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Explore the way George Bernard Shaw presents the character of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Do you think he is a character with whom the audience can sympathise?
George Bernard Shaw presents Henry Higgins in a number of different ways. He acquires various roles and through these the audience can see the strengths and weaknesses of his character. Throughout Pygmalion Shaw uses a wide range of literacy and dramatic techniques to portray Higgins emotions and actions. The use of stage directions, language and character foils reflect how Higgins will go in the opposite direction to society on every aspect of life. The play Pygmalion comes from the Greek legend that is used for metaphors in the play, such as Higgins is in fact the statue, not Liza.
The audience can observe the wide range of roles and characteristics sympathetically, although there are some circumstances in which Higgins may go too far in his criticism. Henry Higgins is presented throughout the play in a wide variety of roles, emphasising different aspects of his character. The first role of Higgins character that the audience is presented to is as an academic professor. On first appearance to the audience he is taking notes on Liza's cockney accent, which is very distant to his own perfected, Standard English.
He believes somebody who speaks as she does has "no right to live" (Act 1. ) He is insulted yet his fascination is seen through his teachings of Liza. His confidence and precision allow him to become a very successful educator of etiquette. He boasts that he "can teach them" (Act 1) to speak the dialect of any class they wish, and so change their status.
Although he may be successful and motivating he requires perfection. "If you every say be - yee ce-yee de-yee again... ." (Act 2), is the threat he uses to compel Liza to talk Standard English. Higgins exerts such pressure onto his student that he ignores her feelings.
However, Higgins' main fault is that he can't transform Liza into a duchess, until he concentrates on inner characteristics. Higgins will not be seen by his academic status is when he speaks with his mother. Through Mrs Higgins the audience sees Higgins as a tiresome child-like character. His mother tells him to "stop fidgeting" (Act 3), embarrassing him.
As a character of High-class status, Mrs Higgins could be very ashamed, but she finds it humorous, commenting "my celebrated son has no manners" (Act 3. ) Although he was born to this high-class lady, he goes in the opposite direction to the rest of society. He is only a gentleman through profession not manners. Higgins is forgetful of public graces "Oh have I been rude" (Act 3). He is poorly considerate of social niceties as Mrs Pearce observes, he "swears a great deal too much." (Act 2).
Shaw shows his ungentle man like qualities, by stereotyping the other characters. Pickering is a character foil, showing how Higgins compares to a real gentleman. Higgins does not observe their many differences, and they become companions as Higgins nicknames him "Pick" (Act 3). Pickering views Higgins in a good light complimenting him by saying "Mr Higgins intensions are highly honourable" (Act 2). The many roles Higgins adopts throughout the play emphasise his strengths and weaknesses. Shaw presents the character of Higgins through advantages and disadvantages of his character.
The first of Higgins strengths is his integrity. Whilst training Liza he threatens that if she fails to achieve every correct pronunciation in a sentence he will drag her "round the room three times," (Act 1). He is a perfectionist and presses for the same standard "Shakespeare" set. Although to upper class characters he may seem rude, he is in fact honest. He immediately revealing to his mother in act three that Liza's "a common flower girl." There is no room allowed for misunderstanding, until his honesty is blocked by his emotional blindness. Higgins is portrayed as an uncaring character.
Even though he is in love with Liza, he lets Liza believe that he doesn't "care a bit for me" (Act 5). His emotional blindness stops him having secure, equal relationships except with Pickering. This leads to a lack of empathy. He sees the world as a narrator. When Liza has doubts about becoming the centre of his experiment he calls her "an ungrateful, wicked girl" (Act 2). He is unable to understand why a common girl would want to turn down such a wonderful opportunity.
He assumes he is a unique teacher, portraying himself as a very arrogant character. Before even knowing Liza he boasts, "in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess" (Act 1). To the audience this would have seemed impossible, portraying him as either preposterous or very clever. Higgins biggest fault is that he can be a bully, which is shown through how he treats people. Liza observes "time and time again [Mrs Pearce] has wanted to leave you; and you always got round her at the last minute" (Act 5). Higgins believes he "has never sneered" (Act 5), as he is oblivious to his behaviour.
Higgins strengths and weaknesses give a dramatic effect to the play. He is a vehicle for humour. He makes scandalous statements, but with such wit that the audience warms to his ideas. In act one Higgins calls Liza an "incarnate insult," and finishes with, "I could pass you off as the queen of Sheba." Surrounding characters would become enthralled.
