Pygmalion Overview

George Bernard Shaw was a playwright known for his art that served as social and political commentary. Like his contemporaries, Shaw aimed to provide the stage with realistic characters that appealed to his middle-class working audience. Shaw's characters were more introspective, thoughtful, and intellectual than others during the same time period. The plays he produced had moral and philosophical undertones that aimed to question the social standards of his time. Pygmalion (1913) deals with the notion of upward mobility in society and challenges the typical male and female roles. Do you think someone that helps to teach, improve, or mold another human being should have the power to control them?

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Table of contents

    Pygmalion At a Glance

    WrittenGeorge Bernard Shaw
    GenreRomantic comedy
    SettingLondon, England
    ToneRealistic, reflective
    Protagonist(s)Eliza Dolittle, Henry Higgins
    Antagonist(s)Social norms and expectations
    ThemeThe power of language impacts an individual's identity and appearance.

    Pygmalion Genre

    Pygmalion is a comedy. In the dramatic sense, a comedy is a play that uses humor as a vehicle to examine the self and society. For the Greeks, a comedy was a play that ended happily. Although Shaw's comedy, Pygmalion ends without death, the future of the characters, and whether Eliza will return to Higgins, are left unanswered. The central conflict of the drama is the tension between Higgins and Eliza, and whether she can now navigate successfully through society given her new linguistic abilities, which results in a comedy.

    Subtitled as "A Romance in Five Acts", the drama can't be categorized as one in the traditional sense, as the heroine, Eliza, and the hero, Higgins, do not marry. Eliza's transformation from flower girl on the streets to a lady is romantic and idealized, but still may not qualify as a classic romance. Many argue that the relationship between Eliza and Freddy, although mostly off stage, is the central romance, while others feel that Mr. Dolittle's common law marriage constitutes the romance. Because Shaw is not a traditional writer, it can be argued that the true love story is the lesson Eliza learns in loving herself. She has gained her own self respect, and is independent and free to make her own decisions.

    Pygmalion is a play based on Ovid's 15 book poem "Metamorphoses" (8CE). In Book X, the protagonist, Pygmalion, is an artist who creates a statue of Galatea, the perfect woman. He become enamoured with his creation. The Goddess Venus pities the artist, and brings Galatea to life.

    Pygmalion Summary

    Pygmalion is about Henry Higgins, a linguist and professor, who is inspired by a bet with his colleague to teach a flower girl from the streets how to speak and behave properly in order to navigate the upper class. Eliza Dolittle, a strong-willed and ill-educated girl that sells flowers on the streets for money, becomes the subject of their bet and social experiment. An act-by-act summary is the best way to understand the actions of the drama as they unfold.

    Act I

    The drama opens on a rainy evening and immediately sets the stage for the rest of the play. The audience gains insight into the different social classes and their behavior. We see a wealthy family of a mother, daughter, and son, the Eynsford Hills, hailing a taxi to escape the storm, while the lower-class suffer through the storm. Shaw delineates the classes by their behavior, appearance, dialogue, and dialect. The audience witnesses that key traits of how an individual acts, looks, and communicates, dictates their social class. A young girl with a heavy accent trying to sell flowers to an older gentleman becomes the central action. A man taking notes, or studying the people, is able to decipher where people come from, and their social status, based on their language. The two men, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering, are revealed to both be linguists and decide to have dinner together. Higgins claims he can make a duchess out of a flower girl, and gives the girl selling flowers money. She uses some of the money to take a taxi home.

    Dialect is a specific form of language and way of speaking, including accent, particular to a specific region, certain area, or social group.

    Pygmalion, Rain, StudySmarterThe drama opens on a rainy evening, pexels.

    Act II

    The next morning, the flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, arrives at the residence of Professor Higgins. Inspired by his comment about transforming a flower girl into a duchess, she requests that he teach her how to speak. Eliza's goal is to speak well enough to sell flowers in a shop, instead of on the streets. Higgins makes fun of Eliza, who can do little to defend herself verbally, while his colleague Pickering treats her kindly and respectfully. Pickering, interested in helping Eliza, promises to pay for the expenses of teaching Eliza if Higgins can teach her to act as a duchess by the Ambassador's party. Eliza will live with Higgins for six months and take lessons. Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, takes Eliza upstairs for a bath.

    While she is bathing, her father, Mr. Alfred Dolittle arrives and seems angry that his daughter is missing. Inebriated, he really only wants money. Eliza and Mrs. Pearce re-enter, with Eliza clean. Her transformation has begun, as even her father is unable to recognize her as he leaves the residence.

    Act III

    Act III marks the first of a few tests for Eliza and her transformation from flower girl to lady. She is a guest of Mrs. Higgins, Professor Higgins's mother. She is introduced to the Eynsford Hills, the wealthy family from the beginning of the play. Immediately taken by Eliza, Freddy Eynsford Hill, the son, a simple aristocrat and available bachelor, listens intently as she speaks. Through her excitement, Eliza's language slips back into her Cockney accent from when Higgins and Pickering first encountered her on the street selling flowers. This dialect was an indication of the working class and creates communication rifts between the social classes.

