George Bernard Shaw’s use of myth in “Pygmalion” significantly contributes to the enrichment of the play, adding layers of meaning and depth to its narrative and themes. The title itself is a direct reference to the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created, which is then brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite. This mythological backdrop plays a crucial role in enhancing the play’s thematic and symbolic content.
Symbolism and Allegory: The myth of Pygmalion serves as a powerful allegory in Shaw’s play. Professor Henry Higgins, like the sculptor Pygmalion, transforms Eliza Doolittle, not from a statue to a human, but from a street flower girl to a lady of society. This transformation symbolizes broader themes of social mobility, class barriers, and the power of language and education.
Critique of Society and Class: By invoking the Pygmalion myth, Shaw critiques the rigid class structures of Edwardian society. The play questions whether external appearances and refined speech truly change a person’s intrinsic value or social standing. This mythological reference helps to underscore the superficiality of societal judgments based on appearance and language.
Exploration of Creator-Creation Dynamics: The relationship between Higgins and Eliza mirrors that of the mythological Pygmalion and his statue. This parallel allows Shaw to explore the complex dynamics between creator and creation, including issues of control, autonomy, and emotional involvement.
Feminist Interpretation: Shaw’s play provides a twist to the original myth by giving Eliza, the ‘created’, a strong voice and agency. Unlike the statue in the myth, Eliza challenges her creator, asserts her independence, and refuses to be merely an object of transformation. This serves to enrich the play with feminist ideas about individuality and self-determination.
Metatheatrical Element: The use of the Pygmalion myth adds a metatheatrical layer to the play. It highlights the act of transformation as a kind of performance, drawing parallels between the world of theatre and the social performances of everyday life.
Moral and Ethical Questions: The mythological reference raises moral and ethical questions about the right of one individual to mold another and the consequences of such an act. It prompts the audience to consider the ethical implications of Higgins’ project and its impact on Eliza’s life.
In summary, Shaw’s use of the Pygmalion myth in his play is not just a mere reference but a strategic tool that enriches the narrative, deepens the thematic exploration, and adds a critical perspective to the issues of class, identity, and personal autonomy.