This is powerful in the structure of the play because we monitor Eliza’s progress as she moves from the language of the gutter into a lady.

Although her attitudes to some things have changed, because she has seen a new life, but she is actually the same person she always has been. By improving her language no one suspected anything of her early life.

In Act I the audience meets the Eynsford-Hill family, to illustrate the point of the language gap. Just by their name they are instantly placed by the audience in the Upper-Middle class.

This is confirmed when Eliza enters, carrying her basket of flowers, and exclaiming: ‘Nah then, Freddy: look wh’y’ gowin, deah.’ Clara Eynsford-Hill, as soon as she had heard Eliza speak, doesn’t want anything to do with her. When her Mother gives sixpence to Eliza for the flowers Freddy knocked over, Clara says: ‘Sixpence thrown away! Really Mamma’ you can picture her face as she looks down upon Eliza in disgust and ‘retreats behind the pillar.’ Clara doesn’t even want to be associated with standing near such a dirty lower-class girl.

At first George Bernard Shaw tries to write Eliza’s speech phonetically, so that when it is read out, people listening get the same affect as the audiences did in the theatres when the play was performed. After a few lines, though, he cancels his attempt saying it: ‘Must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London’

This illustrates to the audience what a huge gap there is between Eliza’s ‘common girl’ accent and the accent and dialect of the ‘prim and proper’ Eynsford-Hill family. Most people would understand the Standard English dialect outside of London, but certain local dialect can only be understood in the area of its origin. Accent however, is the way you pronounce Standard English words, not different words you use instead of them.

In her role as a flower seller, Eliza is free to say whatever she wants without fear of condemnation from others in her class. She can express her views exactly as she wants to on any given subject whereas the Eynsford-Hill family are very restrained by their class boundaries as to what is acceptable to be heard saying. If Clara were to say some of the things Eliza does, she would be frowned upon. This shows how people’s attitudes to language change dramatically as you move up in the class system.

Higgins however, is and exception to this rule, he speaks his mind whenever he wants and doesn’t think about any of the consequences like hurting peoples feelings, and this is shown in his attitude towards Eliza.

Doolittle is the only character in the play given long sections of uninterrupted speech. He is very aware of other people and the situation around him, much more than the upper class who are distanced from the real London lives. Doolittle exposes the gap in the class system and makes the audience aware of what the message of the play is trying to tell us.

He contrasts between the past and present and the two different sides of life he has experienced. His speech is very frank, uses simple language and is from the heart, and uses lots of rhetorical questions to make his audience think about the message he is trying to portray. Doolittle stays true to his class, not abandoning them when he came into some money.

He feels passionately about what he is talking about and uses repetition as a persuasive technique to describe the ‘undeserving poor’ for whom he is a representative and a link between the lower and middle classes.

At the end of Act I Higgins boasts to Pickering (still not knowing who he really is): ‘In 3 months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s party.’ Higgins relishes in a challenge and has a bet with Pickering about Eliza. This is the first time we see how obsessed Higgins is in his work and how he probably will treat Eliza just as another experiment without taking care of her feelings.

Despite Higgins’ ignorance Eliza is determined and makes amazing progress, showing her real intelligence, which has been hidden in lower class squalor for all these years.

Eliza’s pronunciation of her words and her dialect becomes more and more like a lady’s and Higgins tries her out at Mrs Higgins’ at-home day.

Mrs Higgins is not impressed and sees what her son is really interested in, the money behind the bet and tells him that being a lady is not just about the language but is about the small talk. This is when Eliza swearing caused an outrage in theatres and Clara adopted it as the ‘new small talk’

As you know Eliza wins Higgins’ bet for him and passes herself off as a duchess at the ambassador’s reception.

After that, Higgins loses interest in her like a toy he doesn’t want to play with anymore and just wants to put her to the back of the cupboard and forget about her, but he cant do it. Eliza has become a much more independent woman, this is proved when she stands up to Higgins and he realises he can no longer tell her what to do.

She has developed in many more ways than just her language, her whole attitude and outlook on life has changed, she has become a completely different person and is quite accustomed to her new life in the Middle Class.