    Although her pronunciation and appearance have improved, Eliza has certain traits that reveal her origins. She speaks of her father's alcoholism, her aunt's bout with influenza, and is insulted at the suggestion that she walk rather than take a taxi. Serving as a voice of reason within the play, Mrs. Higgins is angered at the men for taking on this experiment, and warns that there are repercussions once their game is over. Mrs. Higgins further comments that Eliza's innate nature can't be hidden with a dress and a new accent and intonations.

    Act IV

    Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza head home. In the living room, Higgins is obsessed over a lost pair of slippers. Eliza quietly leaves the room to get them, while Higgins and Pickering continue the conversation. Eliza returns and places the slippers by Higgins, who doesn't notice her actions. The two men continue their conversation, as though Eliza is not there, and share joy over how successful the experiment is. They give her no credit for her accomplishments, but praise themselves. They go to bed, still oblivious to Eliza who is clearly hurt and angered by their words.

    Higgins returns, looking for his slippers and an angry Eliza flings them at him. Taken aback he becomes angry. They argue and Eliza claims she is less important to him than a pair of slippers. Insulted by his constant disrespectful treatment of her, she asks what will become of her now that the experiment is over. He suggests she marry or open a flower shop. Unhappy with her options, she expresses regret for her current status and wishes she were a flower girl on the streets still.

    Pygmalion, Slippers, StudySmarterEliza realizes her value to Higgins when he doesn't notice the considerations she does for him, like get his slippers, pexels.

    Act V

    Discovering that Eliza has run off, the two men arrive at Mrs. Higgins's house. During the commotion, Mr. Dolittle, Eliza's father, arrives fantastically dressed. He has become wealthy after receiving an inheritance from a rich benefactor because of a letter Higgins wrote. Alfred is angry and upset over his new status and responsibilities. He and Higgins begin to argue over who owns Eliza. Mrs. Higgins sends for Eliza who is upstairs, and her entrance ends the argument.

    Eliza enters and thanks Pickering for his gracious treatment of her. Eliza reveals that Freddy has been sending her love letters, and that she plans on marrying him and taking Higgins's research to his rival. Higgins is upset and dismisses her comments. Eliza begins to exit, and as she does Higgins asks her to bring some groceries back upon her return. Eliza gives no clue whether she plans on returning.

    Pygmalion Characters

    The characters in Pygmalion are realistic, thoughtful and multi-layered beings. They each have a history and follow their own set of morals. While some characters serve as a foil for others, they each add meaning to the overall drama.

    A foil is a character in a work of literature that displays contrasting traits to the protagonist or other central character. The foil highlights the central character's unique qualities by serving as a comparison.

    As you read through the character descriptions, try to figure out who the foil characters are.

    Eliza Dolittle

    Eliza Dolittle is an unconventional character who does not adhere to the social norms. She holds strong opinions, and is a loud and bold individual who is not afraid to be her own person—even as a mere flower girl on the street. The audience is privileged to witness her transformation from a naïve flower girl to, not a duchess, but a self-aware lady that is informed and an agent of her own future.

    Alfred Dolittle

    Alfred Dolittle is Eliza's father and begins the drama as an inebriated fool. He sells his daughter for a few shillings. He is an opportunist that enjoys the freedom his meager lifestyle affords him. By the end of the drama, he is transformed into a successful man, but he is unhappy. He resents his new responsibilities that come with being successful and a part of the functional working middle-class.

    Professor Henry Higgins

    In the play, Professor Henry Higgins is the "Pygmalion" for Shaw's "Galatea." Although the play primarily focuses on Eliza, who is arguably the most dynamic character, the play is named for Higgins. Henry Higgins is a coarse man, both despite his intellect and because of it. He sees himself as better than others, and he has no qualms about a wager concerning the life of another being. He is impatient and inconsiderate. Although he means no harm and is a good man at his core, his careless nature is hurtful and can push others, including Eliza, away.

    A dynamic character is one that is three-dimensional and true to life. Throughout the actions in a novel, story, or drama, dynamic characters undergo changes or have a realization that forever alters their life, personality, or perspective.

    Mrs. Higgins

    Mrs. Higgins is mother to Professor Henry Higgins, and she serves as a source of wisdom and moral compass. She admonishes Higgins and Pickering for their treatment of Eliza and the experiment. Mrs. Higgins warns about the repercussions. When Eliza runs away, she runs to Mrs. Higgins, who offers emotional solace and protection for Eliza. Mrs. Higgins is the first to protest the experiment and understands her son's character and flaws.

    Colonel Pickering

    Colonel Pickering is an elderly gentleman who is also a linguist. Pickering is thoughtful, respectful, and considerate of others, while Higgins to crude, rushed, and often disrespectful, especially of Eliza. Pickering serves as a foil to Henry Higgins, and it is the way he treats Eliza that teaches her the core trait of being a lady: self-respect.

