The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht BA English SEM 6 Notes BBMKU University.

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” by Bertolt Brecht features a diverse cast of characters who embody various social roles and ideologies. Here are the key characters in the play:

The Good Woman of Setzuan Characters

  1. Shen Te: The play’s central protagonist, Shen Te, is a kind-hearted and impoverished prostitute. She represents goodness and compassion in a world filled with corruption and exploitation. Shen Te struggles to maintain her benevolence while facing the harsh realities of life.
  2. Shui Ta: Shen Te’s alter ego, Shui Ta, is a practical and ruthless businessman. Created out of necessity, Shui Ta allows Shen Te to survive and thrive in a society that takes advantage of her kindness. Shui Ta contrasts with Shen Te’s inherent goodness, highlighting individuals’ compromises to survive in an unjust world.
  3. Three Gods: The gods descend to Earth in search of a good person. They test the inhabitants of Setzuan to find someone deserving of their rewards. Although they are disappointed by the greed and selfishness they encounter, they recognize Shen Te’s kindness and offer her assistance.
  4. Wang, Shi Ta’s Assistant: Wang is Shui Ta’s loyal assistant. He supports Shui Ta’s pragmatic decisions, reflecting the survival instincts present in society. Wang’s loyalty to Shui Ta also reveals the vulnerability of individuals who depend on the mercy of those in power.
  5. Yang Sun: Yang Sun is a pilot and Shen Te’s love interest. He is portrayed as manipulative and self-serving. Yang Sun’s actions challenge Shen Te’s belief in the inherent goodness of people and contribute to her inner conflict.
  6. Mrs Shin: Mrs Shin is Shen Te’s landlady. She represents the selfish and exploitative nature of individuals in the play. Mrs Shin takes advantage of Shen Te’s kindness and quickly accuses her when faced with financial troubles.
  7. The Old Man: The Old Man is a poor water seller who symbolizes the oppressed and marginalized in society. Despite his struggles, he shows kindness to Shen Te and supports her in her journey.
  8. The Niece and the Nephew: Shen Te’s relatives, the niece and nephew, are portrayed as opportunistic and manipulative. They use Shen Te’s kindness for their benefit, highlighting the challenges individuals face when dealing with family dynamics.
  9. The Carpenter: The Carpenter is a representative of the working class. He is critical of Shen Te’s altruism and argues that survival and self-interest should precede goodness.
  10. The Policeman: The Policeman embodies the authority figures in the play. The prevailing system corrupts him, and he uses his power to exploit Shen Te and extract bribes.

These characters, with their contrasting personalities and motivations, reflect the complexities of human nature and the choices individuals make in a world driven by self-interest and survival. Each character contributes to exploring morality and the challenges individuals face trying to maintain their goodness in an unjust society.

The Good Woman of Setzuan Summary

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” is a play written by Bertolt Brecht, a renowned German playwright and poet. First performed in 1943, the play explores themes of morality, social responsibility, and the struggle to maintain goodness in a corrupt world.

The story is set in the fictional city of Setzuan, where three gods descend to Earth in search of a good person. They find themselves disappointed as they encounter greed, selfishness, and cruelty among the inhabitants. Finally, they arrive at the doorstep of Shen Te, a young prostitute known for her kindness.
Impressed by Shen Te’s hospitality, the gods reward her with a small sum. Determined to use this opportunity to turn her life around, Shen Te opens a tobacco shop. She hopes to support herself honestly and maintain her good nature in a challenging world.

However, Shen Te soon discovers that everyone around her takes advantage of her kindness. Neighbors, friends, and even her family exploit her generosity, leaving her struggling to make a living. Despite her best efforts, she cannot sustain her business and remain a good person.

Desperate and unable to survive solely on her goodness, Shen Te creates an alter ego named Shui Ta. As Shui Ta, she adopts a harsh and ruthless persona, making tough business decisions and protecting her interests. Shui Ta’s methods are successful, and Shen Te’s tobacco shop starts flourishing.

Shen Te’s dual existence as both the good woman and Shui Ta creates an inner conflict within her. She longs to help others and maintain her kind nature but realizes that the world is designed to exploit and deceive. Shen Te grapples with the harsh reality that being good does not always lead to survival and prosperity.
As the play progresses, Shen Te’s struggle intensifies. She faces accusations, loses friendships, and ultimately falls in love with a pilot named Yang Sun, who is deceitful and untrustworthy. These experiences challenge her faith in humanity and push her toward a breaking point.

In a climactic scene, Shen Te’s true identity is revealed when she pleads with the gods for guidance. In a moment of vulnerability, she confesses the challenges she faces and the compromises she has made. The gods listen and acknowledge the difficulty of being good in a corrupt world.

In the end, the play offers no easy solutions. The gods, disappointed by the state of the world, conclude that they must leave, as they have found no truly good person in Setzuan. Shen Te left to navigate the complexities of life on her own, ponders whether goodness is possible in a society that values self-interest above all else.

