Lord Byron: Guide to Dramatic Fiction

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1923

Although a number of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s, plays are more easily approached as dramatic poetry than as theatrical drama, the political tragedies are readily accessible to dramatic analysis. His political tragedies are literary explorations of the relationship, in an unregenerate world, of the extraordinary individual to the state. They...

(The entire section contains 1923 words.)

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Although a number of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s, plays are more easily approached as dramatic poetry than as theatrical drama, the political tragedies are readily accessible to dramatic analysis. His political tragedies are literary explorations of the relationship, in an unregenerate world, of the extraordinary individual to the state. They examine the place of the almost superhumanly proud and passionate man within corporate humanity. They express the fascination with the link between earthly power and individual freedom and fulfillment that manifested itself in Byron’s first speech before Parliament and that would lead him, finally, to his death at Missolonghi. The following discussion centers on three such works, the classically constructed Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice and Sardanapalus, and the gothic, melodramatic Werner.

Werner

Of Byron’s dramatic works, Werner most closely resembles the popular theater of his day. Despite being the last play that Byron completed, Werner is the earliest of the plays in terms of initial composition, having been begun during the year preceding Byron’s final exile from England. Byron’s fascination with the story on which the play is based dates from an even earlier period. As he explains in the play’s preface, he had read “The German’s Tale” from the Lees’ The Canterbury Tales at about age fourteen, and it had “made a deep impression upon” him. It “may, indeed, be said to contain the germ of much that” he wrote thereafter, an admission that suggests the importance of the play within the Byron canon, despite the play’s obvious literary deficiencies.

The play’s title character embodies many of the traits of the Byronic hero and has much in common, too, with Byron’s father, “Mad Jack” Byron. As the play begins, Werner is a poverty-stricken wanderer, who, like Mad Jack, has been driven out by his father because of various youthful excesses resulting from the indulgence of his overly passionate nature. Although a marriage that his father considered improvident was the immediate cause of this estrangement, Werner was guilty of other, unstated transgressions before this, transgressions that prepared the way for the final severing of the parental tie. Since then, Werner has been a proud exile, burdened by a sense of personal guilt and too familiar with the weaknesses of human nature to rely on other people for consolation. His love for Josephine, herself an exile, partially sustains him, but his realization that her sufferings are a product of his own foolish actions exacerbates his gloom.

The one embodiment of hope for Werner and Josephine is their son, Ulric, who has been reared by Werner’s father, Count Siegendorf, after Werner’s banishment. Ulric, however, possesses his father’s passions without possessing the sense of honor that would prevent those passions from expressing themselves in hideous crimes. As the play begins, Ulric is missing from his grandfather’s court, disturbing rumors are circulating concerning his possible whereabouts, and the nobleman Stralenheim, a distant relation, is poised to usurp the family inheritance in the event of Werner’s father’s death.

The play’s elements of gothic melodrama are obvious from the opening of the first scene. The play begins at night during a violent thunderstorm, and act 1 is set in “The Hall of a decayed Palace” in a remote section of Silesia. The palace is honeycombed with secret passages, which receive considerable use during the course of the play’s action. The Thirty Years’ War has just ended, rendering the profession of soldier superfluous and lending glamour to professional thievery, that favorite occupation of many a Sturm und Drang hero-villain. Ulric, as we eventually discover, is himself the leader of a band of soldiers turned marauders.

Ulric, another avatar of Byronic heroism, is something of a superman, possessing traits that render him capable of great good and great evil. One of the play’s characters, the poor but honorable Gabor, describes him as a man

Of wonderful endowments:—birth and fortune,Youth, strength and beauty, almost superhuman,And courage as unrivall’d, were proclaim’dHis by the public rumour; and his sway,Not only over his associates, butHis judges, was attributed to witchcraft,Such was his influence.

Ulric’s dual nature expresses itself most clearly in his treatment of the potential usurper, Stralenheim. When Ulric is unaware of Stralenheim’s identity, he courageously rescues him from the floodwaters of the River Oder, but later, when he learns that Stralenheim is a threat to his family’s wealth and power, he cold-bloodedly murders him. He then conceals his responsibility for the crime and hypocritically questions his father about his possible role in Stralenheim’s death. Werner has compromised his honor by stealing gold coins from Stralenheim’s room, a crime that suggests the family’s moral weakness, but he is incapable of murder. Freed of restraint by one additional generation of moral decay, Ulric, by contrast, is capable of almost anything.

Because of Stralenheim’s murder and the nearly simultaneous death of Werner’s aged father, Werner becomes Count Siegendorf and Ulric his heir apparent. All goes well for a year, although Werner, troubled by his possession of the tainted gold and by the mysterious circumstances of his rise to power, is plagued by a guilty conscience. There are manifestations of guilt in Ulric’s behavior, too, but that strength of will that allowed him to rescue Stralenheim from the flood and later to cut his throat sustains him through subsequent unsavory deeds. He continues his clandestine command of the marauders who threaten the fragile peace and accepts betrothal to the loving and innocent Ida, daughter of the murdered Stralenheim. The ultimate proof of Ulric’s reprobate nature occurs when Gabor, who had witnessed the hideous crime and had been unjustly branded as its likely perpetrator, comes forward to accuse Ulric. In an attempt to silence this threat to everything he has striven to accomplish, Ulric sends his minions in pursuit of the innocent man, at the same time uttering a defiant confession of his guilt before the startled Ida, who immediately falls dead in shocked disbelief.

