Professor Higgins is thoroughly aware of the injustice of the class system in England, as he announces in the very first scene. He points out the differences between the educated scholars, Pickering and himself, and the life of the dirty flower girl, Eliza. While they are enjoying their lofty thoughts, research, and upper-class life with servants to do the daily upkeep, Eliza has to work all day for almost nothing to pay rent for a cold room in the slums. The English class system had been a hereditary structure into which people were born. There were ways of rising to a higher class, through education, money, or marriage, but those were exceptions. It was difficult for someone of a very low class to be accepted in a more privileged circle because of the speech dialect, rarely erased without a lot of effort or travel. Higgins shows his disdain for society's hypocrisy by refusing to have any polite manners for anyone, including the upper classes. He swears or behaves however he pleases, making rude remarks. He of course has nothing to lose since he has money, fame, and position. People look on his behavior as eccentric, whereas, for most English, the class boundaries are very well marked, and people know that to be accepted by their class they must conform to certain standards.
Certain comic scenes bring home the illogical and unjust way society is organized to give power and comfort to the few and labor and poverty to the many. At both Mrs. Higgins's at-home gathering and the embassy party in Act III, for instance, the audience is made aware of all the hoops Eliza must jump through to be accepted. No one cares about who she is as a person or even, any accomplishments. She must be able to speak and act and dress as the others on whom she must make an impression. The Eynsford-Hill family is an example of genteel poor trying desperately to play the social game, so Freddy and Clara can make suitable marriage matches without money or position. They lack the counters necessary for the game. Liza enters with the appearance of a duchess but the tongue of a guttersnipe, and they do not know what to make of it. Higgins, with a wave of his hand, makes them believe that Liza is so high class and in the know that she speaks a popular slang, accepted by the modern rich. Clara leaves with the idea she will imitate how Liza has spoken to make a sensation in society, including using the forbidden word, “bloody.”
The embassy ball further reveals the hypocrisy of society. No one is who they seem to be, and that is why the hostess hires Nepommuck to unmask imposters. The idea that there are imposters assumes that the class divisions are divinely ordained and must not be violated. Even Pickering is frightened at the idea that Eliza can play the social game better than the people born to it. Nepommuck's decision that Eliza is a Hungarian princess does not make Liza feel better. She is enough of a genuine person underneath to know she does not belong there and is not happy because she fooled others. She just wants a better life, not an illusion of a better life.
Her father, Alfred Doolittle, is a great triumph as a character. He is lower class but understands how the game is played and disdains to take part. He will not be a laborer or parent or any other role expected of him. Higgins admires him for escaping the class system, but then tricks him into becoming middle class by making him rich. Shaw's socialist agenda is not advocated directly in the play but spelled out humorously in the epilogue when he makes Clara wake up and become a socialist, an advocate of doing away with the system of basing merit or economics on hereditary class.
Language and Society
As a linguist, Henry Higgins investigates the relationship between speech dialects and class. By the end of Act I, the audience has to become aware of the fact that dialect is a marker of class so potent that it can determine where someone must live or what occupation they can have. Not even all servants can have a cockney accent, for a lady's maid, or a clerk in a florist shop must speak proper upper-class English. Eliza is therefore doomed every time she opens her mouth. Higgins makes a case that the human soul can only be expressed if a person can speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Since Eliza can't, it is obvious she has no soul. Higgins is so passionate, he makes lower-class dialects into a moral crime. They make the speakers seem like a subhuman species whom society treats as animals.
Whose crime is it? Higgins berates Eliza as though it is her crime, but he admits English society does not teach its citizens to speak properly. These dialects are therefore for him a human aberration, but since socially caused, can be remedied through proper education. The science of speech is the answer, he thinks, to erase class markers. In his experiment with Eliza, however, he runs into difficulty, by finding she can learn the sounds, but she also has to learn a different content. The content can only come from having a different life, such as a safe home, nice clothes, cultural experiences such as going to concerts and galleries with Higgins and Pickering, and meeting new people. In the last act Eliza refutes Higgins's thesis that speech alone determines class or can erase class. She says she became a lady by the advantages Pickering gave her and by the way he treated her. She did not gain self-respect from Higgins or from learning new sounds.
The subtitle of Pymalion is “A Romance in Five Acts.”In medieval chivalric romance, with knights on adventurous quests, frequently the main character is transformed or raised in some way to aristocratic status. A servant is suddenly discovered to be the long-lost son of a duke. A romance also concerns romantic love. Shaw, however, says he calls Pygmalion a romance, because it concerns transformation. The story of Pymalion, a Greek myth and the source of Shaw's title, was told by the Roman author, Ovid, in his collection called, Metamorphoses, stories about magical and supernatural transformations. Ovid tells a fantastic history of the world, highlighting his themes of love, change, art, and power. Though Shaw is considered a realistic playwright, he uses this idea of romance and transformation in a modern sense to show that that society is not cut in stone. A flower girl can become a duchess in modern society as in fairytales, without the supernatural agency. Science is called on as the transformative power, in this case, phonetics, the science of speech. Shaw raises expectations of a traditional romance, however, only to deflate it. The Cinderella figure does not marry her prince, her rescuer Higgins, but an ordinary man, Freddy. Shaw makes clear that transformation of the flower girl is not the stuff of myth, but a necessary part of modern life, where social justice is part of the ongoing process of human history.
After World War I, Europe was in chaos, and Shaw saw that major changes were needed in society and in the human race itself. He reasoned that humans could solve their social problems if they lived long enough in the series of plays, Back to Methuselah (1918-20), his imagined version of the human race continuing its evolution to a higher form, through the changes worked by biological, social, and historical forces.