The Complexity of Destiny: Shaw's "The Man of Destiny"

Categories: DestinyNapoleon


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a distinguished Irish playwright, critic, and polemicist, transcended his impoverished middle-class origins in Dublin to become one of the most influential literary figures of his time. Having embarked on a journalistic career in London in 1876, Shaw later underwent a transformative ideological shift, embracing socialism in 1882. His association with the Fabian Society in 1884 marked a pivotal moment in his intellectual journey, aligning himself with petty bourgeois intellectuals committed to social change. Shaw's multifaceted talents extended to playwriting in 1887, providing a platform for incisive critiques of bourgeois society's moral and social intricacies.

Notably, Shaw's affinity for the Soviet Union, evident during his 1931 visit, showcased his complex worldview.

The Man of Destiny

"The Man of Destiny," a play from Shaw's expansive repertoire, debuted in 1897 as part of "Plays Pleasant," a collection that included other seminal works such as "Arms and the Man," "Candida," and "You Never Can Tell." Set against the historical backdrop of Napoleon Bonaparte's early military career, the play unfolds a gripping narrative based on real events.

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Shaw, known for his wit and social commentary, adopts a distinctive style that melds informality with formal elements, infusing the dialogue with a mix of bookish vocabulary and colloquial expressions. The plot, replete with deception, ambition, and the interplay of destiny, captivates the audience in a web of intrigue and historical drama.

Lady and Napoleon

The crux of the play lies in the dynamic between two central characters: the Lady and Napoleon. Shaw, a master of character portrayal, crafts the Lady as a tall, gracefully intelligent figure with a delicately intelligent face.

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The nuanced descriptions, such as "character in her chin," paint a vivid picture of her demeanor. Shaw employs both direct and indirect methods of characterization, revealing her cunning nature beneath a veneer of humility. The Lady emerges as a multifaceted personality—calm and obedient yet inherently tricky. Through her actions, Shaw unravels the complexities of human behavior and the subtle art of manipulation.

Napoleon, on the other hand, is presented as ambitious, rude, and coarse. Shaw employs a spectrum of adjectives—bluntly, haughtily, menacingly—to delineate Napoleon's pragmatic and business-like approach. The character's responses, characterized by imperative mood and assertiveness, underscore his authority and social standing. Shaw provides a layered portrayal, showcasing Napoleon's expressive and ambitious traits, thereby enriching the play's narrative with a vivid and compelling character dynamic.

Imperative Mood in Replies to Show Power

Napoleon's use of imperative mood in his replies serves as a linguistic device to emphasize his power dynamics and social position. The terse and commanding language encapsulates Napoleon's authoritative demeanor, offering a glimpse into his uncompromising approach. Phrases like "Come! Quick, I tell you!" not only propel the plot but also accentuate the character's assertiveness, contributing to the overall tension in the play.

Exploration of Napoleon's Attitude towards Happiness

A deeper exploration of Napoleon's character unveils a profound indifference towards personal happiness. Shaw ingeniously uses Napoleon's dismissive remarks about happiness to underscore his single-minded pursuit of destiny. Repetitions, such as "Tut! Tut! Pray! Pray! No, no: this is folly. Come: be calm, be calm. There! There! My girl," serve as a rhetorical device to emphasize Napoleon's priorities. The juxtaposition of happiness against destiny adds layers to the character, revealing the internal conflicts that propel the narrative forward.

The Play's Main Idea: Destiny and Choices

At its core, "The Man of Destiny" revolves around the intricate interplay of destiny and personal choices. Shaw ingeniously uses the character of the Lady as a catalyst, introducing pivotal moments that could alter Bonaparte's life trajectory. Letters, serving as a recurring motif, symbolize the unfolding destiny and the power it wields over individuals. The Lady's strategic maneuvers and Napoleon's reactions become symbolic of the choices individuals make and the subsequent impact on their destinies.

Napoleon - an Instrument in a Hand of Destiny

Napoleon's perception of himself as an instrument in the hands of destiny introduces a layer of complexity to the narrative. As the tension heightens, revelations about compromising letters unravel the intricacies of Bonaparte's personal life. Shaw navigates the thematic terrain of power, authority, and the unpredictability of fate, portraying Napoleon as both a product and a victim of destiny. The Lady's revelations become a turning point, exposing the fragility of Napoleon's carefully constructed image.

Personal Interpretation of Napoleon's Dilemma

Delving into Napoleon's internal conflict, one discerns a fear of becoming a laughing-stock and jeopardizing his political standing. Despite his deep affection for Josephine, the fear of public scorn prompts him to prioritize his reputation over personal happiness. The complexity of Napoleon's character unfolds, revealing the tension between love and ambition. Shaw, through his astute character delineation, invites the audience to contemplate the intricate motivations that drive human behavior.

Overall Assessment of Shaw's Playwriting Skills

Shaw's prowess as a playwright shines through in "The Man of Destiny." Within the confines of a compact play excerpt, he encapsulates profound character dynamics and thematic richness. His ability to capture the expressive and ambitious nature of Napoleon attests to Shaw's mastery in crafting complex and compelling characters. The play stands as a testament to Shaw's ingenuity in exploring intricate themes with brevity, showcasing his ability to provoke thought and engage audiences on multiple levels.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, "The Man of Destiny" serves as a microcosm of human complexity, where destiny unfolds through subtle interactions and pivotal moments. Shaw's ability to navigate these complexities cements his legacy as a playwright of unparalleled skill and insight. The play invites reflection on the unpredictable nature of fate, the choices individuals make, and the enduring tension between personal desires and societal expectations. Through the lens of Shaw's artistry, the audience is prompted to delve into the intricacies of human nature, contemplating the age-old question of whether individuals shape their destinies or are mere pawns in a grander cosmic design.

Updated: Jan 11, 2024
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The Complexity of Destiny: Shaw's "The Man of Destiny". (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Complexity of Destiny: Shaw's "The Man of Destiny" essay
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