Ethical Traditions in British Drama: A Case Study of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw

Maosheng Liu

Published Date: Aug 31, 2021


Victorian literature, both its creation and criticism, mainly focused on the significance of morality and religion, and viewed literature as beneficial to the heart of mankind. Oscar Wilde, widely considered as an aesthete, is one such literary figure of the Victorian era who espouses the doctrine of “art for art’s sake.” His artistic style incorporates rich ethical connotations, and the interplay between aesthetics and ethics presents characteristics of both conflict and integration in his works. On the other hand, the problem plays of Henrik Ibsen, the so-called father of modern drama, exerted a profound influence on George Bernard Shaw, the great British dramatist of the twentieth century. Shaw’s creation of problem plays is directly attributable to Ibsen, and he creatively adapted the Norwegian playwright’s writing techniques for his only treatise of drama theory in 1891, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which fully expressed his basic understanding of the dramatic arts. Aside from disagreements regarding artistic ideas, both Wilde and Shaw emphasize that the primary task of artistic creation is to reflect social problems, and that the degeneration of human morality is the root of all social ills. They also believe that traditional moral standards may not always meet the requirements of social reality, therefore it is necessary to find a set of ethics to solve social problems. In this way, both Wilde’s and Shaw’s dramas clearly reflect the ethical tradition concerning social issues.


British drama, ethical tradition, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw

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Kritika Kultura
Department of English
School of Humanities
Ateneo de Manila University

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Jan Baetens
Faculty of Arts
Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (Belgium)

Joel David
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Inha University (South Korea)

Michael Denning
Professor of American Studies and English
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Yale University (US)

Faculty of Cultural Sciences
Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia)

Regenia Gagnier
Professor of English
University of Exeter (UK)

Leela Gandhi
John Hawkes Professor of the Humanities and English
Brown University (US)

Inderpal Grewal
Professor of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies
Professor of South Asian Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies
Yale University (US)

Peter Horn
Professor Emeritus and Honorary Lifetime Fellow
University of Cape Town (South Africa)
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University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

Anette Horn
Professor of German Studies
University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

David Lloyd
Distinguished Professor of English
University of California, Riverside (US)

Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist for Literature
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University of the Philippines

Rajeev S. Patke
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Professor of Humanities
Yale NUS College (Singapore)

Vicente L. Rafael
Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor of History
University of Washington (US)

Vaidehi Ramanathan
Department of Linguistics
University of California, Davis (US)

Temario Rivera
Professorial Lecturer
Department of Political Science
University of the Philippines

E. San Juan, Jr.
Philippines Studies Center (US)

Neferti X.M. Tadiar
Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies
Barnard College (US)
Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race
Columbia University (US)

Antony Tatlow
Honorary Professor of Drama
Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)