Exposition of characters in Shaws 'Pygmalion'

Term Paper 2005 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. What is an Exposition?

3. General impression on the first pages

4. The exposition of the different characters
4.1 The exposition of Eliza
4.1.1 The Exposition of Eliza in Act I
4.1.2 The Exposition of Eliza in Act II-V
4.2 The exposition of Higgins
4.2.1 The Exposition of Higgins in Act I
4.2.2 The Exposition of Henry Higgins in Act II-V
4.3 The Exposition of Pickering
4.3.1 The Exposition of Pickering in Act I
4.3.2 The Exposition of Pickering in Act II-V

5. Comparison of the different expositions and how they interact

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Every piece of literature needs an opening part and a good introduction. It should not only be an introduction to the place where it happens, but also an introduction to the different characters, the surroundings or the time. But in a play like Pygmalion, not only an introduction is needed, the reader or viewer of a play need additional information on the different characters. They need to know something about their background, what they are doing on or in a certain scene. The audience also needs this background information to understand actions in the course of the play. This stylistic element is called exposition.

Even though this might sound easy, it is hard to include all these information in a play, since the author of a play does not have the same possibilities as an author of a novel has. A novelist can include these information into the text. A playwright on the other hand needs to consider how he can transmit background information especially to the viewer of the play without disturbing the actual plot of the play.

The following essay will focus on how the exposition of the different characters is done in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The centre of attention will be on the three main characters: Eliza, Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering.

2. What is an Exposition ?

In a drama an exposition is the “opening part of a story or a plot in which [the reader is] introduced to the characters and their situation, often by reference to preceding events.”[1] The exposition can as well give “essential information about the plot and the events which are about to come”[2]. Furthermore the exposition in a drama can provide the reader or the viewer with “information about what already has happened.”[3] It does not have to give detailed information about past events; it should rather focus on events that are important for the development of the plot.[4] Thus, the exposition can additionally be seen as a foreshadowing. It is, in a way, a substitute for a prologue, as William Shakespeare for example gives in some of his plays, for instance in Rome and Juliet. In this drama by Shakespeare the initial situation is explained to the audience by the prologue. The Chorus tells the audience in the Prologue:

“Two households, both alike in dignity

(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean”.[5]

In addition the chorus provides the reader or the viewer a foreshadowing on the actions which are about to happen in the play. The prologue goes on:

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.

The fearful passage of their death-marked love

And the continuance of their parents' rage,

Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,

Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage—

The which, if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”[6]

So, in a way, the prologue in Romeo and Juliet replaces some of the exposition, since certain background information of the story, the quarrel between the two families, is given to the audience. The prologue in Romeo and Juliet furthermore gives the audience an introduction to the actions that are about to happen in the play, the love of Romeo and Juliet and their tragic death.

In contrast to the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw does not have anything similar. It has, in fact, a preface, but the preface does not reveal much about the actual background of one of the characters or gives a foreshadowing on the plot. Instead the preface of Pygmalion focuses more on one of the themes in the play, Phonetics. It gives the reader some scientific background into the field of Phonetics and the persons who, in a way, inspired Shaw to the characters. It also includes some personal opinions on the play.[7]

As a result, the exposition usually has to be given at the beginning of the actual play. In a five-act drama like Pygmalion, the exposition generally takes place in Act I, and, as a rule, ends with the so called “inciting moment“[8], the moment where the rising action starts. But nevertheless there are also exceptions from the rule - many plays give a successive exposition. This means, that in later party of the drama, for example in Act II or III additional background on a certain character or event can be given as well. This can be, for example, the case if a character is surprisingly introduced in a later scene or act. And since the exposition does not necessarily have to take place right at the beginning of the novel, a difference has to be made between the exposition and the “dramatic introduction” and the “point of attack”. The function of the “dramatic introduction” is to draw the viewers or readers attention to the play on the first pages of a play. The “point of attack” is the point of time in which the curtain opens and the reader or viewer is first introduced to the story. Is the “point of attack” very early, a long exposition is not needed, since the reader or viewer of the play gets to know the character through the actions on stage.[9]