    Freddy Eynsford Hill

    Freddy Eynsford Hill is the aristocrat that falls for and courts Eliza. He is not as intelligent as the other characters, and his privilege has left him with a lack of abilities and knowledge. He is not resourceful, but he also doesn't need to be. The play concludes with Freddy being a viable candidate to marry Eliza and help her navigate the new terms of her life and status.

    Mrs. Eynsford Hill

    A wealthy aristocrat and matriarch of her family. She has the marks of a well-bred woman: she is quiet, kind, and genteel. She is a friend of Mrs. Higgins and is the mother of Freddy, who is infatuated with Eliza.

    Miss Eynsford Hill

    Daughter to Mrs. Eynsford Hill and sister to Freddy. Miss Eynsford Hill seems to consider Professor Higgins a suitable matrimonial match. She is lively and well-mannered.

     Pygmalion, Wedding rings, StudySmarterFreddy wants to marry Eliza but at the end of the play it is unclear whether they will marry, pexels.

    Pygmalion Themes

    Let's take a look at two central themes in Shaw's Pygmalion: appearance and identity.


    A controlling theme in Pygmalion is the idea that a person's social status is dictated less by what you are, but by how you are perceived. Higgins proves this by teaching Eliza about high society and training her to conduct herself well, primarily through her speech and accent. He molds the young lady by changing how she looks. Higgins and Pickering buy dresses and new clothing for her to help her to navigate social settings with respectability. Higgins teaches Eliza how to speak and pronounce language properly, giving her a voice to be heard.


    As evidenced through Eliza and Pickering's relationship, what matters most is a person's social status, which results in how others treat them. Eliza's identity becomes comprised of learned self-respect, and she begins to value herself as an individual through the respect shown to her by Pickering. Pickering treats Eliza respectably, and she notes the "difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated" (Act V). The way an individual is treated influences what they think of themselves and how they carry themselves. For Eliza, being treated with kindness, something she had never experienced, was the turning point in her life and the start of the transformation into her new identity. How society treats individuals is a large determiner in their own social status, the value they see in themselves, and the potential they can reach.

    Pygmalion Meaning

    Pygmalion shows how social status dictates behavior. People behave according to what is expected of them. For Mr. Dolittle, this comes in the form of responsibilities he resents. At the onset of the drama, he is happy being an inebriated individual with no responsibilities. He minds being a "gentleman" and does not enjoy "having to live for others, and not for [himself]" (Act V). The play ends with him assuming responsibilities, as he is now known and respected as a moralist and must assume a new social status. He has gained wealth, but it comes with a price. He is no longer free to spend his days as he likes. Having ascended the social ladder from being a common dustman, collecting the ashes and rubbish people throw out, to a middle-class man working to support others, he feels the burden of obligation and looks at others who don't have his status with "envy" (Act V).

    Eliza, on the other hand, has broken away from the societal structures that once held her down. Because she is now viewed as a lady with a higher social status, her initial Cockney accent—a marker of the working class, or as Higgins indicates, "kerbstone English" (Act I)—will no longer "keep her in the gutter til the end of her days" (Act I). The language lessons from Higgins have helped her climb the social ladder, but what has been of greater benefit to her were the "really nice manners" (Act V) she learned from Pickering. Eliza states, "that is what makes a lady" (Act V). For Eliza, her "real education" began the day Pickering called her "Miss Dolittle" because it marked the "beginning of self-respect for [her]" (Act V), changed her social status, and ultimately her behavior.

    Pygmalion Overview - Key takeaways

    • Pygmalion is written by George Bernard Shaw.
    • Pygmalion is based on a Greek story by Ovid called "Metamorphoses". The protagonist, Pygmalion, is a sculptor and creates a statue out of ivory in the image of a woman. He is so skilled at his craft and has difficulty believing she is made of ivory. He falls in love with his creation.
    • The drama is a romantic comedy, which was first performed in 1913.
    • The drama deals with issues of social class, gender expectations, and moral integrity.
    • A controlling theme in Pygmalion is the idea that a person's social status is dictated less by what you are, but by how you are perceived.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Pygmalion Overview

    What is the main idea of Pygmalion?

    Pygmalion explores the power of language to form an individual's identity and define social expectations.     

    What is the meaning of the play Pygmalion?

    Pygmalion shows how social status dictates behavior. People behave according to what is expected of them. For Mr. Dolittle, this comes in the form of responsibilities he resents. For Eliza, this comes in breaking away from the societal structures and gender rules holding her down.   

    What is a good Pygmalion summary? 

    Inspired by a bet with his colleague, a linguist and professor, Henry Higgins, aims to teach a flower girl from the streets how to speak and behave properly to navigate in the upper class. Eliza Dolittle, a strong-willed and ill-educated girl that sells flowers on the streets for money, becomes the subject of their bet and social experiment. By learning social norms and rules, Eliza undergoes and social and philosophical transformation.

    How does Pygmalion end? 

    Pygmalion ends in uncertainty. It is a realistic conclusion for the characters. The audience is unsure whether Eliza will return to her life with Higgins, or if she will marry Freddy.

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