Critical Approach to Bernard Shaw

Article Posted in: Research Articles


By – Dr Anupam Sharma

Published in January 2016, Issue XII


Introduction to the Author:

Dr Anupam Sharma

Dr Anupam Sharma

Dr. Anupam Sharma has worked as a lecturer in English in the past. At present, she is working as an assistant professor of professional communication. She has published many papers in the journals of national repute. In present paper, she tries to accumulate a critical approach to the playwright Shaw.



Shaw called himself a rationalist, a realist and an anti – romantic. His plays have never achieved to anything like popularity or even general acceptance in theater, and they cannot stand on their own feet without explanation or glossary. His plays are both more or less than plays. They are less in that they require prefaces, expanded stage-directions, and characterization to complete their meaning. Shaw has made it his business to subject every accepted value, custom, tradition or faith to satirical treatment. He was early revealed his formula. The first feature by which it may be known in Shaw’s peculiar of revolt. From his earliest youth, he has been an apostle of revolt, but revolt rationalized and made secure by common sense. Here lies the first key to Shaw’s apparent inconsistency. An absolutist in mental processed, he is a realist in action. “In other words, his mind and pen were to be free, but his body and his person had to live in the world.” – (Dickinson)














Shaw has been most understood or most variously understood. While for Evans regards him as the greatest English dramatist after Shakespeare. T.H. Dickinson says, “Whatever Shaw is, he is not primarily a dramatist. Before he came to the writing of plays he had expressed himself as lecturer, writer on social and economics topics, novelist and critics. They are more in that after the purposes of representation are satisfied, the author goes on to serve other purposes which lie in the field of exposition and argument.

            “By more Shaw has been given credit for creating the Modern English Theater. Far from building the Modern English Theater, Shaw would not exist as a dramatist but for the building that others had done before him, work which he adapted and turned to his own purposes.” Shaw was the first, play-Wright in England to find ready for him all the means he needed for the unhampered expressions of his point of view. The two instrumentalities upon which Shaw has depended are: first, the publication of plays in book form; and second, the free theater where his plays could be shown to the general public. ”Without these he would not exist as play-wright, and both these instruments were supplied by others. Shaw seized the drama as the best means if exploiting his own vision of truth.” – (Dickinson)

            Arguing against the institution of family, he would live in his institution as long as it survives. Believing in a reconstruction of society, he neither believes in getting it changed too soon, nor in such changes as would shake the foundation of the social bond. This characteristic is explained by another quality of his mind. Shaw is a thorough participant. He is always analyzing human motives and causes of action. Shaw is trying to find out whether they are justified or not. He has been, from the start, interested in everything and made all things his own affairs. But his participation was only the mental. He has felt the obligation not so much to put his shoulders to the wheel, his hand to the whip, as his mind to the problem. There are many men who will follow the easy morality of fidelity to a cause. It is this gift of intellectual analysis of motives and causes and not altogether his Irish contrariness that has made Shaw inject a new standard of judgment into issues that seemed to be settled.

            But Shaw is not a philosopher. His views lack the consistency of a philosopher. One who searches through his works for a consistent explanation of the principle of things or the motives of human action is doomed to disappointment. Shaw is no more a constructor of a watertight system of truth that was Ibsen, but for a different reason. Ibsen was primarily an artist and, therefore, interested, not in the cause, but in the concrete expression of that cause. Shaw is a tester of values, and therefore, more interested in man’s experiments and efforts towards truth that in any abstract vision of truth. That quality of realism which he represents disqualifies him for philosophy. The philosopher is not a mental participant in the world. He is a man who used his mind to deny the concrete aspects of the world. His mental participation consists in an honest mental evolution of things round about him. For this task, he is well equipped by keenness and commonsense and a searching intellect. His personal equation is slight. Because he is so honest and so well instrumented, it is said he subjects everything to himself. But he makes no codes, spins no definitions, searches out no first causes.

