Lord Byron 1788-1824
(Full name George Gordon Noel Byron) English poet, dramatist, and satirist.
Considered one of the most important English poets of the nineteenth century, Byron also composed several historical dramas that garner praise for their lyrical verse form and exploration of social and political themes. Critics underscore the autobiographical aspects of his plays, noting that many of his dramatic pieces feature heroes who have been exiled or persecuted for their scandalous actions. Commentators have also explored the influence of William Shakespeare and John Milton on his drama.
Byron was born on January 22, 1788, in London. His father, John “Mad Jack” Byron, abandoned his family soon after the younger Byron's birth and died in France in 1791. When Byron was a year old his mother, Catherine Gordon, moved with him to Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1798 Byron became the sixth Lord Byron and was sent to Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he began writing poetry. He published his first volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness, in 1807 and received his master's degree the following year. After several years of writing and an extended period of travel, he returned to London and published the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). The work was an immediate success and he soon became an important literary and social figure in London. His tumultuous public affair with Lady Caroline Lamb caused him such distress that he sought comfort in marriage to Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was not successful, however, and the pair separated amid scandalous charges of sexual improprieties and an incestuous affair between Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Attacked by the press and ostracized by London society, Byron left England for Switzerland in 1816 and never returned. He traveled through Europe and eventually settled in Italy. In 1823 he went to Greece to train soldiers for the Greek War of Independence from Turkey. He died of a fever in Missolonghi at the age of 36.
Major Dramatic Works
Byron's plays were composed as verse dramas, and some have been classified both as poems and plays. Written around the time of great scandal surrounding his extramarital relationships, Manfred (1817) chronicles the emotional turmoil of a brilliant, iconoclastic man who defies convention and is exiled to a giant castle. Alienated and tortured by guilt for his scandalous actions, Manfred chooses to die. Critics trace the parallels between Manfred's dilemma and the controversial circumstances of Byron's life, which became a recurring critical reaction to his dramas. His next play, Cain (1821), is a dramatization of the biblical figure who once represented hope and promise, but turned instead to rage, envy, and the dark side of human nature. Cain's unthinkable act, the murder of his brother Abel, results in his exile and alienation from his family. In Marino Faliero (1821), Byron chronicles the historical story of old Marino Faliero, the Doge of Venice. Seized with a hatred for the council of nobles, he attempts a coup d'etat, with the intention of naming himself prince. When his plan fails, he is put on trial for treason and eventually dies. Perhaps Byron's best-known play, Sardanapalus (1821) is based on legendary accounts of the fall of the king of Assyria. In Byron's play, Sardanapalus is a debauched, effeminate ruler who distances himself from the traditions of royalty that he represents. When insurgents threaten his rule, he finally comes to terms with his position and responsibilities. When his palace is surrounded, he and his lover, Myrrha, commit suicide. Focusing on the relationship between the individual and the state, The Two Foscari (1821) recounts the trial of Jacopo Foscari for treason against Venice. His father, the Doge of Venice, presides over the trial. After Jacopo dies, his accuser, Loredano, turns on the Doge and forces his resignation. It becomes clear that Jacopo's persecution is in retaliation for a perceived wrong done to Loredano's family by the Doge years before. In Heaven and Earth (1823), Byron's shortest play, he focuses on the unrequited love of Japhet, the son of Noah, for Anah, who has been seduced by an angel. Angered by this illicit and impious behavior, God brings a flood as retribution. Critics identify the central themes of the play as the effects of divine justice and the fall of man.
While Byron's verse plays have been overshadowed by his nondramatic poetry, in recent decades critics have begun to examine thematic and stylistic aspects of his dramatic oeuvre. Critics have noted that, like his poems, Byron's plays frequently contain autobiographical elements, and have drawn parallels between Byron's own controversial and exceptional nature and the qualities of the classic Byronic hero, a defiant yet guilt-ridden protagonist who rebels against the strictures of conventional society to follow his own value system. Furthermore, as many of his dramas feature heroes who have been exiled or persecuted for their actions, many scholars have perceived his plays to be explorations of his own scandalous and colorful experiences. Political and social themes—such as ideology, class allegiance, and the effects of violence—have been identified as central to Byron's plays. Commentators have also examined the evolution of Byron's drama, tracing his experimentation with plot, theme, and character in his works, and assessing the impact of the radical developments in German drama on his historical plays. Other critics have investigated the influence of Shakespeare and Milton on Byron's plays as well as his place within the tradition of British Romantic drama.
Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice 1821
The Two Foscari 1821
Heaven and Earth 1823
The Deformed Transformed 1824
Hours of Idleness (poetry) 1807
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (satire) 1809
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (poetry) 1812
The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale (poetry) 1813
The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (poetry) 1813
Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn (poetry) 1813
The Corsair (poetry) 1814
Lara (poetry) 1814
Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (poetry) 1814
Hebrew Melodies (poetry) 1815
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Third (poetry) 1816
Parisina (poetry) 1816
The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1816
The Siege of Corinth (poetry) 1816
The Lament of Tasso (poetry) 1817
Beppo: A Venetian Story (poetry) 1818
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Fourth (poetry) 1818...
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SOURCE: Erdman, David V. “Byron's Stage Fright: The History of His Ambition and Fear of Writing for the Stage.” English Literary History 6 (1939): 219-33.
[In the following essay, Erdman maintains that “Byron's attitude towards his dramas is a significant clue to his behaviour generally and to his artistic behaviour in particular.”]
I composed it actually with a horror of the stage, and with a view to render even the thought of it impracticable, knowing the zeal of my friends that I should try that for which I have an invincible repugnance, viz. a representation.
(Byron to Murray, of Manfred, 9 March 1817)1
Unless I could beat them all, it would be nothing …
(Byron to Kinnaird, 31 March 1817)2
Why did Byron write plays ‘to reform the stage’—and then violently protest against their being staged? None of Byron's major biographers has asked this question, although it affords an excellent opportunity to probe into the core of Byron's paradoxical psychology. Most critics who have considered the matter at all have either begun with the axiom or ended with the conclusion that Byron's dramas are closet dramas, never intended for the stage. […] The obvious contradiction between Byron's professed aim to reform the English...
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SOURCE: Shilstone, Frederick W. “Byron's ‘Mental Theatre’ and the German Classical Precedent.” Comparative Drama 10, no. 3 (fall 1976): 187-99.
[In the following essay, Shilstone investigates the influence of German classical drama on Byron's plays, contending that his “dramas are chief among those designed to expand the boundaries of Romantic lyric expression.”]
British Romantic drama, and that of Byron in particular, is usually a victim of condescending treatment—an understandable, if unsatisfying critical fact. On the practical side, there can be no doubt that stage performances of the nineteenth century were not conducive to the production of a serious modern English drama; Byron himself was disgusted by the almost complete predominance of spectacle, what Aristotle calls the most obviously incidental tragic element. Revivals of dramatic classics and the flawed attempts of young playwrights were alike designed to satisfy the public desire for passion, glitter, and sheer magnitude. Aesthetic theorists declare the nineteenth century devoid of meaningful dramatic production because of the predominance of a “lyric norm.” Working from Croce, modern critics claim that poets of the Romantic period, completely devoted to personal, lyrical expression, simply could not write exoteric, stageworthy plays. This view, though incomplete in itself, is a first step in any attempt to deal fully and...
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SOURCE: Watkins, Daniel P. “Violence, Class Consciousness, and Ideology in Byron's History Plays.” ELH 48, no. 4 (winter 1981): 799-816.
[In the following essay, Watkins argues that Byron's historical plays are more about societal issues than political themes.]
It is a critical commonplace that Byron's history plays reverberate with political and topical overtones. It is seldom recognized, however, that these are not the major concerns of the plays, but only the outward trappings of deeper, more far-reaching considerations. The flurry of letters sent back to England during and after the composition of the plays assured Byron's friends that these dramas were not what people thought they were, and that the criticisms aimed at them would dissolve when people understood them better. As he told Murray when the tenor of criticism was unusually high-pitched even in those corners that had always and without question supported him: “I have a notion that if understood they [the plays] will in time find favour (though not on stage) with the reader” (BLJ 8, 218).1 They have not yet been understood as Byron hoped they would be, mainly because readers have tended to concentrate on exterior issues or on one or another formal element without considering the underlying experiences that Byron was trying to dramatize. The plays, I believe, are meant to be read as studies in the fundamental...
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SOURCE: Melchiori, Giorgio. “The Dramas of Byron.” In The Romantic Theatre: An International Symposium, edited by Richard Allen Cave, pp. 47-60. Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe Limited, 1986.
[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture in 1985, Melchiori discusses Byron's dramatic development as well as his approach to drama in general.]
When I accepted some time ago to give this talk I was relying on the fact that in the '60s I had been so fascinated by Byron's dramatic productions that I made them the subject of a course in the University of Turin. I have now looked up my notes after so many years and I find to my dismay that I am in deep disagreement with them. Not that the charm of those plays has waned; what has changed completely is my approach to drama, not only Byron's but also in respect of the whole theatrical tradition, Shakespeare included. I had been looking at plays simply as literature, while now I see them not as literary texts but as mere pretexts which are fully realized only in performance. This of course is rather embarrassing in the case of Byron who constantly maintained that his plays were not for performance. He had been on the committee of the most important London theatre in its time, Drury Lane, and protested that this experience had made him loathe the very idea of having a play of his performed on the stage: that is...
