David V. Erdman (essay date 1939)

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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 stage and his vociferously professed intention to keep his own plays off the English stage has been lightly dismissed even by the two critics who have taken some pains to document Byron's ‘horror of the stage’. Samuel Chew notes without further comment that the failure of Byron's ‘plays’ was ‘a contretemps that mortified him notwithstanding his repeated declarations that they were not intended for the theatre.’3 William J. Calvert, after quoting page upon page of Byron's protests—apparently not sensing that they add up to perhaps ‘too much’—casually remarks: ‘How he expected to found a tradition of the theatre by the means of unactable plays he never made clear.’4

I believe it will be nearer the truth of the matter to say that far from considering his own plays unactable, Byron only feared they might be. That he did protest too much, that he really yearned for dramatic success—the visible and audible applause of an audience mad for the great lines of a Byronic protagonist, a Marino, a Sardanapalus, or a Tiberius in the person (why not?) of Kean—like a moth for a flame, should be as clear a biographical fact as that, unlike a moth, conscious and fearful that the flame might burn him, Byron angrily refused to make the ‘experiment for applause’5 which representation would constitute. It is time that a bit of modern psychological understanding were applied to what has remained until now a merely curious ‘Byronic paradox’. Byron's attitude towards his dramas is a significant clue to his behaviour generally and to his artistic behaviour in particular.

This contradiction—Byron's desire and terror of dramatic fame—is like the many other Byronic contradictions that have been so often described and so seldom explained without the aid of metaphysics;6 it can be cleared up only when we look upon the paradoxical statements and actions of Byron as complementary symptoms of a single drive of behaviour, a drive towards a goal of imagined superiority or a position of maximum attention, desired as compensation for an intense feeling of inferiority and insecurity, which itself was based on his abused lameness, his relative social isolation before schooltime, and his insecure position as only child under the alternating tyranny and indulgence of ‘Mrs. Byron furiosa’ (LJ [The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals] I, 101).

His mother's ‘violent’...

(This entire section contains 9040 words.)

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and ‘capricious’ treatment of a sensitively intelligent child developed in the young Byron such a hunger for kind attention and such a terror of condemnation, that he formed a paradoxical life-plan to cope with a paradoxical situation:7 one had to expose oneself to gain attention; so Byron did what he found most attention-getting, he gave his ‘ravenous ego’, to use the language of Gamaliel Bradford, all the ‘brilliant and varied assertion’8 in verse and prose and voice that he was able to give it. But exposure courted rebuff and the possible failure of one's experiments for applause; so at the same time Byron's mind made an elaborate fortification against ridicule, against failure in any public undertaking. Not to expose himself at all would have been to stand no chance of attention, no chance of proving his superiority. Failure would have been bitter just because he wanted so much to succeed. […]

Towards his poetry, Byron found convenient the pose of the aristocrat and the Dandy, an affectation of indifference to cover his anxious desire for the public's approbation. But also, by way of fighting a trivial battle to save his deeper defences, he was, as he confessed, ‘a good deal of an author in amour propre and noli me tangere’ (LJ, IV, 182). He made a great fuss about such tours de force as modernizing Horace or translating Pulci and Dante ‘line for line’ into ‘cramp English’ (LJ, IV, 405, 419). These were noble feats, like swimming the Hellespont, to be bragged about with impunity. On the other hand, his concern for original works, such as his first play or, to take an earlier example, the first Childe Harold cantos … was too personal, and their fame was too precarious, for any but a nervous silence on the part of the fearful author.

Here again, in the matter of Byron's attitude towards Childe Harold, criticism has been obtuse. It is as absurd to repeat as fact that Byron did not recognize merit in the poem that was to make him famous overnight, as it was ill-advised of Hobhouse to deny Dallas's story of Byron's hesitant release of the manuscript. The ‘Hints from Horace’, dashed off in a day or two, was easy for him to entrust to his somewhat officious cousin and to any publisher he might find.9 But the Childe was Byron's first big poem,10 representing five months' protracted effort carried on so secretly that companion Hobhouse hadn't suspected for weeks. […] It was only with a careful show of nonchalance that he let the manuscript into Dallas's hands.

Once Childe Harold was out of the bag and the praise of friends had given it social existence, the author grew bolder, began protesting that printer Cawthorne did not ‘stand high enough in the trade’ to be given this job. And then Byron's concern took various forms of touchiness in the struggle for anonymity, the fury at Murray's showing the Childe to Gifford, Byron's critical pagod, and the melting when praise was Gifford's judgement.11 The indifference and the touchiness were Byron's lines of defence. If the public had damned the poem, Byron could have blamed Dallas for pushing it, Murray for not keeping it anonymous, and, inconsistently, he could have maintained that he hadn't thought much of it from the start. We can imagine what would have happened if we consider the intensity with which Byron scolded his ‘meddling friends’ when the representation of his play, Marino Faliero, was reported damned. The difference between the publishing of Childe Harold and the representation of Marino Faliero is that the first succeeded and Byron's defences were not needed, whereas the second failed and the record is crowded with Byron's disclaimers. In reviewing the history of Byron and his dramas, both Chew and Calvert array only the documents of protest;12 the evidences of Byron's desire to capture the English stage are equally necessary to complete the picture, for his protests are rooted in his desire. From his boyhood on, Byron was a passionate theatre-goer, a spectator easily, and often deeply, moved. And as with anything that fascinated him, Byron could not rest in a simply passive part; periodically throughout his life he hovered on the threshold of active participation in the theatre, now planning ‘to get up a play’, now trying his hand as a playwright. The longer he stayed on the threshold, unfortunately, the stronger a case he developed of what may be called a playwright's stage fright. The passionateness of his interest reverberated in his denials.

To bring out clearly the extent and duration of this interest, I shall first survey briefly what is known of Byron's career as an actor and then examine chronologically the rôle he played as a protesting playwright.

During the Harrow speech-days Byron had his first taste of the sweets of applause when he declaimed his favourite dramatic selections. His debut was with a passage ‘ex Virgilio’ in 1804; in 1805 he recited Young's Zanga in June, Lear in July. In his poetic account of his life at Harrow13 the applause he received from this ‘acting’ is the high point: when he recited the part of Zanga, ‘with spectators surrounded’, ‘to swell my young pride, such applauses resounded, / I fancied that Mossop himself was outshone …’ and as Lear, ‘fired by loud plaudits and self-adulation, / I regarded myself as a Garrick revived.’ In 1806 he acted ‘in some private theatricals at Southwell’, again, as he remembered long afterward, ‘with great applause’.14 The plea of his ‘Prologue’ on this occasion—for one ‘who hopes, yet almost dreads, to meet your praise’15—although conventional, fits patly into the Byronic pattern of hunger for applause surrounded by a strong defence of fear. In 1808 Byron decided

to get up a play here [at Newstead]; the hall will constitute a most admirable theatre. I have settled the dram. pers., and can do without ladies, as I have some young friends who will make tolerable substitutes.

(LJ, I, 189)

It is interesting to note that ‘the play we have fixed on … will be the Revenge’, for this is the play that contains the part of Zanga in which Byron ‘outshone Mossop’ three years earlier. He wanted now to relive that triumph with a full company.

The rest of Byron's ‘acting career’ consisted of some ‘masquing’ and an occasional private recitation of blank verse to a worshipful group of friends. To these should be added his two speeches in the House of Lords, which he considered ‘a little theatrical’ (LJ, II, 105). In 1814 ‘“us Youth” of Watier's Club’ gave a Masquerade ‘to Wellington and Co.’, which Byron remembered as a bright spot in his life as a Dandy (LJ, V, 444, 423). The next year, when he was on the managing committee of the Drury Lane Theatre, the same Masquerade was put on the stage by the professional actors; Byron saw a chance to get the feel of an audience from the real Stage:

Douglas Kinnaird, and one or two others with myself, put on Masques, and went on the Stage amongst the ‘οἱ πολλοί’ to see the effect of a theatre from the Stage. It is very grand.

(LJ, V, 445)

A lord could of course go no further. But Byron impressed Ticknor with his perfect imitations of the Drury Lane stars, and he convinced Medwin, years later at Pisa, that he ‘perhaps … would have made the finest actor in the world.’ The occasion for Medwin's observation was the result of another sudden decision of Byron's to get up a play, this time Othello:

Lord Byron was to be Iago. Orders were to be given for the fitting … rehearsals of a few scenes took place. … All at once a difficulty arose about a Desdemona, and the Guiccioli put her veto on our theatricals.16

This is Byron's last stage record. Throughout his life he retained the attitude of an amateur actor. His fascination with the rôle of the great actor—Garrick and Mossop then, or Kean and Kemble now—pervaded the drama of his own life and inspired much of his playwriting.17

In 1812 the theatre called to Lord Byron, the newly fashionable poet, to write an address for the opening of the new Drury Lane. His response is a symbol of his neurotic dread of competition. When the managers asked him to enter the contest which they had arranged to obtain an opening address, Byron curtly refused. When they offered to reject all the entries they had received in favour of whatever Lord Byron would be good enough to write, he accepted the task and then sweated blood over it for a month, polishing and repolishing, and wishing he ‘had known months ago’ (LJ, II, 150). He had never taken so much pains with anything. Writing not only to order but for stage recitation was disturbing; the symptoms of his stage fright appeared.

As for the writing of plays, the occasional hesitant efforts before 1815 are known only by hearsay; Byron seems to have given them all the fate of his first play, Ulric and Ilvina, an early—perhaps even his first—literary effort, which he wrote at the age of thirteen and had ‘sense enough to burn’.18 The ‘comedy of Goldoni's … one scene’, which he translated in 1811, is not extant. A year after the ‘Drury Lane Address’ he wrote some scenes of a comedy, but burnt them. Playwriting was ‘difficult’—perhaps tragedy would not be so hard.19 The career of a playwright, because it was a possible career for Byron, was terrifying to consider. ‘Conscious insecurity’, says the psychologist, ‘produces stage fright: stage fright previews the failure and one suffers it in advance, to avoid experiencing it in its actual and full seriousness.’20 […]

In all his criticism of the contemporary stage, Byron's own theatrical ambitions may be detected beneath the accents of the disinterested patriotic critic. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in ‘Hints from Horace’, and in the ‘Address’ the main theme was always the crying need for a new and reformed drama. Here was the chance, he seemed to say, for ‘some genuine bard’ to mount a vacant throne at one leap. Byron, like some shy swimmer fearful of entering the water, first called upon all his friends to venture what he, obviously, would rather like to do himself. In English Bards he had exhorted Sheridan to

Give, as thy last memorial to the age,
One classic drama, and reform the stage.(21)

And in 1814 he wrote to Moore, ‘As it is fitting there should be good plays, now and then, besides Shakespeare's, I wish you or Campbell would write one’ (LJ, III, 81); then he admitted his own trepidations: ‘The rest of “us youth” have not heart enough.’ But everyone else saw Byron as the logical ‘genuine bard’ for tragedy. He was immensely flattered by the petitions, especially from Kemble (in January) and Jeffrey (in August), that he write a tragedy, but he was also naturally made more fearful: ‘I wish I could,’ he said in January, ‘but I find my scribbling mood subsiding.’ ‘I wish I had a talent for the drama,’ he confided to his Journal, 20 February, on the eve of an introduction to Kean the day after seeing Kean as Richard; ‘I would write a tragedy now. But no,—it is gone’ (LJ, III, 126, 16; II, 387).

Nevertheless, at the year's end he found himself on the managing committee of Drury Lane, closer than ever to the ‘strutters and fretters’, and, as he later admitted, he entered with ‘some idea of writing for the house myself’ (LJ, II, 230; Medwin I, 90-91).

He told Medwin he had soon given up the idea rather than be a slave to public taste. But, after all, the public was the only source of applause. Moreover, if Medwin has quoted him accurately, Byron was obscuring the causal sequence of events when he seemed to suggest that contact with the realities of the theatre had discouraged him from ‘writing for the house’: indeed it was after he had been on the committee a year, during which time he had read his share of some ‘five hundred Drury Lane offerings’ (LJ, IV, 31) and had had a chance to see what trash could succeed and that there was no good work to be found either produced or rejected, that he began, apparently encouraged by the dearth of good dramas, to write a first draft of Werner which would have been by contemporary canons a Legitimate tragedy, with stage directions so explicit and prominent as clearly to reveal his purpose.22

It was ‘Lady Byron's farce’ (LJ, V, 391), the Separation, and not any sudden discovery of the depravity of English stage tastes, that interrupted Byron's career as a playwright. Abandoning Werner, he wrote nothing more, outside of a personal stanza or two, in England.

Before this dramatic attempt of his own, Byron was busy as committeeman trying to find a good play to make ‘the Drama be where she hath been’.23 His view of the ripeness of the time and his own ‘wish’ to exploit it stand out in a letter he wrote to Coleridge in March 1815:

If I may be permitted, I should suggest that there never was such an opening for tragedy. In Kean [first London appearance January 1814], there is an actor worthy of expressing the thoughts of the characters which you have every power of embodying. … We have had nothing to be mentioned in the same breath with Remorse [Coleridge's poetic drama, successful in 1813] for very many years; and I should think that the reception of that play was sufficient to encourage the highest hopes of author and audience.

(LJ, III, 191-92)

Each of these encouragements Byron was anxious, we may surmise, to apply to himself. […] Ideals of a new ‘classic drama’ had been forming in Byron's mind for some time,24 but in Werner he was ready to meet his audience half way, with a tragedy free of the traditional rant and horrors, but still more Gothic than Greek. Later, perhaps, he might lead his audience to higher forms. …

Then England slapped him in the face, just as his ‘amiable Mamma’ had often done after she had been most indulgent; and Byron left, mortified and defiant. The beginning of his play, inadvertently or not, was left behind.

From this point Chew dates ‘Byron's thorough opposition to the stage’ as a ‘part of his increasing dislike of all things English’ (p. 36). And in a sense Chew may be right. Byron had been allowing himself to adjust to the demands of English society, with his conventional marriage, his Hebrew Melodies, and all that, in spite of his own anti-social fears. In spite of trepidations he had begun at last a tragedy for the English stage. The recoil from society's rebuff was violent, and when Byron turned again to drama (but notice that he did return to drama, and fairly soon at that)25 he made, in Manfred, no Werner-like concessions to stage tastes; he took, as it were, the typical horror play and condensed it into one defiant soliloquy, rendering it, he hoped, ‘quite impossible for the stage’.26

His latent stage fright now burst forth, and he came out with the explanation that his ‘intercourse with D Lane’ had given him ‘the greatest contempt’ for the stage, or as he put it again more honestly, ‘an invincible repugnance’ for ‘a representation’ (LJ, IV, 55, 71-72). In his reasoning after the event, he seems to have allowed the pain of the Separation to colour surrounding experiences, for we have seen that before the shock of ostracism his ‘contempt’ for the stage-as-it-was merely served to spur him to write a good drama to reform that stage. Chew may be right as to Manfred, and I am in doubt whether to consider Byron's attitude here purely one of fright and defiance or to look beneath that for a somewhat conscious step towards the uncompromisingly classic drama that he was to produce later as a threat to bring down the English house and revive its jaded tastes. However that may be, what Byron next did was to dig in for a protracted ‘struggle for the more regular drama’. Most critics have simply taken Byron's word for it that this was to be done with unactable plays in a ‘mental theatre’.27

Let us recapitulate the situation in 1817. Byron had been driven from England by what was the opposite of applause, the hisses of a hypocritical morality. All the greater became the need for his ego to find some importance, some security. But his goal of superiority was now shifting significantly into a less childish, more socially useful alignment. He had written for fame and had put himself painfully at the public's mercy. Now he would cater no longer to degenerate tastes but would write stuff so good that the public would have to like it. If they were pleased, it would be that ‘they chose to be so’; but if ‘the Bulgars’ should not like what he wrote, he would take another line, for he ‘would be read’.28

Two points are important here: first, he did not stop writing for the English public; his hunger for fame went not out but deeper—he needed the warmth of applause, but, once burnt, he would keep more carefully aloof from ‘the stove of society’ (LJ, VI, 33). Second, he did not stop writing drama. With full knowledge that the Drury Lane people were eager for a ‘stageworthy’ play from him and might be expected, if he wrote one, to put it on, he turned from the ambiguous ‘dramatic poem’ of Manfred to start work on definite, ‘regular’ tragic plays, owing something to Alfieri perhaps, yet not, like his, mere ‘dialogues’ but unmistakable five-act ‘Tragedies’.29 Byron would, of course, object to their being produced. Thus he would, by writing good plays, stand a chance of filling the still-vacant ‘opening for tragedy’; he would also, by every conscious effort to forestall action, barricade himself against the ‘calamity’ of failure at ‘the mercies of an audience’.30 Byron was probably as well aware as [Chew] that in the English theatre ‘taste was improved to an extent which made the presentation even of Byron's dramas a matter of financial speculation despite his own vigorous opposition’ (Dramas, p. 12).

If we admit the possibility of disguised intentions, it is difficult or rather impossible to determine what Byron's conscious intentions were with regard to his ‘regular tragedies’; but his unconscious desire for real stage applause is unmistakable. For instance, in his letter of 3 February 1817, to Douglas Kinnaird, who had just ‘had a row’ and left the Drury Lane Committee, the wish of Byron's heart is very thinly disguised in jest:

Sooner or later you will have your revenge, and so shall I (in other matters) … and by Nemesis! you shall build a new Drury— … and I will write you a tragedy which shall reduce your pounds to shillings; besides, for my own particular injuries (while this play is representing with much applause), ordaining a proscription to which that of Sylla shall be a comic opera. … In the meantime … ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin.’31

Byron at this point did not just ‘happen’ to be dreaming of playwriting; on the contrary, he was most probably already active ransacking Venice for materials on the specific subject of Doge Faliero—for he wrote to Murray three weeks later asking for some English material only after he had ‘searched all their histories’ in vain (LJ, IV, 58). The proposal to Kinnaird, though veiled in jest, was a sort of hidden allusion to activity in progress: ‘I mean’, he told Murray, ‘to write a tragedy upon the subject.’ […]

Furthermore, when Douglas Kinnaird, familiar from long acquaintance with Byron's defensive banter, read this letter, he sensed so clearly the underlying wish that he implored Byron (it appears) to make good his threat; for Byron in his next letter, still saying nothing of Faliero, protested: ‘As to tragedy, I may try one day, but never for the stage’ [Byron's italics]. The rest of this second letter strikingly documents my diagnosis of Byron's hypersensitiveness to failure and his refusal to enter competition:

Don't you see, I have no luck there? My two addresses were not liked, and my committeeship did but get me into scrapes; no—no, I shall not tempt the Fates that way—besides, I should risk more than I could gain. … Unless I could beat them all, it would be nothing; and who could do that?32

The last clause betrays him, for Byron had been claiming in all his criticism of the stage that anybody could beat the best contemporary playwrights.

Another two and a half years rolled by before his first tragedy was written, but all the while that Byron was pondering over his Faliero (‘four years … I have meditated this work’)33 and busy with other projects, he kept a watchful eye on the English stage. In June 1817, he heard that Maturin's Manuel had failed. ‘I 'gin to fear, or to hope, that Sotheby, after all, is to be the Æschylus of the age’ (LJ, IV, 136-39)—that would mean the rule of mediocrity; he was almost glad to see it, for it bore out his own fears, proved him right. ‘The more I see of the stage,’ he continued, ‘the less I would wish to have anything to do with it’; yet he was mightily concerned to see better plays attempted; he hoped Maturin would ‘try again’.

Next March the Fazio of Milman, whom Byron considered to have ‘dramatic power’ and good ‘material for tragedy’,34 was ‘brought out … with great and deserved success at Covent Garden: that's a good sign. I tried … to have it done at Drury Lane, but was overruled. …’35 It was a ‘good sign’ to one secretly anxious to reform the stage.

On 9 April 1820, Byron wrote a bickering and noisy letter to Murray about several pieces of ‘trash’ sent within the last month and about Italian Conversazioni and Lawyers, and then modestly slipped into a postscript the laconic information, ‘I have begun a tragedy on the subject of Marino Faliero, the Doge of Venice’ (LJ, V, 7). Another line a month later announced advance ‘into the second act’ and revealed the qualms and misgivings with which the playwright was proceeding: ‘my present feeling is so little encouraging on such matters …’ (LJ, V, 24-25). […] By the end of August Byron had sent the finished play to Murray and was meekly waiting to find out ‘what your parlour boarders will think’36 of it. So far there had been no mention of its not being written for the stage.37 […]

Murray's response was apparently rather guarded and certainly not enthusiastic; it elicited the reply:

I haveput my Soul into the tragedy’ (as you if it) [apparently Murray hoped he had not]; but you know that there are damned souls as well as tragedies.

(LJ, V, 67; Byron's italics)

Byron had still made no disclaimer of stage ambitions, although the negative response from Murray may have been the deciding straw. Definite protest did not come, however, for another month, and then apparently in answer to some word of Murray's indicating that that gentleman had assumed the play was to be staged:

I thought that I had told you long ago, that it never was intended nor written with any view to the Stage. … It is too long and regular for your stage.

(LJ, V, 81)

Byron was bringing up his defences now. […] Even while saying his aim was not the stage, however, Byron was careful to call Marino to the attention of his theatre friend, Douglas Kinnaird.38

At any rate, this weak protest did not impress Murray. […] Murray proceeded to allow Elliston of Drury Lane to take the proof-sheets to the actors as fast as they came off the press (LJ, V, 226n.), so that representation and publication would be timed close together. Undoubtedly this was the best way to carry out Byron's hidden desire in the face of his open protests. But meanwhile Murray's lack of warmth had set in motion the defensive machinery of Byron's stage fright. It operated quietly at first. When Murray complained that the speeches in Marino were too long, Byron replied with ‘True, but I wrote for the Closet’ (LJ, V, 90)—an illegitimate excuse, to use the word with its dramatic connotation, and ‘Your old dramatists … are long enough too, God knows’—a legitimate one.

Three months of silence followed, and then a letter revealing how the cool or negative criticism of Murray and others (‘many people’)39 had eaten into the heart of Byron's confidence, and how he, having carefully never committed himself to any high opinion of his four-year labour, was now ready to retreat (‘I am not at all clear’) and belittle his play with the term ‘Sketch’:

I think him [Barry Cornwall, whose Mirandola had just been noticed] very likely to produce a good tragedy, if he keep to a natural style, and not play tricks to form Harlequinades for an audience. … You will laugh, and say, ‘Why don't you do so?’ I have, you see, tried a Sketch in Marino Faliero; but many people think my talent ‘essentially undramatic,’ and I am not at all clear that they are not right. If Marino Faliero don't fall, in the perusal [Murray had not yet committed himself], I shall, perhaps, try again (but not for the stage). …

(LJ, V, 217-18)

The ambiguity of the last line allows the interpretation that Marinowas written for the stage.