            Thought he has no philosophy, he has a test that is so absolute as to amount almost to a philosophy. It is hard, self-sufficing, and it marks all his judgment. This is the test of rationalism. This test qualifies all he does in criticism, commentary, censure, and in play-writing. Shaw’s test, which he insists lies at the heart at of all men, if they only keep themselves alert to listen to it, is the test of that logic of events which is working its way through men and all the forces of the world. Here and there he calls this force, the Life force. He is a believer in the human reason, a disciple of Samuel Butler in believing that all the Life Force has achieved it stores away within man to speak thereafter in the quieter voice of intuition. Intuition with him is as cold in judging accordingly by its arbitrary and man-made codes. And though he is no scientist, he has no more respect for the softer virtues that have the scientists. His attitudes are as rigorous, are as little subject to sentiments of kindness or goodness or mercy, as of those of the scientists or the philosophers.

            Shaw is first, last, and all the time a critic. He searches the object of his criticism for its underlying ideas and subjects these to his test of the logic of events. Most of his criticism is of two kinds, first, art criticism; of music, literature, painting, and drama; second, criticism of society’s formulated ideas in religion, politics and morality. Art is to him the expression in resolute self-control of the processes of the hidden logic of life. The only function of art is the interpretation, the systematizing of the Life Forces. All that gives entertainment that supplies pleasure, the beauty that’s its own justification, he cares nothing for. When after his unsuccessful efforts as a novelist, he turned to musical and dramatic criticism, he bought to it the same faculties of mind he as has shown in his earlier novels. He completely disregarded form and technical considerations in art.  He bought to bear upon art and music a stimulating, even a renovating method. He criticizes social ideas in the same way. He tests men as if they were art and art as if it were man. His first tendency is to turn away from formulas of belief, or codes of vice and virtue. “He always keeps his mind free of entangling alliances of faith or enthusiasm.” – (Dickinson)

            Shaw tells his ware. Shaw thinks that to give broad currency to ideas must be his ideal. To him honest thinking is no less worthy of distribution than honest merchandise. Shaw has the combination of honesty and originality in ideas and a remarkable faculty for their distribution. In this way, he expresses his policy. “Spare no labour to find out the right thing to say; and then say it with the most exasperating levity, as if it were the first thing that would come into any one’s head.” Waggery is Shaw’s instrument for popularizing his ideas and ideals.

            Shaw never attained command of any technique. He has been so prodigal of ideas that he has found it difficult to give them artistic expressions.  His novels written between 1880 and 1883 show his ideas and the difficulty he found in their management. They attack the sane institutions he was later to attack in his plays. In the novels, we have middle-class bigotry, pallid-ascetic artists, and women pursuing men, rational breakings of moral codes, the problems of wealth, the crime of poverty, ridicule of the ideas of sport and heroism, just as we have them in the plays. But the construction quite unfitted the novels for use. He seems always to have been list between the necessity of furthering his mental fights and the necessity of providing a medium of action for his narrative. What Shaw needed to find was a naked medium for the expression of his ideas, a medium of art that would permit the maximum of theorizing with a minimum of narrative. This he found in drama. “With no affection for drama as such, Shaw seized upon it as the means of putting over his ideas.”  – (Dickinson)

            That Shaw looked upon the drama as an instrument only is reveled in the manner in which he handled the form. From the first, he did not make the play self-sufficing. He combined it with all other forms of writing necessary to express his ideas. The play offers the facilities to an author to express many points of view without tying himself to any. The characters speak for themselves and not for the author. In this way, the play protects the author far more than then novel. But when Shaw has thrown the idea to his characters to play with, he shows where his real interest lies in summing up his own contribution to the discussion in a Preface, sometimes as long as the play itself. This instrumental treatment of drama has raised a new kind of play. After his attempt oat play-writing, Shaw discarded all traditions of dramatic constructions and proceeded to write plays upon new designs. Until recent times, plays have belonged to three classes according to substance- idealistic plays, satires of manners, and realistic plays. Shaw’s plays belong to none of these classes, yet they display characteristics of all the three. The material of his play is the mental substance in which modern life is lived. He believes that the most important thing in modern life is the ideas out of which we make the world we live in, that in the truth men and women have moved into a zone of thought. In this zone they meet, they govern their actions by its laws, they incorporate its rigors into their characters. Shaw asks of all his characters how they react mentally to the world they live in.