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SOURCE: McGann, Jerome J. “Hero with a Thousand Faces: The Rhetoric of Byronism.” Studies in Romanticism 31, no. 3 (fall 1992): 295-313.
[In the following essay, McGann contends that the dramatic form allowed Byron to express his personal, spiritual, and social concerns.]
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave)
And feeling, in a poet, is the source Of others' feeling; but they are such liars, And take all colours—like the hands of dyers.
(Don Juan III, st. 87)
I saw, that is, I dream'd myself Here—here—even where we are, guests as we were, Myself a host that deem'd himself but guest, Willing to equal all in social freedom. …
We think of Byron as the most personal of poets, recklessly candid, self-revealing to a fault. Like most long-standing literary judgments, this one still strikes home. Nevertheless, its truth involves a paradox best defined by a later English writer who is in many ways Byron's avatar. “Man is least himself,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “when he talks in his own person....
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Criticism: Manfred (1817)
SOURCE: Nicholson, Mervyn. “Byron and the Drama of Temptation.” Comparative Drama 25, no. 4 (winter 1991-1992): 329-50.
[In the following essay, Nicholson elucidates the role of temptation in Manfred.]
Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
—Faust, Part I
Byron is distinctive in that he thinks in actions rather than in abstract ideas. That is why he rejected system as the basis for understanding experience. Rejecting system has affected his reputation: critics, assuming significant thought is the same as systematic thought, have looked down on Byron as a kind of poetic rock star incapable of real intellection.1 But Byron's ideas are expressed in the form of actions, and actions cannot be judged by meaning or truth-content but by their quality as actions. That is, the study of Byron is the study of the logic of action.
Byron's concern with action springs directly from his world view. In that world view, reality is too large to be enclosed by any system; it is “an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed,” in Emerson's Byronic phrase.2 Hence it follows that acting in a meaningful way is more important than knowing the meaning of life—or trying to know it, for the nature of reality itself precludes such knowledge. Given this emphasis on action, it is not surprising...
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Criticism: Cain (1821)
SOURCE: Goldberg, Leonard S. “‘This Gloom … Which Can Avail Thee Nothing’: Cain and Skepticism.” Criticism 41, no. 2 (winter 1999): 207-32.
[In the following essay, Goldberg argues that, for Byron, Cain's tragedy “can serve as a locus for testing the legitimacy of his own skepticism.”]
From the moment the hero of Cain realizes he is more afraid of Lucifer than of the angels who limit him to “a glimpse of those / Gardens which are my just inheritance,” Byron invites us to read his tragedy as a meditation on legacies, economic and epistemic both.1 Cain comes to understand what it means to bargain, barter, and haggle, and lives economically in a sense that his parents, condemned to lives at hard labor, never come to do. His desire for more of everything—more life, more liberty, more land, more knowledge—points in this direction, for his primal conviction is that the world can never compensate humans fully enough for the pain of living in it.2 And he has to rethink the thought that thinking is an autonomous activity, unconditioned by the understanding of others, an unacculturated possibility. If Cain's ideal inheritance is the restored Eden of his private fantasy, the one he settles for is standing directly before him, incarnate in the angel turned skeptic with whom he is about to go chase Leviathan, and possessed of little beyond the derision he has...
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Criticism: Sardanapalus (1821)
SOURCE: Clancy, Charles J. “Death and Love in Byron's Sardanapalus.” The Byron Journal 10 (1982): 56-70.
[In the following essay, Clancy considers the relationship between death and love in Sardanapalus.]
Sardanapalus1 has been compared to the tragedies of Seneca by Kahn,2 and to the heroic tragedies of Dryden by Cooke.3 It has been read by a number of critics as an autobiographical play,4 and considered from the point of view of its acting in its bowdlerized editions by Nurmi, Taborski, and Howell.5 The most prevalent critical approach, which takes a number of forms, is that which examines the principle of duality in the play. G. Wilson Knight argues that bisexuality is the key to Sardanapalus;6 Paul Elledge agrees and further suggests that the play unfolds as the hero's character evolves positively;7 Allen Whitmore argues that Sardanapalus' heredity inclines him to bestiality and cruelty;8 while Paulino Lim argues the opposite point. He sees Sardanapalus rejecting his ancestry and thereby redeeming himself.9 Samuel Chew feels that the duality is psychological, not merely sexual, and that the better side of Sardanapalus conquers by assertion of the will.10 William Ruddick sees the conflict within the protagonist in relatively modern terms: it is a question of the king's...