Murray's opinion that the play might not be popular did not reach Byron till February. Meanwhile in mid-January news reached him through the Italian papers that an English theatre was going to act his play, and all his defensive guns were swung into position—but not all of them were fired. He asked Murray ‘to protest stoutly and publicly (if it be necessary), against any attempt to bring the tragedy on any stage’ (LJ, V, 221, Byron's italics). The tremendous moment was approaching when his play might be ‘representing with much applause’—or might be suffering that ‘palpable and immediate’ ‘calamity’ of ‘the trampling of an … audience on a production which, be it good or bad, has been a mental labour to the writer’,40 and his ‘horror’ was asserting itself. He had done what was necessary to expose himself to the ‘opening for tragedy’ which might make him king of a new drama. […] Now he would make sure not to ‘be exposed to the insolences of an audience, without a remonstrance’ (LJ, V, 221). He framed a public protest for Murray to use; he ‘wrote a letter to the Lord Chamberlain to request him to prevent the theatres’; and he began an open letter to Perry, editor of the Morning Chronicle—but in the middle of this he ‘stopt short’.41 May we imagine Lord Byron dashing off this protest against the ‘pollution’ of being ‘dragged forth as a Gladiator in the theatrical arena’, hesitating with a doubt whether to risk having protested too much, deciding to let the case rest? Or did the letter merely ‘happen’ not to be finished and sent? The goal of such behaviour normally ‘happens’ to remain unconscious to the individual.42 It is worth noting, however, that at first Byron ‘even prohibited the publication of the Tragedy’ (LJ, V, 231), and then hastened to withdraw this order—which might effectively have stopped the plans to act it.

The protests, at any rate, stopped, and little more was heard from Byron on that score for almost four months, while back in London, not unknown to Byron,43 his wilful well-wishers were busy with casting and production of the play, Elliston dickering with the Lord Chancellor to withhold his injunction, rushing copy from the press to the green room; and on 25 April, four days after publication, Marino Faliero was represented at Drury Lane Theatre.

Byron's last protest (10 May) before hearing of the production touches yet another side of his aspirations: neither Kemble nor Kean, his favourite actors, was in England that year—who else could act the Doge? Here again the veil is lifted for a moment and we see the difference between what Byron hoped and what he dreaded. If Elliston insisted on acting the drama anyway, said Byron, ‘Surely he might have the grace to wait for Kean's return before he attempted it.’ Byron hastened to cover up this revelation by insisting that ‘even then, I should be as much against the attempt as ever’.44

If Kean had played the Doge—or, a safer if, if Byron's Sardanapalus had been the first of his plays to be tried on the stage, a play which had a first run of almost two months [twenty-two performances] in 1834—we may imagine how Byron's wrath would have melted after the first successful month and a few packets of congratulatory mail (remember how praise melted his fears about Childe Harold). But now news reached him that the failure which his ego had dreaded from the beginning was now realized in the fate of Marino, and his fury knew no bounds.

A Milan paper states that the play has been represented and universally condemned.

(LJ, V, 285)

What I feel … is an immense rage.

(LJ, V, 288)

I was kept for four days … in the belief that the tragedy had been acted and ‘unanimously hissed’; and this with the addition that ‘I had brought it upon the stage.’ … At present I am, luckily, calmer than I used to be, and yet I would not pass those four days over again for—I know not what.

(LJ, V, 290)

So much did his feeling of security, of superiority, depend on the success of what he dared not even admit to himself was an ‘experiment for applause’. The great Poet who scoffed at Keats for being killed by a review came on several occasions much nearer than Keats to such a fate.

Byron now could only hope that Murray ‘and my other friends will have at least published my different protests’ (LJ, V, 285). The face-saving precautions were now most important, for they made the failure not his own fault at all, as he was quick to point out. Fatalism was now serving its psychological purpose:

All this is vexatious enough, and seems a sort of dramatic Calvinism—predestined damnation without a sinner's own fault. I took all the pains poor mortal could to prevent this inevitable catastrophe.

(LJ, V, 286)

Poor Byron in this case had been needlessly pained, for the Milan papers had lied as to the extent of the ‘catastrophe’. And when Byron found out after the terrible four days that ‘it was not hissed, but is continued to be acted, in spite of Author, publisher, and the Lord Chancellor's injunction’, he had a moment of pride as keen as his ‘vexation’ had been (LJ, V, 288).

This is the climactic picture of Lord Byron, Author of Legitimate plays, and it is a pity that Marino did not go on much longer than the four days he thought it was being hissed. Apparently all the information that reached him for a month or so was the news that it ‘continued to be acted’. Eventually the correct story must have reached him, that the play was acted seven times, to poor houses, and finally folded up (LJ, V, 227 n.2). But for a while his guard was down. He wrote letters to Moore and to Hoppner asking them to have the success version put in the papers of Paris and Milan and Venice: ‘If the play had been condemned, [he gloated,] the injunction would have been superfluous against the continuation of the representation’ (LJ, V, 288).

His note was now: ‘If we succeed, well: if not, previous to any future publication, we will request a promise not to be acted.’ ‘I have now written nearly three acts of another [Sardanapalus]’ (LJ, V, 281).

Six days later—his work was flourishing under the stimulation of success—he could boast, writing again to Hoppner:

I care nothing for their criticism, but the matter of fact. I have written four acts of another tragedy, so you see they can't bully me.

(LJ, V, 296)

Even a month later Byron believed Marino ‘is still continued to be performed’. He insisted, of course, that the new play was also ‘not for the stage, any more than the other was intended for it—’ (LJ, V, 304) but it is curious how closely his hopes for his subsequent ‘regular tragedies’ depended on the fate of Marino:

I am quite ignorant [29 June] how far the Doge did or did not succeed: your first letters seemed to say yes—your last nothing. … It is proper that you should apprize me of this, because I am in the third act of a third drama [The Two Foscari]; and if I have nothing to expect but coldness from the public … it were better to break off in time … if I am trying an impracticable experiment, it is better to say so at once.45

Here we have probably the most conclusive single bit of evidence that all three of Byron's classic dramas were written with at least a secret ‘eye to the Stage’. Sardanapalus was sped to a finish and The Two Foscari was penned in extreme and confident haste during the few weeks that Byron was in the belief that Marino Faliero was acting successfully!

The rest of the record bears out this conclusion. When Sardanapalus was begun, Cain had been ‘pondered’ as ‘something in the style of Manfred, but in five acts’, and also ‘Francesca of Rimini, in five acts; and … Tiberius.’46 When Cain was actually written (16 July to 9 September 1821) Byron did not trouble to give it the Legitimate five-act form; by 23 August he knew Marino had not succeeded (LJ, V, 347). The Bulgars had rendered their verdict. Francesca and Tiberius were left in the inkwell.

In the very wording of his confession of the failure of Marino—‘no reform ever succeeded at first’—Byron admitted that his hope had been to reform the stage with Marino. Although he protested that he would continue trying ‘to make a regular English drama, no matter whether for the Stage or not’, actually he abandoned the ‘regular’ form, thus further admitting that his hope to reform the stage had been to reform it by writing for it.

The three ‘regular tragedies’ are to all appearances Legitimate plays, except for the denials of ‘the Author’. Cain and Heaven and Earth, written after the failure of Marino was known to Byron, are more obviously designed for ‘a mental theatre’. Nevertheless Byron's hidden urge to reach the stage was amazingly persistent, for in that same year he reverted to his early Gothic drama, Werner, abandoning his ideals of dramatic reform, but also in practice if not theory abandoning the ‘mental theatre’, producing what not only was calculated to suit the degraded tastes of the contemporary audience, but did suit them, being acted many times between 1826 and 1860.47

The motive behind this about-face is expressed clearly in a letter of 20 September 1821, in which, after a defiant dying hope that his ‘new dramas … will in time find favour’—he has just been ‘mortified that Gifford don't take to’ them—Byron breaks down with the pathetic declaration:

For that matter—

                                        ‘Nay, if thou'lt mouth,
                                        I'll rant as well as thou’—

would not be difficult, as I think I have shown in my younger productions [the Oriental Tales]—not dramatic ones, to be sure.

(LJ, V, 372)

If Byron did not descend to ranting in Werner, he at least supplied all the ‘irregular’ attractions of the most popular current melodrama. To the very end and even while pandering to ‘an ignorant audience’, Byron reiterated his disclaimer:

I am sorry you think Werner even approaching to any fitness for the stage, which, with my notion upon it, is very far from my present object.

(LJ, VI, 31)

For his ego this stand was, of course, more necessary now than ever. Unfortunately no one had the temerity to venture another Byron play on the stage in his lifetime.

It is interesting to note that Byron's last fling at amateur dramatics, the rehearsal of Othello described above, occurred at about the time of the composition of Werner. In the general context, such action indicates, I believe, the stage-consciousness of Byron at this period.

There remains to be considered the sophistry with which Byron rationalized the failure of his plays into a proof of his superiority as a playwright. This process may be seen most curiously presented in a mutilated page of manuscript once intended to conclude the Preface to Werner, 1822.48 Here Byron achieves the position that not only his own plays but all plays of any worth ever written have been not ‘generically intended for the stage’. It follows that his own motive for writing drama differs in no essential way from the motives of all great dramatists, and that the matter of stage presentation is immaterial if not actually a spot upon one's record. This position is arrived at by the following argument:

Byron denies that all dramatic writing is for the stage.

a. Forty-nine out of fifty plays are much read but never acted.

b. The greatest dramatists are all among those whose plays are never or almost never acted. (Shakespeare might appear to be an exception, but his plays as staged are not the real Shakespeare but ‘Tate, Cibber, and Thompson under his name’.)

[there4] The stage does not belong to playwrights. Q.E.D.

Ergo: Byron wishes to class himself with them at least by coinciding with them in the matter of not being produced. (‘I am far from attempting to raise myself to a level with the least of these names—I only wish to be [exempted] from a stage which is not theirs.’)

P.S.: See Charles Lamb to the effect that the plays of Shakespeare are not calculated for the stage. This may be applied a ‘hundredfold to those of others’.49

Thus Byron, by a full circle of sophistry, ranges himself with the dramatists of all time, with Ford, Marlowe, Webster, all whose plays are never acted but ‘may be read’. In other words, he insists that his plays are as good plays as any.50

The reality of Byron's dramatic aspirations is, I think, clear—whether revealed in elaborate rationalizations such as that discussed above, or in a simple naked remark such as this reported by Medwin: ‘If he [Kemble] had acted “Marino Faliero,” its fate would have been very different’ (Medwin, I, 144). And we may be sure that if Marino had succeeded on the stage, Byron would have taken to the rôle of the Great Playwright as though that were in the natural course of things, and the critics would have easily understood his earlier stage fright for what it was. As Byron himself put it, ‘If we succeed, well.’ Since, however, the play failed, the critics have taken Byron's word for it that he had never wanted to see it succeed, and they have completely overlooked the fact, which I have been at pains to make evident, that Byron wrote the second and third of his ‘regular classic tragedies’ in a bright period of two months or so when he was under the mistaken impression that his first tragedy was having a successful run ‘in spite of Author, publisher, and the Lord Chancellor's injunction’.


  1. The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals, ed. R. E. Prothero (London: John Murray, 1898-1901), IV, 71-72, hereafter referred to as LJ, vol. and page(s).

  2. Lord Byron's Correspondence, ed. John Murray (London: John Murray, 1922), II, 43-44, hereafter referred to as Correspondence.

  3. Chew, Byron in England, p. 117. Chew forgets that only one of Byron's plays was tried on the stage while he lived.

  4. Calvert, Byron: Romantic Paradox, p. 169.

  5. See LJ, V, 223, 278, 257.

  6. Charles du Bos is an exception among critics in asserting that Byron's behaviour is completely understandable—Byron and the Need of Fatality, p. 16. Peter Quennell employs some psychological understanding on the level of discussion of symptoms such as Byron's homosexual tendency, but he makes no effort to get beneath symptoms nor to bring together his various surmises into a single analysis—Byron: The Years of Fame.

  7. See Adler, Individual Psychology, p. 36, on the apparent dualism of tactics of behaviour leading to one object, on the ability to ‘draw from two contradictory lines to reach [an] ideal situation of imagined superiority.’

  8. Bradford, ‘The Glory of Sin’, p. 227—an unramified but fairly just psychological analysis of Byron.

  9. Byron probably did not think much of ‘Hints from Horace’ when he first gave it to Dallas. It was only in March 1820, when Byron was taking up the cudgel for Pope, that he had serious ‘thoughts of publishing the “Hints …” if Hobhouse can rummage them out of my papers’ (LJ, IV, 425). Hobhouse thought they were good (see Correspondence, II, 154), but Murray delayed until, after six laconic requests, he sent an incomplete copy in January 1821. Only after Byron found Murray deaf to five more simple requests to send the rest and to publish did Byron exclaim that he looked upon the ‘Hints’ and the Pulci translation, which Murray was also trying to dodge, as ‘by far the best things of my doing: you will not think so … but I know that they will not be popular, so don't be afraid—publish them together’ (LJ, V, 255). After this forlorn cry nothing more was ever said of the ‘Hints’.

  10. The ‘Hints’ was a continuation of his English Bards style; the Childe was a ‘new line’. Throughout his career Byron was nervous about new ventures. See his letter to Moore, 28 February 1817, on the anxiety of going to press: ‘And this is your month of going to press—by the body of Diana! … I feel as anxious … as if it were myself coming out in a work of humour, which would, you know, be the antipodes of all my previous publications’ (LJ, IV, 62).

  11. The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry, rev. edn, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (London, 1898-1904), II, x-xi, hereafter referred to as Poetry.

  12. They do present, of course, Byron's interest in the stage up to the writing of the first draft of Werner. But both critics accept as ‘sincere’ his denial of any stage hopes for the three ‘regular’ tragedies. Here Calvert fails to apply the wisdom of his own advice that ‘It is impossible not to take Byron seriously, and it is disastrous to take him literally’, Romantic Paradox, p. 67.

  13. ‘On a Distant View … of Harrow on the Hill’, 1806.

  14. LJ, V, 445; Detached Thoughts, 1821.

  15. ‘An Occasional Prologue’, 1806. Byron ‘enacted “Penruddock” in the “Wheel of Fortune,” and “Tristram Fickle” in Allingham's farce of “the Weathercock,” for three nights (the duration of our compact) …’ (LJ, V, 445). The ‘Prologue’ asks applause for ‘not one poor trembler only’—but the one is very evidently in mind.

  16. Medwin, Conversations, I, 141-42, hereafter cited as Medwin.

  17. Calvert, Romantic Paradox, points out that ‘The interest in the individual actor dominates all his plays, with the sole exception of Heaven and Earth; one character possesses the attention of the audience, if not throughout the play, at least for the duration of a scene’ (p. 155). My italics. The index of Byron's works is rich in references to Kean and Kemble.

  18. Poetry, V, 338.

  19. ‘A comedy I take to be the most difficult of compositions, more so than tragedy’ (LJ, II, 373).

  20. Wexberg, The Psychology of Sex, p. 92.

  21. In English Bards, ll. 687 ff., he exhorts ‘some genuine bard … to drive this pestilence from the land’, i.e. the degenerate amusements of opera and ballet and gaming. In the context he is calling for a moral satire; ‘E'en I’, he ventures, ‘must raise my voice.’ But the positive reform called for is a better drama. ‘Good plays are scarce,’ he wrote in a verse letter to Hodgson of 13 September 1811 (LJ, II, 34). Here clearly ‘classic drama’ was to be written for the stage. Only later, when he himself was writing classic dramas to reform the stage, did Byron's stage fright lead him to double back his logic and insist that ‘classic’ qualities were a cause of unfitness for the stage and that he was writing for ‘a mental theatre’.

  22. Noted by E. H. Coleridge, Poetry, V, 326, and confirmed by Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron, p. 35. Contrast Byron's own assertion, in the Preface to Marino Faliero (1820), that ‘even during the time of being one of the committee of one of the theatres, I never made the attempt [to write a stage-worthy play], and never will.’ Among the things that a later Byron would no doubt have gladly forgotten were (a) that he had while on the committee begun Werner, and (b) that in English Bards he had scoffed at a playwright forced to ‘live in prologues, though his dramas die’, and had suggested sarcastically that Lord Carlisle, whose plays were spurned by theatre-managers, could laugh at their judgement, ‘And case his volumes in congenial calf.’ Byron's attitude with regard to his later tragedies became dangerously similar to that he here had attributed to Carlisle.

  23. ‘Drury Lane Address’, l. 24.

  24. See Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron, p. 32.

  25. Manfred, begun September 1816, was entitled finally ‘a dramatic poem’. As he was writing to Murray about it, Byron referred to it as a ‘drama’ or ‘play’, but when it was about to be published he ordered Murray to ‘call it “a poem,” for it is no drama.’ (LJ, IV, 100), 9 April 1817.

  26. LJ, IV, 55. Yet Manfred has had a stage history of five productions, the first running sixteen days in 1834 (Poetry, IV, 78).

  27. The first phrase comes from a later period (Correspondence, II, 201); LJ, V, 347.

  28. LJ, IV, 285, in reference to Don Juan I and II. To Moore in June 1818 he wrote, ‘I won't quarrel with the public, however, for the “Bulgars” are generally right, and if I do miss now, I may hit another time;—and so the “gods give us joy”’ in reference to Childe Harold, IV. See LJ, IV, 237 and Don Juan, X, 28.

  29. Byron, writing to Murray, is careful to distinguish his own plays from works that are not quite plays: ‘The Italians have as yet no tragedy—Alfieri's are political dialogues, except Mirra’ (LJ, V, 64).

  30. In the Preface to Marino Faliero Byron reveals most plainly his sensitivity to applause: ‘I cannot conceive any man of irritable feeling putting himself at the mercies of an audience. The sneering reader, and the loud critic, and the tart review, are scattered and distant calamities; but the trampling of an intelligent or of an ignorant audience … is a palpable and immediate grievance. …’

  31. Correspondence, II, 34-35. My italics.

  32. Ibid. My italics.

  33. Preface to Marino Faliero.

  34. Ibid.

  35. LJ, IV, 210. Fazio was staged without the author's consent. Might Byron have been aware of this fact?

  36. LJ, V, 51, 57, 53-54.

  37. The letter in which Byron opens the question of publication and terms of ‘the tragedy’ and demands a ‘speedy’ judgement contains no mention (LJ, V, 44). Nor does the letter of 17 July in which the MS is described and Byron expresses the hope it will please (LJ, V, 52-55).

  38. A few days after the protest to Murray, Byron wrote to Kinnaird: ‘I sent Murray a tragedy (written not for the stage), read it if you can’ (Correspondence, II, 156). Byron thought of Kinnaird as ‘a fine fellow, and my zealous friend and ally, also a very good judge of dramatic effect …’ (LJ, II, 198).

  39. There were, however, a few crumbs of praise: ‘Foscolo thinks the tragedy very good Venetian, and Gifford says it is sterling English’ (Correspondence, II, 158).

  40. Byron's Preface to Marino Faliero.

  41. LJ, V, 221, 180. The last is dated 22 January but was never sent to Perry. It was sent on 2 March to Murray with the explanation, ‘Of course you need not send it; but it explains to you my feelings on the subject.’ From the tenor of this note it appears that Byron expected Murray to let the representation proceed and his own protests to have no practical effect.

  42. See Adler, Individual Psychology, p. 12. ‘It so “happens” that [the goal of one's actions] remains in the unconscious, so that [one] may believe that an implacable fate and not a long prepared and long meditated plan for which he alone is responsible, is at work.’

  43. ‘It seems’, wrote Byron to Moore, 22 January, ‘that the managers, assuming a right over published poetry, are determined to enact [Marino] whether I will or no’ (LJ, V, 230). And see LJ, V, 256 to Murray: ‘You say that “there is nothing to fear, let them do what they please;” that is to say, that you would see me damned with great tranquility.’ This is the only protest between 21 January and 10 May unless the apology of 16 February for Marino's threatened unpopularity be counted (LJ, V, 243).

  44. LJ, V, 278 (Byron's emphasis). See also LJ, V, 223 to Murray, where on first hearing of the threat Byron cries, ‘the play is not for acting: Kemble or Kean could read it, but where are they?’ And see Correspondence, II, 198.

  45. LJ, V, 313, 29 June, to Murray. Byron was still in ignorance 6 July, when he wrote to Hobhouse: ‘I have sent to England a tragedy [Sardanapalus] a month ago, and I am in the fifth act of another [The Two Foscari]. Murray has not acknowledged its arrival’ (Correspondence, II, 176).

  46. LJ, V, 189; Byron's diary, 28 January 1821.

  47. T. H. Vail Motter notes in Byron's disclaimer of stage aims for Werner a ‘decided change in tone from the defiance of the previous year. … Hope sprang eternal, and Byron would dearly have loved a success in drama, dearly bought after so much failure and vilification’—‘Byron's Werner Reestimated’, p. 247.

  48. Printed in Poetry, V, 338-39.

  49. I have paraphrased and methodized Byron's argument. Here he has not kept the logic of Lamb, whose statement was that ‘the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever’.

  50. A corollary to this announcement is Byron's statement, of about the same date, to Medwin, that ‘Poetry’ has nothing to do with or in a play (Medwin, I, 94). Byron was referring to Lamb only for the nonce and would by no means have subscribed to his evaluation of a play for its Poetry.


Alfred Adler, The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1924).

Gamaliel Bradford, ‘The Glory of Sin: Byron’, Saints and Sinners (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1932).

William J. Calvert, Byron: Romantic Paradox (Chapel Hill: University North Carolina Press, 1935).

Samuel C. Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck Ruprecht, 1915; Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1915; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964).

———, Byron in England (London: John Murray, 1924).

Charles du Bos, Byron and the Need of Fatality, trans. Ethel C. Mayne (1932; New York: Haskell, 1970).

Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron (London: Henry Colburn, 1824).

Peter Quennell, Byron: The Years of Fame (New York: The Viking Press, 1935; London: Faber & Faber, 1935).

