Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Arms and the Man

Bernard Shaw

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. have a general understanding of Bernard Shaw as a dramatist
  2. identify some of the key features of Shaw’s dramas
  3. detail key themes and stylistic elements in the selected text
  4. explore characterisation and dramatic techniques in the selected text


Are you familiar with the term iconoclast? It refers to someone who criticizes or attacks cherished beliefs, institutions or people. The term is often used to describe the contributions of George Bernard Shaw in the history of English drama. Shaw used satire and humour to expose the hypocritical and prudish ways of English social life. He transformed the theatre into a platform for challenging idealism and moral conventions.

Arms and the Man (1894), one of the earliest of Shaw’s plays, captures his iconoclasm perfectly. It depicts the conflict between romantic notions about life and a realistic understanding of love and war. In many ways, the play exposes the hollowness of the social myths and values that Shaw opposed strongly in contemporary English society. Let’s look at the role that this play and its renowned playwright, played in critiquing the hypocrisies of the world around.


New Drama, Twentieth-Century Drama, Shavian Play, Problem Plays, Social realism


The opening scene of the three-act play is set in the bed chamber of Raina Petkoff. Raina is portrayed as an immature young lady with romantic notions of grandeur and love. She is settling into bed when an fugitive soldier climbs in through an unlocked window. After an initial hesitation, Raina hides the intruder from a military search party. She feeds the man chocolates and lets him sleep. Later, she and her mother, Catherine, help the soldier out of the house to safety.

As the Second Act begins, the war is already over. The two parties have signed a peace treaty. The Petkoffs’ servants, Louka and Nicola, are discussing their marriage and aspirations for social success. Major Paul Petkoff, Raina’s father, returns from the war. After a reunion, the family is joined by Sergius who is Raina’s fiancé. He is a soldier who is held to be the perfect romantic hero by Raina and Catherine.

Despite possessing high notions about romantic love, Sergius seems to be attracted to Lou-ka. He makes several advances at her and she toys with him. Meanwhile, Raina is growing apart from her fiancé as well. They are surprised when the soldier, whom they helped to escape, returns to hand over a coat they loaned him. It turns out that Paul and Sergius have met him during the battle. His name is revealed to be Bluntschli. He has very practical views about life.

In the final Act, Bluntschli confronts Raina about her pretence and hypocrisy. Her feelings for the soldier are revealed, as is Sergius’s pursuit of Louka. Paul comes to know of this state of affairs. The tensions of the first two acts are resolved through discussion and dialogue. The play ends with both pairs of lovers acknowledging their relationships, free to live together ever after.

6.1.1 Act-wise Summary

Act 1

Opens in a lady’s bedchamber in Bulgaria. Raina Petkoff, a woman from a wealthy Bulgarian family, is standing out on her balcony and appreciating the romantic beauty of the night sky. She is wearing an expensive coat over her nightgown. Her mother, Catherine Petkoff, comes in to announce that the Bulgarian cavalry has won an important battle against the Serbs.

It is Raina’s fiancé, Sergius, who led the charge to victory. Catherine declares that Sergius is every bit as heroic as he appears in the portrait that Raina keeps in her bedroom. Raina, on the other hand, confesses that all of Sergius’s heroic qualities and soldiership are her imagination. She appears now to feel ashamed of having doubted him.

Louka, one of the Petkoffs’ servants, enters. She warns Catherine and Raina that Serbians fleeing the battlefield might seek refuge in the houses of Bulgarian families. Despite this, Raina keeps her window unlocked. She tells her mother that if she hears gunshots, she will immediately blow out her candle and go to bed. As everyone else returns to their own rooms for the night, she takes out Sergius’s portrait and adores it. Then, she picks out a novel and begins to read it. Suddenly, she hears the sound of gunshots approaching closer. She blows out her candle and pretends to be asleep.

However, a man enters the room through the unlocked window. He threatens to kill Raina with his revolver if she makes a sound. He orders her to light a candle, and she is finally able to see him. The man is an escaped soldier dressed in a Serbian military outfit. Unlike Raina, he does not glorify war and is, instead, content to stay alive through any means possible. He keeps Raina’s coat with him so that she would be hesitant to let Bulgarian soldiers into her room. He reasons that it would be embarrassing for a woman of her stature to receive men dressed only in her nightgown.