This is very much unlike her father. When he suddenly came into a fair amount of money he refused to change his attitude and stays as a lower class man with the money of someone in the middle class. He doesn’t want to change where he comes from and forget his old mates, like Eliza does. But he finds it hard to keep his old life with the sudden introduction of lots of money. People come up to him for money in the street and he is given many more privileges like getting to the front of the queue at the doctors and dentist.

Higgins has a very uncompromising language; he speaks in exactly the same way to everyone and doesn’t think twice about what he is going to say. This is proved by his constant swearing towards Eliza, Pickering and even his mother: ‘ He also has a very overpowering language and a dominant voice. He has the power to make anyone do what he wants them to by his use of language.

At Eliza’s first lesson Higgins gets really annoyed when Eliza cannot pronounce the words ‘A cup of tea.’

At this point he probably thinks he is going to lose the bet.

Pickering however is very nice and kind towards Eliza, and shows her respect.

At the end of the play, Eliza shows she has noticed this by saying: ‘The difference between a lady and a flower girl is the not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.’

I think Higgins is the most important character in the play, because he is the most open and genuine person and doesn’t, refuses to, change right throughout the play.

He is very intelligent but also very vain and spiteful towards people the main reason why he is not married, he couldn’t tolerate having someone else constantly in his life, except Mrs Pearce who tolerates him very well with her own quips and remarks to make him think about his actions.

Every character in the play is strongly identifiable through their language and what they say in different situations, and I think that is what Bernard Shaw wanted to achieve through the way he builds his characters up.

At the beginning of Act II and also Act III there is a page of explanation about exactly where everything is placed in Higgins’ laboratory and in Act III, explaining the layout of Mrs Higgins’ house and how she is preparing for her at-home day.

I think this is because, if anyone wants to perform the play, they get everything in the right places, to get the effect and the atmosphere that Bernard Shaw wanted and was picturing in his mind when he wrote the play.

In Britain at about the time this play was written, half the population were in the upper classes. George Bernard Shaw satirises these people at the ball by portraying them as ‘chattering fools’ who just use small talk, about the weather, and the food, to disguise the fact that that is all they can do, and, unlike Higgins haven’t got any real knowledge of anything else.

That is the difference between most of the upper class people and Henry Higgins, he has made a worthwhile profession for himself and makes a fair bit of money from it whereas the other middle-upper classes have inherited their money and fooled themselves into thinking they are something that they are quite obviously not, well educated, intelligent citizens.

I think Bernard Shaw’s message to the audience is to see what the class system is really about and how false those of the upper classes are and that they are not as worldly-wise as they think they are.

He challenges his audience to look at the class system from a different angle and see that people can’t be categorised that easily, and there are some people that could fit into a number of categories.

For example where would a person who has rich parents and is intelligent, but has no money or a respectable house for himself, fit into the system.

A perfect example of this in the play is Freddy. He tries his best to be intelligent, but just lacks something to fit in. The only reason he has the wealth and fashionable clothes he does is because the Eynsford-Hill family keep him as a servant/lodger to do the jobs that they wouldn’t want tot be seen having to do, like in Act I, running around the wet streets of London trying to find a taxi for Miss and Mrs Eynsford-Hill.

He only does jobs like this because if he didn’t he would be thrown into the gutter where he would fit in much better, but would lack the privileges that he once had.

I think this is why he is such a good match for Eliza and why they end up being married, he is essentially a lower class citizen, the same as Eliza, but he just has a bit more money for them both to lead a comfortable life.

Money is the main basis of the class system, but it is really about much more than that. That is probably the reason that the rigid Victorian class system crumbled, there were too many complications and in modern day life we still have some sort of ranking, that cannot be avoided, but it is nowhere near on the scale of what it was in the 18th and 19th Century.

Pygmalion is a play full of different accents and dialects.

Today, hopefully I have explained some of them in more detail to you and also given you some other valid points to do with the play to help you understand what Bernard Shaw wrote and to think about the play in the context of the 20th Century when it was written and not just read the words on the page.

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