But even if there is a successive exposition in the play and the exposition is “divided up into a number of smaller units”[10] and “integrated into the plot as it develops”[11], “even this type is generally characterized by a stronger concentration of expository information in the initial phases of the text and a gradual decline of it”[12]. Also important for the exposition is, how much the reader or viewer has to know about the character or an event. If a lot of knowledge about the past is needed, “the expository information dominates the context and the dramatic present remains subordinate to it.”[13]

Nevertheless, if the “reference to the present predominates, the expository information is motivated by the current dramatic situation and remains functionally subordinate to it.”[14] Information on a certain character or event is only revealed to the reader or the viewer, if it is necessary for the specific dramatic situation.[15]

A further distinction in the exposition has to be made between the monological and the dialogical exposition. Yet also in the monological discourse a distinction has to be made between “a figure from either outside or inside the action”[16]. The best-known form of a speaker outside the action is the expository prologue, as mentioned above in the passage on the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Usually these prologues are “not subsumed into the expository narrative, but rather often [combined] with exordial functions such as welcoming the audience and getting into an appropriate mood.”[17] A figure inside the action can present information to the audience through a monologue for example.[18]

In the dialogical exposition, as the name proposes, expository information are given to the audience through dialogue. This happens if two characters or more are talking about an event in the past, an event that has already occurred, or if a dialogue reveals other information necessary to understand the plot.[19]

3. General impression on the first pages

What is really striking on first pages of Shaw’s Pygmalion, actually through the whole of Act I and some parts later in the play, is the fact that none of the characters is introduced to the reader or the viewer by name. The persons are referred to, for example, as “The Daughter” or “The Mother”[20]. They are kept anonymous to the reader. This makes it hard to distinguish the different characters at the beginning. A reason for this anonymity of the characters could be the situation. Many people are gathered on a small space, the portico of St. Paul’s church, to get shelter from the rain.[21] Usually, if many people are gathered on a small space in such a situation, they do not know each other. This could be a reason why Shaw keeps the characters anonymous and nameless to the reader or the viewer of Pygmalion. Another reason could be a more practical one. The viewers of a play in the theatre do not know the names of the characters at the beginning of the play. The audience is usually introduced to the characters in an exposition, a preface or a prologue. And to take the advantage of knowing the different character’s names from the reader, Shaw does not introduce the characters by name. The reader gets to know the name of a character as early as the viewer of the play: When someone calls the character’s name or the character introduces himself to someone. A good example on the first page of Pygmalion is “Freddy” whose name is written not until someone called him “Freddy”.

Striking is, in addition, that the characters are introduced to the audience the way they speak. Even the written text can reveal the different accents or dialects the characters speak. An example is the double negotiation of the Bystander when he says: “He won’t get no cab”[22]. With this Shaw also shows, out of which classes the different characters are. And the different accents will play a very important role in the course of the play. This ialso shows one function of the exposition in a drama: That later conflicts emerge within the exposition[23]. Shaw does this by using different dialects or accents for each character, so showing which class they should belong to.


[1] Chris Baldick. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (New York: Oxford Up, 1990) 78.

[2] John Anthony Cuddon. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. (Cambridge: Blackwell Reference, 1991) 318.

[3] Cuddon 318

[4] Cf. Elke Platz-Waury. Drama und Theater: Eine Einführung. (Tübingen: Narr, 1994) 104.

[5] romeo and Juliet

[6] rj

[7] Bernard Shaw. Pygamlion. (London: Longman, Green and Co. Ltd., 1960) 1-5.

[8] Platz-Waury 102.

[9] Whole paragraph: Cf. Platz-Waury 101-105.

[10] Manfred Pfister. The Theory and Analysis of Drama. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1993.) 88.

[11] Pfister 88.

[12] Pfister 88.

[13] Pfister 88.

[14] Pfister 89.

[15] Cf. Pfister 89,90.

[16] Pfister 90.

[17] Pfister 90,91.

[18] Cf. Pfister 90,91.

[19] Pfister 92.

[20] Shaw 7.

[21] Shaw 7.

[22] Shaw 7.

[23] Cuddon 318.


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Exposition Shaws Pygmalion Introduction Drama Analysis



Title: Exposition of characters in Shaws 'Pygmalion'