The man listens intently to footsteps outside the door. Louka starts to knock urgently. He realises that it is all over for him, and throws Raina her coat. He asks her to cover up and protect her dignity, since they would come in by force. However, she decides to keep the man safe and hides him behind her curtains. Catherine, Louka, and a military officer enter to search the room as some of her neighbours saw a Serbian climbing onto her balcony. Raina manages to convince them that there is no one there, and they leave. Louka appears to be suspicious of the scene, and laughs to herself as she leaves.

As soon as the danger is over, the man steps out from behind the curtains. He thanks Raina for saving his life. He reveals that he is not a native Serbian but a Swiss mercenary, a soldier for hire. He hopes to escape to safety once the Bulgarian soldiers have moved away from the area. All of a sudden, Raina realises that the man’s revolver had been lying around on her ottoman in plain sight. He confesses that his gun is not loaded and that he does not carry any ammunition with him. Instead he carries chocolates in his pockets. Since he is hungry, Raina gives him some chocolate creams that she keeps in a box in her room. She dubs him ‘the chocolate cream soldier.

Raina claims that Bulgarian soldiers are not like the man, implying that they are more courageous than him. However, the man claims that there are only two types of soldiers, young and old. He argues that the charge of the Bulgarian soldiers against the Serbs was foolish. They succeeded only through sheer luck. The Serbs had been given the wrong cartridges for their machine guns and could not fight off the Bulgarians. He claimed, not knowing about Raina’s relationship to Sergius, that the man who led the charge ought to be ‘court-martialled’. Raina reveals her love for Sergius and rebukes the man for mocking him. But she agrees to help him escape later.

Raina claims that she is bound to help him as her family is a noble and civilised one. The man, however, is worn out by the events of the night. As Raina goes to ask Catherine for help, he falls asleep out of exhaustion. Though Catherine is shocked and dismayed at her daughter, she allows the man to take rest.

Act 2

The Second Act opens in the garden of the Pet-koffs’ house in March 1886. Louka is arguing with a male servant who seems to be lecturing her. He appears to value his role in servility, and seems to be of a calculating nature. His name is Nicola. Nicola warns Louka of the dangers of defying the family members. He advises her to make them feel that she is loyal. Louka claims to know secrets that would de-stroy the family’s reputation. Nicola tells her that no good will come of challenging those who have power over their lives.

Louka and Nicola hear knocking on the door. It is Major Paul Petkoff, Raina’s father, who has returned from the war. He conveys the news that a peace treaty had been signed a few days ago. He claims that he would have continued the war until his enemies were annexed, but it would have kept him away from Catherine for too long.

Sergius knocks on the gates. Paul orders Nico-la to escort him inside. Before Sergius joins them, Paul reveals that Sergius will never receive the military promotion that he desires. This is because it has become apparent that Sergius has no command of military strategy. But when Sergius enters, the family greets him warmly. Sergius says that he has resigned his position in the army out of anger that he was not given a promotion. He feels that his superiors are simply upset that he has single-handedly won the war with his heroics. Paul and Catherine are upset. Raina soon joins them.

Paul and Sergius begin talking about a Swiss soldier who cheated them out of fifty able-bodied men in exchange for two hundred worn out horses. They retell a story about him escaping the battlefield after being hidden by two Bulgarian women in their bedchamber. They claim that the man escaped in the morning, disguised as a servant in an old coat belonging to the master of the house. Catherine and Raina realize the story is about them, but do not react. They pretend to be indignant about the story.

Raina and Sergius are left to speak in private. They declare their feelings for each other in highly romatic and flowery language. They claim that they have discovered a “higher love.” They decide to go out until lunch time. However, when Raina goes inside to get ready, Sergius flirts with Louka. He takes her hand and attempts to kiss her. Louka reveals to Sergius that Raina might have another suitor. Sergius is taken aback by this.

Although Raina comes down, ready to go out, Catherine asks Sergius to help Paul with a military matter in the library. When they are both alone, Catherine and Raina discuss their encounter with the Swiss soldier. Catherine is worried that Sergius would find out and end his engagement with Raina. But Raina does not seem to be worried and walks away.

