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How does Bernard Shaw present the nature of power in the play, 'Pygmalion'?


How do we define power? Definitions are muddy, it can be difficult to pin-point exactly what we mean by something. In the society we live in, power is presented in different ways and we identify power when we see the strength of language coupled with strong social status and a clear sense of self-identity. But is that how everyone would define power? 


Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a witty play reworked from the classic story regarding a sculptor and his undying love for one of his own statues. The play refers to this classic tale but also to the Pygmalion effect, whereby performance is enhanced when expectations are. Eliza Doolittle, the protagonist of this play is faced with extremely high expectations of becoming a Duchess in six months under the teachings of Phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Her performance is therefore of a very high standard and places her in a position of power. The contrast between her weakness at the beginning of the play and her pedistole of social dominance in the final act help portray an idea of the transient nature of power. How it only lasts for a short amount of time and how it can be lost but also controlled. This therefore leads to a single question:


Power in this play is being presented through the strength of language, social position and a clear sense of self identity. By being able to explore how power is presented, this question helps create an investigation that deeply ventures into how power is transient but also how power is ironically fickle.  When someone has power, they can lose it. When someone does not have power they are vulnerable because it is something that they do not have. Power is not constant because it is not something a person is guaranteed to be in possession of. Within this play, the nature of power is brought to light through an in depth analysis of Shaw’s language.



What does it mean to have power? Despite the strength of power, it is also something that can be lost. Is it easy to be in control of power? Power fascinated Shaw, evident in some of his other works. In 1905 his play, Major Barbara told the story of a young upper class women helping people in poverty. This play also contains similar themes of social class and how this can make someone powerful. In 1912, Shaw also wrote Androcles and the Lion, which discusses the strength of power and how it can be used for good.  This interest in this theme helped inspire Pygmalion, first performed in 1914, the beginning of the 20th Century. During this time, society was divided primarily by wealth, with aristocracy at the top holding all the money and power. Income played an important role in deciding which social class an individual would fall into.

With this social structure in mind, Shaw uses Pygmalion to discuss the transient nature of power through three different elements. This essay investigates how Eliza Doolittle’s characterisation shows the nature and effect of being both with power and without.


The first element includes the inability to express ideas using language and how this makes Eliza in danger of not being able to sustain power.  It is the physical reminder of Eliza’s weakness because her language places her in a distinct lower social position, which was immensely important during this time. The second element follows the theme of social class and how a change of status enhances or reduces an individual character’s strength. There is a heightened sense of security in having a superior social background, which controls power. Finally identity. Who am I? Clear self-identity is a powerful asset, which Eliza learns and attempts to harness. However, when Eliza is caught between two social groups, it makes it difficult for her to know who she is because social class helps define identity. Through the investigation of these three elements, I will prove the ephemeral nature of power and the impact of losing as well as gaining power on people. What happens to people as a result of power?



Language is one of our strongest tools and worth more than gold when used right. On the other hand, language also has the ability to be our greatness weakness, thus worth no more than a piece of rubber. Lack of expression is dangerous. Dwyer mentions this in her thesis on counseling psychology explaining how there are “two major functions of communication - sending and receiving messages” (15). Without these functions working together, communication will not survive and power of language is lost.


Eliza Doolittle learnt this the hard way. As a flower girl, Shaw writes her first lines, “Ow, eez, ye-oona san, is e?” making the audience catergorise her into a lower social class (Shaw 11). The part prior is written with perfect English, which Shaw uses to juxtapose the line and isolate it from the scene. Eliza’s language introduces her in a lower position, making her vulnerable. This point is furthered later in the scene when she is desperate to express a message that is not understood. Eliza refers to the Son of a higher class Woman as Freddy, not realising that this was his actual name, “I called him Freddy … same as you might if you was talking to a stranger and wished to be pleasant” (Shaw 12). Freddy is a common term that can apply to anyone, however the Mother is not aware of this. It is ironic how Shaw uses Freddy in this scene as both a term and a name, creating a moment of social awkwardness drawing attention to the language difference between two classes. Shaw uses language as a characterisation technique; limiting Eliza by making the audience view her differently because of her expression.