Werner deviates from classical restraint in both content and form. In addition to relying on melodramatic plot devices, Werner violates the unities of place and time, a major shift in location and period occurring between acts 3 and 4. Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice and Sardanapalus, on the other hand, are much more regular, with only slight changes in setting and time taking place from one scene to the next. Like Werner, however, both plays center on the consequences of having men of powerful but uncertain character in positions of responsibility.

Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice

The tenuous thread on which the plot of Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice hangs is the apparent historical fact that the title character, while he was doge of Venice, conspired against the tyrannous Venetian oligarchy partly because he found their rule unjust and, more important, because they failed to punish one of their number severely enough for a scrawled insult to the doge’s wife. When Faliero discovers that Michel Steno is to receive one month of imprisonment instead of death for an unsavory comment inscribed on the ducal throne, he becomes furious, although his wife, Angiolina, counsels restraint. His rage is motivated by his disgust that the oligarchy, with its facelessly diffused and inflexibly selfish power, refuses, on the one hand, to recognize the rights of the common people and neglects, on the other, to show the deference due superior spirits. His rebelliousness (like Byron’s own) is simultaneously an assertion of individual, proud will and a genuine concern for democratic principles. He detests the oppressive rule of the privileged few and joins a conspiracy against them, but he maintains an aristocratic haughtiness among the “common ruffians leagued to ruin states” with whom he throws in his lot.

Ultimately, his joining the conspirators is an expression of that irrepressible, restless pride that he shares with Byron’s other heroes. He exhibits not simply the temporal pride of a Coriolanus but also the everlasting, self-assertive pride of a Lucifer. Indeed, his is

the same sin that overthrew the angels,And of all sins most easily besetsMortals the nearest to the angelic nature:The vile are only vain: the great are proud.

In addition to treating, with considerable complexity, the frequently self-contradictory motivations of the rebel, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice explores the moral ambiguities of instigating violent actions to achieve just ends. Like the French revolutionaries, the Venetian conspirators are about to sweep away the old order in a bath of blood, but one of their number, Bertram, refuses to abandon his humanity and warns an aristocratic friend that his life is in danger. The ironic result of this humane gesture is that the rebellion is discovered and the conspirators themselves, including the proud doge, are put to death. Victory belongs to those whose ruthlessness wins out over their compassion, and he who would be kind becomes a Judas.

Sardanapalus

In Sardanapalus, this conflict between humanity and harsh political reality is again examined. Sardanapalus is a lover of life whose mercy and whose desire for peace, love, and pleasure bring down a dynasty. As a descendant of Nimrod and the fierce Semiramis, he is expected to conduct the affairs of state by means of bloodshed and unrelenting conquest. Instead, he allies himself with the forces of vitality against those of death and thereby earns a reputation for weakness. He knows the harem and the banquet hall better than the battlefield and is judged effeminate because he prefers the paradisiacal celebration of life to the ruthless bloodletting of war and political persecution. Even when he knows that two of his most powerful subjects, the Chaldean Beleses and the Mede Arbaces, have plotted against him, he refuses to have them killed and thereby opens the way to successful rebellion. After merely banishing the two from Nineveh, he finds himself, during a symbolically appropriate banquet, beset by a usurping army.

Despite his seeming weakness, Sardanapalus, like Byron’s other heroes, possesses unquenchable pride and courage. Assuming the weapons of the warrior but refusing to wear full armor, so that his soldiers will recognize and rally to him, he enters battle and temporarily staves off defeat. His lover, Myrrha, a character added to the play, significantly enough, at the suggestion of Teresa Guiccioli, shows an equally fierce courage, as do Sardanapalus’s loyal troops, and for a time, victory seems possible. Still, the kingly worshiper of life is troubled in his dreams by the image of the worshiper of death, Semiramis, and there are dark forebodings of approaching catastrophe.

When it finally becomes clear that defeat is inevitable, Sardanapalus expresses regret that the fallen world in which he found himself was unwilling to accept the temporary renewal that he attempted to offer:

I thought to have made mine inoffensive ruleAn era of sweet peace ’midst bloody annals,A green spot amidst desert centuries,On which the future would turn back and smile,And cultivate, or sigh, when it could notRecall Sardanapalus’s golden reign.I thought to have made my realm a paradise,And every moon an epoch of new pleasures.

When the world refuses his great gift, he turns to the only paradisiacal sanctuary available in a universe of spiritual disorder. He unites himself with the one individual who most loves him. He has his last loyal subjects build a funeral pyre, symbolic of his and Myrrha’s passion, and the lovers die amid its flames.

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