Just then, a Serbian officer comes asking to see Catherine. It is the Swiss soldier and his name is revealed to be Captain Bluntschli. He has come back to return the coat. Since Paul and Sergius are in the library, Catherine asks Louka to bring the man to her. She orders Nicola to bring the Captain’s luggage which contains the coat. She greets Bluntschli and tries to send him away. However, both the men come down and see Bluntschli. They assume that he is there to see them.

At that moment, Raina comes back into the room. She is surprised at seeing Bluntschli and blurts out her nickname for him: ‘the chocolate cream soldier’. To cover up the accident, she claims that Nicola had destroyed the chocolate cream soldiers she had made to decorate the pudding.

Suddenly, Nicola arrives with the captain’s luggage. Catherine pretends that she never ordered him to bring the luggage to her. Paul scolds Nicola. Even though he is confused, Nicola owns the mistakes. In order to be polite, the family invites Bluntschli for lunch, which he accepts.

Act 3

The third and final act of the play takes place in the Petkoffs’ library. Bluntschli writes out detailed orders to help Paul while Sergius signs them. Raina sits in a divan with a novel on her lap, daydreaming. Paul complains to Catherine about his missing coat (the same one that Bluntschli has returned). She cleverly tells him that he simply hasn’t looked properly in his wardrobe.

Paul claims that he has searched everywhere. He makes a bet with Catherine that he would buy her jewellery from Sophia (capital city) if the coat is in the blue wardrobe. Sergius joins the bet and makes the condition that Paul should buy Raina an Arabian horse if the coat is there. Bluntschli refuses to take part and says that Catherine is sure to be right.

Nicola comes back with the coat. Paul is convinced that he missed it because of his old age. Bluntschli finishes writing up the military orders. Paul, Sergius and Catherine go out to make sure that the soldiers follow the instructions perfectly.

Raina and Bluntschli discuss their earlier meeting. She tells him that his father and Sergius know the story of how he escaped the battlefield. But, they haven’t figured out that the women in the story are Raina and Catherine. She warns him that Sergius would challenge Bluntschli to a duel and kill him if he ever finds out the truth.

Raina claims that it caused her great pain to lie to Sergius. But Bluntschli makes fun of her, and confesses that he adores her. Raina is truthful about the fact that she has always put on a noble attitude and idealism. She wonders if Bluntschli considers her to be a liar and a cheat now. However, he finds it to be an endearing part of her personality. He seems to be infatuated with her.

Raina asks him if he enjoyed the portrait of hers that she slipped into the coat pocket. To her shock, Bluntschli never realised that it was there. To make matters worse, she has written a personal note for him in the picture. Raina is angry with this and she turns away to the windowside.

Louka comes in with a message for Bluntschli. He receives the word that his father has passed away in Switzerland. There are financial arrangements to be settled. He leaves the room. Louka notes that he does not seem to express grief upon his father’s death. Raina says that it is because he is a soldier. But Louka tells her that Saranoff still has plenty of emotions, though he is a soldier. Raina leaves.

Nicola enters with an armful of logs. He tries to be affectionate with Louka. She rejects him, and he tries to win her over by offering some of the money that Sergius has just given him. She says that she does not want money, and that she was not born to be a servant. Nicola says that he is the one who taught her manners and made her a woman. Louka accuses him of wanting to be her servant rather than her husband. Sergius comes in and interrupts the conversation. Nicola leaves.

Louka wonders if Sergius could truly be a brave man. She defines courage as a queen marrying for love, not for status. She says that Sergius is not brave because he would be too afraid to marry her, because of her lowly social status. Sergius says that if he did love her, he would do everthing in his power to be with her. However, it is Raina that he loves. He accuses Louka of being jealous of her.

Louka laughs at this. She reveals that Raina will marry the Swiss soldier. Sergius reacts strongly to this and claims that he will kill Bluntschli. Then, he declares that he will do as he pleases with Louka. She leaves.

Bluntschli enters with a few papers. Sergius declares that Bluntschli has deceived him, and challenges him to a duel at the drilling-ground at 6 am, the next day. He says that he will carry his sabre (sword). Bluntschli is quite calm and accepts the challenge. He declares that he will carry a machine gun with the correct catridges.

Raina comes in and understands that they are about to fight each other. Bluntschli says that this duel will ensure that he and Raina do not meet each other, hereafter. He has no intention of killing Sergius, and he doubts that Sergius has the skill to harm him. However, Raina says that this is not her wish. Sergius sees this as a confession of her love for Bluntschli.