Further in Act 1, the Note Taker, later revealed to be Professor Higgins, both wealthy and intelligent, directly refers to Eliza’s language as “Kerbstone English … that will keep her in the gutter … [but] in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess” (Shaw 18). This symbolises how lack of proper English holds Eliza back. The link Shaw makes with Eliza and the ‘gutter’ diminishes her power because it is associated with dirt. Gutter is also a metaphor for her position because she is metaphorically below ground level, demonstrating the way society viewed her social position. ‘Kerbstone’ is another derogatory word used to describe her English and directly contrasts with ‘Duchess’. Shaw writes this word to foreshadow a different future, which could save Eliza from isolation and enhance power.


Eliza appears as a changed woman in Act 3 thanks to Higgins’ phonetic lessons. Higgins invites her to meet his Mother and her guests and “as she enters that they all rise, quite fluttered”, which Eliza follows by saying, “How do you do, Mrs. Higgins” (Shaw 59). The symbolism of rising demonstrates how these people are symbolically rising to meet her level, and makes her physically dominant. Language sustains her power, because she is being socially accepted and loses her isolation. This façade however is a mask that she uses to fit into this class, because underneath she does not completely belong. Shaw represents through her social class transition how power is difficult to sustain, emphasising the transient nature of power.


Furthermore, in Act 3 Shaw explains the vital importance of language and how it has the power to change the surface image of a character. Higgins says how someone can be changed “into quite a different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” (Shaw 65). The ‘deepest gulf’ is a metaphor for a lack of power, and the fill is the English language. English can fill the emptiness, providing power. This has an impact on the audience because it makes them realise how language changed Eliza to be a woman with power. ‘Soul from soul’ is a reference to the power felt within a person and the resulting lack of desperation. ‘Soul’ is also a reference to someone’s own identity, making the audience feel more deeply about the effect of language on a character. Identity is another source of power, which is why the diction in what Shaw’s language is prominent in impacting the audience. This is also because soul connotes something immortal, which raises the stakes of the scene to a much deeper level.


In Act 1 and 2 Eliza was in a point of weakness and would repeatedly use “I am a good girl” to protect herself and as a form of justification for her own internal weakness. Her internal weakness is her intrinsic identity, which links back to the idea of soul from soul in Act 3. In Act 4 this changes, as Eliza uses the power of language more. After Higgins and Pickering are done with the game of teaching Eliza, she feels deeply upset and offended, “I’ve won your bet for you, haven’t I? That’s enough for you. I don’t matter, I suppose” (Shaw 77). This demonstrates her deep feelings of anger placing her in a position of power because Shaw uses language to make Higgins’s character feel guilt over pity. Tone is aggressive, yet Shaw is able to use the art of rhetoric to draw feelings of sympathy from Higgins and the audience, allowing her to use language to her advantage. The impact of not mattering represents the power struggle Eliza fights against. Despite the fact that she is desperate in this scene, the tone Shaw creates helps demonstrate a fight for power though challenges. However, this also isolates her from both social classes because she is stuck in between and it is difficult to fit into either, which again highlights how power is transient and difficult to control.



Social classes can enhance but also diminish power. Eliza enters a new social class and gains power, however her position in this part of society is fragile because she will never truly belong. She is a Duchess on the outside who can speak and behave properly, but comes from a poor social background, making it difficult for her to fit into either social group.