Edwin Wexberg, The Psychology of Sex (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1931).


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

John W. Ehrstine (essay date 1976)

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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 three phases; the two sides of the King's nature give Sardanapalus two distinct halves; in The Two Foscari there is but one smooth and inexorable movement, as relentless as Loredano's hatred or the Doge's endurance.5 At the close of Act I, Barbarigo say of Loredano, “He's silent in his hate, as Foscari / was in his suffering” (361-2). Both appear to remain utterly static.

Thematically, several progressions become vividly marked out when this play is placed next to the two previous dramas. For example, the spirit of Marino Faliero is succinctly stated in Dante's admonition to Italy at the end of the second canto of The Prophecy:

What is there wanting then to set thee free,
          And show thy beauty in its fullest light?
          To make the Alps impassable; and we,
Her sons, may do this with one deed—Unite.(6)

This is, in some sense, a political application of one principle of Byron metaphysic; facing tyranny, man acts in rebellion in order to regain unity.7 Faliero finds suitable men with whom to unite against the tyranny of the nobles. Further, there are clear-cut issues drawing these men together: political blindness, injustice, and decadence. There is less of this corporate enterprise in Sardanapalus, but still the King has at least one worthy ally, Salemenes, not to mention Myrrha. Moreover, political tyranny is only part of the theme; the struggle is more symbolic, having its near-mythic concern with man's inevitable failure to obtain Edenic freedom. At least there remains to Sardanapalus a measure of splendor in his attempt to restore his kingdom and his personal integrity. Neither unity of forces, clarity of issues, nor splendor is at all present in The Two Foscari. In fact, whereas Faliero and Sardanapalus could act, Foscari is utterly trapped. If tyranny drives one to action, then the ultimate political torture, from a Promethean point of view, must be a situation in which action is not possible. By analogy, Byron seems to say here, as Coleridge does in “France: An Ode”, that such a state cannot be saved by political means. Such a state leaves the individual nothing but endurance and suppressed rage; whatever unity may be achieved must obviously be entirely within. Hence the importance of the unity of character: it is all that remains to Foscari.

Another thematic progression in these plays is visible in the heroes. Where Faliero is nominally guilty of rebellion, and Sardanapalus of weakness, Foscari is persecuted for no good reason except that he is Promethean. His and his son's alleged crimes are so vague that one suspects they have none. In consequence, their staunch and noble patriotism appears absurd and abnormal: Jacopo's almost insane love for Venice is matched by the Doge's apparently pointless endurance. That the Doge Foscari is more isolated than his two predecessors is clear enough. More astoundingly, he stands as much alone as Manfred, but with one overwhelming difference: he is still in society, having given all a man may give to the State. He is, therefore, in no way the outlaw of his own dark soul; rather he is the upright leader, labelled an outlaw by the dark minds of his inferiors. Since even at the outset nearly everything of value has been stripped from his life, and his mighty struggle has achieved nothing, it follows that Foscari must do what he does on the blind faith of his vision alone. He turns endurance itself into an action, and hence his “concentered recompense” is utterly enigmatic.

Finally, the thematic importance of the common people suffers a change in these plays. While the commoners are a visible and significant consideration in Marino Faliero, in Sardanapalus the people have been diminished totally into the background. The Two Foscari moves a bit further: they are not really present here at all because the ruling Ten are oblivious of them. The senator, Memmo, says: “Men know as little / Of the state's real acts as of the grave's / Unfathomed mysteries” (I, 184-6). And later, Foscari reminds the Ten that they do not think of the citizenry, only the “populace” (V, 257-61). During the course of these three kindred plays, Byron's sharpened focus comes to rest finally on the nobility alone. The Ten and the Forty are no longer the venomous “hydra” which Faliero called them, but have not become a “mystery”, a thing beyond description by metaphor or image.8 As Memmo's comment establishes, even the Senators find the procedures of the high tribunal incomprehensible. When he is later summoned to deliberate with the Ten, Memmo thinks of himself as a novice, ready to see “the mysteries” for the first time (IV, 87-8). “Mystery”, in fact, becomes an important motif: from within, the State's machinations are covert; from without, the people are not visible to the State.

By removing any recognizable guilt from the Foscari, and emphasizing the idea of mystery, Byron makes political tyranny more malignant than in the two previous plays. Not only does it pervert man, it abstracts life, and breeds mystery in which even the strongest are finally trapped. Within the stasis thus produced, the only freedom lies inside, in the silence of the individual mind. It is chiefly through his exceedingly strict adherence to unity of character that Byron establishes the various ways in which each of the dramatis personae is ensnared, and the inner struggle exacted of them.


Byron manages the characterization of Jacopo Foscari and his wife, Marina, with ease and subtlety.9 As son of the Doge, Jacopo has been exiled for suspected crimes which are never made clear. Memmo and another senator discuss the specifics in Act I (293-310). Though held on several counts, Jacopo has confessed only to writing a letter “to Milan's Duke, in the full knowledge / That it would fall into the Senate's hands / And thus he would be re-conveyed to Venice.” After mentioning other crimes which “Circumstance” might lay to Jacopo's charge, Memmo sums up the situation: “There must be more in this strange process than / The apparent crimes of the accused disclose. …” If the assessment of Jacopo's position is accurate (and there is no evidence to the contrary), he is not being punished for any dark felonies, but because he will risk this much simply to return home.

But there is even more mystery here than Memmo can suspect. The Doge himself states the real reason for the unconscionable punishment of his son. “Hear me”, he tells Marina:

                                        They who aim
At Foscari, aim no less at his father;
The sire's destruction would not save the son;
They work by different means to the same end,
And that is—but they have not conquered yet.

(II, 86-90)

The Doge cannot bring himself to utter the cause of his and his son's persecution. This adds to the mystery and blindness of the political hatred which Loredano symbolizes. The Doge's last phrase above merely makes the bitter situation worse: were both the Foscari ordinary men, they would have succumbed. But they are clearly Promethean. The resulting, fundamental irony is that the more they endure, the more Loredano is driven to injustice. The tensions of the situation are admirably realized. They play out dramatically an idea Byron states elsewhere: such heroes have to be able to look down from their pinnacle of superiority on hate and misunderstanding.10

That Byron defended Jacopo's intense love of country as typically Venetian need not concern us as much as what the characterization of Jacopo accomplishes thematically in the play.11 From our first meeting with him, we can begin to understand what has given his patriotic passion such a turn. The splendid imagery of his first speech indicates that, like so many Byronic heroes, he is at ease with the sea, and the sea—as something greater than man—is regularly symbolic of eternity. Jacopo rhapsodizes to his Guard:

In wantonness of spirit, plunging down
Into their green and glassy gulfs, and making
My way to shells, and sea-weed, all unseen
By those above, till they waxed fearful; then
Returning with my grasp full of such tokens
As showed that I had searched the deep: exulting
With a far-dashing stroke, and, drawing deep
The long-suspended breath, again I spurned
The foam which broke around me, and pursued
My track like a sea-bird.—I was a boy then.

(I, 110-21)

Symbolically, his love of the sea matches his love of Venice, the city built on, and wed to, the sea.12 In the world of Byron's poems, Jacopo's identification with the ocean makes the significance of his outlandish patriotism more meaningful: he loves not only Venice, but timelessness, and man's quest for freedom. In short, his participation in eternity conditions his point of view, moving it beyond that of the fallen world. This is signalled in part by the “sea-bird” image; his love for the depths of the sea allows him flight. Yet included in the symbolic point being made is just the reverse of this synthesis. Stated in its simplest and most comprehensive terms, it is this: Jacopo's love of freedom enslaves him.

His most important scene takes place in the prison cell. His wife visits his dungeon in Act III, and upbraids him for such foolish, transporting love. Why could they not live a more natural life in exile? Like Zarina in Sardanapalus, she offers a hope of salvation that would have sufficed in the Turkish Tales. But Jacopo gives her the Promethean' patriot's answer:

You call this weakness! It is strength,
I say,—the parent of all honest feeling.
He who loves not his country, can love nothing.

(III, 182-4)

As in Marino Faliero, such commitment to country allows one to get beyond himself, to reach a selflessness and inner unity denied those who refuse to deal with the world. In Byron's mind, such a commitment provided the only way corporate freedom was possible; how else are people to fulfill Dante's admonition for unity? And yet, the moment we see the admirability of Jacopo's point of view, we are also aware of a fearful symmetry in the perversion of Venice. It is in so tyrannous a state that its processes are all a “mystery”, and all that is good appear evil. The degree of this reversal is so intense that only the Doge can understand what the struggle really is. Jacopo's genuine nobility then becomes bastardized into perversity. Even the Doge tellingly refers to his weakness as “wommanish”, and the sentiment of the younger Foscari appears absurd somewhat in the manner of Sardanapalus. But this motif is offered more grimly here because tyranny has turned Jacopo's essentially stout patriotism (representing as it does love of Venice, the ocean, and freedom) into apparent sentimental weakness. In reality, it is Loredano and the others of the Ten who are emasculated without knowing it.

Jacopo is finally allowed to return to exile rather than go on the rack again. However, his apparently overstated response—“but 'tis / Exchange of chains for heavier chains” (III, 497-8)—indicates how costly this clemency is. His unselfish love of country, without which he “can love nothing”, is made to appear unmanly, following which he is forced into a genuinely “wommanish” act: exile.

With all this noble endurance, the younger Foscari still has one further step to go to reach full Promethean enlightenment. Although Jacopo says love of country is the foundation for all love, he is called upon to exercise that belief even when the exterior object of his love, Venice herself, is removed. In Act III, Marina advises him that at least in exile they might have life; as for liberty, “The mind should make its own.” She speaks more than she knows here, but it is given in the spirit of the “chainless mind” of the “Sonnet on Chillon”, and echoes all three earlier plays.13 By Jacopo's answer, we are given a glimpse of the inner balance to which he must progress: “That has a noble sound; but 'tis a sound, / A music most impressive, but too transient: / The mind is much, but is not all” (III, 85-7). He must then make his mind all, and in his remaining speeches, the spark of the Promethean clearly grows.

Byron's dictional pattern surrounding this character is well worth observing; besides the sea imagery, Jacopo's speeches are shot through with light images. Here in the dungeon, tyranny has all but wiped out the light. Jacopo says that other than

                                                            the gaoler's torch,
And a strange firefly, which was quickly caught
Last night in yon enormous spider's net,
I ne'er saw aught here like a ray.

(III, 103-6)

The State has very nearly enclosed the light of the mind, and like the spider's net, it suffocates even those who are a spark in places of darkness, or “lamps of night”, to recall a phrase in Sardanapalus. Further, books, “Those lying likenesses of lying men”, are denied him so that even what little enlightenment “annals, history” might have brought him is withheld. Tyranny appears to be able to shut out the light of freedom entirely, both physically and intellectually; the illumination of the past, the sunlight of the present, the “beacon” of the future are all extinguished. What makes the situation so appalling is that Jacopo knows his fate is not singular, only more ironic: “many are in dungeons, / But none like mine, so near their father's palace” (III, 98-9). Against the tyranny of this negative apocalypse, the totally inner assurance of “Prometheus” is all that will save Jacopo from being devoured by the kind of world Byron pictures in “Darkness”. If one is shut out from past and future, he must make the present all time; the same paradox occurs when, in his dream, Sardanapalus is called upon to incorporate past and future into the present. For Jacopo, the solution is reached and indicated through light imagery.

From this point—where ironically the gaoler's torch blinds Jacopo because he is not used to light, and yet blinds his incoming wife because she has come in out of the sun—Jacopo moves toward the moment of his death where he sees some unnamed luminary: “The light! / Is it the light?—I am faint.” The intervening references to light all tally. As Loredano is the symbol of tyranny, Marina rightly says of him: “I have probed his soul / A moment as the Eternal Fire, ere long, / Will reach it always” (III, 212-4). Since tyranny brings perversion, Loredano is identified by perverted light. Moreover, the very cell lies under the level of the ocean, and the metaphorical implication is that in Venice, tyranny is close to quenching the light of freedom for all eternity. Better still, Marina says that Loredano would be “The sole fit inhabitant of such a cell / Which he has peopled often, but ne'er fitly / Till he himself shall brood in it alone” (337-9). With the light of freedom snuffed, the cell would be a remarkably apt image for Loredano's self-made darkness. As they leave the dungeon, he calls for a torch, and Marina sneers, “Yes, light us on, as to a funeral pyre, / With Loredano mourning like an heir” (442-3). Such is the feeble illumination tyranny allows to help man to vision, and even that enlightens him only posthumously, on his way to the grave. With nearly unaccountable perseverance, Jacopo still must hope, and he finds a perfect image for that hope:

                                                  Let there be
A point of time, as beacon to my heart,
With any penalty annexed they please,
But let me still return.

(IV, 102-5)

And since even this bit of light cannot be promised, he is forced to find illumination within himself. To Marina he resolves: “But you are right, / It must be borne.”

With this realization, he is now more imbued with the enlightenment of freedom than ever. He is free to choose to forgive the nobles of Venice, even existence itself. But in this atmosphere, the very statement appears to be puling and weak. He begs his father to forgive

                    My poor mother, for my birth,
And me for having lived, and you yourself
(As I forgive you), for the gift of life, …

(IV, 160-2)

In order to overcome the black perversion of tyranny, he is driven to such unnatural sentiments. He has done nothing wrong, nothing deserving of punishment (1. 165), and yet for his oppressors he says, “I cannot wish them all they have inflicted” (1. 172). Because of his Promethean advancement, Jacopo manages to die without hating life itself. He sinks to death, reaching for his father's hand, and being surprised by the joy of some vision of total light.

As Marina stands helplessly by, observing her husband's death, she sees clearly, but not deeply enough, what has caused it. Although her point of view is limited, she is one of Byron's liveliest female portraits. She fits perfectly into the theme and structure of the play. Since tyranny perverts human life, Marina is robbed of a husband. Hence she must take on some of what ought normally to be a man's role. With energy and clarity she tells the Doge how unnatural it is for a father not to defend a son, and Loredano, as I have pointed out, how inverted his hatred is. When her husband asks, “Why live I”, she reiterates his apparent emasculation: “To man thyself, I trust, with time, to master / Such useless passion.”

Beyond the perversion she observes in these three men, she is appalled at a State which would take her children, allowing them to be hers only to raise, to care for when sick, and to bury when dead (III, 387-95). Moreover, the State allows her to accompany her husband in exile only if she leaves their children behind. While Marina sees the State's inhumanity, Jacopo questions her own:

And canst thou leave them?
Yes—with many a pang!
But—I can leave them, children as they are,
To teach you to be less a child. From this
Learn you to sway your feelings, when exacted
By duties paramount; …

(III, 197-2-1)

Marina's statement would appear courageous, but the irony of tyranny begins to twist her judgment, too, for she is here willing to save her husband at the expense of her children. Thus, such conjugal commitment is both admirable and damning. What results is an awesome dilemma: to go on loving, Marina must be destructive, fragmenting still further the familial unity their marriage has formed. Hence, she in part reverses the ardent human virtues she possesses. She effectually demonstrates her husband's statement that love of country is the basis for all love; lacking it (even though forced to her position), her own ability to love is first undermined, then slowly perverted.

After her husband dies, despair further sinks her point of view because even remaining with her children is now turned to an unnatural and hateful deed:

My children! true—they live, and I must live
To bring them up to serve the State, and die
As died their father. Oh! what best of blessings
Were barrenness in Venice!

(IV, 208-11)

Though her character does not vary, Marina develops almost imperceptibly, becoming slightly more corrupted as the play progresses. She is finally forced, because of money, to let the Ten bury Foscari with pomp and circumstance, despite her awareness of the hypocrisy of it (V, 355-61). After all, she must raise her children in this fallen world, and she will have to do so by fallen, material means.

Although she has nobility and courage, her level of awareness is slightly less than her husband's or his father's. This makes her a worthy foil to them. Her energetic vituperation, directed at her husband, the Doge, and most heatedly at Loredano, provides some ventilation for the rage the others must suppress. These outbursts are of immense value to the tense atmosphere of the play.


The tension in the atmosphere is largely generated by Loredano, the “Inveterate hater”. As a character, he is realized in a most daring way. While making him a singular human being, Byron draws him as very nearly the abstract of a character.14 His cold, selfish relentlessness in pursuing “hereditary hate” is brilliantly inhuman and distilled, motivating him finally to ensnare nearly all of the power of the Ten. “They speak your language”, Barbarigo tells him at one point (V, 142-3), “watch your nod, approve / Your plans, and do your work. Are they not yours?” Loredano is moved to such perversion solely by his own quest for vengeance, rather than for justice, or any ideal by which he might otherwise get beyond his own selfishness.

As the figure from whom all the darkness radiates, Loredano appears—with sharp, beautifully managed irony—very like the Doge, who is similarly relentless. Something of this is visible in the opposition between Faliero and Benintende in Act V of Marino Faliero. But here, Byron achieves the ironic mirroring of characters through far more elaborate rhetorical patterns, and sustains it through the whole play. For example, much of what Loredano says forms an exact, but inverted refraction of the Doge's remarks, attitudes, or ideals. Whereas the Prince has never allowed his personal interests to interfere with the State's, Loredano can say to Barbarigo, “now / We have higher business [than the State's] for our own” (IV, 17-8). Or consider Loredano's response when Barbarigo asks if the laws allow the impeachment they intend to inflict on the Doge: “What laws?—‘The Ten’ are laws; and if they were not, / I will be legislator in this business” (IV, 38-9). Similarly, the genuinely high-minded relentlessness of the Doge has its warped opposite in Loredano. Immediately after the Doge has lost his last son, Loredano says:

                                        The feelings
Of private passion may not interrupt
The public benefit; and what the State
Decides to-day must not give way before
Tomorrow for a natural accident.

(IV, 265-9)

If the Prince himself made such a comment, we would accept it as notable toughness. But in Loredano, any of the above passages signifies a chilling, satanic self-absorption. The State, the law, life itself, all exist utterly for his vengeance. He moves through his villainy calmly, with as much self-assurance as Lucifer, and more immediately, with more easily won self-control than the Doge. While Byron deftly paints the portrait of a unique human fiend, he uses this portrait to help characterize Foscari at the same time. Without Loredano as counterpart, the Doge would have no way of being as vivid a personage as he is. This is precisely to the purpose: the Promethean hero is partly satanic in that as rebel he must be willing and able to synthesize good and evil, thus getting beyond either. But this may easily go the wrong direction, and one of such strength is, like Napoleon, constantly, in danger of becoming a “bastard Caesar” after all.15 In the extreme, that describes Loredano, who is a would-be Promethean.

His rhetoric repays still closer study. The subtlety of his remarks frequently manifests itself as contradiction not just of the Doge, but of what he himself says elsewhere. Always he angles for his immediate end. In one passage above, for example, he says that he will be “legislator in this business”, but he previously had impugned the Doge by saying that the people have only the laws “which he would leave us” (I, 45-6). In like manner, in Act II Loredano is piqued because the old man did not grieve overtly while observing the torture of his son. Yet as Act IV opens, he sneers at the same fact for an entirely different purpose. He allows that the Doge's removal from the throne will not “break his heart”, as Barbarigo insists, because

                                        Age has no heart to break.
He has seen his son's half broken, and, except
A start of feeling in his dungeon, never

(IV, 4-7)

As the play progresses, the contradictions begin to enmesh themselves in thicker rhetorical nets. Sometimes Loredano's individual remarks contain within themselves a reversal of logic. Witness for example the following line of reasoning on the removal of the Doge, uttered in the same scene as the lines immediately above. The Ten should force him to leave now in the midst of his grief:

                                        Sorrow preys upon
Its solitude, and nothing more diverts it
From its sad visions of the other world,
Than calling it back to this.
The busy have not time for tears.

(IV, 251-5)

The complexity of such irony is impressive. First it contradicts the logic of the lines above—“Age has no heart to break”, etc.—which were themselves contradictory of an earlier passage. Secondly, in his intense commitment, the Doge indeed has always been too busy for tears. Finally, there is in this passage a self-contained illogicality: Loredano would rob the Doge of the only concern remaining to him by which he could avoid grief. Loredano's speeches interweave themselves until his own elaborate, selfish rationale literally bedims his vision, and Marina's image of him alone in a cell becomes not only more fitting, but more terrifying. He is already in it. His rhetoric forms the “mind-forg'd manacles” of his entrapment.

To reach this extremity of hate, Loredano insists he is avenging the deaths of his father and uncle. More deeply, I suggest that what is at stake is the central, abiding concern with the dynamic of time in Byron's metaphysic. In varying ways, Byron's heroes must accept the past into the present so that they may have a future; or, as in Jacopo's case, the present must contain all time. But Loredano has reversed this process and in effect has invested future and present in the past. He pursues, Barbarigo tells us, “hereditary hate too far” (I, 18), until the past totally controls him. This was true of Manfred, too, in Acts I and II of that play; but Loredano does not realize his blindness, and with pride, he wallows in the past, making no attempt to understand or overcome it. And, once again, we are always aware of how he resembles Foscari. If the spirit of freedom can be bequeathed to the future, as Faliero thinks, then apparently its opposite can, too. The negative is as endlessly creative as the positive, and Byron seems to be toying with the idea of some negative apocalypse. The same possibility also looms as a distant implication in Sardanapalus. But it is stronger here. Barbarigo specifically comments on the vitality of hatred: “You are ingenious, Loredano, in / Your modes of vengeance, nay, poetical, / A very Ovid in the art of hating” (V, 134-6).16 Here is poetry in reverse, and a potential hero of the “positive Negation” Coleridge came to fear.17 The spirit of tyranny, then, and that of freedom are in appearance as much alike as Loredano and the Doge, and the struggle of the two men, held out in relief against the backdrop of the State, takes on deeper symbolic clarity than similar conflicts in previous plays.

The final irony is that Loredano thinks he succeeds. But if he does, then by implication Satan or God, negative or positive, could either one finally die into total existence. The either-or aspect of such a suggestion does not chime, generally speaking, with Byron's metaphysic, especially in Cain. It is more likely that Byron turns fiercely and subtly on the dissonance of Loredano's apparent victory. Throughout the play, Loredano has been the only character able to act, and indeed the last word is his: the Doge, he says, has paid “Nature's debt and mine”. But in reality, his actions only belie the hideous, static consistency of his character. He is more trapped than the Doge, for his deeds achieve nothing for him; or rather, they lead him toward self-abstraction instead of the self-awareness of the poet. His acts achieve something for others, however, and that dimension of nuance, together with Loredano's last line, can best be approached through a careful examination of the Doge.


