Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, an English Romantic poet. Thin, sallow, sensitive, and neurotic, Bysshe, who passes through his middle and late twenties in the course of the play, champions the cause of workers, though he is the son of an aristocrat. He is a teetotaler and fights for the rights of women, yet he abandons his first wife, Harriet, to prostitution and takes Mary Godwin as his lover. Although he marries Mary after Harriet’s suicide, he is never faithful. He sleeps with Claire and, later, a boatman’s daughter. Bysshe advocates free love but confesses that he does not feel free. His careless actions cause the death of his first wife and of his daughter Clara. In the end, Bysshe drowns in a boating accident.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, a Scottish Romantic poet. Byron is a talented, flamboyant, and rich profligate in his late twenties and early thirties. He is a priapic bisexual who sleeps with all manner of boys, virginal girls, and married women. He suffers from alcoholism and syphilis. Byron domineers over the other characters in the play, especially the hapless Dr. Polidori. He impregnates Claire, then rejects her. He takes their daughter Allegra away from Claire and places the child in a convent, where she dies. Although Byron causes pain in the life of anyone who cares for him, he is nevertheless energetic, charming, and devastatingly attractive.
Mary Shelley, Bysshe’s second wife. Mary, who also is a writer, is nineteen years old when the play begins and only twenty-five when she is widowed. She is the voice of reason in the play, handling all the practical details of life while her husband follows his dreams. She has a son, William, by him and later a daughter, Clara, who dies on a journey to Venice to follow Bysshe. Mary proposes marriage to the reluctant Bysshe after she learns of his first wife’s death, even though she knows that he has been sleeping with the pregnant Claire, who is expecting Byron’s child. Mary’s practical nature causes her to worry about her family’s tenuous financial situation.
Claire Clairemont, Mary’s half sister and Byron’s lover. Only eighteen years old when the play begins, Claire is obsessed by her unrequited love for Byron, and she unsuccessfully tries to get him to marry her by bearing his child. Claire, Mary, and Bysshe share a passionate triangular relationship, though it is Mary who weds Bysshe and bears his children.
Dr. William Polidori
Dr. William Polidori, Byron’s biographer. Puritanical, jealous, vain, highly strung, and obsessed, Polidori follows Byron and Bysshe all over Europe, alternately fascinated and repulsed by their antics.
Harriet Westbrook, Bysshe’s first wife and, later, a ghost. Twenty-one years old, sad, and beautiful, Harriet drowns herself two years after Bysshe abandons her with two children to a life of prostitution. She quotes one of his love poems to her as she throws herself into the Serpentine River. Later, she haunts the stage near Bysshe and comments ironically on his actions.