Percy Bysshe Shelley

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The novella Zastrozzi by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and its stage adaptation by George F. Walker, is ostensibly set in the 1890s, yet its characters and action―all the sword-fighting, for example―seem to belong to a much earlier age. The place, Walker notes, is “probably” Italy. How can we account for the vagueness and inconsistency in the style and setting?

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Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1810 novella Zastrozzi does indeed appear to be quite vague in its setting, perhaps in Italy in the 1790s. Its characters and action do often seem to come from an earlier period. There are three possible reasons for this vagueness.

First, this is a very early work of Shelley’s. He was only seventeen when he wrote this novella and was still developing his technique as a writer. This in itself could lead him to blend his eras and assume that his readers understood his setting just from the Italian names of his characters.

Second, the novella (and Walker’s stage adaptation) is gothic in genre, and the gothic often includes many medieval elements no matter when it is set. Zastrozzi has many such aspects, with its locked rooms, deceptions, lady in distress, and scheming villain. The medieval notes add to the gothic suspense.

Third, Shelley wrote the novella primarily to present his worldview, which is found in his villain, Zastrozzi, who is an atheist bent on the destruction of his enemies. Ideas and characterization, therefore, stand in a higher place then setting, which was simply not especially important.

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