            We many identify Shaw’s characters by the fact that they are all talking characters. There never has been such a gallery of freely expressive individuals. Their speeches are long because the speakers have something to say. Many of Shaw’s characters seem but lately to have discovered the faculty of speech. So they talk with zest. They all talk about their business- which is everybody’s business. Shaw’s plays deal with ideas which are contested and debated. The ideas, even the talks, become dramatic. “Where there has been the struggle of wills, there is the struggle of ideas and the struggle of speech.” – (Dickinson)

            Shaw has created very few independents characters. None of his characters live outside the idea symbolized. “The truth is that Shaw is not interested in characters except as vehicles of ideas. The play itself is a fabric not of characters, but of conceptions that generate character. “And so the dramatic with Shaw comes not from a clash of character, but from a clash of ideas.” He realized men and women only in their ideas. Shaw measures a man partly by his articulateness. So he never loses his characters in his discourse. His clashes are mental and at the same time dramatic and unforced. “When emotion appears, it is as a coloring of thought, as a shooting through of the idea with the pleasure of life.” Let no one think that by reading the speeches of the most eloquent of Shaw’s characters, he is finding out Shaw. That character may be most deluded one, in his gallery. Shaw does not guide his characters. “It is through the character that does not think that Shaw’s own opinions are revealed, cloaked in a hearty scorn.” – (Dickinson)

            Shaw has called himself a dramatic realist and has repudiated the well-made play and the tricks of romanticism. But there are factors of the romantic in the free imagination that he uses in the structure of his plays. In planning the plays, there is no dependence upon intimation of accepted forms. He is fanciful, even fantastic, in arranging the plots that will release his ideas. “From the play of manners, he takes the grace of wit, the dependence upon the surface as an index of the soul. And from the realistic play he takes men and women in their natural magnitudes and environments constructing out of common-place individuals a structure of social suggestiveness.” All this is delivered in a thoroughly individual way, with no case for form and no limitations derived either from the necessity of production or the principles of tact and balance. Shaw is careless in construction as a thing of principle, for he has no respect for art cannons, and does not, therefore, pay attention to them. “He has been called an Ibsenian. No evidence of this has been shown in any of his plays except that they deal with a society that has been fed on Ibsenian and Pseudo- Ibsenian ideas.”

One hears continuously of Shaw’s wit and paradox. He is too honest a man to satisfy himself with any such easy scheme as denial of the apparent. His wit is partly for the purpose of selling his wares. It is partly a preservative of his thoughts. Too much has been made of his whimsies, his turnings about, his surprise. Upon those who see only folly in him, we may expect the shafts of his satire to fall. These who look for the jester find nothing neither better nor worse. “But he is unwilling to permit a legend of himself to develop. The man who turns the white light on Patriotism, on Caesar, on Napoleon, on Christianity, and Love, could hardly permit the accretion of folklore about himself in his life-time.

“Shaw the thinker must ever take precedence over Shaw the dramatist. Yet what he might have been as dramatist had he possessed more skill in handling action, is sufficiently revealed in some of his scenes of pure magic.” Several moving scenes in Caesar and Cleopatra, the death scene of the artist in The Doctor’s Dilemma, the delightful turns of incident in The Devil’s Disciple, March bank’s Victory in Candida, the whole conception on the Lion and Androcles and the strong man in Androcles and the Lion, the regenerated flower girl turning for love to her creators in Pygmalion, Tanner’s surrender to the Life Force in Man and Superman, these take a place second to none in English prose drama, and they are  concealed in so much that is new-fashioned that one is likely to lose one magic in another. Shaw has succeeded in creating a new type of drama in which discussion of ideas is as vital as ‘action’ in the older drama.






 1) Gibbs, Anthony Matthews, A Bernard Shaw Chronology. – Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001

2) Henderson, Archibald, George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works. – London: Hurst and Blackett, 1911

3) Laurence, Dan H., Bernard Shaw: a Bibliography. – Oxford: Clarendon Pr., 1983. – 2 vol.

4) Gibbs, Anthony Matthews, Bernard Shaw: a Life. – Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005

5) Weintraub Stanley, “the unexpected Shaw: biographical approaches to G.B.S and his work”. Frederick ungar, 1982 ISBN 0-8044-2974-X.





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