"When We Think We Lead, We Are Most Led"

Context: Lord Byron had lived a dramatic life; he had established a reputation as a poet; and so he decided to attempt some poetic drama, beginning with Manfred, in racy blank verse. However, it would be madness to attempt a presentation of his dramas on the stage. Only one such attempt is recorded. Like a number of other major poets of the nineteenth century, without any knowledge of stage technique or thought of their adaptability to the theater, he turned out several closet dramas, as they were called because they were meant to be read in seclusion. The year 1821 saw the publication of four such plays. He was living in Italy and had established a more or less permanent relationship with the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, with her husband's consent. She remained his acknowledged mistress for the rest of his life. He was dividing his time among Pisa, Genoa, and Venice. Naturally he was interested in Italian history, and saw in the story of the doges, or rulers of Venice, dramatic material for a historical tragedy. Francesco Foscari (1372?–1457) ruled Venice from 1423 until his death. His life was embittered by his only surviving son, Giacopo. Byron calls them Francis and Jacopo. The politically active son was tried and banished in 1445 for receiving bribes from candidates for state offices. Pardoned, he was next banished in 1450 for his share in the assassination of one of the ten ruling Councilmen. Six years later he became involved in treasonable correspondence with enemies of Venice. Partly because of the father's intercession for Jacopo, the aged doge was deposed (Oct. 24, 1457). He died a week later. These are the circumstances that Byron wove into his play, classical in its observation of the unity of time. The pathos of the elderly father, imploring the Council to permit his only son to return, is good theater, as is the action of The Ten in granting the request, since the doge cannot properly attend to the affairs of state as long as he is distracted by worry about his son. Byron was being a dramatist, so he should not be criticized for dramatic license in bringing in the Bridge of Sighs, between the doge's palace and the dungeon, some years before it was actually constructed. One can also overlook his killing of Old Foscari the day he was deposed, instead of a week later, as history records. Act II, set in the Doge's Palace, shows the aged ruler too old to see to dip his pen and too shaky to sign a treaty. But the senator with him remembers the great man's contributions during thirty-four years to the security and glory of Venice. Then Marina, wife of Jacopo, enters, complaining that the Council will not permit her to visit her husband in the dungeon. She angrily denounces the doge for not doing something to save his son. At that moment, a messenger brings word that a meeting of the Council has decided on banishment instead of execution for the traitor. Instead of being satisfied, Marina breaks into a violent attack on Venice, its rulers, its courts, and the justice they hand out. In his lengthy reply, Francis Foscari declares that rulers are only mortal and subject to fate.

So, we are slaves,
The greatest as the meanest–nothing rests
Upon our will; the will itself no less
Depends upon a straw than on a storm;
And when we think we lead, we are most led,
And still towards death, a thing which comes as much
Without our act or choice as birth, so that
Methinks we must have sinn'd in some old world,
And this is hell; the best is, that it is not