In Act 1, a Mother says to Eliza, “You can keep the change … Now tell me how you know that young Gentleman’s name” (Shaw 11). She is willing to pay Eliza for information demonstrating how social status comes with a level of power Eliza does not have. Shaw creates money to be a representation of the barrier between two classes and is a metaphor for the social class Eliza will not be part of because money limits her. Social belonging is also out of reach because of how important money was during this time. Later in this Act, Eliza is still isolated from the crowd, which causes the Bystanders to say that Eliza “can’t shelter from the rain without being insulted” (Shaw 14). Shaw makes lack of power a sign of sympathy, and symbolically separating her to be vulnerable and powerless. Shelter is a metaphor for the power difference between the two women because Eliza’s social situation is weak and she needs more protection. The need for shelter is also desperate because it represents how Eliza is not in a position to be strong alone, which helps Shaw establish her weakness.

Further on in Act 2, Shaw explains how Higgins, the phonetics professor, agrees to teach Eliza how to speak English properly. Despite the gesture, Higgins continuously refers to her in a rude and demeaning way, “shall we ask this baggage to sit down, or shall we throw her out the window”, which is highly derogatory (Shaw 26). The reference to ‘baggage’ takes away Eliza’s human qualities, making her worth no more than an object. Baggage is something useful, which Shaw uses as a metaphor for the idea that Eliza is being used for Higgins’ benefit. Shaw furthers this with the verb ‘throw’ because it shows lack of care and links back to the objectification of Eliza. Shaw uses Higgins’ social status against Eliza, also calling her a “draggletailed guttersnipe”, continuing the significance of social power (Shaw 29). This links back to the gutter reference in Act 1 because it associates these words with the disgusting nature of lower classes and how gutters are metaphors for this position.


In response to Higgins, Eliza is desperate and much weaker. She makes an attempt at making Higgins feel sympathtic by saying, “If I’d known what I was letting myself in for, I wouldn’t have come here”, however this does not have the impact she would have hoped for (Shaw 35). Shaw creates Eliza to be defensive, although she does not have the confidence to protect herself as a result of her low social position. On the other hand, when Higgins is not around, Shaw helps Eliza admit to Mrs. Pearce, the servant, that this is all “too good for the likes of me”, uncovering how she is smaller than those in positions of dominance (Shaw 35). As Shaw develops Eliza’s characterisation, the audience feels sorry for her, drawing attention to the nature of power being something difficult to obtain.


Even when Eliza has earned her position as a Duchess, feelings of isolation still remain because underneath, Eliza will always have her poor social background. She is isolated from both social classes, revealing the transient nature of power because she lacks power in both. Pickering says, “You’ve won your bet, Higgins. Eliza did the trick”, which makes “Eliza flinch violently; but they take no notice of her” (Shaw 74). Eliza has learnt to behave as a Duchess and the audience sees “the transformation of Liza as a result of Higgins’ experiment” (Crane 882). Again, Eliza is being objectified into an experiment; taking away her human attributes and making her appear to be worth less. The men still have power because of their higher social status, representing the irony in society and the unfair treatment of the less fortunate. Shaw is building on how power can be transient, therefore highlighting how Eliza is progressing out of the lower class so does not fit in there, but will also never reach a point where she completely fits in as a Duchess. Eliza does not fit into either social group, which explores how temperament power can be as it has much to do with strong social position.


However, Eliza still continues to grow in society, understanding more what this class expects. Eliza expresses how she has found love in Freddy but also how she can be strong alone, which increases her power. Eliza says to Higgins, “I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you”, which Shaw writes to put Higgins in jeopardy because he is not sustaining his power over her (Shaw 104). Higgins’ desperation is then demonstrated in Shaw’s diction when “Higgins [rising in fury]” says “That humbug! That toadying ignoramus!” Higgins is talking about Freddy, which may also draw out certain feelings of jealousy over where Eliza’s love lies (Shaw 104). Higgins uses offensive terms to describe Freddy, which makes him desperate and weaker than Eliza. Freddy is a very small character and his role is to provide comic relief for the audience because he is a very unconventional type of love interest. This is because Freddy only features few times in the play, and when he does, Shaw uses his character to benefit another. An example of this is at the end of the play because Freddy is used as blackmail for Eliza to leave Higgins behind. Shaw creates Freddy to be a character that is funny and a character that Eliza can use to further her own level of power. Shaw shows how social position can be used for power, but also the fragility of it because Eliza is using someone else for personal gain. Power is not being won, but is being constructed through a social trick Eliza learns in order to try and fit into this part of society. Societal immorality is being represented in this scene, and even though it may also be a source of power, someone else is still being exploited for the sake of another. Once you have power, you also have power of manipulation to maintain this.