Raina realises that Louka is the one who told Sergius about Bluntschli. She further understands that Sergius has had an affair with Louka. She has already seen them together earlier, but had not realised the significance of their being together. The ‘noble’ romance between Raina and Sergius has now been shattered. Sergius refuses to fight Bluntschli as he seems to be more of a machine than an idealistic man.

Raina tells Sergius that since Louka and Nicola are engaged, the duel must be between him and Nicola. Aside, Raina asks Bluntschli if he thinks she and Sergius are “a couple of grown up babies.” Bluntschli asks where Louka is, and Raina tells him she is probably listening at the door. Sergius hears this and angrily pulls Louka inside the room.

Bluntschli says that he has eavesdropped too, but that was because his life was at stake. Louka says that her love was at stake. Sergius pretends not to be ashamed at her confirmation of their affair. Paul enters, and everyone acts as though everything is normal. He is holding the coat in his hands. Raina helps him put it on, and as she does, she removes the portrait from the pocket. However, Paul has already seen it. He reaches into the pocket and finds it missing.

Raina eventually explains that the portrait was meant for Bluntschli, and Bluntschli admits that he was the Swiss fugitive in the story. The rest of the details are slowly revealed. Nicola arrives and admits that Louka does not want him. Bluntschli says that he wishes to hire Nicola to run his departed father’s hotels for he seems to be a very efficient man. Louka demands an apology from Sergius which she receives. He confirms her to be his fiancé.

Catherine enters and sees the new couple together. Sergius says that he will marry Louka, and Catherine is aghast. Louka, referring to Raina by her first name, says that Raina has her own prospects in Bluntschli. However, Bluntschli says that he is too old to marry a seventeen year old girl. However, he admits to being an incurable romantic.

Raina says she agrees that Bluntschli is a romantic idiot. She corrects him and clarifies that she is not seventeen but twenty-three. Bluntschli asks Paul permission to court his daughter. He says that the inheritance of hotels from his father has made him rich. Raina, on the other hand, says that she will not be bought. She is not interested in his wealth.

She says that she did not give candy to the “Emperor of Switzerland”. Bluntschli gets on a knee and asks her to whom she gave the sweets. She responds: “My chocolate cream soldier.” Bluntschli laughs and gets up. He makes a military bow and exits. The play ends with Sergius saying of the Swiss soldier: “What a man!”

6.1.2 Critical Review

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), one of the most significant playwrights in the London theatre scene. Though he began writing in the late Victorian age (late 19th century), the content and form of his drama heralded the arrival of literary modernism. They used modernist techniques and effects to break the expectations of the audience.

Shaw’s dramas constituted a radical change from the sentimental and romantic plays that were popular till the late nineteenth century. Plays were thought to be a form of entertainment for the public, and not a serious genre of literature. In fact, Shaw has raised the complaint that the art of literature is left “ashamed” amidst “the triumphs of the arts of the painter and actor” (qtd. in Watt 240). He is, of course, referring to the inferior quality of the play as opposed to the beauty of the stage and the proficiency of the actor.

Shaw attempted to do away with the idea that art existed for art’s sake. Rather, the funda-mental problems of life and society were to be the central themes of his art. In his opinion, the function of drama was to provoke thought and to teach. They had to provide substantial opportunity for the audience to reflect and to learn.

His plays thus became dubbed ‘problem plays’. They focused on the dominant issues of the age, developing and establishing a point of view through the contrast of conflicting ideas. Humour, wit, imagination, and sparkling dialogues kept the audience engaged with the various ideas that are discussed in the plays. In doing so, Shaw hoped to persuade the audience to adopt his personal opinions on public matters.

We could say that Bernard Shaw’s views on many social problems of the age were ‘revolutionary.’ He was a well-known member of the Fabian society, and propounded socialist beliefs in his speeches and writings. Along with this, he voiced his strong opposition to organised religion and conventional marriage. Through his different writings, he calls for the revaluation of old ideologies in politics, society and culture.

In particular, Shaw reacted against what he saw as a slavery to idealism and notions of ‘goodness.’ Both of these, according to his theories, stood as an obstacle in the quest for truth. It prevented people from developing as individuals with their own aesthetic judgements. So, he stood against censorship in the theatre.