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” is a thought-provoking play that challenges conventional notions of morality and explores individuals’ pressures in a corrupt and unjust world. Brecht employs theatrical techniques, including alienation effects, to distance the audience from the characters and encourage critical thinking.
The play serves as a critique of capitalism, exposing how societal structures exploit and suppress compassion. It raises questions about the nature of goodness and the difficult choices individuals must make to survive and maintain their integrity. Despite the challenges and conflicts faced by Shen Te, her struggle to be good remains an essential and enduring theme of the play.

Critical appreciation

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” by Bertolt Brecht is widely regarded as a significant and influential theatre work. It is appreciated for its thought-provoking themes, innovative theatrical techniques, and ability to engage audiences in critical reflection. Here is a critical appreciation of the play:

  1. Exploration of Social and Political Issues: Brecht’s play delves into pressing social and political concerns of its time and remains relevant today. It critiques capitalism, exposing the exploitation and corruption that permeate society. The play raises questions about the nature of goodness, the challenges individuals face in an unjust world, and the complex choices they must make to survive.
  2. Distancing and Alienation Effects: Brecht employs his signature theatrical techniques, such as distancing and alienation effects, to challenge the audience’s emotional involvement and encourage critical analysis. By breaking the illusion of realism, the play prompts viewers to reflect on social, moral, and political issues rather than passively consuming the narrative.
  3. Complex Characters: The characters in “The Good Woman of Setzuan” are multi-dimensional and represent different social roles and ideologies. Shen Te embodies the struggle to maintain goodness in a corrupt world, while Shui Ta reflects individuals’ compromises for survival. The supporting characters, such as the gods, Yang Sun, and Mrs Shin, provide contrasting perspectives on morality and societal norms.
  4. Moral Ambiguity: The play presents a morally ambiguous world where good intentions are often met with exploitation and where survival often necessitates compromises. Brecht challenges conventional notions of morality, urging the audience to question whether it can be truly good in a system designed for self-interest.
  5. Engaging and Challenging Audience: “The Good Woman of Setzuan” invites the audience to actively engage with the play through its thought-provoking content and Brecht’s theatrical techniques. By disrupting the traditional narrative structure, the play compels viewers to question their beliefs and assumptions, fostering critical thinking and social awareness.
  6. Theatrical Innovation: Brecht’s play showcases his innovative approach to theatre. He experimented with episodic structure, song and music, and the use of projected captions to interrupt the action. These techniques aimed to disrupt passive spectatorship and encourage audiences to think critically about the issues presented on stage.
  7. Universal Relevance: While the play originated in a specific historical and cultural context, its themes and messages transcend time and place. The struggle to maintain goodness in the face of societal pressures, the examination of social inequality, and the exploration of the moral complexities of human nature resonate with audiences across cultures and generations.

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” continues to be performed and studied worldwide due to its enduring relevance and ability to provoke intellectual and emotional responses. Brecht’s masterful combination of political critique and innovative theatrical techniques makes the play a significant contribution to the theatrical canon and a source of inspiration for contemporary theatre practitioners.


Q: When was “The Good Woman of Setzuan” written?
A: “The Good Woman of Setzuan” was written by Bertolt Brecht and performed in 1943.

Q: What are the main themes of the play?
A: The play explores themes of morality, social responsibility, the struggle between survival and goodness, exploitation, and the challenges individuals face in a corrupt world.

Q: What theatrical techniques did Bertolt Brecht use in the play?
A: Brecht employed distancing and alienation effects, episodic structure, songs and music, and projected captions to disrupt the traditional narrative and engage the audience in critical thinking.

Q: Is “The Good Woman of Setzuan” still performed today?
A: Yes, the play is still performed in theatres worldwide. It has had numerous revivals and adaptations since its original production.

Q: What is the significance of Shen Te’s dual existence as Shen Te and Shui Ta?
A: Shen Te’s dual existence represents the struggle between her innate goodness and the compromises she must make to survive in a corrupt world. It raises questions about the complexities of maintaining morality and the compromises individuals face in challenging circumstances.

Q: How does the play critique capitalism?
A: “The Good Woman of Setzuan” critiques capitalism by exposing the exploitation and inequality inherent in the system. It portrays characters prioritising self-interest and profit over empathy and highlights individuals’ challenges in striving to be good in a capitalist society.

Q: What is the overall message of the play?
A: The play does not offer a definitive message but rather prompts the audience to question societal norms, explore the conflicts between survival and goodness, and reflect on the complexities of morality in an unjust world.

Q: How does “The Good Woman of Setzuan” relate to contemporary society?
A: The play’s themes of exploitation, social inequality, and the struggle to maintain goodness resonate with contemporary society. It encourages viewers to reflect on the ethical challenges and compromises faced in navigating a world driven by self-interest and inequality.

Q: Are there any film adaptations of the play?
A: There have been several film adaptations of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” by different directors. However, it is primarily known as a theatrical work.