The power of higher social status is also evident in a moment of irony earlier on in Act 3. This is the moment when Higgins, the apparent source of power is overtaken by a power greater than his own; his Mother. Mrs. Higgins is dismayed when her son arrives at her house uninvited, “Henry! [Scolding him] what are you doing here today,” demonstrating the different levels of power in varying social positions (Shaw 54). This resembles the same feelings Eliza has when in the presence of Higgins. This scene is placed in the middle of the play to show the audience that power is not only seen in the relationship between Higgins and Eliza, but that power comes in many different forms. It alludes to their relationship in order to reemphasise how power is transient and does not always last for long periods of time. Social status is highly important in sustaining power, however it is also temperamental as demonstrated in the comparison of these relationships.



What makes me different? Knowing who you are is powerful. In Eliza Doolittle’s case, this started to become an incredible asset for her because it helps to enhance power. However, it also created a conflicting sense of identity because social class defines this and it was hard to see where she belonged.

In the first act all the characters are not given proper names but instead names such as The Flower Girl (Eliza) or The Note Taker (Higgins), which creates an overarching view of societal structure and where people fit in before being introduced to the audience. This social categorisation foreshadows Eliza’s confused sense of identity because she is isolated and does not know who or where she is supposed to be. Catergorisation within society confuses individuals because there are different social rules people must follow depending on class. Shaw develops how understanding this creates. 


In contrast to The Flower Girl, other characters are given names such as The Mother and The Daughter, which associate with family and warmth. Shaw has done this so that the audience has a negative judgment over Eliza because she is in a different class. The audience decides her identity before Eliza does, diminishing her sense of power because identity is weak. Higgins later says to Eliza, “a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere” (Shaw 18). Shaw repeats the word woman in this scene, which steals her identity because ‘woman’ is such a general term that can apply to any female, implying her identity could be disregarded. The tone is impersonal and does not connote feelings of familiarity, which distances the audience from Eliza’s character as she is made to be socially below them. Furthermore, no right to be anywhere reveals the message that Eliza also has no place where she belongs because her social identity is confused as is being taken away from her in this line. ‘No right’ is harsh and direct, which also implies that Eliza has no right to exist at all. The diction of this line creates a sorrowful tone and has a significant impact on the audience because of the way society has created individuals like Eliza to have no real sense of identity as they do not know where they fit in society.


In Act 2, Pickering says, “Oh, come on Higgins! Be reasonable” which calms the scene and provides a sense of humanity (Shaw 30). He represents the sympathetic feelings the audience feels for Eliza. This demonstrates a connection between the weakness in Eliza’s characterisation and the impact on the audience because this extends the audience’s sympathy.  However, this sympathetic point is then followed with Albert Doolittle, Eliza’s father, taking advantage of her by using her for his own economical benefit. Higgins says to him, “do you mean to say that you would sell your daughter for £50?” (Shaw 45). This relates back to Shaw’s use of the word ‘baggage’ earlier in this act, to objectify Eliza’s character so they can benefit themselves instead of helping her. The use of money also explains this point because it diminishes the worth of her character as she is being given a set price, turning her into something that is not of great importance. She is being restricted to being someone else’s property, making her something less human because she is being exploited.  Shaw also uses the character of Eliza’s father to further the idea that she is lonely and does not come from a supporting family to help define who she is.


