Biography of George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw was born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland. His mother eventually left his father, who was an unsuccessful merchant, to teach singing lessons in London. At the age of twenty, Shaw left Dublin for London, where he wrote five novels. From an early age, Shaw identified himself as a socialist and joined the Fabian Society, a non-revolutionary Marxist group advocating for reform that would result in socialism without bloodshed. He was an extremely prolific writer who completed over fifty plays before his death of natural causes at the age of 94.

Shaw began writing rather late in life, beginning with articles for a Fabian Society publication called Fabian Letters (1889). He wrote five novels, but he earned a living as a music and theater critic, advocating strongly for the music of Richard Wagner. Shaw originally tried his hand at writing plays to flesh out his criticisms of the existing British stage. Compared to the light Victorian comedies, which were the fashion, Shaw's plays were revolutionary in their seriousness and socialist themes.

In 1895, Shaw founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with fellow Fabian Society members Graham Wallas, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Several collections of his photographs and correspondences are currently housed at a library at the London School of Economics that bears Shaw's name.

His earliest plays were published in a set titled Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898). The Pleasant volume includes Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1893), and You Never Can Tell (1895). The Unpleasant volume includes Widower's Houses (1892), The Philanderer (1893), and Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893). The latter play describes the relationship between a prostitute and her exacting daughter, and it was banned in London for its "immorality."

Shaw was a vegetarian and a teetotaler, and he was well known for his large ego. In 1898, Shaw married an Irish heiress who famously insisted on maintaining celibacy even after marriage. In 1901 he published Three Plays for Puritans, a collection that included The Devil's Disciple, a play about the American Revolution.

Of his later plays, Shaw is best remembered for Saint Joan (1923) and John Bull's Other Island (1904). Written four years after Joan of Arc was recognized as a saint, Saint Joan portrays the Frenchwoman as a stubborn individual who was ahead of her time. W. B. Yeats originally commissioned John Bull’s Other Island, a comedy about Ireland, for the opening of the National Theatre in Ireland; however, Yeats ultimately rejected the play for being too controversial.

Later in life, Shaw was recognized for his talents. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Over a decade later in 1938 he earned an Academy Award for the film adaptation of Pygmalion. Twelve years after his death in 1950, The Shaw Festival was founded to present and celebrate George Bernard Shaw's plays. Today he is considered one of the English language's greatest wits, and adaptations of his plays, like My Fair Lady, are considered classic works.


Study Guides on Works by George Bernard Shaw

Set in the aftermath of the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, Arms and the Man challenges romantic ideas about war and love. Captain Bluntschli, a fleeing soldier, climbs through a Bulgarian lady's bedroom window, triggering a series of events that...

George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is an example of drama as cultural debate. Those looking for curtain-to-curtain action or nonstop jokes need not buy a ticket. Anyone who ever wondered what Don Juan would be like if he were sexually uptight,...

The play Saint Joan was written and published by the Irish writer, Bernard Shaw and is considered as being one of his major works. The play was published in 1923, shortly after the canonization of Saint Joan by the Church and two years before...