Shaw was a prominent champion for Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright, who revolutionised twentieth century drama. Ibsen’s plays put forward several innovations that were used by Shaw:

  1. Provoking audiences into thinking about themselves and their societies
  2. Incorporating ideas into the format of the ‘well made’ play
  3. Realistic depictions of characters and events

Indeed, Shaw wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), providing a defence of the theatre and philosophy of Ibsen. In it, he exposed the imperfections of British society as being rooted in idealism and anti-individualism.

Shaw’s plays belong to the ‘New Drama’, a movement which erased the lines between popular and experimental theatre. The playwrights of this group included, alongside Shaw, John Galsworthy, Elizabeth Robins, and Susan Glaspell. Their works centred on social reform and aesthetic innovation. Do you see this aspect in the current play?

In the context of the age, the Shavian play had certain unique features. They were meant primarily for reading rather than for staging. Shaw wrote detailed prefaces to introduce the plays to the reading public. To give his readers a good idea of the settings of the play, he wrote elaborate stage-directions.

Shaw rejected the classical convention of following the unities of time, action and place. Classical tragedies covered a central action in a single physical location over a period of twenty four hours. He considered these to be artificial restrictions. Rather, he presented events and characters in a realistic manner.

There is an absence of dramatic action and physical conflict in Shaw’s plays. Instead, the play revolves around mental conflict, a contest between competing ideals and values. Discussion becomes the mode of conflict – Shaw’s characters discuss and argue out various facets of the tension between them. There is a flow of ideas bolstered by intellectualism and amusing wit which keep his audiences engrossed in the play. Thus, they are also known as the ‘Play of Ideas.’

Shaw opposed the approach of the ‘well-made play’ of the earlier eras, which contained typical plot structure and artificial dramatic features. Rather, he introduced unresolved and surprise endings to his plays. Further, he did not advocate for an aesthetic or entertainment purpose for the dramatic arts. His stagecraft was infused with propaganda, forcefully presenting his own views on social issues (Switzky 144).

The early phase of Shaw’s literary career contained musical and theatre criticisms, and novels such as Immaturity, The Irrational Knot, and An Unsocial Socialist. His attempts at fiction were not successful, even though they put forward many of the later themes of his drama.

In a prolific career spanning over sixty years, Shaw has written over fifty plays. The most significant of these are Widower’s Houses (1892), Arms and the Man (1898), Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1898), Caesar and Cleopatra (1901), Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1907), The Doctor’s Dilemma (1908), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Pygmalion (1913), Heartbreak House (1919), Back to Methuselah (1921), Saint Joan (1929), and The Apple Cart (1929).

He has also made prose contributions including The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), Common Sense About the War (1914), and The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

6.1.3 Context of the Play

Arms and the Man was first published in Shaw’s 1898 collection titled Plays Pleasant. It takes its name from a line in Virgil’s Aeneid: “Of arms and the man I sing.” Shaw used the phrase to critique war and the romantic myths that surround it. The characters in the play represent various perspectives on marriage, warfare, social class, and heroism. Their discussions and interactions make visible different conflicts within the dramatic narrative.

The play is set in 1885, in the background of the Serbo-Bulgarian War. It uses accurate historical context, battle names, and locations to arrive at Shaw’s primary focus, which is the manner in which love and war reframe relations between different groups. Specifically, it targets the idealism and ‘noble’ sentiments that allow men and women to glorify war, while social inequalities such as class division are left unchallenged.

6.1.4 Characterisation


The heroine of the play is revealed to be more complex than her outward behaviour or appearance. It has been presented that she wishes to retain a highly romantic image of herself and her relationship with Sergius. But this proves to be just a pretence.

In reality, she has doubts and imperfections just as any other human being. Her ideas of ‘goodness’, ‘heroism’, or ‘truth’ have been reversed and challenged by the end of the play. We could say that Raina represents the idealistic self-image that people have of themselves; her actions and thoughts reveal the hypocrisy and pretence that is often put on to maintain that image.


Bluntschli is the character who brings conflict into the idealised world that Raina has built for herself. He is a rationalist who reacts to events based on fact. He is unmoved by questions of morality or honour. We can see this in his interactions with Raina and Sergius, both of whom are motivated by high notions of ‘goodness’.