Since Jacopo's patriotic crime is really no crime at all, one is pretty well convinced that the Doge has committed none either. He is being persecuted merely because he has Promethean love for Venice, and hence those who are self-concerned beneath him must fasten on him imagined or suspicioned crimes. Although Loredano and Barbarigo both comment on the Doge's bad reign (I, 1-67), we have no proof that it has been so. More likely, his very uprightness constitutes his guilt in others' eyes. In addition, we are given the Doge's own assessment of his success. He speaks of his achievements quite incidentally, to a Senator who comes for his signature, incongruously on a decree which will bring peace to Venice at the very time she is making war against her sovereign:

I found her Queen of Ocean, and I leave her
Lady of Lombardy; it is a comfort
That I have added to her diadem
The gems of Brescia and Ravenna; Crema
And Bergamo no less are hers; her realm
By land has grown by thus much in my reign,
While her sea-sway has not shrunk.

(II, 17-23)

He does not defend himself against calumny, but his silence is not really suspect; “Guilt is loud”, Sardanapalus had cautioned Beleses, and Foscari has no need to be noisy in his own behalf.18 This is consistent with his whole character. The Doge will accept neither praise for his achievements, nor sympathy for his current dilemma. Because of his self-containment, he has need of neither. He tells Loredano that he has not “worked by plot in Council”, nor indeed by any “secret means”. He has had foes, but he was “openly” the foe in return (II, 230-3). The Doge claims no perfection, but his commitment to Venice places him above the merely rational categories of good and evil, whereas Loredano is beyond distinguishing the two. The Doge's vision allows him to see more than the immediate situation, and this in turn gives him a metaphorical view of the literal and the selfish. The play demands that we place this next to Loredano's outlook. And hatred, Barbarigo tells him with a fine stroke, “has microscopic eyes” (V, 138). The subtlety being underlined is the distinction between the empirical (or fallen) point of view, and the enlightened (or Promethean) overview. With Marina standing by, Foscari tensely tells Loredano:

I have observed with veneration, like
A priest's at the High Altar, even unto
The sacrifice of my own blood and quiet,
Safety, and all save honour, the decrees,
The health, the pride, and welfare of the State.

(II, 255-9)

And these words are to be compared to Loredano's: “We have higher business for our own.” There is also an irony on the Doge's simile of priest and altar if one remembers Memmo's calling himself a novice confronting the mysterious workings of the Ten. Tyranny deals in mystery of the sort Memmo indicates; but using the same metaphor, the Doge adds the word, “sacrifice”. The mystery he describes is the paradox of freedom (or to use his term, personal “honour”) which results from selfless commitment and a metaphorical point of view; honesty, like the State, is more important than self.

And yet, this transcendent “veneration” for the State's laws brings down utmost anguish upon Foscari. Because of the corruption in Venice, his private and public interests come perversely, negatively, together, utterly inhibiting his actions toward either. He must steel his heart; the narrative voice of Childe Harold III calls it “a stern task of soul:—No matter,—it is taught.”19 With painful irony, Marina constantly upbraids him for not saving his last son, but to do so would compromise his honesty to the State. Why not, then, reform the law?

I found the law; I did not make it. Were I
A subject, still I might find parts and portions
Fit for amendment; but as Prince, I never
Would change, for the sake of my house, the charter
Left by our fathers.

(II, 395-9)

Moreover, the Doge has no complaint against the State per se. Indeed, it has done well (II, 400-6). It is republican in nature, and hence good in Byron's terms. But the difficulty is that in the fallen world, a just government must contain both good and evil; it must be the synthesizing agent of paradox. That is what makes it just. Yet with control in the wrong hands, that marriage collapses, and good and evil separate. In that case, division exists, and either everything seems to be evil, or good and evil have the same appearance; either way, opposites cannot be discerned so that they may be contained. In the following passage, for instance, the Doge's subtle diction, and the context, display perfectly the turn-about of republicanism and oligarchical tyranny.

In the present State of Venice,
An individual, be he richest of
Such rank as is permitted, or the meanest,
Without name, is alike nothing, when
The policy, irrevocably tending
To one great end, must be maintained in vigour.

(II, 408-13)

His words are harsh, but they are not those of a tyrant. The Doge is driven to these words by his despair, and the overt statement is simply the underside of an opposite alternative: by paradox, if all were truly nothing, each might see beyond his own fate by seeing it mirrored in others; in that case, each would be “alike something”. At this point, Faliero would favor us with a metaphor for the ideal state, a Greek temple.20 But Foscari faces a more confused and benighted nobility than does Faliero, to whom he alludes at one point (V, 232). Besides being trapped as a father, he can see nothing to do as a leader except adhere to his selfless ideal. Endurance becomes his only course of action.21

But this suits Byron's theme and simplified structure, for it is the very spirit of division which the Doge must battle in order to preserve even his own unity, not to mention that of Venice. That spirit is symbolized by Loredano, and the tension between the two characters increases until they represent, as does the King in Sardanapalus, nearly mythic figures, caught up in this confrontation between categorically separated good and evil in an embroiled, tumbling society. In terms of poetic development, Byron has progressed toward greater simplicity in the form he gives to the political speculations of his metaphysic.

It is notable that, as political heroes, both Faliero and Sardanapalus undergo some alteration toward their final Promethean stature. But Foscari is much closer from the start, and my contention has been that the development of his character is consequently more subtle. In his first scene, for example, he says:

I have no repose, that is none which shall cause
The loss of an hour's time unto the State.
Let them meet when they will, I shall be found
Where I should be, and what I have been ever.

(II, 40-3)

This sounds utterly steadfast and positive. Yet these are not facile words. In his first interview with Marina, we learn that he maintains this ideal despite his clear view of lapsed humanity. He breaks his silent anguish momentarily to describe the nature of life to her in the blackest terms to be found in Byron:

                                                                                All is low,
And false, and hollow—clay from first to last
The Prince's urn no less than potter's vessel.
Our fame is in men's breath, our lives upon
Less than their breath; our durance upon days,
Our days on season; our whole being on
Something which is not us!—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 sinned in some old world,
And this is Hell: the best is, that it is not

(II, 241-55)

Sardanapalus had learned that he was isolated in nature, but Foscari has apparently been living with that knowledge. He must steel his heart against his isolation from his family, the State, and nature, so that he will not fall from his solitary integrity. As with Lara, in enduring so much the Doge may well kill his heart, and hence die into the self, rather than unto it. It is to be noticed, however, that the very fact that he continues to endure, while believing life to be as he describes it, is evidence of his will to affirm the struggle for unity, even in its absurdity, and even though that unity is entirely “concentered” within him. If every aspect of life is dependent on “Something which is not us”, then that which is us (i.e., is within) is all man can rely on. And within man, no matter what is outside in the emasculated world, there is the longing to escape selfishness, to get beyond self by achieving freedom and love. Oxymoronically that ideal of getting beyond the self must be achieved totally within the self. The only alternative is the capsized solipsism of Loredano. At least in this play, Byron does not offer any other choice.

In Acts IV and V the Doge is set to his most vicious test. Throughout the play, Marina has scorned him for watching dispassionately his son's “piecemeal” murder. How that figures in her characterization has already been discussed. But what does it achieve for the Doge? At the death of Jacopo in Act IV, Foscari's calm suddenly breaks into visible emotion. At first he laments, “My unhappy Children”, and the remark has an appropriate double meaning: he mourns the deaths of all his own children, but also, in his expanded view, the visionless death-in-life of his Venetian subjects. Still, Marina scalds him with this answer:

You feel it then at last—you!—Where is now
The stoic of the State?
(throwing himself down by the body) Here!

Dramatically, it is a startlingly important moment. This is the Doge's only sharp stage movement. The insupportable emotion establishes that, though he has steeled himself against his own heart to maintain his honesty, he does still have a heart; he is still human. It is more than can be said for Loredano, who has a matching moment of uncontrolled emotion: a heartless outburst of wrath at Barbarigo's momentary kindness (V, 156-9).

With exquisite timing, Loredano arrives at this juncture to tell the Doge the Senate has asked for his abdication. The Prince, however, commands himself immediately, as is his habit when duty calls. But now, there is a further reason why he is invulnerable. He tells them:

                    If the tidings which you bring
Are evil, you may say them; nothing further
Can touch me more than him thou look'st on there;
If they be good, say on; you need not fear
That they can comfort me.

(IV, 233-7)

From this point on, the Doge has gone one step further in his Promethean quest, and he becomes the loneliest of Byron's heroes with the exception of Cain. Precisely because he still has a heart, and it has lost all it can lose, that which remains is totally within. It is here that the unity of his characterization is of paramount thematic importance. His “concentered recompense” has been his guerdon all along, and now it is the only reality left to him. In addition, it cannot be touched because, being the product of his metaphorical view, it is wholly the creation of his own imaginative intellect, and it needs no comfort.

The importance of Act V is that the Ten do try to destroy even this entirety. But in requesting his abdication, they go too far. Since he has twice before asked to step down, has been denied, and has promised not to request it again (V, 39-40), he can refute them with, “I cannot break my oath” (1. 47). Never before has the State demanded outright dishonesty. He had said earlier he gave Venice “all save honour”. He thus forces them to decree his abdication, and the dishonesty is hence theirs. What accrues to him is the destruction of all remaining reality except what is in his mind. In a sense he forces them to make him literally “all-seeing, but unseen”.22 In this way, Loredano's acts are productive, not for himself but for the Doge, and in a less intense way, for Jacopo.

There results a certain ghoulish humor in what remains in the play; or rather, the already established patterns of irony now become wry as their inevitability is worked out. The Ten once more interrupt the Doge's mourning to inform him of their decree. When they proceed to request that he leave the palace, they ingratiate themselves in a number of ways. He may have three days to depart, else his “private fortune” will be confiscated (V, 173-5). But his fortune is already exhausted, having been spent in the exercise of his office (V, 344-5). What is more, he needs no time to decide. He immediately gives them his ring and diadem: “And so / The Adriatic's free to wed another.” With a gentleness ever so slightly barbed, he assures them he will not take the palace with him, nor will he or its walls, both old, tell any tales (V, 210-16). There is no need to leave them with a curse as Faliero did. In fact, Foscari needs words even less than Sardanapalus did. Privately, the quick departure costs him nothing because it has no real meaning; publicly, by readily taking upon himself their insults, he throws on them the terribly visible indecorum of such haste. It makes excellent ironic sense that he will allow no pomp to attend his departure, for materially there is little left of him; he descends as a mere citizen, and with splendidly pointed irony, we have already been told in a number of ways that citizens are all invisible. For Foscari himself, of course, this act has the positive meaning that his integrity has consumed everything. Even his principle statement to them has a dry tincture of mocking politeness to it, forming a perfectly inverted parallel to the rational tone of so many of Loredano's speeches:

If I could have foreseen that my old age
Was prejudicial to the State, the Chief
Of the Republic never would have shown
Himself so far ungrateful, as to place
His own high dignity before his Country;
But this life having been so many years
Not useless to that Country, I would fain
Have consecrated my last moments to her.
But the decree being rendered, I obey.


As the bell of St. Mark's tolls, the Doge weakens at this final insult, and asks for water. He deliberately chooses the glass proffered him by Loredano, and at the obvious level, we are left not knowing whether the Doge is murdered or not. But we should not need to know because in one sense, his literal death is meaningless in the face of his metaphorical death. And, in another sense, the imagery gives us more important knowledge. Upon dying, the Doge joins the light, the spirit of freedom, and it is entirely within his mind: “my brain's on fire!” The terrible irony is that he alone comprehends the consuming fire of freedom to which he has given his life. Sardanapalus' funeral pyre, while more grand, carries with it no more meaning than the same image used so differently here.

Still there is Loredano's last remark, the puzzling reference to “Nature's debt and mine.” As for Loredano's vengeance, it is not even superficially fulfilled. Marina's sons are still alive, as she has unhappily pointed out (III, 270-1), and they will doubtless inherit this feud. Hence Loredano's struggle has not profited him, though he thinks it has: looking grotesquely and foolishly like the recording angel, he writes a credit beside Foscari's debt in his ledger.23 Here is a clear indication of his rational, arithmetical, fallen point of view.

But what of “Nature's debt”? Certainly the presence of evil may be regarded as the debt man owes to his existence in the state of nature. There is some irony in having a character like Loredano use so orthodox a cliché. A more Byronic implication comes to mind: if nature's debt can ever be paid, it can be so only by absorbing it as Foscari does. It would follow that death is the only ultimate way to pay nature's debt; the metaphor of death would then become literal. In that case, one is fully balanced beyond opposites only in death, which for both the Foscari is a moment of total light. Such an idea illuminates the Doge's earlier comment on Jacopo's demise: while the attending officer exclaims, “He's gone!” the Doge counters immediately, “He's free.”


One further development in this play remains. Whereas Byron's first three plays are tragic in outlook, The Two Foscari is more than tragic, and the additional element is signalled by the repetition of the word, “mystery”. Clearly enough, Byron is more directly concerned with this idea in his next play, Cain, which is subtitled “A Mystery”. It is not that Foscari is less than tragic; he has risked his entire being on the abiding existential questions of life.24 He must play out his dilemma to the end because he is literally not allowed to turn from it. Through this, he learns that, even given man's fall, his isolation in nature, and in society, reunification may be reached and sustained by the individual. But there is an increased ambivalence in what this amounts to. Politically, Foscari is unable to bring society to a crisis, or even to attempt it, as Faliero did. Certainly, too, the rest of the visible world does not remotely understand the full value of Foscari's personal struggle. He alone comprehends it.

The ambivalence also pervades in the haunting conflict between good and evil. What is the meaning of it, and what difference does it make whether man wins or loses in it? Byron is, I think, still affirming man's tragic struggle for unity. But in all three historical plays, an increasing awareness of mystery lying beyond tragedy finds acknowledgement. And yet, it is an enlightened mystery in which some comfort is found, as opposed to the political mystery which tyranny deals in and multiplies. No longer does one receive so much as a voice out of the whirlwind to validate his endeavor. The individual alone must create the value he perceives from tragic vision, or even proceed to live tragically on blind faith alone. If he can do this, in the face of blank absurdity, he may still, Byron seems to say, balance good and evil by being himself the synthesis. Hence it is not merely Tennyson's “Believing where we cannot prove”, but a more active process.25 As suggested in an earlier chapter, tragic vision for Byron seems to be thought of, and imaged, in psychological terms in Manfred. These same terms not only abide in the historical plays, despite the radically different technique, but intensify as one reads through them chronologically. Because of what it suggests along these lines, The Two Foscari is a remarkably modern poem. As with Cain, Byron seems in this play to have come astonishingly close to absurdist drama.26

The artistry of it may best be measured by its quietness, engendered largely by the unity of characterization in Foscari and Loredano. In an admirably risky fashion, Byron sets the two combatants—both relentless and nearly mute—in relief against the more verbal characters like Jacopo, Marina, and Barbarigo, and against the state generally. He achieves striking effects by this arrangement. While the basic struggle remains extremely quiet, and the five acts are each unbroken by scene changes, the play yet quickens with poetic intensity. The very quietness itself points up the hushed grimness of the encounter. If Sardanapalus' palace becomes a microcosm of social man, then the two chief characters here become even more radically distilled symbols of man in society.

By reducing the involvement of the structure of the play, Byron gains a certain kind of dramatic quality which has an ancient tradition; the horribly tense struggle between good and evil assumes a liturgical solemnity and inevitability. It is in this manner that the mystery of it is fortified. But more than that: by his structure, Byron sets the central human issue before us with such unrelieved simplicity that we are not allowed to hide behind the complexity of argument. Finally, Byron can underline the ambiguous balance of good and evil by the uncomplicated movement of this play. In Cain, he advances further in this technical direction; there, one finds more of the uncluttered plotting, and a still simpler, plainer versification and language. The characters are, as one could anticipate, even more mythic, and more totally isolated because there is no society with which to identify.


  1. Even the early biographer, John Galt, Life of Lord Byron (London, 1830), p. 260, says he never knew or heard when this play was written. Byron's first mention of it in the letters is to Moore, June, 1821; LJ, [Byron's Works. Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland Prothero (London, 1898-1901)] V, 310.

  2. [Samuel Chew's discussion [in The Dramas of Lord Byron (Gottingen, 1915)], pp. 99-102, is the least helpful section of his study; [Leslie A.] Marchand, [Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, Mass., 1968)], pp. 101-2, is also unimpressed with this play (it “has even fewer virtues” than Marino Faliero); even [G. Wilson] Knight nowhere offers much commentary [see “The Two Eternities” in The Burning Oracle (London, 1939) and Lord Byron: Christian Virtues (London, 1952)]. By far the best criticism is that of [Jerome] McGann [The Fiery Dust (Chicago, 1968), pp. 215-27 passim, and [M. G.] Cooke The Blind Man Traces the Circle (Princeton, 1969), pp. 181-213 passim.

  3. The adroitness is still more remarkable when one realizes that Byron conceived and executed the play in less than a month; P, [Byron's Works. Poetry, ed. E. H. Coleridge (London, 1904-5)] V, 115. (Subsequent line numbers refer to Coleridge's text; P, V, 121-96.)

  4. In the Preface, P, V, 8, he claims only to “approach” the unities in this play. My contention is that the more obvious unities—of time and place—are only approached, perhaps because that of character is for the moment Byron's concern.

  5. Knight, The Burning Oracle, p. 286, does point to the play's extreme tensions.

  6. II, 140-43; P, IV, 260.

  7. Compare LJ, V, 189, 451.

  8. Chew, p. 100, hints at something of this.

  9. Ibid., p. 101; Chew is misled in saying this character's love of Venice renders him unconvincing, and he has misled nearly everyone since; for example, McGann, p. 220.

  10. Childe Harold III, xlv, and IV, cxxxv; P, II, 243, 429.

  11. P, V, 119.

  12. Byron took pleasure in the association of Venice with the sea: compare for example the “Ode to Venice”, I (P, IV, 193-4), Childe Harold IV i-ii (P, II, 327-8), and LJ, IV, 337.

  13. Manfred III, 4, 129-36; Marino Faliero IV, 2, 276-8; Sardanapalus V, 1, 223-8.

  14. Compare McGann's analysis, p. 222.

  15. Childe Harold IV, xc; P, II, 397.

  16. Other passages suggest this possibility: for example, II, 332-65; IV, 334-7.

  17. “Limbo”, The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge (Oxford, 1912), p. 431.

  18. Sardanapalus II, 1, 300.

  19. III, cxi; P, II, 285.

  20. Faliero's image of a Greek temple (III, 2, 168-75) implies Byron's idea of a republic, as does Sardanapalus' awareness that his subjects, because of his attitude, have “gorged themselves up to equality”. See also LJ, V, 462.

  21. The strongest critical commentary on the Doge is that of Cooke, pp. 181-213 passim, who sees him as a new development in Byron's heroes and the embodiment of “counter-heroic humanism”. His great virtue is that he refuses to act, and therefore contains at least his own guilt.

  22. Childe Harold IV, cxxxviii; P, II, 430.

  23. McGann, p. 218, points to the recurrence of the image of a balance, fortifying the irony of any concept of justice in the play, as Loredano does in another way here.

  24. Richard Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy (New Haven, 1959), p. 7.

  25. In Memoriam, Prologue, 1. 4: Tennyson: Poems and Plays, ed. Thomas Warren (Oxford, 1968), p. 230.

  26. See Leonard Michaels, “Byron's Cain”, PMLA, LXXXIV (Jan., 1969), 71-9 passim, who reads Cain as an absurdist drama.

Charles J. Clancy (essay date 1982)

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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 involvement or non-involvement in things of this world.11 Lim examines the duality of critical and linguistic approaches to the play (pp. 128-52); and finally, McGann reads it politically, philosophically, and intellectually, with Sardanapalus as a precursor of the Christ figure in D. H. Lawrence's The Man Who Died (pp. 17-18).12

Sardanapalus seems to be constructed round a concern with the interrelationship of death, love, and truth. Byron employs a sequence of three climaxes (the death of Salemenes, the defeat of Sardanapalus, and Sardanapalus' immolation with Myrrha) in which the earlier ones prepare for those which follow. It is time which connects these love/death climaxes and points up their significance.

Love is also a central theme in Marino Faliero,The Two Foscari,Manfred and Cain. In each case, the significance of love is integrally related to the fact of death. Death and love permeate the language, action, and characterizations of Sardanapalus. What differentiates Sardanapalus from Byron's other dramas is that romantic love is the vehicle for its major themes, while the others focus on self-love, national, family, or other-directed love.

Mythology is used to explore the unity of love, death, and truth. These myths are both pagan (see Kahn p. 655 for a discussion of Hercules and Bacchus, Seneca's favourite references in the Medea) and Christian. These in turn are related to the theme of love by means of two traditional metaphoric systems. The first is the literary motif of visceral, earthly love—romantic or quasi-courtly. In Sardanapalus physical love is part of the paraphernalia that conceals Sardanapalus from himself. His movement beyond the physical relationship with Myrrha illustrates the existence of a second metaphoric system. This transcendent love is expressive of and directly related to the first. Thus, man's mortality generates his desire to return to an Eden in which flesh is no longer grass, or to journey into the future, to paradise or elysium. Sardanapalus yearns for infinity in this life, but it is denied him by universal limitations—by time, by his inability to control others, and by man's religious, philosophical, and literary speculations on the fall from perfection. Therefore fleshly love is associated with death and with a return to primordial dust, a universal chaos of elements from which man has come and to which he will return, either dissipated as matter, “… purified by death from some / Of the gross stains of too material being” (V, i, 424-27), or integrated as energy “mind all unincorporate” (IV, i, 55).13

Sardanapalus muses and acts to create a temporal elysium (I, ii, 348-59). He bases his vision upon human history when he excoriates the false glory of ancestors and gods (I, ii, 133-39 and 267-72; IV, i, 178-210), since to follow their example is to worship death. He also speculates about his future role. The dark journey he experiences in sleep (IV, i, 24-174), and then undergoes in his conscious life, affects him literally and metaphorically. Darkness is an emblem of nothingness, and also of expulsion from this world. However, Sardanapalus, in his desire for Myrrha, and his sense of conflict with Zarina, gradually comprehends death differently. At first, it seems unnatural if inevitable to die. Thus, it might be best to seize a day for pleasure in an effort to forget or forestall it. But later in the play death beckons as a realm in which it may be possible to find answers to the mysteries of life. His reign fails, he believes, because he has tried to act out his love for another. Only in death is this a solution. To return to dust is natural for a mortal. It is also ‘natural’ spiritually because it can be accepted as part of a spiritual cycle. Returning, or forever journeying, the body and the mind are more than a materialistic unit; through love, they become a transcendental spirit.

