Why would George Bernard Shaw choose to title what would become the most popular play of his career Pygmalion when there is no character named Pygmalion in the play? What could he possibly have meant by comparing his “hero,” a phoneticist, to the sculptor of the ancient myth? And how can something be called a “romance” when the two main characters do not get together at the end of the play? These are likely to be among your students’ first questions when they read Pygmalion.

The mythical Pygmalion was a sculptor on the island of Cyprus. He carved a statue of a beautiful woman and eventually fell in love with her. When he prayed to Aphrodite for a bride “the likeness of [his] ivory maid,” the goddess granted his petition and brought the statue to life. Shaw presents his audience with a teacher of phonetics who takes on the challenge of transforming an impoverished street vendor into the likeness of a noblewoman. In the process, he grows fond of her and comes to rely on her as a friend and assistant. Don’t let your students struggle too hard to reconcile the differences between the myth and the play. Instead, challenge them to examine the differences and explore why Shaw presented the tale as he did.

Pygmalion illustrates Shaw’s disdain for both the aristocratic upper class and what Marx would have called the bourgeoisie of his day. The Eynsford Hills, for all of their pretension, are as ignorant of the world as is Eliza and as penniless and worthless to their fellow human beings as is Eliza’s father. By contrast, Higgins has a trade, and Pickering performed his service and deserves his pension. It is extremely important—important enough for Shaw to write his epilogue—that Eliza does not find her happiness married to a prince, and that she and her husband struggle until they achieve independence.

The story is a romance, but a romance in the sense of a Quest for an Ideal rather than a love story. Higgins and Pickering’s wager might look like a lark, but ultimately—as Higgins claims in Act V—it is the pursuit of the precious human soul hidden within the “squashed cabbage leaf” that society has tossed aside. For all of his sarcasm and apparent cynicism, Higgins is an idealist.

So, what does all this have to do with an ancient Cypriot sculptor who falls in love with a statue of his own creation? The answer, perhaps, lies in an examination of what exactly it is that Pygmalion and Higgins “create,” what they find in their creations to “love,” and what exactly happens when their creations “come to life.”

If you still think you need help, below, you’ll find Prestwick House’s 9 Simple Goals for How to Teach Pygmalion.

1. Summarize Pygmalion

World-renowned phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins boasts to his colleague, Colonel Pickering, that he can teach a common street person to speak English so well she would be mistaken for a duchess at an embassy party. Eliza Doolittle, a penniless street vendor, shows up at Higgins’s house the next day. When she hires Higgins to teach her to speak well enough to work in a shop, Pickering calls his bluff. Consequently, the two enter into a wager: teach Eliza to speak so well the guests at an upcoming embassy event will think she is nobility. In the weeks that follow, Eliza establishes herself in the two bachelors’ household. She is a brilliant student, and Higgins is as brilliant a teacher as he claimed to be. At the event, Eliza surpasses everyone’s expectations. Now, however, the issue that no one wanted to face before can no longer be ignored: What will happen to Eliza?

2. Identify Objectives for Teaching Pygmalion

  • Explain the significance of the play’s title.
  • Explain the narrative function of the prologue, epilogue, and detailed stage directions.
  • Pinpoint instances of humor, sarcasm, and irony in the play, and analyze how Shaw creates these effects.
  • Discuss the role of language and dialect in the play.
  • Examine the impact of the social and political issues suggested in the play on plot, character, and theme.

3. Pinpoint Key Facts and Literary Elements

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1912; play premiered 1913-1914 in Vienna, New York, and London
  • Length: 100 pages (Prestwick House Touchstone edition)
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10

Literary Elements

  • Irony
  • Parody
  • Satire
  • “Three-act” plot structure of a play

4. Understand Themes and Motifs

  • Social Class Discrimination – Shaw depicts the interplay of persons from a variety of social classes and sub-classes. Ultimately, according to Shaw, the play’s “happy ending” involves Liza and Freddy’s establishing themselves firmly in the middle class.
  • Education – Eliza first comes to Higgins because she wants to improve her employment opportunities by learning to speak proper English. The issue at the end of the play is that, while her recent education has left her no longer satisfied with her former life, her incomplete education has not qualified her for anything else. As the epilogue makes clear, Freddy and Eliza find their “happily ever after” only after they attend night school to learn how to operate their business.
  • Identity and Self-Image – When Eliza garners the strength to leave Higgins at the end of the play, Higgins takes pride in the fact that, not only did he teach Eliza how to speak, but he essentially “created” a strong and independent woman. In Act V, she reveals to Colonel Pickering that her real transformation began the day she started to learn self-respect.

5. Explore Related Works

Other Variations of the Pygmalion Myth

Empowerment of Women/Struggle for Independence

Social Divisions and Social Mobility

6. Employ Films and Other External Resources

7. Consider What Your Students Will Love

  • Higgins’ unabashed, unapologetic rudeness
  • Doolittle’s irreverent observations about poverty and social welfare
  • Eliza’s ultimate defiance of Higgins

8. Anticipate What Your Students May Struggle With

  • Understanding the social and financial situation of the Eynsford Hills
  • Appreciating Shaw’s rejection of the conventional “happy ending” for his play

9. Order Pygmalion Resources from Prestwick House:

Resource Format
Pygmalion Paperback Student Edition
Pygmalion Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Pygmalion Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Pygmalion AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Pygmalion Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Pygmalion Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Pygmalion Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set