Context: Re-contextualising Shaw, the Age, and his Sources
G. B. Shaw is a playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics. As something of a Twentieth Century icon, he is a figure too often approached through a limited lens; the scope of his contribution, influence and impact is too often glossed as historical. Revisiting what we think we know about Shaw, the issues and conflicting ideologies of the age renew how we can envision his ongoing contributions to contemporary culture.
A valuable and fitting first approach to providing context for Arms and the Man are the critical theory and practices generally known as New Historicism. Primary amongst its early theorists and practitioners is Stephen Greenblatt, who was influenced by anthropological and social theory, post-structuralism and Marxism. Among the general principles that guide this approach are the following:
- All human actions are determined by complex and observable material practices;
- Every critical method, including New Historicism, uses the tools it condemns and is subject to the same criticism. The project of critical examination, then, is perpetual;
- Cultural phenomenon (literary, non-literary, cultural and historical events, etc.) are equally valuable for critical examination and reference;
- No critical conversation reveals absolute truths, nor expresses inalterable human nature; and,
- Any method and terms adequate to discuss culture are participating in that culture. Ultimately, this means that true objectivity is not possible.
(adapted from Felluga, D. 2003, General introduction to New Historicism)
Re-contextualising Shaw, his time and his sources for Arms and the Man is a potentially immense task. So, it is invaluable to set limits. The links below take you in the direction of Shaw’s biography, Victorian England, Continental politics and the Serbo-Bulgarian War, but of course follow your nose. Do not, however, lose sight of your larger reference points. The core project is to knit together a network of ideas, derived from your reading of the secondary sources. Consider New Historicism’s general principles. The following are the kinds of questions asked by New Historical critics. Use them to guide your inquiry.
• What language/characters/events present in Arms and the Man reflect the current events of the author’s day?
• Are there words in the text that have changed their meaning from the time of the writing?
• How are such events interpreted and presented?
• How is the interpretation and presentation of events a product of the culture of the author?
• Does Arms and the Man’s presentation support or condemn the war? Can it be seen to do both?
• How does this portrayal criticize the leading political figures or movements of the day?
• How does Arms and the Man function as part of a continuum with other historical/cultural texts from the same period…?
• Can we use Arms and the Man to “map” the interplay of both traditional and subversive discourses (written or spoken communications or debates) circulating in the culture in the culture of Victorian England?
• How does the Arms and the Man consider traditionally marginalized populations?
Cary M. Mazer’s ‘Bernard Shaw: a Brief Biography’
George Bernard Shaw
Victorian England: An Introduction
The Victorians—Having it All
Nicole Smith’s ‘Analysis of the Social Context of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw’
Some background information
The Shaw Library at LSE
The Shaw Library, housed in an impressive room in the Old Building contains the university’s collection of fiction and general readings for leisure and entertainment. The Fabian Window, also located within the library, was unveiled by Tony Blair in 2003.