Candida is a play written in 1894 by Bernard Shaw. It is set in the north-east suburbs of London, and its plot revolves around the eponymous character, Candida, a beautiful and seductive woman, who is forced to choose between two men: her husband, Morell, a respected clergyman, and a poet, Marchbanks, who is fifteen years younger than her. This is an example where Shaw deliberately chose a familiar plot, the love triangle, and then dealt with it in an unusual manner, by making Candida a stronger character than both the men. The play could be interpreted as a plea for audiences to depend on rationality and sensibility rather than foolishness and fancy. This message is developed at the end when Candida chooses the more stable relationship she has with Morell, over Marchbanks.
For the majority of the nineteenth century, women were viewed as, and were content with being, subordinates in their home and society. They were expected to stay home, cook, clean and take care of their children. This began to change toward the end of the century, where women started feeling dissatisfied with their position and began striving for equality with men. One of the major supporters of this feminist ideal was Shaw, and as such Candida has most of the characteristics representing a ‘New Woman’, one who broke the stereotypical image of what a woman ought to be in a patriarchal society. This movement paved the way for feminism throughout the twentieth century and has a large influence even today. Most of Shaw’s female characters represent this ideal, and hence these characters have come to be known as Shavian women.
Shavian feminism is generally based on the principle that women are creators of life. This led to the men always being supportive of women, and accepting that woman have a superior goal and men are their assistants in accomplishing this goal. These women are not dependent on their husbands and instead create a path for themselves using their indomitable will, physical and emotional strength and physical attractiveness. In the play, Candida embodies all these characteristics in her own way. She has the independence of taking her children and going out of town for weeks (17). She is aware of her charm and uses it to get what she wants, and is never dependent on her husband throughout the play, even when he is supposed to pick her up from the station (26). In fact, she criticizes him when she thinks he is wrong. Morell and Marchbanks even leave the decision of who she wants to be with entirely up to her (74), which would not have been common practice in the Victorian era.
In some cases, she takes the conventional role of a woman as a homemaker, which is evidenced by her filling the lamps with paraffin oil and attending to other household chores (45), however this does not take away at all from her character of a strong-minded woman. At the end of the second act, she even motivates Morell to go and give a sermon (56), hence actively participating in his success. This shows that she is not subordinate to her husband; he actually feels that her views and opinions are valuable. At the end of the play, Candida chooses to be with the ‘weaker’ man, the man who she thinks needs her the most: Morell (75). She acknowledges the fact that Morell needs someone to take care of him and provide him with affection and support, and her emotional strength shines through here. This also shows that she is able to judge the natures of the two men without letting any bias come in the way, and makes her decision after calmly weighing their strengths and weaknesses against each other. For these reasons, and many others, she is clearly the strongest character in the play, and represents exactly what the ‘New Woman’ is all about.
If a reader was taken to be a male who read the play at the time of its publication, his interpretation would vary based on his stance on the movement: if he did not support it, he would probably have interpreted it as propaganda, as a way to draw in other women to take part in the movement, and hence he may have condemned the play. He might have criticized Candida for being unromantic, cold and cruel. On the other hand, if he wanted women to have equal rights and opportunities, and supported the movement, he may have interpreted the play as a way for the playwright to draw awareness to the movement, and entice more women to take part in it so that it could succeed.
Nowadays, feminism is understood to be the belief that women should be equal to men and are currently not. This draws an interesting parallel between the nineteenth century and the present, as feminists today still believe they have not achieved equality. Feminists would possibly interpret Candida herself to be an early feminist; however, Candida did not exactly believe that she and Morell were equal. This could be evidenced by the fact that she coddles him and calls him ‘boy’ throughout the play (50), thus suggesting that Morell is like a child to her; someone that she is required to take care of.
A feminist today would no doubt feel empowered while reading about how Candida did not depend on her husband. It is easy to interpret that Candida is the strongest character in the play, and this would definitely please a feminist today. However, a feminist might be more satisfied if, at the end of the play, Candida chose neither of her suitors, as this would show that she was a completely independent woman and did not need a man to hold her down.
Hence, different readers always interpret literary works differently. A major factor which influences their interpretation is the context, and if one was to contrast the interpretations of two readers from different times, the context would be the differentiating factor.