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Pygmalion | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College explains the motifs in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion.

Pygmalion | Motifs


Pygmalion and Galatea

The basis for Shaw's Pygmalion is a Greek myth retold by Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) in his masterwork Metamorphoses. Young Pygmalion sees women as so morally flawed that he rejects all thoughts of marriage and resolves to live alone. Nevertheless, he uses his great skill as a sculptor to carve out of ivory a woman so perfect that he falls in love with her. In fact, she is so beautifully fashioned that she nearly seems to live and breathe, and as time passes, Pygmalion's adoration grows.

One day, at the festival of Venus—the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality—Pygmalion offers a prayer that he might be given a wife like his ivory virgin. The goddess hears and understands what the young man dares not ask: that his creation may become his wife. Venus grants the sculptor's heart's desire. Upon returning home, he kisses the statue and finds that he is touching not cold ivory but warm, yielding flesh. Venus has given life to the sculpture, and her name is Galatea.

Like Pygmalion, Higgins becomes Eliza's creator, using the power of language to create a lady from a "draggletailed guttersnipe." Like the "scores of American millionairesses" whom he has taught to speak, Eliza is nothing more than a "block of wood" from which he will carve a duchess. In the final stage of her transformation, a surge of passion brings Eliza to life, and she becomes aware that she is an independent being, separate from her creator, and able to stand on her own. At the very last, Higgins is left behind in his mother's drawing room as Eliza "sweeps out"—no longer an immobile creature but an individual able to make her own way.

Shaw's ending is markedly different from Ovid's. In Shaw's Pygmalion, Higgins (who, unlike his ancient counterpart does not get to keep his Galatea) is exposed as foolishly misguided. In this way, Shaw seems to reject the Ovidian version. It's worth noting that Ovid also reveals an ironic attitude toward many of his characters (Ovid makes the deluded and bitter Orpheus, after he loses Eurydice, the fictional narrator of Pygmalion's story), but Ovid doesn't make his disapproval explicit as Shaw does. For Ovid, Pygmalion might be silly and rigid, but he gets exactly what he wants.

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