Both Prometheus, in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and Sardanapalus are liberated by the power of love. Shelley used the Furies to suggest that evil could seize upon events, such as the French Revolution and the mission of Christ, so that redemption for some became subjugation for others. In Sardanapalus the same coup that liberates the king, enslaves his people. The Furies are unsuccessful because Prometheus understands their role as agents of evil, and pities them. He expresses his love for them and is set free. So too is Sardanapalus transformed by the insights of love, but he is led by these to death, and the hoped-for freedom which follows it.

If a river, or water, can be a symbol of generation, life, and change, it can and has been viewed as a metaphoric means to image a change of state, both physical and spiritual. Thus, water in the rite de passage archetype relates not only to Christian Baptism but to the significance of the flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In Sardanapalus an interesting use is made of water, not only in relation to life and after-life, but to wine and its use in ritual. Sardanapalus likes wine, not only for its effect, but because he conceives it to be the crowning accomplishment of Bacchus. But when the king is forced to go to war, he chooses to drink water. He comments that if he is engaged in killing, water is the drink he prefers (III, i, 363-65). Thus it represents a baptismal drink, a kind that he abhors in his personal life, and in his public role, but which he prefers when he changes from observer to active militant. This multiple sense of water/wine is suggested in Sardanapalus' praise of Bacchus:

… here in this goblet is his title
To immortality—the immortal grape
From which he first expressed the soul, and gave
To gladden that of man, as some atonement
For the victorious mischiefs he had done.

(I, ii, 173-77)

At the end of Act V, Sardanapalus again accepts a cup of wine from Myrrha (V, i, 451-452). He offers a drop not only to the flames of the funeral pyre, but to Beleses. Rebuked, he suggests that he will no longer be petty. But the element of sacrifice before immolation, despite the scene's qualification of the gesture, still makes Byron's point. Sardanapalus enacts the role of scapegoat (earlier announced by Myrrha [I, ii, 558]), and his death is payment for his own sin—or sinlessness. It is also a witness to the sins of his people. His rule, on one level, is tantamount to a new religion or philosophical world view. He is an iconoclast, and does not encourage the worship of any religion (II, i, 239-43).

Part of Sardanapalus' ambiguous nature is reflected in his statements about the fate which destroys his reign and person. When he gives Salamenes his signet, he does so with regret: “since necessity / Requires, I sanction and support thee” (I, ii, 369-70). He is described by Sfero, at one point, as a “son[s] of circumstance” (III,i, 321), and later describes himself as “the very slave of Circumstance” (IV, i, 330). Yet the qualities that he most admires in others—loyalty, honesty, friendship, and love—relate more appropriately to choice than they do to determinism. The life he lives before he engages his enemies in combat reflects a choice. He asserts that “Fate [has] made me what I am—may make me nothing— / But either that or nothing must I be! / I will not live degraded” (I, ii, 627-29). He also experiences pangs of guilt, which suggests that he is a free agent, responsible for his actions. At the end of the play Sardanapalus chooses death as a means to find the order of love, harmony, and peace beyond mortality.

The political implications of Sardanapalus are readily apparent. At the heart of the politics of Sardanapalus' paradise is the role and the nature of the king (see Nurmi, p. 12). An example of this is to be found in Sardanapalus' speech characterizing himself and Salemenes (II, i, 519-36). His softness is a veneer, while Salemenes' strength is that of stone, dead, and of the past. On one level his rule illustrates that even attempts to be truly loving and to infiltrate change by a kind of energetic apathy produce only toute la même chose. Among the conspirators this is illustrated by Beleses, now in command of revolt, as he relegates Arbaces to serfdom for his lack of strong purpose. When they win, “Arbaces is my servant” (II, i, 402).

On another, and related level, there is an inherent gap between theory and practice in Sardanapalus the political philosopher without a concrete model for the future, and Sardanapalus the king who leads, whether forced to or not. He plays and enjoys the role of king (see Whitmore, p. 70), despite his protestations to the contrary. For example, while being rebuked by Salemenes he curtly remarks “Thou dost forget thee: make me not remember / I am a monarch” (I, ii, 50-51), and again “Yet urge me not / Beyond my easy nature” (I. ii. 60-61). At the suggestion that rebellion is fomenting he is quick to point out that he is “… a lawful king” (I, ii, 202), and that his relationship with his wife stems from his hereditary right:

I married her as monarchs wed—for state,
And loved her as most husbands loved their wives.
If she or thou [Salemenes] supposedst I could link me
Like a Chaldean peasant to his mate,
Ye knew nor me—nor monarchs—nor mankind.

(I, ii, 213-17)

Other examples could be provided from Act V, in Sardanapalus' questions to Pania, and in his dealings with the herald of the rebels. But the point is clear. It is not that Sardanapalus feels contempt for his social position, as Chew suggests (p. 109), but that his position is as much a part of him as his dissatisfaction with the past. This difficulty may be the result of cultural or biological factors, but it is apparent that it is one thing to praise equality and the right to do what you feel is best for yourself, it is quite another to give up a public role, exemplified by marriage for state and love by choice, to espouse mercy and forgiveness (and then to express, even momentarily, regal anger in the face of messengers who are not obsequious, or more to the point, who act as, if not superiors, equals [V, i, 285-356].)

Sardanapalus suggests (and, oddly, Salemenes agrees by suggesting freedom for Myrrha at the end of Act IV) that he has a political and social plan behind his acts. It is based upon tradition to the extent that he, as the leader of a ruling class, is allowed the luxury for contemplation and the time for sensual indulgence. Assyria is wealthy, respected, and powerful. Sardanapalus is at its head. Herein lies the difficulty in effecting new ideas and practices that erode, or contradict, the very base of power. He respects life (I, ii, 293), “hates all pain, / Given or received” (I, ii, 348-49), seeks pleasure and peace for all. Yet, although he opposes corruption, hypocrisy, and violence, his rule has fostered them all, as Salemenes points out (I, ii, 65-74). He opposes war, draconian justice, and usurpation by a privileged few at the expense, literally, of a voiceless majority. Yet his reign ends with a tumultuous battle in which the seat of the kings of Assyria will be destroyed, Salemenes' sense of draconian utility will be visited upon the empire ten-fold, and a new aristocracy of violent energy will restore things to the way they have been, and, as those forces would argue, the way they not only will be for ages to come, but should be (see Chew, p. 117; Bostetter, p. 575). It is ironic, but true, that Sardanapalus “… fights to save the status quo” (Whitmore, p. 67). The political applications of Sardanapalus to the nineteenth century are as readily available as they are in Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari.

Sardanapalus would like to initiate a Utopia of freemen not bound by traditional politics, religions, or social mores (I, ii, 262 & ff; II, i, 308-22; III, i, 10-15; III, i, 26). Even his nightmare has a garish example of wish-fulfilment equality, stamped with inertia: “I saw, that is, I dreamed myself … Willing to equal all in social freedom …” (IV, 78 & 81). Yet to do this necessarily confronts the social reality, not only of his role, but of those roles dependent on his (IV, i, 340 & ff.). For example, Myrrha, a concubine, is a Greek slave; Zarina, his wife, is an Assyrian version of a product of the English marriage mart; and his heirs are not merely children, they are threats to the conspirators.

More importantly, the people are not heard, primarily because they are not consulted. Whitmore's suggestion that Sardanapalus despises the people, and that this is a major flaw in his professed pacifism (pp. 71-72), overstates the case. However, except for the loyalists and the rebels, no other consensus is introduced. Nor is one attempted. Perhaps this is an admission that it would be impossible to get one. If Myrrha is a slave, Sardanapalus considers himself a slave to circumstance, and the first student of the failure of his reign. It is also true that faced with failure Sardanapalus reacts harshly to a people he feels have not been worthy of his sacrifice. As reports of the rebellion are given, Sardanapalus angrily refers to the people as “slaves” (I, ii, 99) and “ungrateful and ungracious slaves” (I, ii, 226). Beleses' treacherous obsequiousness reveals the same thing (II, i, 111-14). Most ironic is the interchange between the Herald bearing the rebel's terms and Sardanapalus in Act V.

Answer slave! How long
Have slaves decided on the doom of kings?
Since they were free

(V, i, 306-7)

If rulers are slaves, and the people are to be kings, perhaps the difficulty of language (already noted in Sardanapalus' petulant sense of its inefficacy) indicates the difference between comprehension and accomplishment.

Byron's desire to create a forum for his sense of truth in Sardanapalus helps explain the manipulation of history in his portrayal of the Assyrian monarch. This is apparent in the comments in his Letters and Journals on the meliorative changes introduced in the portrayal of Sardanapalus from the historical models (L & J's, V, 299; V, 324). Unlike the real Sardanapalus, Byron's character has a desire to be depicted honestly to his sons. Perhaps it also explains why he did not subtitle the play an ‘historical tragedy’, a phrase he applied to both Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari (see Calvert, p. 173; and Cooke, p. 96).

Byron tempers Sardanapalus' effeminacy in an effort to make him a more sympathetic character (see L & J's, V. 301). But he does not play down the more conventionally acceptable expressions of his carnal nature. This relates wine and Bacchus-Dionysus, for example, to Sardanapalus' more traditional acceptance of the carpe diem motif. The king's first speech (I, ii, 1-14) succeeds Salemenes', and begins to make this clear. Sardanapalus plans a feast on a Pavilion over the Euphrates. His language, in metaphoric suggestiveness and sensual synesthesia—“soft hours” will be shared, “the sweetest hour” enjoyed—contrasts markedly with the cerebral emotions of Salemenes. These images, and those of the stars used to describe the company (I, ii, 11), relate to the preceding discussion of themes, and they follow directly upon the thoughts of Salemenes.

Sardanapalus is about to learn “virtue” (I, ii, 88), not as taught by Salemenes, and “Wisdom and Glory” (II, i, 127), not from the example of Beleses, but from experience and from Myrrha. His version of the carpe diem theme appears in response to Salemenes' desire for him not to use the Pavilion for his planned banquet. Sardanapalus replies:

Forbear the banquet! Not for all the plotters
That even shook a kingdom! Let them come,
And do their worst: I shall not blench for them;
Nor rise the sooner; nor forbear the goblet;
Nor crown me with a single rose the less;
Nor lose one joyous hour.—I fear them not.

(I, ii, 308-13)

Sardanapalus' soliloquy, a little after the centre of Act II (after he has toasted Bacchus, and given his unique interpretation of the glory and tradition [ii, 385-418]), provides a further contrast to Salemenes. Interestingly, it is also at the outset characterized by a rhetorical display of intellectual balance and antithesis (see Lim, pp. 135-36).

… He [Salemenes] is stern
As I am heedless; and the slaves deserve
To feel a master. What may be the danger,
I know not; he hath found it, let him quell it.

(I, ii, 387-90)

But Sardanapalus' mind, chameleon-like in its use of language, is more effectively itself when categories and deductions are left behind, when he builds on fact and precedent to imagine inductively the links between the real and the possible.

Sardanapalus reveals himself to be a poet-king here and throughout the play. He notes that suspicion breeds psychosis (I, ii, 393-97), and eloquently and concretely reflects on life and the future:

I have loved, and lived, and multiplied my image;
To die is no less natural than those
Acts of this clay!

(I, ii, 400-02)

This is eloquent because “image” means a number of things simultaneously. The images are his children, the cities of Anchialus and Tarsus, his own reflection in Myrrha's eyes, and later, his reflection in the mirror before battle. He neither apologizes for nothing gained, nor for the opportunities lost by not being a tyrant. By means of an interesting ambiguity he focuses upon the essence of his nature and his soul, “… my life is love: / If I must shed blood, it shall be by force” (I, ii, 406-07). This is effective because it is excellent dramatic foreshadowing. Sardanapalus' life becomes love when he understands the relationship between death and life, and after he uses force, sheds blood, and finds verification for what Blake repeatedly asserts, for example, in “The Grey Monk”,

… But vain the Sword and vain the Bow,
They can never work War's overthrow.
The hand of vengeance found the Bed
To which the Purple Tyrant fled;
The iron hand crushed the Tyrant's head
And became a Tyrant in his stead.(14)

that to use force to achieve peace taints the user, and further distances the goal. As has been stated before (I, ii, 262-66 & 348-54) Sardanapalus abhors violence and pain. Almost immediately after these reflections his train of thought becomes more mechanical, if not less poetic, before he finally banishes thought—“I'll think no more” (I, ii, 419). But first balance and antithesis return; “If then they hate me, 'tis because I oppress not” (I, ii, 412). Then biblical echoes animate his continual interest in describing his relation to the human condition (I, ii, 414-18). Circumstance and precedent seem to indicate inexorably that to rule requires a scythe, that men are grass and must be “mowed” in order to preserve what Sardanapalus feels does exist, if very tenuously, in his realm, “fertility.” In fact, it must be protected else it become “a desert of fertility” (I, ii, 418).

By examining the methods of speaking, especially of Salamenes, Myrrha, and Sardanapalus, one can not only see the king's growth as a poet of love, but realize, by his example, the dangers inherent in his ability to manipulate language. Thus, he is a caustic and humorous debater with Beleses and Arbaces, and well able to rebuke the harshness of Salemenes (II, i, 175-322), (see Joseph, p. 116). In the varied conflicts of the play, with Salemenes, Myrrha, and Zarina, Sardanapalus reveals the workings of his mind by responding in the rhetorical modes used by his antagonists. He can use colloquial (V, i, 236-39), military (III, i, 540 & ff.), philosophical (II, i, 519-37), and elevated love language (II, i, 253-68), as the circumstances require. But the sense of antagonism between speakers is essential. In his Letters and Journals Byron notes that lovers are never friends, that love is a “hostile transaction,” and never a sinecure (L & J's, VI, 137). Sardanapalus acts as if love were the human condition, and like the violence of warfare and the tension of disparate position and thought, it is expressed and experienced in conflict.

If love is a superlative emotional and cognitive experience for Sardanapalus, if “all passions in excess are female” (III, i, 381), then this relates to Byron's tragic sense of the king's effeminacy. It also provides a visible, intellectual framework for the oscillation of action and thought that characterizes not Platonic but human love. Sardanapalus is the catalyst for the play's antagonism. His poetic language develops, by means of false starts, unsuccessful concrete examples, and, on occasion, unsuccessful literary and cultural anachronisms, to the point at which he must return to the abstract, intellectual centre of his first soliloquy to find not only adequate but eloquent means to express how his “life is love” (I, ii, 396).

It has been pointed out that Salemenes frequently reasons by numbers. Just as frequently, the numbers are disjoined, or non-consecutive. For example, when the rebels are being driven from the palace he says:

Our numbers gather; and I've ordered onward
A cloud of Parthians, hitherto reserved,
All fresh and fiery, to be poured upon them
In their retreat, which will soon be a flight.

(III, i, 333-36)

Again, while cautioning the king to be careful for his life, he says:

                    You must spare
To expose your life too hastily; 'tis not
Like mine or any subject's breath,
The whole war turns upon it—with it; this
Alone creates it, kindles, and may quench it—
Prolong it—end it.

(IV, i, 568-73)

Salemenes just as frequently mixes his metaphors, usually in the same phrase. Perhaps this relates his militarism to an inadequate grasp of language. This is further illustrated when he mixes positive and negative value systems in the same context, apparently unaware of the consequences. Sardanapalus can imitate Salemenes' patterns of thought and speech. That is, he is conversant with the jargon of the military (III, i, 258-61; IV, i, 557-60), although he does not commit errors either of logic or of syntax in its use. He may not be as effective with the jargon of the warrior as he is with the jargon of the lover, because the latter is a vehicle for his true beliefs. However when he speaks in either idiom, he compromises neither language nor thought.

It becomes apparent that Sardanapalus rejects Salemenes' desire for him to be a traditional hero. He also corrects Myrrha's affinity for Salemenes' politics and his utilitarian mode of speech so that she accepts what Sardanapalus discovers, by arguing, to be a true understanding of love and its language.

Myrrha is also fond of reasoning by numbers (I, ii, 494-505 & 509-15; III, i, 331-37; III, i, 425-29). But her approach is far more syllogistic than Salemenes'. Her model for political proselytizing is also more apparent, if she lacks the irony of the original speaker. She is Machiavellian:

Alas my Lord, with common men
There needs too oft the show of war to keep
The substance of sweet peace; and for a king;
'Tis sometimes better to be feared than loved.

(I, i, 532-35)

Machiavelli, in The Prince, makes a similar point.

And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we would wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.15

She continually wants to teach Sardanapalus; to save him and his realm from civil war (I, ii, 526-28); to “… teach him how to reign” (I, ii, 664); or to die, with honour, if that is the only recourse (I, ii, 665-66).

Her basic agreement with Salemenes' interpretation of glory and history also echoes Machiavelli. She would like to avoid the chaos that Sardanapalus' political and individual ideals have brought upon Assyria (V, i, 1-37). She realizes that the rebels represent more truly than does the king the mass of political precedent. As Machiavelli points out:

“For the vulgar are always taken by appearances and by results, and the world is made up of the vulgar, the few only finding room when the many have no longer ground to stand on.”

(p. 59)

Most important, she agrees that Sardanapalus' kingdom is not of this earth. As Machiavelli notes:

For many Republics and Princedoms have been imagined that were never seen or known to exist in reality. And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since any one who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential, therefore, for a Prince who desires to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires.

(pp. 50-51)

The end of the play finds Myrrha resigned, as is Sardanapalus, to Assyria's temporal state, and willing to seek another in death.

In conversation, Myrrha cumulatively makes points. She is just as frequently answered by Sardanapalus in a similar mode. Their most effective dialogues usually follow another conflict. For example, one occurs after Sardanapalus sees Zarina for the last time (IV, i, 240 & ff.), a scene that Cooke feels is a dramatic mistake (p. 573). If true, the scene is remarkably functional. The honey-bee, nature imagery used in their last conversation—

… Happier than the bee,
Which hives not but from wholesome flowers.
Then reap
The honey, nor inquire whence 'tis derived.

(IV, i, 321-24)

and miner-ore metaphors that succeed this (IV, i, 342-53) conclude with Sardanapalus' rather feeble rationalization for the failure of their love (IV, i, 423-36). Myrrha enters, after Zarina's departure, and his anger at her appearance re-introduces an appropriately modified version of the preceding poetic banter. He begins to soften, and again rationalizes, this time his anger:

Yet stay—being here.
I pray you pardon me; events have soured me
Till I wax peevish—heed it not: I shall
Soon be myself again.
I wait with patience.
What I shall see with pleasure.

(IV, i, 444-49)

This linguistic approximation of the ambiguity of equality of love, indicated as the king at first plays despot, gives way to his realization that he has not truly understood Myrrha (IV, i, 458-ff.) They then speak more in character. Their casual relationship is best expressed in the abstractions they manipulate in a continual effort both to say what they mean and be understood. She pleads her love, and he compliments her:

You talk it well—
And truly.
In this hour
Of man's adversity all things grow daring
Against the falling.

(IV, i, 466-70)

He suggests that they part “… while peace is still between us” (IV, i, 473). When Myrrha asks “Why?,” Sardanapalus misses the point of the question and answers her pragmatically: “For your safety” (IV, i, 478). Her answer is direct and to the point: “I pray you talk not thus” (IV, i, 480). They then strive to bridge the gap of semantics. She says that his fate is hers, and Sardanapalus responds by accepting this, he is “content.” He then characterizes, rather than rationalizes, his rule:

… peace is the only victory I covet.
To me war is no glory—conquest no

(IV, i, 504-06)

I thought to have made mine inoffensive rule
An 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 not
Recall Sardanapalus' golden reign.
I thought to have made my realm a paradise,
And every moon an epoch of new pleasures.

(IV, i, 511-18)

Myrrha assents, and recants her former view of love (I, ii, 486). The earth may disappear, and all of its glory, but their relationship is eternal. She loves “without self-love” (IV, i, 528). All that remains is that they “prove it” (IV, i, 528), by their actions.

Both Sardanapalus and Myrrha speak more effectively, and more poetically, the closer they approach death. Thus, their conversation is a mode of the dimensioned treatment of theme at the centre of Sardanapalus. Their speeches, in the last part of Act V, function especially and clearly in this regard.

In Act V, scene i, lines 224-27, Sardanapalus discusses the insufficiency of language faced with death. This is the king's poetic apology, but not, as McGann suggests, an admission of failure (p. 19). It is also dramatic preparation for his last soliloquy.

But what are words to us? we have well nigh done
With them and all things.

(V, i, 227-28)

Myrhha answers by exalting the universal finality of death as the ultimate human experience. The king replies with a deductive analogue, a rhetorical descent, expressive of pathetic understatement. He attempts to simplify the complex reasoning involved in accepting death. They should be

… cheerful.
They who have nothing more to fear may well
Indulge a smile at that which once appalled;
As children at discovered bugbears.

(V, i, 236-39)

Sardanapalus' final soliloquy is his most eloquent, and simultaneously, his most formal utterance (V, i, 424-48). It does not indicate what McGann points to as the king's increasing scepticism (p. 18), nor does Sardanapalus “turn[s] to death in order to justify his life” (p. 19). Lines 436-38 returns us to the exegi monumentum convention first introduced by Salemenes (I, i, 1-47).

Sardanapalus accepts Myrrha, and now sees himself in her eyes, in the fire, and in the stars. Horace supplies precedent for Byron's use of blank verse in tragedy (“Blank verse is now, with one consent, allied / To tragedy and rarely quits her side” English Bards 117-18); and the beginning of his thirtieth ode provides a remarkable parallel, or analogue, to Sardanapalus' final sentiments.

I have finished a monument more durable than brass, and higher than the regal site of the pyramids; which neither wasting rain, nor the blustering north-wind can destroy, or the innumerable series of years, and flight of seasons. I shall not wholly die; and a great part of me shall escape the goddess of death. Continually anew shall I increase in posterity's praise …16

Sardanapalus has accepted reality, poetically. He is now esteemed by Myrrha for what he is, and she will die with him because “duty” (V, i, 371) for her, and for Sardanapalus, is also an expression of love. The funeral pyre, with the throne of Assyria at its centre, indicates that love and death are coterminous, not an escape mechanism continued out of life. The destruction is political, religious, and individual, yet it is a symbol for a higher unity which love and now death have made possible.