He depicts a great deal of self-control or restraint. This does not mean that he is detached from passion, but that he accounts for such emotions practically. He shows the ability to cleverly handle different social interactions, through which he is able to achieve his ends.


Sergius, like Raina, is a character who reveals himself to be different from his appearance. Though he claims to be a valiant hero, his actions on the battlefield are revealed to be ill-advised and militaristically unsound. Rather, he is controlled by his vanity.

Even though he declares “higher” love for Raina, he cannot control his attraction for Louka. He is revealed to be impulsive, quick in becoming angry and easy to manipulate. Even though he flirts with someone outside of his relationship, he is upset with Raina for having feelings for Bluntschli.


Louka is another character who is practical and deeply aware of the realities of the world. She is willing to use what she knows to get ahead in life. For instance, she admits to Nico-la that she knows a dangerous secret about the Petkoff family. She appears to be ready to trade in the secret to get power over the Petkoffs.

She does not want to remain a servant or tied to a lower social position in life. She manipulates Sergius to a great extent in order to secure her own position. She is rewarded for her realistic approach as she moves up in the social hierarchy at the end of the play.

6.1.5  Other Characters

The other characters in the play present different perspectives about society and life. Cath-erine and Paul initially appear to advocate grandiose ideas about patriotism, courage, and love. However, as the drama progresses, they are revealed to be more worried about status and wealth. Paul and Catherine frequently break their principles for practical reasons.

This is seen in their acceptance of Bluntschli, once they discover the truth about his inheritance. Nicola, on the other hand, represents a person who is completely conditioned to be submissive to power. He succeeds by serving those who are in higher positions in fulfilling their desires and interests.

6.1.6 Themes and Literary Devices

Written in 1893-94, Arms and the Man presents an early attempt on the part of George Bernard Shaw in producing problem plays. Unlike ‘well-made plays’ or conventional Victorian plays, this dramatic narrative uses ideas as a powerful aspect of the plot. The development of the characters are not charted through action but through their changing per-spectives on life.

Raina, the central heroine, transforms her notion of romantic love to accommodate her feelings for Bluntschli. Sergius changes his views on class order to make Louka his fiancé. Bluntschli overcomes his self-restraint to confess his feelings for Raina. Even Catherine and Paul do away with their ideas about social propriety once they learn of Bluntschli’s in-heritance. Only Nicola, who is born with the “soul of a servant,” remains stationary. Thus, the play captures their internal evolution as opposed to external developments.

True to the format of the Shavian play, the events occur in several physical locations (the bedchamber, the library) over a period of months. The play does not contain a central action, but rather focuses on different actions across three acts. It takes up realistic depictions of events and characters. Indeed, in form and content, the play rejects extreme idealisations and romantic notions.

The following themes are projected in Arms and The Man:

  1. Disillusionment with war: War is an important theme in the play. The characters Sergius and Bluntschli represent two differing attitudes to the violence, bloodshed and chaos of warfare. One considers it a matter of honour and bravery while the latter views it with cynicism.
  2. Differing Views on Romantic Love: Apart from war, romantic love is constantly mentioned in the play. All of the central figures – Raina, Bluntschli, Sergius, and Louka – are driven by love or seek to be in love. There is a contrast between the superficial “higher love” that Sergius and Raina seem to believe in, and the practical romantic feelings that Bluntschli and Louka stand for.
  3. The Influence of Social Divisions: Social class and wealth drive some of the most interesting interactions in the play. The Petkoffs and Sergius belong to the elite class where grandiose ideas about life and goodness can be sustained. Their social position and wealth seem to insulate them from some of the harsher realities of war and social hierarchies. Bluntschli and Louka, on the other hand, are marginalised figures here. Their relationships allow them to move upwards in the social ladder.
  4. Social Hypocrisy and the Individual: The play exposes moral conventions and social customs as hypocritical rules that force the individual to act. Most of the characters who appeared to be ‘good’ in the traditional sense are revealed to be pretending in one way or another. It is the fear of social disapproval that makes them follow certain rules or manners. Their hypocrisy becomes visible when their interests or self-images are at stake.
    These themes are thoroughly explored through the sharp, witty dialogues and humorous interactions between various characters. The audiences and readers get a sense of different points of view about war, love and class through the retorts, repartees and puns in the play. Shaw is, thus, able to keep the play hilarious comic and serious, at the same time. Further, this exposition of ideas is central to his conception of drama as a tool of public enlightenment.

