Candida, a comedy by playwright George Bernard Shaw, was written in 1894 and first published in 1898, as part of his Plays Pleasant. The play’s title is named after the central female character of a middle-aged housewife. The naming indicates Candida’s singular importance in the play and since Shaw, in a sense, was a propagandist, it also indicates that Shaw is going to deal with ‘the Woman Question’ - a burning issue in the contemporary late Victorian society. The name ‘Cadida’ has a special symbolic significance in this respect. In addition to this, as A. C. Ward points out, when the play was first written its full title was Candida: A Mystery, and that mystery part also contributes an additional significance to the title.
The title of Candida gives a clue to the main purpose of the play in particular, and Shaw’s life as a dramatist in general. The name ‘Candida’, unlike Jane, or Mary, or Ann, is not a common English name. It is formed from the adjective ‘candid’, meaning ‘frank’ or ‘truthful’; and to be frank and truthful concerning everything he wrote about was Shaw’s constant aim, just as it was Candida’s aim in her dealings with her husband, the Reverend James Mavor Morell, and their young friend the poet, Eugene Marchbanks. Candida’s character is true to her name; she is a radiant figure of domestic purity, above suspicion. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names identifies Candida, as specifically the name of a first century saint.
Candida is not only a faithful wife, she is also the strongest character in the play, and is guided by common sense, not by emotion or passion. She takes the situation under her own control, brings the dispute of her husband and young lover to an immediate end, and imposes her own will upon both men. Instead of the little woman reaching up toward the arms of a strong man, we have the strong woman reaching down to pick up her child. The patriarchal pattern of the Morell household is transformed to a matriarchal one due to Candida’s latent aggressiveness exercised over the two men in her life. Candida is very similar to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in its treatment of an intelligent woman, who wants to be emancipated from the traditional bonds of marriage. But whereas Nora begins her journey by leaving the house, Candida’s journey starts by staying at home. It is the lover who leaves the house with the “secret” in his heart which is supposed to constitute the “mystery” of the sub-title.
The apparently weak and dependent poet is really far stronger in spirit than Candida’s physically robust and self-assured husband. Although in the ‘auction scene’ the husband offers his strength for Candida’s defence, she soon points out that his strength is rooted in her, and would be non-existent without womanly care and devotion. The poet, on the contrary, has spent all his life in spiritual loneliness and self-dependence; and can live quite well without the ministration of Candida or anyone else. For a brief time he was emotionally dazed by his glimpse of happiness that Candida spreads about her and had the hope that romantic love for a woman could satisfy his deepest need. But Candida’s long speech at the end of the auction scene reveals to Marchbanks a life of domestic dependence and contentment which his lonely spirit would find imprisoning and disgusting. A poet/artist’s life is in his poetry/art – not in a state of domestic bliss which includes peeling of onions, trimming of lamps and tending of children. As an artist he is capable of renouncing personal happiness in the interest of some larger creative purpose.
The play, Candida, is mainly about the central character’s “candid” thoughts and straightforward actions towards love, marriage, and the roles of woman in the late nineteenth century English society; and the “mystery” in the subtitle is possibly about the “secret” of a “true artist”.