Sardanapalus has always been in love with time, but not with its passage. Here he emblematically seizes the time of his own death. (Lim points out that he is the only successful suicide in Byron's plays, p. 149). Death is the agent for the eternal love that he and Myrrha will become. He dies “stronger [but] and better[?]” Whitmore, p. 88). Love is also the political idea or ideal he wished for in life, but was denied. The future will recognize his example, and judge his shortcomings, and those of his age, with truth enlightened by love. Finally, his reign will be both a political and a religious metaphor—a symbol rising in flames above difference and difficulty, not in spite of, but because of, the nature of both love and death. Chew argues that Sardanapalus is not redeemed by love in the play, but rather by the power of his will (pp. 13-14). The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the former is an expression of the latter. Sardanapalus does not possess an incomplete conception of love, nor is he a prophet gone sour (Nurmi, p. 11). As Ruddick suggests, his death is a symbol “… of universal sympathy and love (p. 91).

Byron develops a new sense of the unities in Sardanapalus. The unity of action—represented by love in the mind and the imagination)—is joined with the unity of place—represented by the earth, the body, and by death—and with the unity of time—the nine hours which elapse (L & J's, V, 301), and the sense of time/infinity in the soul. Time allows the passage from death into a new love. The play's imitation of action suggests the paradox of finding rest from motion in thought. It is expressed in what Lim refers to as the paradox of a love-death (p. 141).


  1. George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry, ed. E. H. Coleridge, 1918. Hereafter references to this edition of Sardanapalus will appear in the text by act, scene and line numbers.

  2. Arthur D. Kahn, “Seneca and Sardanapalus: Byron the Don Quixote of Neo-Classicism.” SP, 66 (1968), 654-71).

  3. Michael G. Cooke, “The Restoration Ethos of Byron's Classical Plays,” PMLA, 79 (1964), 569-78.

  4. Samuel C. Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron, 1915; Graham Hough, The Romantic Poets, 1953; William J. Calvert, Byron: Romantic Paradox, 1953; Ernest J. Lovell, Byron: The Record of a Quest, 1949; Leslie A. Marchand, Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction, 1965; William Ruddick, “Lord Byron's Historical Tragedies,” in Nineteenth Century British Theatre, eds. K. Richards and P. Thomson, 1971; Jerome J. McGann, “Byron, Teresa and Sardanapalus,K-SMB, 18 (1967), 7-22.

  5. Martin K. Nurmi, “The Prompt Copy of Charles Kean's 1838 Production of Byron's Sardanapalus,” Serif, ii (1967), 3-13; Boleslaw Taborski, Byron and the Theatre, Salzburg, 1972; Margaret Howell, “Sardanapalus,” The Byron Journal, 2 (1974), 42-52.

  6. G. Wilson Knight, “Shakespeare and Byron's Plays,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 95 (1959), p. 97.

  7. W. Paul Elledge, Byron and the Dynamics of Metaphor, 1968, p. 135.

  8. Allen P. Whitmore, The Major Characters of Lord Byron's Dramas, Salzburg, 1973, p. 73, pp. 78-79, pp. 80-83, and especially p. 137.

  9. Paulino Lim, Jr., The Style of Lord Byron's Plays, Salzburg, 1973, p. 147.

  10. Chew, p. 113.

  11. Ruddick, p. 87.

  12. Jerome J. McGann, “Byronic Drama in Two Venetian Plays,” K-SMB, 18 (1967), 30-44.

  13. George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals, ed. R. E. Prothero, 1922, V, 456-58. Hereafter references to this work will appear in the text indicated by volume and page numbers.

  14. William Blake, The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. G. Keynes, 1966, pp. 430-31, “The Grey Monk,” 25-26, 33-36.

  15. N. Machiavelli, The Prince, New York, 1910, p. 55. Hereafter references to this work will appear in the text by page number.

  16. Horace, The Works of Q. Horatius Flaccus, trans. P. A. Nuttall, New York, 1874, p. 124, Ode XXX, “To Melpomene.”

Peter J. Manning (essay date 1978)

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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 ‘the Question’, and the recurrent phrase is a sign of the interrogative role the reader must adopt. Because the secondary characters do not wholly comprehend the events before them the drama evolves as much in their uncertain responses as in the clash of the principals, and their attempt to puzzle out the action is the prototype for the reader's. Yet in the end the drama is weakened by the doubts that Byron permits to surround the basic facts of the story, and his want of concern with them alerts the reader that his interests lie elsewhere than in the feud between Loredano and the Foscari.

‘I have been so beyond the common lot / Chastened and visited’, Jacopo says sadly in Act IV, ‘I needs must think / That I was wicked’ (IV.i.166-68). All Byron's heroes are haunted by this sense of a guilt anterior to any action which drives them towards self-punishment, and here the note of bewildered innocence is not unwarranted: Jacopo is a victim of the hate aroused by his father, and it is thus appropriate that the Doge appear as his persecutor. The Doge seems dimly to realize that Jacopo is his scapegoat; he tells Jacopo's wife Marina that ‘they who aim / At Foscari, aim no less at his father’ (II.i.86-87). By his action he in effect consents to the substitution, and when Marina reproaches him for complicity and he replies by arrogating the words of Christ on the cross the bitter variation of Christian symbolism becomes explicit: ‘I forgive this, for / You know not what you say’ (II.i.125-26). ‘You have seen you son's blood flow, and your flesh shook not,’ she exclaims in horror (II.i.129), but the Doge feels only that Jacopo is a ‘disgrace’ to their house and it is left to her to insist that the Venetians should ‘implore / His grace’ for their cruelty (II.i.171-72). Byron counterpoints the suggestion that the dedication of the Doge to Venice is a secular analogue of the Gospel declaration that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to redeem it with a characteristic allusion to patria potestas hinting at an adversary position devoid of charity: Barbarigo describes the Doge ‘With more than Roman fortitude … ever / First at the board in this unhappy process / Against his last and only son’ (I.ii.24-26). An Old Testament parallel conveys the Doge's attitude more accurately than the New; it is clear that he has cast himself as the martyr of the piece in the image of Abraham commanded to slay Isaac:

I have observed with veneration, like
A priest's for the High Altar, even unto
The sacrifice of my own blood and quiet,
Safety, and all save honour, the decrees,
The health, the pride, and welfare of the State.


I do not know precisely how much weight Byron meant us to give to echoes like these, but their frequency (like his lifelong fascination with, and opposition to, the intricacies of Christian dogma) testifies to the appeal made to his imagination by episodes of a son slaughtered by a father.

The dimensions of the family conflict in The Two Foscari extend to every area of the plot. Jacopo is in prison because he is unable to exist apart from Venice; already in exile for a previous offence, he opened a treasonous correspondence in order to be discovered and recalled. He knows that he will not survive his return but he is compelled to it by the irresistible impulse that his welcome to death reveals: ‘my native earth / Will take me as a mother to her arms’ (I.i.142-43). Jacopo exclaims that the brief glimpse of the city he is allowed while out of his cell makes him feel ‘like a boy again’ (I.i.93), for to him it represents the innocent peace of childhood. His happy memories of swimming in the ocean and racing gondolas along its surface further illustrate the nature of his desire to regress to a fostering maternal environment. ‘I was a boy then,’ he concludes wistfully, and the reply of the guard seals the impossibility of ever recapturing that lost bliss: ‘Be a man now: there never was more need / Of manhood's strength’ (I.i.122-23).

The Doge calls his son's compulsion ‘womanish’, and it is indeed produced by identification with the mother, but he too transfers to the city the emotional force usually inspired by women. In this context, as in Marino Faliero, the feminine gender customarily employed in referring to Venice acquires special significance. The common usage resonates disconcertingly when at his first appearance the Doge recounts his service to Venice while the city destroys his son:

I found her Queen of Ocean, and I leave her
Lady of Lombardy; it is a comfort
That I have added to her diadem
The gems of Brescia and Ravenna; Crema
And Bergamo no less are hers; her realm
By land has grown by thus much in my reign,
While her sea-sway has not shrunk.


The language confirms that Venice stands at the apex of an oedipal triangle in which the brand of traitor enforces Jacopo's position as the defeated son and the Doge's eminence magnifies his status as the triumphant father and husband. His rationale for rejecting Marina's plea that he intervene in Jacopo's behalf exposes his complete identification with paternal authority:

I found the law; I did not make it. Were I
A subject, still I might find parts and portions
Fit for amendment; but as Prince, I never
Would change, for the sake of my house, the charter
Left by our fathers.
                                                                                Did they make it for
The ruin of their children?
                                                                                          Under such laws, Venice
Has risen to what she is—a state to rival
In deeds, and days, and sway, and, let me add,
In glory (for we have had Roman spirits
Amongst us), all that history has bequeathed
Of Rome and Carthage in their best times,
The people swayed by Senates.
                                                                                                              Rather say,
Groaned under the stern Oligarchs.
                                                                                                                                  Perhaps so:
But yet subdued the World: in such a state
An individual, be he richest of
Such rank as is permitted, or the meanest,
Without a name, is alike nothing, when
The policy, irrevocably tending
To one great end, must be maintained in vigour.
This means that you are more a Doge than father.


The deadly juggernaut the Doge makes of the state is a reflection of the ruthless self-control he practises upon himself, for he loves his son but will not be seen to unbend. ‘I cannot weep,’ he tells Marina, ‘I would I could’ (II.i.78), and the hypersensitivity that perceives sympathy as condescension explodes when she attempts to commiserate: ‘Pitied! None / Shall ever use that base word, with which men / Cloak their soul's hoarded triumph, as a fit one / To mingle with my name’ (II.i.146-49). The first consequence of such repression is as always the sense of a hostile, determinist universe; ‘So, we are slaves, / The greatest as the meanest—nothing rests / Upon our will,’ the Doge laments of his self-created hell (II.i.357-59). Jacopo's death is the counterpart (and in some measure the result of) his own stifled tenderness. ‘And this is Patriotism?’ Marina asks unbelievingly; ‘To me it seems the worst barbarity’ (II.i.427-28). She likewise denounces her husband's attachment to Venice as ‘Passion, and not Patriotism’ (III.i.143), and through her it is realized that the fanatic loyalty to Venice that links the otherwise unlike father and son is the mark of a crisis of which the harshness of the one and the softness of the other are the twin faces.

Marina is a second, sexual focus of the disguised situation expressed in The Two Foscari, and she occupies a position congruent to that of Venice in the complex of feelings represented by the two men. On the surface she and the city are polar opposites: whereas Venice is the exalted lady of the Doge and the devouring mother of Jacopo, Marina is the loyal wife of the latter and the courageous antagonist of the former. This symmetry, however, discloses a deeper similarity. Jacopo's weakened condition makes him so dependent on Marina for support, forensic and physical, that she becomes to him the nursing protectress that she is to their children, a portrait of the ideal aspects of the fantasized mother figure even as Venice is of the negative. Yet since the structure of the drama places as much emphasis on the intimacy between Marina and the Doge as on the marriage relationship, Jacopo seems to the reader to be in competition with his father for her attention. The advantage he enjoys in our minds by actually being her husband is offset when his early death leaves Marina and the Doge alone together. In the end the Doge too is reduced to dependence on Marina by his grief-stricken collapse and removal from office, and in the configuration of the elderly widower watched over by his son's wife the motif of the redemptive daughter observed throughout Byron as a primary manifestation of his central ambivalence towards women recurs. Indeed, Marina's strength has sinister implications. Marina is proud not to have ‘left barren the great house of Foscari’, but the reader knows too well the connotations of such sternness not to be taken aback when she declares that she refused to cry out in the pain of childbirth ‘for my hope was to bring forth / Heroes, and would not welcome them with tears’ (I.i.240-47). The corollary of her maternal fierceness is the terrifying capacity for passion that from Gulnare through Myrrha and Semiramis Byron distrustfully ascribes to his female protagonists. If Marina is the exponent of charity pleading against the savage world of men her instincts also make her a destructive force within that world: ‘I have some sons, sir, / Will one day thank you better,’ she warns Loredano (III.i.269-70). The anticipation of revenge entails upon future generations the misery that afflicts the Doge and Jacopo, and hints that Marina is a mother who, like Venice, may consume the life of her children.

Byron's characterization of Loredano is the perfect complement to the internal dynamics of the Foscari family. The cynical contempt for legitimacy he displays in answering Barbarigo's objections to the planned deposition of the Doge calls into doubt the elder Foscari's sacramental vision of the immutable institutions of Venice:

What if he will not?
                                                                                We'll elect another,
And make him null.
                                        But will the laws uphold us?
What laws?—‘The Ten’ are laws; and if they were not,
I will be legislator in this business.


The Doge's exaltation of the state is cast in a still more ambiguous light when even after this flagrant admission Loredano rebuts Barbarigo's argument that the Doge has already suffered enough in the death of his son by turning against him exactly the principle the Doge invoked in refusing to aid Jacopo, sanctimoniously proclaiming that ‘The feelings of private passion may not interrupt / The public benefit’ (IV.i.265-67). The immediate effect of this hypocrisy is undoubtedly to confirm Loredano's wickedness, but with it Byron also reminds the reader that the forms of the state can be manipulated to mask personal ends; the play is less concerned with apportioning individual guilt than with adumbrating the common motivation of the enemies. Like the Doge, Loredano is obsessed with the need to fulfil the imagined expectations of paternal authority; he is driven to retribution by the ‘hereditary hate’ he carries engraved on his tablets, an apt emblem of his psychological fixity. He is a scourge to the Foscari only because he must prove that he is a good son to his own forebears, and his thirst for vengeance will be the inheritance of Marina's children in the next cycle, when the rôles of persecutor and victim will appear reversed. The intergenerational continuity of the strife is further evidence for apprehending the warfare between the families as a displaced image of the tensions within the family; it should be observed that in overthrowing the Doge Loredano acts out the resentments against the father that Byron excludes from the portrait of the weakly submissive Jacopo, who is so thoroughly an overshadowed son that he never becomes a man. Just as Jacopo's fate is an instance of the child's worst fears for himself, Loredano's triumph and curious escape from punishment are perhaps to be explained as an image of his wishes.

As the play proceeds it becomes increasingly obvious that the notion of an autonomous state with a will of its own is a convenient fiction men elaborate to conceal their culpable aspirations and impulses. A conversation between Memmo and an unnamed senator invited to lend by their neutral presence an air of disinterestedness to the cabal against the Doge displays the temptation of power clothed in the specious respectability of ‘duty’:

                              As we hope, Signor,
And all may honestly, (that is, all those
Of noble blood may,) one day hope to be
Decemvir, it is surely for the Senate's
Chosen delegates a school of wisdom, to
Be thus admitted, though as novices,
To view the mysteries.
                                                                                Let us view them: they,
No doubt, are worth it.
                                                                                Being worth our lives
If we divulge them, doubtless they are worth
Something, at least to you or me.
                                                                                                                        I sought not
A place within the sanctuary; but being
Chosen, however reluctantly so chosen,
I shall fulfil my office.
                                                                                Let us not
Be latest in obeying ‘The Ten's’ summons.
All are not met, but I am of your thought
So far—let's in.
                                        The earliest are most welcome
In earnest councils—we will not be least so.


Byron deftly imitates the interior duplicity by which the moral sense is laid asleep and equivocation changes into enthusiasm. His demonstration of the pervasive allure of the state as a pliable sanction for individual aggressiveness makes a comment the passage of time renders still more significant than it was in the 1820s. Because of their stunted inner lives the heroes of most of Byron's tales must derive their sense of themselves from the outside; they exist only so long as they are in motion, conducting war and wreaking revenge. Faliero extends this syndrome, and it is because his image of himself requires continuous public confirmation that he cannot accept the distinction Angiolina draws between honour and reputation. The Doge bewails the diminished opportunity to base a public identity on valorous exploits, but as his translation of Steno's insult into an affront to Venice reveals, he compensatorily aggrandizes himself by identifying with the state, an expedient Byron had presciently intuited the conditions of modern life would favour. It may thus be understood how the rebel Faliero foreruns his apparent opposite, Foscari, who defines—and enhances—himself by his exaggerated devotion to Venice. The gambit fails both men, however: Faliero is frustrated by the state's anonymity and finally bows to the weight of established authority, and Foscari's prestige, as Memmo remarks in the first scene of The Two Foscari, is that of ‘a gilded cipher’ (I.i.196). He is defeated by the artful Loredano, whose chicanery shows that in the mass state the grand Titans are superseded by the cunning exploiters of form and ritual.

The supposed omnipotence men idolize in the state in order to satisfy their own needs levies with growing severity the penalty of psychological evasion as The Two Foscari advances. Jacopo is sentenced to fresh exile, and Marina tries in vain to reconcile him to the decree the country he loves passes against him. ‘Obey her,’ she urges, ‘'tis she that puts thee forth,’ but he replies despondently, ‘Ay, there it is; 'tis like a mother's curse upon my soul …’ (III.i.185-87). Marina is permitted to accompany him, but the sentence includes the proviso that their sons must remain behind:

And must I leave them—all?
                                                                                          You must.
                                                                                                              Not one?
They are the State's.
                                                  I thought they had been mine.


The restriction is horridly apposite, for it recapitulates Jacopo's self-destructive exaltation of Venice; in the fate of his children the negative aspects of the mother figure represented by the city win out over Marina, their complement and double. Divorced thus from his maternal native land, forced to abandon his father and sons, weakened from the torture that is the embodiment of these spiritual sufferings, Jacopo dies. The Doge throws himself prostrate on the body in sincere grief, but Marina's sharp remark enables the reader to see beyond the pathos of the situation and comprehend the Doge's responsibility for the anguish he suffers:

                    Aye, weep on!
I thought you had no tears—you hoarded them
Until they are useless; but weep on! he never
Shall weep more—never, never more.


The half-buried echo of Lear's words over the body of the daughter his folly has destroyed points up the Doge's collaboration in the circumstances of which outwardly he is only the victim; the source of his misery is the sternness he cherishes in himself and its reflection, the state.

The last act fully discloses the pernicious hollowness of the ideal to which the Doge has given himself. The Ten force him to abdicate, and the common usage he employs as he resigns the ducal ring and bonnet returns the reader to the fundamental level of the drama: ‘The Adriatic's free to wed another’ (V.i.192). An otherwise gratuitous conversation with Memmo renders the oedipal content still more explicit:

Methinks I see amongst you
A face I know not.—Senator! your name,
You, by your garb, Chief of the Forty!
I am the son of Marco Memmo.
Your father was my friend.—But sons and fathers!


His tormentors hypocritically insist that the Doge leave the palace with an honorary escort, but in a final terrible irony he dies when he hears the bell announcing his successor. Having repressed the areas of the self that lay outside his office, the Doge no longer has any existence apart from it. The Ten decree magnificent obsequies, and though Marina rightly protests that the elaborate courtesy mocks them, the irony cuts in the other direction as well: it is in the name of such insubstantial grandeur that the Doge sacrificed his family and, at last, himself.

‘What I seek to show in The Foscaris,’ Byron told Murray, ‘is the suppressed passion …’ ([The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals,] V, 372). The multiple repressions of the drama offer the most complete illustration of the conflict that dominates Byron's imagination: through them may be seen from all angles the resentful, helpless son and the rigid posture he adopts in defence, together with the awesome mother whom he alternately desires and fears.


Lord Byron. The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (London: John Murray, 1898-1901).

Richard Lansdown (essay date 1991)

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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 Byron “Wrote part of a Tragedy. … Politics still mysterious” (BLJ, VIII, 28). On 14 February he added “part of a scene” to Sardanapalus and also noted that “Another assassination has taken place at Cesenna,” which made forty people killed in this way within three months (BLJ, VIII, 45). These entries suggest that the composition of Sardanapalus coincided with a surge of nationalist fervor in Romagna that almost became overtly revolutionary.

The question of whether Byron's poetry can be or should be read in isolation from his life is a vexed one. William J. Calvert wished that “we could ignore biographical events altogether” when studying Byron's poetry. The “perennial interest in ‘Byron the man,’” according to Andrew Rutherford, “has led all too often to a neglect of Byron the poet.” It is easy to sympathize with a critic like Robert Gleckner when he writes of “the depths to which biographizing has plunged the general state of Byron criticism from his day to ours.” On the other hand, Samuel Chew regarded Sardanapalus in particular as “an autobiographic revelation” and its hero as “the idealization of Byron's conception of his own character.” For Leslie Marchand too, Sardanapalus is a “failure as an historical tragedy” but a “success as a self-revelatory romantic poem.”2 More recently, and from a more general viewpoint, Jerome McGann has sought to rehabilitate biographical materials within the literary study of Byron. Generally speaking, however, Professor McGann has concentrated on Don Juan, and on the satirical and polemical aspects of Byron's work. He writes of Don Juan being “an autobiographical poem which comments upon and interprets the course of European history between 1787 and 1824,” and of its arising out of “an important set of revolutionary ideological judgements which comprise an integrated and comprehensive interpretation of his age.” In McGann's view Byron imagines his relations, friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries in the role of a huge audience, implicated in, and complicit with, the poem: “Don Juan seeks that kind of complicity, imagines its presence at every point.”3 This may be true of Don Juan, but it is clearly not the kind of approach Byron took to his life where the historical plays are concerned—nor does McGann suggest that it was. We shall see that in Sardanapalus the “processing” of biographical material is more recondite, obscure, and erratic.

In fact, it is in works like Sardanapalus that clear distinctions between “poetry” and “life” begin to crumble; it is not a question of the circumstances of Byron's life being reflected, or transcribed—or even “expressed”—in his historical plays, but one of their being transformed within them. And transformed by them too, as Byron made discoveries about his feelings and his emotions he did not—could not—make elsewhere.

What was Byron's response to the imminent possibility of his being called upon to take up arms on behalf of the Italian nationalist cause to which he lent his support in 1820-21? The reflections wrung from him while hopes for an uprising waxed and waned were often paradoxical in nature. It is as if Byron's sympathies for the cause and his reservations about it were aroused simultaneously—though in fact words like “sympathy” and “reservation” are quite inadequate to describe the fluctuating emotions and states of mind Byron experienced and went on to explore in the Ravenna journal and in Sardanapalus. In both works we see a kind of joyless, immolatory surrender to the forces of revolution opposed to an inertia of a very different kind: a Saturnine absorption in the super-incumbent physicality of life. Nor do these two responses, or these two reactions, form any kind of “dialectic,” conventionally speaking; Byron imagines no third term, as it were, that might resolve these alternating states of mind.