Furthermore, Eliza’s transformation into a Duchess continues to represent how Eliza has an even more confused sense of identity, as she does not know which class she belongs in. After tedious hours of learning, Eliza has become accepted into the upper class society, however this is based on her ability to speak proper English because on the inside Eliza is still the Flower Girl in Act 1. Mrs. Higgins brings up this idea in Act 3 when she says, “The problem of what is to be done with her afterwards” because even after her transformation, isolation remains (Shaw 67). Language and appearance will not bring her into the upper class; she needs much more than that, which creates a sense of fear because Eliza is still different. It becomes more difficult for Eliza to fit into either social class because her sense of identity is unclear. Where does she belong?


However, as Eliza spends more time in upper class society, her self-identity grows, and she mentions to Higgins how it “was the beginning of self respect for me … you thought and felt about me as if I was something better than a scullery maid” (Shaw 95). Shaw uses this to emphasis the increasing acknowledgment and respect towards Eliza, making her feel like someone who belongs. Eliza then says to Higgins, “What are you to do without me, I cannot imagine” and being one of the last lines of the play, this serves great significance because it is memorable and helps conclude the major theme of power being transient (Shaw 105). This line is a moment where Eliza recognises the power she has and how Higgins needs her more than she needs him. Eliza had never reached this level of power at any other point in the play, which is a contrast to previous acts, showing how difficult it is to be in control of it.

The sarcastic tone of this line creates a sense of dominance because Eliza relaxes in this scene and uses humour to create a calm yet strong aura about her. This is the moment where Higgins “recognize[s] Liza’s independence of him” and is important because suddenly he feels he is not as needed anymore (Crane 882). Shaw encapsulates this idea in the line and places it at the end of the play so that there is a conclusive note where Eliza has achieved independence.

Throughout, Eliza has been vulnerable and stuck between two social groups, contrasting her power in this final scene because she is not reliant on others and has a strong sense of identity. It demonstrates the nature of power and how it is not consistent, but transient as it is easy to not be in control demonstrated by Eliza’s conflicting identity. 



Power is not a constant. Power is not permanent, which is something that Shaw explains through Eliza Doolittle’s journey in this play. Power is transient because the nature of it means that it is just as easy to lose as it is to be in control of it. The structure of society during the 20th century defines power as having a high social status as well as income. It was a prominent aspect of life during this time and Shaw uses this as well as the characterisation of Eliza to demonstrate the true nature of power.


Shaw uses three elements to help reveal this nature. The first includes the idea of language as a tool for effective communication and without it Eliza is rid from a world of expression. It also draws attention to her lower social status which links to the second idea in this study, the theme of varying social positions. A strong social position is a major source of power in this play as it is a place where money, political choice and social support derive from. The upper class has opportunity and the lower class do not, which is why Eliza also became more powerful because class defines where someone belongs. There were certain social rules that apply for different classes that had to be followed in order to fit into a social class. Eliza however is stuck between two classes, as she doesn’t know where to belong. This links to the final concept of identity and knowing who you are. Eliza does not know who she is because it is difficult for her to fit into a societal group when she is vulnerable and is still learning the social constructs.  Language linking to social position then links to identity because they are from the same root of strong self-awareness. Understanding where one belongs and what that person is supposed to do is an important asset.      


Pygmalion is a journey of gaining and losing power. It is a journey where Eliza learns what power means and how much it relates to social status. She still refuses to be one of Higgins’ creations and fights to be an individual. This demonstrates how power is transient because it is not something permanent because it is lost as well as gained throughout Pygmalion.



Crane, Milton. Pygmalion: Bernard Shaw’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. Vol. 66, no. 6, 1951, p. 882,, 10.2307/460146.


Dwyer, Andrea. Communication Patterns in Intimate Relationships: An Attachment Perspective. 2007.


Networks2016Sandbox. “George Bernard Shaw: Plays.” Info Please, 2000, Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.

Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts. London, Penguin Group (USA), 4 Feb. 2003.


Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. United States, The Floating Press, 1 Jan. 2008.

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