Apart from thematic elements, the play uses the following symbols as well:

  1. Chocolate Creams: The sweet which appears in several scenes in the text represents the naïve and innocent worldview that Raina and certain other characters have.
  2. Novels: Like the chocolate creams, the novels that Raina reads represent her love for idealisation and imagination.
  3. Portraits: Portraits stand for the social image that the characters deeply care for..

Arms and the Man is shaped by G.B. Shaw’s social and political philosophies. It examines the ways in which social structure moulds our beliefs and values. By exposing the hypocrisies and dangers of conformity, Shaw aims to provoke his readers into critical thought about the realities of their own existence. It encourages us to reflect deeply on ourselves and those notions that we hold to be universally cherished.


  • G.B. Shaw is significant figure in the twentieth century drama
  • Wrote in both Victorian and Modernist periods
  • Influenced by Ibsen
  • Shaw’s dramas opposed established dramatic tradition of ‘well-made’ plays
  • Against classical unities, plot development through action, and unrealistic depic-tion
  • Focus on social issues
  • Play moves through discussion, dialogue, and conflict of ideas – Problem plays
  • Play set in 1885, backdrop of Serbo-Bulgarian war
  • Three Acts without division into scenes
  • In the First Act, Raina helps Bluntschli escape from Bulgarian army
  • In the Second Act, Sergius and Raina declare “higher love”
  • Proven to be superficial when Sergius develops feelings for Louka
  • Bluntschli comes back to Petkoffs’ house to return the coat – invited to stay for lunch
  • In the Third Act, Raina revealed to be in love with Bluntschli
  • Sergius’s feelings for Louka are also accepted
  • Play ends with the various tensions having been discussed and contrasted
  • Themes of war, romantic love, class divisions and social hypocrisy
  • Symbols used to convey abstract ideas

Objective  questions

  1. Which collection of Shaw’s plays contain Arms and the Man?
  2. What is the name given to Shaw’s plays as they contain a flow of ideas?
  3. Why did Shaw turn towards realistic depiction of characters, events and narra-tion?
  4. When was G.B. Shaw awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?
  5. Where is the opening scene of the play set?
  6. From which work by Virgil was the title of the play adopted?
  7. What does Raina give the Swiss soldier?
  8. Who helps Raina to get the soldier out of the house safely?
  9. Whose portrait does Raina hold in her bedchamber?
  10. Why was Sergius’s charge able to defeat the Serbian army?
  11. Who is Louka engaged to?
  12. What does Bluntschli return to Catherine and Raina?
  13. Why does Sergius challenge Bluntschli to a duel?
  14. What is conveyed in the letter that Bluntschli receives?
  15. Who says the phrase: “What a Man!?” About whom is it said?


  1. Plays Pleasant.
  2. Play of Ideas.
  3. He was influenced by Henrik Ibsen.
  4. 1925
  5. In Raina’s bedchamber.
  6. Aeneid
  7. Chocolate Creams
  8. Catherine, her mother.
  9. Sergius’s
  10. Because the Serbians have the wrong ammunition for their machine guns
  11. Nicola
  12. Paul Petkoff’s coat
  13. Because he finds out about Raina’s feelings for Bluntschli
  14. The news that his father has passed away.
  15. Sergius, about Bluntschli.


  1. What is the nickname given to Bluntschli by Raina?
  2. Which countries are at war in the play?
  3. Which Norwegian playwright influenced Bernard Shaw?
  4. How does Louka challenge the authority of her masters in the play?
  5. Explore the portrayal of romanticism with special reference to the characters of Raina and Sergius.
  6. Briefly discuss the characterisation of Bluntschli in the play.
  7. Examine the role of Nicola with special reference to class.
  8. Compare and contrast the different female characters in the play.
  9. What are the major themes discussed in the play?
  10. Write a note on the features of Shavian dramas, with special reference to Arms and the Man.

Suggested Readings

  • McNabb, Jim. “Arms and the Man by Bernard Shaw: Study Guide.” National Arts Centre English Theatre.
  • Shaw, Bernard. Arms and the Man. Penguin Group, 2006.
  • Mendelsohn, Michael J. “Bernard Shaw’s Soldiers” The Shaw Review 13.1 (1970): 29-34.