If we go to the Ravenna journal searching for examples of Byron's conflicting states of mind, we do not have far to look. “What I feel most growing upon me” Byron wrote on 2 February 1821, “are laziness, and a disrelish more powerful than indifference” (BLJ, VIII, 42). Indifference is a state of mind we all recognize: “disrelish” is something different; more instinctive and more visceral. What Byron describes is a revulsion not merely from thought but from the idea of thought itself. “I have neither read nor written, nor thought,” Byron wrote on 25 February, “but led a purely animal life all day” (BLJ, VIII, 49-50). The Ravenna journal contains many references to the dullness of the conditions in which it is written, not in the external world merely, but within Byron himself. The weather, for example, is particularly and uniformly bad:

Rose late—dull and drooping—the weather dripping and dense. Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky, like yesterday. Roads up to the horse's belly, so that riding (at least for pleasure) is not very feasible.

(BLJ, VIII, 13)

On the next day (6 January): “Mist—thaw—slop—rain. No stirring out on horseback” (BLJ, VIII, 14). On 7 January: “Still rain—mist—snow—drizzle—and all the incalculable combinations of a climate, where heat and cold struggle for mastery” (BLJ, VIII, 16). Byron's state of mind was as murky and oppressive as the weather. “What is the reason” he asks himself, “that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuyé?” He writes of “waking in low spirits, which I have invariably done for many years”:

Temperance and exercise, which I have practiced at times, and for a long time together vigorously and violently, made little or no difference. Violent passions did;—when under their immediate influence—it is odd, but—I was in agitated, but not depressed spirits.

(BLJ, VIII, 15)

Salts, champagne, and swimming have helped to raise his spirits in the past, he notes: “The proof is, that then I must game, or drink, or be in motion of some kind, or I was miserable” (BLJ, VIII, 16). Alcohol “makes me gloomy—gloomy at the very moment of their effect, and not gay hardly ever. But it composes for a time, though sullenly” (BLJ, VIII, 27). Even the poem Byron wrote to mark his thirty-third birthday is resolutely flat:

Through life's road, so dim and dirty,
I have dragg'd to three-and-thirty.
What have these years left to me?
Nothing—except thirty three.

(BLJ, VIII, 32)

Likewise, on finishing a page of the journal, he wrote: “One day more is over of it, and of me;—but ‘which is best, life or death, the gods only know,’ as Socrates said to his judges, on the breaking up of the tribunal” (BLJ, VIII, 35).

Many more such lugubrious passages could be quoted. Where, in the rest of his letters and journals, Byron manages to divert himself from morbidity by means of reflections of some other kind—humorous, hyperbolic, or both—in the Ravenna journal he explicitly resists any such openness on his part to suggestions of that kind. He often asks himself questions: “What have these years left to me?”; “which is best, life or death”; “What is the reason that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuyé?”; “As to defining what a poet should be, it is not worth while, for what are they worth? what have they done?” (BLJ, VIII, 41). Few such questions are designed to be answered. “It is all a mystery,” Byron wrote on one page of the journal: “I feel most things, but I know nothing, except.” After this aposiopesis the rest of the page is covered with what Thomas Moore called “impatient strokes of the pen” (BLJ, VIII, 37). The questions Byron asks only return him, repeatedly, to his inability to answer. This, I think, is their purpose. Far from stimulating his intellect, these enquiries seem designed to forestall it. Seeing the world in a deliberately material and un-spiritual light, Byron plays a kind of game with his mind, forcing it to admit the bounds of its power, or its insight, or its curiosity. He does this from the basis of a cynicism so deeply rooted that it seeks to deny its own status as an intellectual position or as a state of mind. Rather, Byron tries to expose the mind's inability to hold or to justify any intellectual position whatsoever.

Passages of the kind quoted above—which, as any reading of the Ravenna journal would bear out, are far from being untypical of its mood overall—are found alongside others of an entirely different nature. During this period, as we have seen, Byron felt himself to be afflicted with “laziness, and a disrelish more powerful than indifference.” His next sentence however, reads: “If I rouse, it is into fury” (BLJ, VIII, 42: the word “rouse” is of great importance in Sardanapalus, of course). Long considerations of his laziness and his mental inertia are often punctuated by sudden allusions to the worlds of nature and of action:

The lapse of ages changes all things—time—language—the earth—the bounds of the sea—the stars of the sky, and every thing “about, around, and underneath” man, except man himself, who has always been, and always will be, an unlucky rascal.

(BLJ, VIII, 19)

Gestural and metaphysical allusions to the world as a whole (both human and natural) dissolve into confessions of futility and ignorance. “The infinite variety of lives,” Byron writes, “conduct but to death, and the infinity of wishes lead but to disappointment” (BLJ, VIII, 19-20). On the one hand the infinitude of human life and desire, on the other ineluctable death and disappointment. For the same day however, we find the following entry:

They mean to insurrect here, and are to honour me with a call thereupon. I shall not fall back; though I don't think them in force or heart sufficient to make much of it. But, onward!—it is now the time to act, and what signifies self, if a single spark of that which would be worthy of the past can be bequeathed unquenchedly to the future? It is not one man, nor a million, but the spirit of liberty which must be spread. The waves which dash upon the shore are, one by one, broken, but yet the ocean conquers, nevertheless.

(BLJ, VIII, 20)

“[M]ere selfish calculation ought never to be made on such occasions” (BLJ, VIII, 20). Byron seems almost to revel in the violence of these crashing waves, which offer destruction to the present individual as they offer freedom to future generations: “what signifies self” he asks, if he can only hurl himself like a spark into the melee of revolutionary progress? On 26 January Byron wrote:

If the Neapolitans have but a single Massaniello amongst them, they will beat the bloody butchers of the crown and sabre. Holland, in worse circumstances, beat the Spains and Philips; America beat the English; Greece beat Xerxes; and France beat Europe, till she took a tyrant; South America beats her old vultures out of their nest; and, if these men are but firm in themselves, there is nothing to shake them from without.

(BLJ, VIII, 36)

The historical beatings dealt out to oppressors by the oppressed are listed with boyish, sadistic relish.

Towards the end of February 1821 some kind of uprising seemed imminent: the cellar of Byron's house was full of guns. Byron supposed that the Carbonari regarded him “as a depôt, to be sacrificed, in case of accidents. It is no great matter, supposing that Italy could be liberated, who or what is sacrificed. It is a grand object—the very poetry of politics. Only think—a free Italy!!!” (BLJ, VIII, 47). The next night he returned from his ride in a storm that seemed to mirror the unsettled country beneath:

Came home solus—very high wind—lightning—moonshine—solitary stragglers muffled in cloaks—women in mask—white houses—clouds hurrying over the sky, like spilt milk blown out of the pail—altogether very poetical. It is still blowing hard—the tiles flying, and the house rocking—rain splashing—lightning flashing—quite a fine Swiss Alpine evening, and the sea roaring in the distance.

(BLJ, VIII, 47)

Byron is not quite a human sacrifice to this storm, but he cultivates the nerveless and unworldly calm of a person willing to become one. The flying clouds, the lashing rain, and the prospect of his house collapsing do not—unnaturally, we might think—disturb him at all. What connects passages such as these is the degree of indifference Byron cultivates, both to himself and to the world. He stands before conflicts, seas, and storms (real or metaphorical) with equanimity. He speaks of beating “the bloody butchers of crown and sabre” without emotion. The dangers, and the violence he describes, seduce rather than horrify him: “It is no great matter” he writes, “who or what is sacrificed”—and that includes himself.

I am not trying to suggest, by comparing passages such as these, with their images of violence both human and natural, to others of leaden, almost Beckettian torpor, that some arcane explanation is needed to reconcile the one with the other. On the contrary, Byron's psychological inertia, from which he periodically awakens himself with bouts of urgent, violent fantasy concerning natural cataclysm or revolutionary frenzy, is comparatively easy to understand. Faced with the possibility that he risk his life in a revolution with whose aims he was wholeheartedly sympathetic, it is not surprising that he felt impelled both to advance and to retreat; to step forward and to step back. The second of these impulses might be associated with those ponderous, centripetal and defensive ruminations on his physical life we have noted above, and in the cynicism for which they, as it were, provide the material. The first finds expression in visions of storms and tides into which the sacrificial victim—the poet-revolutionary himself—first stares, then (or so it is implied) throws himself, suicidally. That Byron was aware of the conflicting nature of these impulses is suggested by his contrasting of “Hope” with “Fear” in this sentence: “I am not sure that Fear is not a pleasurable sensation; at least Hope is; and what Hope is there without a deep leaven of Fear? and what sensation is so delightful as Hope?” (BLJ, VIII, 37). As if to short-circuit both his fears and his hopes, he quotes La Rochefoucault's maxim that “‘laziness often masters them all’—speaking of the passions” (BLJ, VIII, 41). His revolutionary enthusiasm, he felt, was in danger of being swamped by a powerful disinclination.

Without pressing psychological speculations such as these too far, I would like to suggest that Byron's state of mind at this time could be seen from yet another angle. He was anxious about the revolution, certainly, and his anxiety appears to have taken the form I have described: he both anticipated the rising and shrank from it. More than this, the imminence of the event put the rest of his Italian life into a particular perspective. His life in Ravenna was almost entirely made up of routine elements and was revealed to be so when the prospect of action opened up. But there was a prospect of danger too. At any moment Byron might “be butcher'd in a civic alley” like the military commandant he had brought into his house on the night of 9 December 1820.4 The more perilous his life now, the more uneventful—though unhazardous—it appeared in retrospect. In his journal Byron looks at a life that is overpoweringly dull—because so routine—yet frighteningly precarious—because at the mercy of events. He longs to escape the dreary, clogging round in some act of revolutionary derring-do, but dreads the consequences. His life may be dull, but it is life, and so he clings to it. If he cannot bring himself to celebrate it, he itemizes it obsessively in his journal—as if to reassure himself that it is still there.

I do not intend to propose that Sardanapalus is little more than the straightforward reflection of Byron's near-revolutionary experience in Ravenna. If that were all the play amounted to, it would be a small achievement. How complex such matters are can be indicated by the following observation. Before becoming himself involved in an insurrection (as an insurrectionary) Byron wrote a play—Marino Faliero—in which a character as aristocratic as his creator undertakes to lead a rebellion. During and after this involvement he wrote a play—Sardanapalus—the princely hero of which is the victim of just such a rebellion. Is this fact an illustration of ambivalence towards revolution on Byron's part, of authorial detachment, of the use of fantasy as a “substitute life,” or of all three?

There are two common uses of the term “fantasy” from which I would like to distinguish the one offered immediately above. First, Sardanapalus, or the series of events the play comprises, is not a fantasy as it might be defined by a psychoanalyst; the play is neither the reflection of the unfettered workings of Byron's subconscious, nor an involuntary dream artistically rendered into dramatic form. Sardanapalus is not a case of the writer softening, in Freud's words, “the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it.”5 Still less, however, is Sardanapalus a fantasy in the literary sense of its being a story made up of whimsical or random narrative elements the author is at liberty to summon or dismiss at will. In fact Sardanapalus is perhaps the most rigorously constructed of Byron's three historical plays.

There are two particular features of Byron's play that it holds in common with other works of fiction and that might help us to make a distinction between the fantasies we find in literature and those that are the province of the psychologist. The first of these is artistic form, which lends the play a self-sustaining structure and organization. (Of course psychological fantasies are not necessarily disordered; their order arises, however, from obsessive, willful elements of a kind distinct from those that generate form in literature.) The second feature—indissolubly linked to the first—is the play's complexity of handling and point of view. It is this complexity of handling that makes fantasies in literature different from psychological fantasies properly so-called. Psychological fantasies are all fantasy; the wishes they are a response to go unchallenged and unanalyzed inside—or outside—the fantasist's mind, whereas the fantasies of literature, however urgent, however transparent, are inevitably hedged about with other realities, other considerations and, it may be, other fantasies. Other poles of consciousness, in short. Hamlet,Sardanapalus,The Trial: all these widely differing works of fiction have this in common, that in them no one point of view eliminates, forestalls, or converts to its own use the viewpoints of others—though, of course, it will often threaten to do so.

What kind of fantasy is Sardanapalus, then, if it demonstrates neither the self-obsessions of some forms of narrative, nor the whimsical plasticity of others? The answer lies partly in the mise en scène chosen by Byron for his play. It is this above all else that distinguishes Sardanapalus from Byron's Venetian plays and that leads me to describe it as I have. Compared with Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari,Sardanapalus is almost free of formal historical constraints. Sardanapalus is, to all intents and purposes, a figure of legend rather than of history, and as such very different from Marino Faliero or the Foscari family, whose lives were widely, if not always reliably, reported. In retelling his story, Byron clearly felt less constrained by responsibility to the historical record and was thus free to distort that record not only in the interests of dramatic effect and plausibility, but with the aim of arranging what I have called his “substitute life,” and what Martyn Corbett calls his “particular self-projection” in this play.6 Nor is it simply the playwright who is less conscious of history: his protagonists are too. Characters like Marino Faliero make every attempt to clutch at and to understand their historical role, but Sardanapalus, despite feeling some dynastic pressure upon himself as a king from a line of kings, actively distances himself from the past and from the traditions of royalty and religion he represents. It is Salamenes, not Sardanapalus, who speaks of “thirteen hundred years / Of Empire ending like a shepherd's tale” (I.i.7-8), Myrrha who connects Sardanapalus' actions with the fate of “A line of thirteen ages, and the lives / Of thousands” (III.i.234-235).7 Sardanapalus himself remains indifferent: “Eat, drink, and love,” he says, “the rest's not worth a fillip” (I.ii.252). Only at the end of the play does he mention his ancestors and speak of his action as “a light / To lesson ages” (V.i.440-441).

Another striking difference between Byron's Assyria and his Venice is that the former is so incompletely realized. We are never invited to envisage the country and the people over which Sardanapalus rules. By comparison, Venice and its restless population are given careful dramatic (and historical) realization. Sardanapalus is

                    … the Monarch who ne'er looks
Beyond his palace walls, or if he stirs
Beyond them 'tis but to some mountain palace
Till summer heats wear down.


“How many a day and moon” Myrrha tells her lover,

                                                                      … thou hast reclined
Within these palace walls in silken dalliance,
And never shown thee to thy people's longing.


The king has not presented himself to his people, and neither are the people presented to us. There is one scene only—a Hall in the palace—that we never leave and that the insurgents themselves enter only briefly. This use of space acts both to insulate the protagonists and to make them more vulnerable; it has an arbitrariness about it that lends another fantasy element to the play.

The physical surroundings of Sardanapalus' palace are left underscribed; so too is the earlier life of its master. Marino Faliero was, we are told, a Venetian general at the siege of Zara and ambassador to the Vatican. Francis Foscari's service to the state and his son's recent history are both recounted at length. Sardanapalus is, by contrast, rootless in place and in time. Although he discusses his ancestors Semiramis and Nimrod, we hear nothing of his life previous to the opening of the play.

The lack, in Sardanapalus, of what Eric Auerbach called “the historical, social, economic, and regional determinants of the occurrence”8 gives Byron a certain degree of artistic freedom in his treatment of the story. It is a freedom, however, that he uses only to embrace other, perhaps even more demanding constraints, the acceptance of which prevents the play “degenerating into mere whimsy.”9Marino Faliero seeks to examine the pressures of historical self-consciousness; The Two Foscari is largely concerned with the relations between an individual and the state. These are questions that have presented themselves for analysis repeatedly in literature. Moreover, they are problems with which any poet, historian, or philosopher might deal, although they presented themselves to Byron in a particular way, and in a particular form. By contrast, Sardanapalus has been described as being, essentially, “a highly revealing portrait of Byron's wishes.”10 That is to say, the questions that stimulated the writing of this play and were examined further as writing progressed, were not integrated with any more abstract intellectual theme or position, either inside Sardanapalus or outside it. This amounted to a constraint on Byron's imagination. The urgency and the care with which Byron constructed his “substitute life” forbade his imagination and his intellect from looking elsewhere for support; at the same time they demanded that that life be rendered plausible. Otherwise, it could serve no purpose.

We have already noted the paradox that in Sardanapalus an insurrection is described unsympathetically by a putative revolutionary. We might now develop a second paradox: that fantasies of the kind being considered here, far from being discontinuous with or divorced from everyday life, are rooted in that life and have a symbiotic relation to it. This explains why I have felt it necessary to refer to Byron's situation at Ravenna at the time Sardanapalus was written. We might expect that the Venetian plays, because they have a stronger historical ambience, must therefore bear a closer relation to Byron's material, historical life. The comparative ease with which we, as readers, are able to make the imaginative leap into the Venice of Faliero or of the Foscari, makes that fictional city more real to us. If it is easier for us to imagine ourselves there, we feel that it must have been so for the author, and we resist the idea that Byron might wish to locate his substitute life in ancient Assyria, a world comparatively unfamiliar both to us and to him. In feeling this, we have, understandably, fallen prey to an illusion. It is because the themes Byron addressed in the Venetian plays are comparatively abstract and impersonal that the plays themselves are rendered with so much historical detail. Sardanapalus, on the other hand, is the distillation, or the focussed image, of varied aspects of Byron's own disparate experience. Being so personal, this experience could not readily be released or explored among characters coming from a highly developed and widely known historical tradition. It could, he found, only be set loose in a relatively neutral environment.

Fantasy is not discontinuous with life, but neither is it identical to it—if it were, it would not be fantasy—and we find in Sardanapalus that elements of Byron's experience sometimes reverse their polarities altogether, or are dispersed within the play in ways that surprise us, as no doubt they once surprised the author.


The distinction made above between “artistic” and “psychological” fantasies holds true for Sardanapalus. No one fantasy within the play is given pre-eminence; in fact Sardanapalus is chock-full of fantasies. Nearly all the characters believe that others can be changed, or that others are not behaving consistently with their “true selves”; rather than accept a character's nature they spin out ideas about how such-and-such a person should behave, and how he or she should respond to such-and-such a situation. Even Salamenes, the apparently unimaginative soldier, fantasizes where the king is concerned:

… the great King of all we know on earth
Lolls crowned with roses, and his diadem
Lies negligently by to be caught up
By the first manly hand which dares to snatch it.


The king is also, however, a kind of superman; the kind of man who, “born a peasant” would have “reached an empire” (I.i.14-15). “Yet …” Salamenes adds, “even yet,” Sardanapalus

                                                            … may redeem
His sloth and shame, by only being that
Which he should be, as easily as the thing
He should not be and is.


This refrain, that Sardanapalus must become something other than what he is, is taken up by Myrrha later in the play: “I would not have him less than what he should be” she says with determination (III.i.413). Sardanapalus himself, in a moment of depression, realizes “I am not what I should be” (IV.i.334). Believing his royal master to be “Steeped, but not drowned, in deep voluptuousness” (I.i.13), Salamenes undertakes to rouse Sardanapalus by confronting him, not so much with what he himself thinks the king should be, but rather with “what all good men tell each other, / Speaking of him and his” (I.i.45-46). For the king to reform himself, he must conform—to the wishes of his people.

Sardanapalus' mistress Myrrha also feels that he should measure up to an ideal. Her ideal, however, lies not in Assyria at all, but in her homeland, Greece. She feels that in loving Sardanapalus she has degraded herself more “by that passion than by chains” (I.ii.502). “My country's daughters” she says, “Love none but heroes” (I.ii.641-642). Like Salamenes, she plans to remake the king:

Could I but wake a single thought like those
Which even the Phrygians felt when battling long
'Twixt Ilion and the sea, within his heart,
He would tread down the barbarous crowds, and triumph.
He loves me, and I love him; the slave loves
Her master, and would free him from his vices.


Her ideal of Greek heroism and manhood is one to which Sardanapalus cannot hope to measure up in his unroused state. Only when he rushes off to fight does Myrrha admit

                                        'Tis no dishonour—no—
'Tis no dishonour to have loved this man.
I almost wish now, what I never wished
Before—that he were Grecian.


As a warrior, and only as a warrior, does Sardanapalus deserve “That a Greek girl should be his paramour, / And a Greek bard his minstrel—a Greek tomb / His monument” (III.i.225-227).

Sardanapalus' enemies, no less than his friends, entertain fantasies about the man they hope to topple. The conspirator Arbaces is convinced that Sardanapalus will offer no resistance to their insurrection. He is a “she-king,” a “less than woman,” a “king of concubines” (II.i.48, 49, 59) whom it is almost embarrassing to depose:

                    This woman's warfare
Degrades the very conqueror. To have plucked
A bold and bloody despot from his throne,
And grappled with him, clashing steel with steel,
That were heroic or to win or fall;
But to upraise my sword against this silkworm. …


Arbaces, as we shall see, could hardly be more wrong.

The last figure who might be said to harbour fantasies concerning Sardanapalus is his estranged wife Zarina, who has a brief colloquy with her husband in Act Four, scene one, before being sent to safety outside the city. She comes to him with a strange mixture of hope and despair, and her first words (spoken aside) suggest the conflicting ideas she has entertained during their separation. (She has, she admits later, “lived upon his image” throughout this time [IV.i.410].) “Alone with him!” she exclaims, as if this were some long-held dream come true:

                                        How many a year has passed,
Though we are still so young, since we have met,
Which I have worn in widowhood of heart.
He loved me not: yet he seems little changed—
Changed to me only—would the change were mutual!


Zarina is not sure whether she wants Sardanapalus to have changed, and therefore relented towards her, or to have stayed the same, and thus be the man who married her. She wishes too that she had changed and lost her affection for him, but sees that this cannot be. The couple, for their different reasons—she out of hope, he out of regret and self-pity—gradually instill in each other an illusory and sentimental desire for some kind of reconciliation, which ends in Zarina's hopeless dream:

          let us hence together,
And I—let me say we—shall yet be happy.
Assyria is not all the earth—we'll find
A world out of our own—and be more blessed
Than I have ever been, or thou, with all
An empire to indulge thee.


