Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The play discusses how war is made, how it is fought, and how parties sue for peace at the close of it. Indeed, the play’s title is a direct quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman epic that glorifies war. Shaw used this quote ironically, drawing attention to how war should not be seen as romantic.
The Serbo-Bulgarian War is not addressed directly in the text, although that is the historical template on which Shaw bases his production. Bluntschli is a Swiss mercenary who has hired himself to the Serb cause, along with soldiers from other nations. Sergius is supposed to representing the “heart” of the Bulgarian enterprise, with his gutsy charge at the start of the work demonstrating just how powerfully he wishes to defend his nation’s honor. What becomes clear as the play progresses, however, is that war is simply a job for soldiers, and nothing more. Sergius is not the hero he is initially thought to be. He romanticizes war to such an extent that he leads a foolish charge against the enemy, and only does so in order to climb the ranks for recognition. Bluntschli also destroys Raina’s romantic idea of war and heroism when he proves that the best soldiers are often not identified as such on the outside.
For Shaw, war is simply a way for men to occupy themselves, perhaps in redrawing small parts of the national borders, while others on the domestic front, who are predominantly women, shape many more aspects of life. Though Catherine and Raina are ostensibly dependent upon the outcome of the war, in dealing with Bluntshli they are also active participants in some of its intrigues. In harboring an enemy and ultimately marrying him, they add to the argument that war and its divisiveness can be meaningless.
The interactions of characters are primarily driven by romantic love, or lack of it. Social conventions of love during Shaw’s time period included public and formal courting, parental approval, and consideration of social status and wealth of each partner. However, the characters in this play defy the norms and each end up with a person that is best suited to them.
Characters slowly disabuse themselves of the features of romantic love they have most cherished all their lives, and realize that it is far more complex. For example, Raina does appear to love Sergius in the beginning of the play, but when she falls in love with Blunstshcli, she realizes her love for Sergius was superficial. Perhaps Raina only felt this way because Sergius was lauded as a hero and because Catherine and Petkoff supported the union to maintain the family’s social status.
By contrast, Louka, though engaged to her fellow servant Nicola, does not appear to have ever been in love with him, and demonstrates that she is willing to work hard to marry into a higher rank. Romantic love does not seem to be a factor in her decisions. The beginnings of Louka’s relationship with Sergius are illicit, and defy social norms of courtship. Bluntschli’s introduction to Raina is also unconventional, as they meet secretly in her bedroom. And when they finally become engaged, Bluntschli, the pragmatic and calculating soldier, surprises everyone by revealing himself to be a lifelong romantic.