He also uses his education to make humorous remarks, such as, "how are you people down at Selsley" (Act 1). He is condescending and yet humorously intellectual. Shaw uses Higgins as a social commentator. He believes we should "have the same manner for all human souls" (Act 5). The basis of the play is that people "give themselves away every time they open their mouths" (Act 1). Shaw uses Higgins to voice his ideas and then prove them.
He is an outsider, observing facts, not becoming emotionally involved. This is what stops "civil and kind to people," (Act 5). Higgins was only able to teach Liza the mechanics of becoming a Lady, not the manners. He is like a teacher who only knows half the trade, causing an ironic twist in the play. The dramatic effects can be seen through the structure of the play. Shaw explores Higgins character by the way in which he has structured the play.
The exposition is the plan forming. The development is seen mainly in the second act. Act three hosts the climax as the bet is won. Acts two and three show Higgins academic intelligence. However acts four and five show his downfall. Act four reveals a twist that Liza cannot be discarded and her "beauty turns murderous." The performance of these acts would have been different, as the content changes to something Higgins cannot understand.
Eliza is Higgins' equivalent of Pygmalion's statue. She is in a sense his creation. Ironically Liza changes to become something he has not made her, where as Higgins is unchangeable, like a 'statue.' Shaw uses proleptic irony throughout the play. Higgins boasts, " I could pass that girl off as a duchess" (Act 1), Mrs Pearce then insists, "What's to become of her" (Act 2). Whereas Higgins can only see events as a social commentator, other characters identity faults so the audience can see what will happen.
Shaw's long prose ending explains how the play finishes. It is the first time that speech is the only communication needed to explain exactly what is happening. The explanation that Liza would probably not have married Higgins even if he had told her how he felt shows that Higgins may not have alone have lost the woman he loved because of his emotional blindness. Throughout the structure and plot of the play there are many situations where the audience could have been sympathetic to Higgins. Firstly through his mother he comes across as a fallible child, who is not yet socially developed and may not act properly in public, as Mrs Higgins observes, "Oh, Henry really!" (Act 3).
That is except as a child would, with friends. However, one does not always feel sympathetic towards a child when they falter. Towards a grown man the feeling of sympathy would transform more to a frustration or irritation. The audience would be sympathetic because Higgins idea of a "lovable woman is someone as like [Mrs Higgins] as possible" (Act 3).
One of the reasons suggested in the prose that Liza and he didn't marry was because he had his mother on a pedestal. However Mrs Higgins may have acquired this respect by the way she pushes him around. Higgins does not like this, but "with a gesture of despair, he obeys" (Act 3). This may be the reason he pushes Liza around as his tone was often "thundering" (Act 1). The audience would feel sympathy because if Higgins can push people around so much, and it is a result of his mother, his upbringing may not have been completely happy. Especially if he was brought up by somebody like himself.
The audience not only sees Higgins differently through his mother, but also through Pickering. "Pick" is Higgins close companion throughout the play and although Higgins doesn't compliment Pickering, Pickering compliments and supports Higgins. For example he urges Liza to "Do what he tells you; and let him teach you in his own way" (Act 2). Pickering sees Higgins as a good person, and this intrigues the audience into finding out why. They are more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt because he must not be all bad.
Another way in which the audience would feel sympathy towards Higgins is through his social commentary. He is a character looking in on society and so he finds it very difficult to become emotionally involved. He cannot teach what he doesn't know: good manners. Higgins believes he has made her "a consort for a king" (Act 5). He is more in love with his creation than the real Liza. In this way the audience would not feel sympathy.
However through act four and five Higgins complains about having his "hard earned knowledge" lavished on a "heartless guttersnipe" (Act 4). This is obviously far from the truth. Higgins gains the audiences sympathy because he has such difficulty expressing himself. As a result of being a social commentator, he has learnt not to "treat anybody else better" (Act 5) He is rude to everyone but that is because he treats everybody equally, even though he could be kinder. Therefore I think that the audience can sympathise with Higgins because it seems that there is always a reason that he acts the way he does, but there are some aspects which are audience would find either irritating or too rude.
Therefore, George Bernard Shaw presents the Character of Higgins through a number of literacy and dramatic techniques. Other characters reactions would reflect the way audiences might react to some of his plans and actions. The play is written using the Brechtian effect, and therefore the audience is not supposed to become involved in the play, but instead think about the characters. Through this the audience would have felt some sympathy for Higgins because of the wide range of roles he is portrayed in. Different strengths and weaknesses of such a controversial character would have caused the audiences to think about why Higgins treats others like this.
Either because he has been treated like this himself, or because of his views about the society he lived in.
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