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Elevating Class and Language Between Two Plays Essay

A person’s language is often connected to his or her social status. A person from a higher status will have a different dialect of the same language than someone from lower status. People brought up in poor surroundings or poverty are keen to swearing and have little concern to speaking properly as their language was intended. People from high society are the opposite. They are very much concerned with using their verbal skills and their rhetoric, and they are able use it as a form of power over others. These ideas of language between classes can be seen in the plays “The Tempest,” by William Shakespeare, and “Pygmalion” by Bernard Shaw. Though Shaw’s play is much more focused on the language based transformation of “Eliza Doolittle,” and the interaction between her and Professor Higgins, Shakespeare’s creates a similar relationship between the lowly Caliban, and his master Prospero.

Both plays show that a superficial change in education, or language, cannot realistically change a person or their social class, rather the real changes to these characters are made internally. Both Eliza and Caliban come from poor backgrounds. Eliza is a very poor flower girl with terrible English. She swears often, by saying “bloody” constantly between sentences. As Shaw describes her initially as “the flower girl” she is unsympathetically described as ugly and disgusting, “Her hair needs washing rather badly: its mousy color can hardly be natural. She wears a shoddy black coat that reaches nearly to her knees and is shaped to her waist” (Shaw, 13).

Even her accent makes her feel like a second class citizen. Beneath all of this, Eliza is still a proud girl, “I’m a good girl, I am” (2). Because “The Tempest” contains magic, Caliban is born the son of the deceased witch Cycorax. Like Eliza, Caliban also maintains his pride as he believes he is the rightful owner of the island which Prospero later took control over. Also like Eliza, much of his speech is riddled with slurs and cursing. His demonic blood allows Prospero to treat him like a lower class, subhuman monster, similar to how Professor Higgins treats Eliza like a lower class citizen due to her looks, her demeanor, and consequently her social status as a flower girl.

In response, Caliban responds with hostility whenever Prospero calls for him, “As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d/ With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen/ Drop on you both! a south-west blow on ye/ And blister you all o’er!” (20), and Prospero responds in kind by sending spirits to harass him and pinch him. The extent of the transformation that learning language had over both characters is limited to being just a tool for them to use while unfortunately (to their masters) keeping the same personality. What changes to Eliza is most definitely a surface level change and not a deep identity level change, at least through the length of the experiment.

Though Higgins manages to transform Eliza’s appearance from that of a low-status flower girl to that of a refined young lady, she remains a cockney flower girl underneath her facade of a proper accent speaking proper English. Her real personality remains persistently unchanged until the end of the play. This is the same with Caliban who, through learning language from Prospero, remains bitter, hateful, and envious throughout “The Tempest.” Caliban remains “ungrateful” for being taught language by Prospero, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you /For learning me your language!” In this popular quote, Caliban uses the language taught to him against Prospero to display his disgust towards Prospero’s efforts to change him.

It also draws a sharp similarity between the treatment between higher and lower classes in both plays. Eliza’s relationship with Higgins’ language is similar to Caliban’s relationship with Prospero in that both Eliza and Caliban understand language as a reminder of their low social status compared to their “masters.” Both characters also remain “ungrateful” in the narratives of their “masters,” when they are mostly more concerned to keep their own personal dignity. The difference in narratives between the characters learning language, and those teaching it in both plays is very similar.

Both Higgins and Prospero, in their understanding of what they are doing by teaching Eliza and Caliban language, are teaching them a way to elevate their status. Because both “masters” are concerned with social status, they believe their students should strongly value their gifts of language education. Both Higgins and Prospero also consider their subjects highly ungrateful. When Higgins mother objects to his experiment, Higgens retorts, “You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and to change her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.’ (Shaw, 78),” while believing that changing Eliza’s speech will not only change her class, but her soul.

At the climax of the play between Higgins and Eliza, after Eliza asks to return the belongings Higgins gave and lent to her, Higgins becomes upset, “If these belonged to me instead of to the jeweler, I’d ram them down your ungrateful throat.” He feel so strongly the importance of language in self-improvement, that he failed to see that it did not have an honest impact on Eliza. This is similar to how Prospero views Caliban as ungrateful towards his teaching of language, “Abhorred slave,/ Which any print of goodness wilt not take,/ Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,/ Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour…”

As can be seen here, it is evident that Prospero painstakingly underlines and exaggerates the value of the language he taught Caliban. “…One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage, /Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like/ A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes/ With words that made them known. But thy vile race,/ Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which/ good natures/ Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou/ Deservedly confined into this rock,/ Who hadst deserved more than a prison.” Here Prospero acknowledges that class and language, though related, are not necessarily tied together.

He makes a point that Caliban cannot overcome his class through learning language. Swearing in Pygmalion has an interesting dual use. It is primarily expressed in the word “bloody” by both Eliza and Higgins. Their use of it, however, shows the difference in class between the two. Eliza, who has been poor all her life, thinks nothing of using the word since she has been around it all the time. It is a merely an adjective or a harmless form of expression to her. Shaw deliberately makes Eliza’s speech terrible in order to highlight that one’s speech is dominated by their environment.

Higgins, on the other hand, knows the use of this word and uses it to express his anger and frustration. Eventually Eliza does make use of her learned dialect, and it helps her greatly. It allows her to marry a man of the upper class and start her own business, as Higgins foreshadowed.

This change was only able to come about after the internal self respect she gained by defending her self-respect from Higgins after the slipper incident. Caliban, a slave who ironically speaks in the same noble verse and Prospero, also benefits from the learned language in the way he is perceived by the other characters in the play such as Trinculo. Though at moments they were both ungrateful, both Eliza and Caliban became empowered and were able to gain a sense of freedom from their own social class by learning language.


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