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SOURCE: Lansdown, Richard. “Fantasy Elements in Byron's Sardanapalus.” Keats-Shelley Journal 40 (1991): 47-72.
[In the following essay, Lansdown investigates elements of fantasy as well as autobiography in Sardanapalus.]
Our sense of the individuality of the artist is inseparable from our sense of the human case that underlies the art.
—W. W. Robson
The second of Byron's three historical dramas, Sardanapalus, was written at Ravenna between 13 January and 27 May 1821. The note in Byron's journal that he had “Sketched the outline and Drams. Pers.” of this “intended tragedy,” which he had “for some time meditated,” is followed a few lines later by this entry: “news come—the Powers mean to war with the peoples.”1 This entry is not in any way remarkable. On the next page we read:
… wrote part of a scene of Sardanapalus. Went out—heard some music—heard some politics. More ministers from the other Italian powers gone to Congress. War seems certain—in that case, it will be a savage one. Talked over various important matters with one of the initiated. At ten and half returned home.
(BLJ, [Byron's Letters and Journals]V III, 27)
On 16 January...
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Criticism: The Two Foscari (1821)
SOURCE: Ehrstine, John W. “The Two Foscari: The Silence of Chains.” In The Metaphysics of Byron: A Reading of the Plays, pp. 69-88. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.
[In the following essay, Ehrstine examines the function of Byron's strict adherence to unity of character in The Two Foscari.]
Neither Byron1 nor his critics have had much to say about The Two Foscari.2 This is a serious loss, for, although the play is eccentric and daring in what it attempts, I submit that it is one of Byron's most adroit works technically,3 and that it is perhaps his bitterest and darkest poem. There is hope in it, but it is reached only brutally, at the outer limits of human despair.
There are a number of reasons, both of a technical and a thematic nature, for the intense and nearly motionless focus of this play. For example, if we allow that Byron experiments principally with the unity of time in Marino Faliero, and the unity of place in Sardanapalus, then we will be profited by seeing the unity of character as a central technique in this play.4 The central characters undergo change, but only within the strictest terms of their natures. Moreover, this consistency of character fits Byron's still simpler structure here. In Marino Faliero, the Doge's rage, commitment to a plot, and subsequent collapse give that play and its hero...
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SOURCE: Manning, Peter J. “Rebels Cosmic and Domestic” In Byron and His Fictions, pp. 146-74. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Manning explores the tortured family dynamics that are central to The Two Foscari.]
The line by Sheridan that Byron selected for the epigraph to The Two Foscari encapsulates its themes: ‘The father softens, but the governor's resolved.’ At the centre of the drama is the trial of Jacopo Foscari for alleged treason against Venice, over which his father the Doge is required to preside. The situation contains the already familiar elements: a father who figures as the oppressor of his son, and, as in Marino Faliero and Sardanapalus, a conflict between obligation to the state and private freedom. The outward circumstances of the play might thus be loosely termed political, but it is striking that Byron imparts little of the information needed to assess the charges and countercharges of the plot. Jacopo is pursued until he dies by Loredano, who thereafter relentlessly forces the resignation of the Doge, knowing it will kill him, because he believes the elder Foscari poisoned both his father and uncle. However, neither Jacopo's guilt nor Loredano's accusation is ever fully clarified, and to a point the inscrutability pays dividends. In the first speeches Byron refers to the torture inflicted upon Jacopo as...
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Boker, Pamela A. “Byron's Psychic Prometheus: Narcissism and Self-Transformation in the Dramatic Poem Manfred.” In Literature and Psychology 38, nos. 1-2 (1992): 1-37.
Provides a psychological interpretation of Manfred.
Butler, Marilyn. “John Bull's Other Kingdom: Byron's Intellectual Comedy.” Studies in Romanticism 31, no. 3 (fall 1992): 281-94.
Addresses the theme of national identity in Sardanapalus.
Byrd, Lynn. “Old Myths for the New Age: Byron's Sardanapalus.” In History & Myth: Essays on English Romantic Literature, edited by Stephen C. Behrendt, pp. 166-87. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Contends that “myth and history form the foundation” of Sardanapalus.
Cardwell, Richard A. “Byron: Text and Counter-Text.” The Byron Journal, no. 10 (1982): 6-23.
Asserts that Byron's plays were seen in their time “as the instrument of an antagonistic, even hostile, ideology rather than a political theme.”
Christensen, Jerome. “Byron's Sardanapalus and the Triumph of Liberalism.” Studies in Romanticism 31, no. 3 (fall 1992): 333-60.
Argues that Sardanapalus reflects the sociopolitical changes occurring in Europe in the nineteenth...
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