SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 167-180
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G.B.S. in Hellas:
A Resource for Classicists
Sidney P. Albert
Euripides I like, because he made the audience question things.
—Bernard Shaw, "The Making of Plays"
Beyond the indelible imprint Bernard Shaw has left on twentieth-century drama, his writings and ideas, his reputation and influence, have unobtrusively radiated into remote realms to a degree that he himself could hardly have envisioned. It is the penetration of his thought and works into one of these unlikely distant domains that this essay will attempt to probe.
Shaw readily expressed his admiration for the rich legacy of the ancient Greek world. Acknowledgments of his indebtedness to that world are spread throughout his writings. On a variety of occasions he sang the praises of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Aristotle, while holding Sophocles in much lower esteem. But the Greeks for whom he felt a special affinity were Euripides and Plato, along with Socrates, Plato's teacher. Shaw's lifelong friendship with Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University, undoubtedly helped fuel his classic Hellenic interests, but those interests appear to have traversed a fairly independent course of their own.
However, it is not the impact of the Greeks on Shaw that I will examine here. Rather, it is virtually the inverse: the role he has increasingly played in the writings of expositors and interpreters of Greek drama and philosophy. For again and again he appears as a proliferating presence in Greek scholarship and criticism—even though in many cases he is introduced only indirectly or incidentally. The treatment he receives runs the gamut: he is cited, quoted, compared, contrasted, criticized, and conjoined with other writers, all in a spate of diverse commentaries. Unsurprisingly, references to G.B.S. all his writings are at times less than complimentary, but for the most part these represent viewpoints at odds with those of the majority of critics. More often is he [End Page 167] invoked as a clarifying source, an illuminating illustration, a pertinent analogue, or is sought out to buttress a claim, argument, or thesis. Although certainly not the only modern author so dealt with—Ibsen, for example, is similarly treated, and often paired with him—nevertheless citations of Shaw recur consistently and persistently. True, he is absent from innumerable treatises, and in a "Shakes vs Shav" comparison is clearly outnumbered by the ubiquitous Shakespeare. Still, since there is no inherent reason for classical scholars to consider him at all, remarkable indeed is the frequency with which so many have turned to him and his oeuvre to highlight salient points in their exegeses.
The preponderance of Shavian references occurs in discussions of Euripides and Plato, but they are also to be found lurking in studies of Aristophanes, Sophocles, Socrates, and Aristotle, as well as in less author-specific contexts. The instances to be recorded here constitute no more than a rough sampling from the myriad examples extant, including some that are less accessible because they are embedded inconspicuously in text, and consequently more than apt to be overlooked. But particularly noteworthy is the regularity with which Shaw's name and plays are directly associated with those of Euripides. Critic after critic has attested to his literary kinship with that Greek dramatist, and it is this Shaw-Euripides nexus that will be the primary and narrow focus of the present brief inquiry.
A priori it might be expected that Gilbert Murray, as both Greek scholar and close friend of G.B.S., would be in the forefront of those comparing the two dramatists. That turns out not to be the case, although Murray did contribute involuntarily and in a roundabout way to what appears to be the earliest coupling of the two playwrights in print. Robert Ross effected that coupling in a 1908 lecture, published the following year in a book of his stray pieces, Masques and Phases. After quoting from Murray's account (in his History of Ancient Greek Literature) of the denunciation of Euripides by his...