What of Sardanapalus himself, the object and focus of all these conflicting fantasies? Surely he is the most fantastical of all, with his idleness and inconstancy? Especially so if, as I have suggested, he is the vehicle of so many fantasies of Byron's own? Yes and no. “Doth he not change a thousand times a day?” asks Beleses, adding:

Sloth is of all the things the most fanciful—
And moves more parasangs [a measure of distance] in its intents
Than generals in their marches, when they seek
To leave their foe at fault.


Sardanapalus does entertain fantasies of his own in fact. He wishes, he tells Myrrha, “that I could lay down the dull tiara, / And share a cottage on the Caucasus / With thee—and wear no crowns but those of flowers” (I.ii.451-453). He wishes too that he and Myrrha might reign like “The Shepherd Kings of patriarchal times, / Who knew no brighter gems than summer wreaths, / And none but tearless triumphs” (I.ii.560-562.) However, as we might expect, given that Sardanapalus is Byron's alter ego in the play, his relationship to his fantasies is complex. At one point he asks Salamenes, “make me not remember / I am a monarch”; “urge me not” he says, “Beyond my easy nature” (I.ii.51-52, 60-61). This, if anything, is the fantasy-life to which he subscribes: that, being a king, he might not be a king, or at least that he might not have to give credence to the monarchic fantasies of others—if that is not too paradoxical a way of looking at it. He constantly attempts to deflect the various expectations others vest in him: “I seek” he says, “but to be loved, not worshipped” (III.i.36). His is a boyish impatience with the ceremony and grandeur of monarchy and with the code of merciless despotism alluded to variously by Myrrha and Salamenes and embodied in Semiramis and Nimrod. His fantasy is that he might shrug off the bloody fantasies of power and conquest that have been associated with his line, and live as a man, pure and simple: a kind of primus inter pares in his court. Of course, the simple man he has in mind relaxes on divans, drinks from golden goblets and eats on flower-decked pavilions. Sardanapalus wants the simplicity of life without its drudgery and the power of royalty without the responsibility of exercising it. Unlike Salamenes, Myrrha, Beleses, Arbaces or Zarina, Sardanapalus has, as the play opens, turned his fantasy of powerlessness, his substitute life, into reality. This he has power to do because he is king. An ironical man, this is the only irony he will not admit to himself. Pouring scorn on “Nimrod's huntings” and “my wild Grandam's chase in search of kingdoms” (III.i.5-6), he is blind to the contradictory nature of his own search for happiness.

The king's sense of irony is an overriding one, but so too is his aristocratic pride: one or the other breaks in repeatedly to puncture the fantasies of others or to reveal the shallowness of his own. “This great hour,” Salamenes tells him after Sardanapalus' initial victory, “has proved / The brightest and most glorious of your life.” To which the king replies: “And the most tiresome” (III.i.342-344). The victory should be celebrated, Salamenes continues, not with water, but with “a purpler beverage.” “Blood—doubtless,” Sardanapalus ripostes (III.i.348). On the other hand, Sardanapalus one moment speaks in rather Wildean terms of the “Fair Nymphs, who deign / To share the soft hours” of his leisure; the next he refers to his subjects as “slaves” and “railing drunkards” (I.ii.7-8, 101, 104). One moment he is the benevolent emperor—“enough / For me, if I can make my subjects feel / The weight of human misery less” (I.ii.262-264)—the next a bloodthirsty despot, prepared to “use the sword / Till they shall wish it turned into a distaff” (I.ii.324-325). He speaks of the “rank tongues” of his “vile herd” of citizens “grown insolent with feeding” (I.ii.340-341), his pride verging on disgust. “Unhappily,” he tells Salamenes, “I am unfit / To be aught save a monarch” (I.ii.363-364): yet to be “aught save a monarch” is precisely what he wishes for himself. His ironical attitude may explode the fantasies of others, but his ineradicable pride and kingly disdain make his own untenable in the end.

Ultimately all these fantasies—king's and commoners'—come to nothing; each one is revealed as what it is. Salamenes' exaggerated picture of Sardanapalus as a drunken aesthete is contradicted; Myrrha's Greek ideal is shown to be something not unique to her homeland; Arbaces and Beleses find the king no pushover. Zarina's dreams of reconciliation do not materialize and, most important of all, Sardanapalus' own fantasies of powerlessness and abdication are dispelled. The event that brings about these changes, or these disenchantments, is the insurrection itself, of course, and Sardanapalus' rousing himself to resist it.


Byron sought, in Sardanapalus, to make available to his understanding certain areas of his life in Italy, and while it is true that he was not able to review this field of experience at leisure, or with objectivity and hindsight, it is also true that the play was not—to use Byron's own terminology (see BLJ, III, 179)—a kind of volcanic eruption of his subconscious that by-passed his conscious mind. Sardanapalus is, rather, a series of inversions and transformations Byron himself worked upon the experiences that so troubled him.

Three examples might be given of the kind of transformations I have in mind. First, we might remember Byron's (in part retrospective) disgust with the life he had found himself leading in Venice. His years in Venice, he later felt, had been ones of decadence, profligacy and self-indulgence. Arriving in Venice, he had spoken of its being “the greenest island of my imagination” (BLJ, V, 129). From Ravenna he saw it as a “Sea-Sodom” (BLJ, VI, 262). In Ravenna—and he felt this even before becoming involved with the Carbonari—he led a life of moral rectitude and integrity of which his affair with Teresa Guiccioli, though adulterous, was the embodiment. In time, however, Byron saw his Ravenna life to be a selfish one also, but in a different way. Speaking of “the real vacuum of human pursuits,” he told his friend Hobhouse in June 1820 that he had “lost all personal interest about anything except money to supply my own indolent expences, and when I rouse up to appear to take an interest about anything—it is a temporary irritation—like Galvanism upon Mutton” (BLJ, VII, 115-116). Byron felt compelled then to rouse himself from what Myrrha calls the “common, heavy, human hours” (V.i.31) of both his Venetian interlude and of his humdrum existence at Ravenna.

A second concern of Byron's examined in Sardanapalus is the question of the role of the liberal aristocrat in popular revolutions. Byron himself felt that his class would naturally provide leadership in these events. If blood “must be shed on such occasions,” he wrote, “there is no reason it should be clotted” (BLJ, VII, 63). Of a possible insurrection in England he wrote: “A revolutionary commission into Leicestershire would just suit me … what colour is our cockade to be—and our uniform—[if] mine be a “Charge of horse” [I] shall rub up my broad-sword exercise …” (BLJ, VI, 217). Byron was joking, but it is true to say that he expected traditional kinds of respect to be shown towards the aristocracy assisting at any revolution—towards himself too. Moreover, he expected that natural aristocratic qualities of leadership would make themselves felt.

Third, we might return to the Ravenna journal and the anxieties Byron expressed there. I suggested that Byron's attitudes towards the imminent revolution at Ravenna wavered between an immolatory desire to throw himself into the ferment of insurrection and a compulsion to protect the life he led, no matter how routine. The very fact that he had to choose between joining the revolution and retreating from it made his state of mind the more unsettled. The revolution was full of danger, and his normal life was full of dullness; still, it was not so much the danger or the ennui that he feared, but the necessity of making a choice between them. If only the revolution would come, and make his choice for him!

How were these three aspects of Byron's mind, thought, and behavior dealt with in Sardanapalus? There appears to be a fairly straightforward relation between the king's decadence and sensuality, from which he is roused by the onset of a military coup, and Byron's own feelings concerning his time in Venice. Byron even adds the hope, doubtless heartfelt, that, like Sardanapalus, he would find in “his effeminate heart”

… a careless courage which Corruption
Has not all quenched, and latent energies,
Repressed by circumstance, but not destroyed—
Steeped, but not drowned, in deep voluptuousness.


There is more to it, however, than this. Byron is too honest not to see the implications of military courage, however “careless.” Sardanapalus may be an idle, lascivious monarch, but his idleness has done nobody any harm, directly at least. Speaking of Semiramis' murderous and unsuccessful expedition to India, Sardanapalus says, “Is this Glory? / Then let me live in ignominy ever” (I.i.138-139). Byron's life in Venice was ignominious, but it did not, as his life in Ravenna now did, involve his taking up arms or meditating the deaths of others. How ignominious was it then? In Sardanapalus Byron begins to present two sets of values, “Venetian” and “Ravennese,” humanitarian and military. What we have come to call, bearing Antony and Cleopatra in mind, “Egyptian” and “Roman.” Sardanapalus speaks of his “disposition”

To love and be merciful, to pardon
The follies of my species, and (that's human)
To be indulgent to my own.


However, these sets of values remain for the most part dramatically inert. Sardanapalus and Myrrha commit suicide because victory eludes them and their palace is surrounded. We do not feel with them, as we do with Antony and Cleopatra, that they represent some older, mythic idea of the world doomed to destruction. Arbaces and Beleses do represent a crueller, harsher development in the world, rather as the emperor Octavius does in Shakespeare's play, but Byron is unable to invest his rebels with any parity of status with Sardanapalus, banished as they are from the stage (effectively speaking) halfway through Act II. Similarly, though we might like to see Sardanapalus and Myrrha themselves as representatives of two sets of values, and though they ascend their pyre at the end of the play as man and woman, Assyrian and Greek, king and slave, we have very little sense that “the commingling fire will mix our ashes,” as Sardanapalus says (V.i.471). Their liebestod does not intertwine the personal with the mythic as Antony's and Cleopatra's does. The pair of them have already been commingled, by the playwright. The distance that once separated the womanly man from the manly woman, the Assyrian from the Greek, the king from the slave, has long since been narrowed: indeed, since Sardanapalus' arousal, there is little to tell between him and his military henchman Salamenes himself. Sardanapalus' “Venetian” side is superseded by his “Ravennese” the minute news of the insurrection is brought, and thereafter it is referred to only occasionally: wistfully by the transformed monarch, with disgust by Salamenes.

Sardanapalus sees himself as a benevolent monarch. His relationship with his people, he tells Salamenes, consisted of a “mild reciprocal alleviation” of life's “fatal penalties” (I.ii.353-354). Those very people, he says, now “demand / His death, who made their lives a jubilee,” a disappointment to a man who hoped to make his “inoffensive rule / An era of sweet peace 'midst bloody annals, / A green spot amidst desert centuries” (IV.i.315-316, 511-513). Sardanapalus' benevolent despotism corresponds in many ways to what Byron might have wished for his own brand of aristocratic liberalism. That is to say, Sardanapalus thinks of himself as both a natural leader and a benevolent one, conscious of his responsibilities where his people are concerned. Yet his critics, Salamenes and Myrrha, feel that he has abrogated these responsibilities. The people, Myrrha says, must be “kept in awe and law,”

Yet not oppressed—or at least they must not think so,
Or, if they think so, deem it necessary,
To ward off worse oppression, their own passions.


“Think'st thou there is no tyranny but that / of blood and chains?” Salamenes asks:

                                        The despotism of vice,
The weakness and the wickedness of luxury,
The negligence, the apathy, the evils
Of sensual sloth—produce ten thousand tyrants,
Whose delegated cruelty surpasses
The worst acts of one energetic master. …


These arguments within the play reflect Byron's anxiety concerning both revolution in particular and his political feelings in general. How defensible was his idea of himself as an aristocratic liberal and leader of the Carbonari, or of a “revolutionary commission into Leicestershire”? Was there a difference between those men we call “natural leaders” and those we call “tyrants”; and if so, where did it lie? He asked himself, with the Italian people in mind, “who is to direct them?” and answered with the hope that “Out of such times heroes spring,” (BLJ, VIII, 19). What kind of hero did he have in mind—a man of the people, like Garibaldi, or an aristocrat, like Bolivar? In Sardanapalus we have a natural leader playing, he feels, his natural role and, what is more, playing it with a great deal more moral sensitivity than his ancestors Nimrod and Semiramis. And what happens? Not only is his benevolence spurned, his leadership questioned, but he is not wanted at all: a rebellion is organized against him. Nor are Beleses and Arbaces noble rebels of the kind with whom the doge allied himself in Marino Faliero. On the contrary. As Samuel Chew remarked, they “fight, not for liberty, but for personal aggrandizement.”11 The Assyrian rebels have neither respect for noble leaders nor love for benevolent ones. Byron has turned the world of Marino Faliero inside out, as it were, partly to test the extent of his sympathy with “the people” and partly to test his own pretensions to “natural” qualities of leadership. Neither emerges well from the experiment.

At the moment of the rebellion, Sardanapalus the aesthete is wholly swallowed up in Sardanapalus the warrior. The speed with which Sardanapalus is roused—according to Myrrha he “springs up a Hercules at once” (III.i.221)—is surprising, not least to those around him, whose ideas of the king are turned upside-down. When Salamenes sends the request that the king at least appear in his armor to encourage the royal troops, Sardanapalus' reaction is immediate:

                                                                                          What, ho!
My armour there.
                                                                      And wilt thou?
                                                                                                                                  Will I not?


If Sardanapalus lives out for Byron a kind of substitute life, the speed of his transformation is perhaps the most pressing aspect of his drama. It is the trait of the king's personality Byron most desired to see and have fulfilled. In the Ravenna journal Byron was tossed and turned in a night-mare from which, he seemed to feel, he could not, or dared not, wake. If the Ravennese uprising would come, unbidden by him; if rebellion would find him, rather than he it; if honor, in Falstaff's words, would come unlooked for, then Byron's dilemma would be resolved. The Ravenna journal suggests that what made him so uneasy was the fact that a decision was required of him to fight or not: his will had to be exercised one way or the other. It is Sardanapalus' will, of all things, that is suspended in Byron's play, just as it is Byron's will, of all things, that had to be exercised in his life. The king never has to make a decision. “I do not dare to breathe my own desire,” he tells Myrrha, “Lest it should clash with thine” (I.ii.22-23). Even when he changes the venue of his feast at Myrrha's request, it is a purely negative decision: “Well, for thy sake, I yield me,” he says (I.ii.613). Sardanapalus, an Eastern despot of limitless power, is, paradoxically enough, almost powerless. Not only this, but he finds his powerlessness a relief; he enjoys it. His rule is the ultimate in laissez-faire. Of his people he says:

                    I hate all pain,
Given or received; we have enough within us,
The meanest vassal as the loftiest monarch,
Not to add to each other's natural burthen
Of mortal misery, but rather lessen,
By mild reciprocal alleviation,
The fatal penalties imposed on life:
But this they know not, or they will not know.
I have, by Baal! done all I could to soothe them:
I made no wars, I added no new imposts,
I interfered not with their civic lives,
I let them pass their days as best might suit them,
Passing my own as suited me.


Sardanapalus has “done” nothing: he has made no wars, levied no new taxes, “interfered not” with his people's “civic lives.” When we compare him with the many strong, authoritarian male figures in Byron's poetry, the contrast is marked. The Giaour and his arch-enemy Hassan; Conrad and his arch-enemy Seyd; Parisina's husband and Haidée's father—Sardanapalus is more like the submissive Don Juan than any of these. The revolution comes with such violent swiftness that Sardanapalus does not have to decide whether to resist it or not; its coming saves him the effort. There is no tension, or pent-up anxiety (of the kind we see in the Ravenna journal) in his view of events; and that is the point. He could not believe, or was not sure about, Arbaces' and Beleses' treachery—“I will not deem ye guilty,” he says to them, “Nor doom ye guiltless” (II.i.290-291)—but he barely pauses to worry about them and suffers no regrets when their actions prove him wrong. Even after his rousing, Sardanapalus believes himself to be, or rather insists on being thought of as, “the very slave of Circumstance / And Impulse—borne away with every breath!” (IV.i.330-331). Were Byron truly the slave of circumstance, and his involvement with the events at Ravenna truly out of his control, what a relief! He too could be “borne away with every breath” into the bloodiest of revolutions without a moment's regret or compunction—though fighting against authority rather than for it. He too could swap what he felt to be a life of slothful self-indulgence for one of action and forget his past altogether as Sardanapalus forgets his. He could confound the Hobhouses, the Murrays and the Thomas Moores of this world just as Sardanapalus amazes Salamenes and Myrrha. He too could die a death of ineffable glamor, kindle “a light / To lesson ages,” and come out with homilies like these in his last moments:

                                                                      When we know
All that can come, and how to meet it, our
Resolves, if firm, may merit a more noble
Word than this [i.e. “despair”] to give it utterance.


That at this late stage and in this immolatory moment Sardanapalus begins to speak of his resolves and their firmness is less an indication of growth or development in his character than it is a transfiguration, on Byron's part, of his own desire to escape the anguish of indecision at any cost. When the Euphrates—the ultimate deus ex machina—floods, Sardanapalus and his palace are finally doomed. No one is to blame and nothing can be done; the river cannot be punished and so might as well be forgiven (see V.i.218), and the king's decision to commit suicide is, once again, not of his choosing.

If we are justified in seeing Sardanapalus as an attempt on Byron's part to explore in imaginatively transposed terms his entire Italian experience, Venetian and Ravennese alike, then it must be said that the play was ultimately to prove itself unequal to the task. To borrow W. W. Robson's phrase, “It is just because of the very great degree to which Byron is obviously in command of his experience here, that we are led to ask for evidence of a still fuller and finer control.”12 This fuller, finer control we do not find in Sardanapalus. Samuel Chew wrote of the play that the “remoteness of the theme leaves the mind of the reader open to any impression that the poet desires to convey.” For Chew this was one explanation of the play's “excellence.”13 However, the remoteness Chew speaks of has a corollary effect, from the writer's point of view. For if Byron goes great distances in time and in space (to Assyria in the seventh century b.c.) to find a location neutral enough to allow him to rehearse what I have called his substitute life there, he also goes too far to find sufficient material with which to stimulate his imagination. He could not find an objective correlative for the emotions he wished to articulate. The characters in Byron's Venetian plays are able to withstand the grafting of his own interests and obsessions onto their natures and still lead an independent dramatic life. They both resist his interest and accept it, and thus the drama arises. Significantly enough, only the unroused Sardanapalus (the one before the royal feast at the beginning of Act III) has this independent life, especially in his dialogue with Salamenes in Act I where the dramatic argument is at its most intense and the drama's theme is most vividly realized. Elsewhere Byron lacks what he would call a “foundation of fact” for his “airy fabric” (BLJ, V, 203).

Feeling this lack in his play, he looked to make it up from elsewhere and found himself indebted to Shakespeare. There is not space here to give a full inventory of Byron's borrowings from and allusions to Antony and Cleopatra, but a summary list may indicate the extent to which he made use of Shakespeare's play. Like Antony, who was “not more manlike / Than Cleopatra,” Sardanapalus is referred to as a “Man-Queen.”14 Just as Antony believes Cleopatra to have “robb'd me of my sword” (IV.xiv.23), so Sardanapalus no longer even wears one and has to borrow his weapons from a guard (II.i.177). Sardanapalus is armed by his followers (III.i.127-144) just as Antony is (IV.iv.1-10); makes impetuous military decisions (V.i.144-147) just as Antony does (III.vii.27-53); causes his friends to weep at an emotional farewell speech (V.i.400-409) as Antony does (IV.ii.20-36); and even finds in Pania a servant as unwilling to desert his master (V.i.240-275) as Eros is (IV.xiv.55-95). Like Enobarbus, Salamenes is Sardanapalus' “friend as well as subject” (I.i.4), a man who cannot believe that “truth should be silent” (A & C, II.ii.108). Like Enobarbus too, he is fully aware of the king's failings: “His lusts have made him mad” he says, “Then must I save him, / Spite of himself” (II.i.274-275). Zarina is to Sardanapalus what Octavia is to Antony: she will not accept “Reluctant love even from Assyria's lord” (I.ii.220). Even Myrrha, so unlike Cleopatra in many respects—and quite without her “infinite variety” of course (A & C, II.ii.235)—has pursued conclusions infinite of easy ways to die, keeping a bottle of “cunning Colchian poison” for the purpose (III.i.187). Like Cleopatra, too, she wishes to follow her lover into battle (III.i.151). At a climactic moment Myrrha sends a messenger to Sardanapalus: “Away and tell your King / I loved him to the last” (III.i.255-256). So Cleopatra sends Mardian to Antony: “go tell him I have slain myself; / Say that the last I spoke was ‘Antony’” (IV.xiii.7-8).

Byron came to depend on this play of Shakespeare's for two reasons. First, as I have suggested, the story of Sardanapalus lacked the circumstantial historical setting that Byron could avail himself of in fleshing out his Venetian dramas. Antony and Cleopatra, set in the fabulous Middle East, in a court strikingly similar to Sardanapalus' own, helped him to visualize the scene he wished to depict. Second, Shakespeare's play helped Byron organize that triadic counterpointing of hope, fear, and weariness seen at work in the Ravenna journal. He did not identify these responses with Shakespeare's moral sundering of the world into “the Roman” and “the Egyptian” in any direct way, but the figure of Antony—the “triple pillar of the world transform'd / Into a strumpet's fool” (I.i.12-13), who is torn between two sets of values so disparate that he alone in the play recognizes the existence of both—did, I think, lie behind that of Sardanapalus. The fact that Sardanapalus never suffers the shattering crises that afflict Antony—“Here I am Antony, / Yet cannot hold this visible shape” (IV.xiv.13-14)—suggests that he is unconscious of the extent to which his nature is riven in two by the conflicting demands made of him; more than this it suggests that Byron did not want him to be conscious of his condition. In this the fantasies of the author and his creation coincided.


  1. Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (Cambridge: Harvard University Press; and London: John Murray, 1973-1982), VIII, 26; subsequent references will be in the text.

  2. Calvert, Byron: Romantic Paradox (1935; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), p. ix; Rutherford, Byron: A Critical Study (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1961), p. xi; Gleckner, Byron and the Ruins of Paradise (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967; rpt. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. xii; Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1915), p. 113; Marchand, Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction (Boston: Houghton Mifflin; and London: John Murray, 1965), p. 105.

  3. Jerome J. McGann, “The book of Byron and the book of a world,” in The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 280, 286; “Lord Byron's twin opposites of truth,” in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 51.

  4. See Don Juan, Canto V, stanzas 33-39, and BLJ, VII, 245-251.

  5. Quoted by Antony Easthope in his Poetry and Phantasy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p. 20.

  6. Martyn Corbett, Byron and Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 10.

  7. All quotations from Sardanapalus are taken from The Works of Lord Byron. Poetry, ed. E. H. Coleridge (London: John Murray, 1898-1904).

  8. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, tr. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 386.

  9. Dan Jacobson, Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers (London: André Deutsch, 1988), p. 86.

  10. Peter Manning, Byron and his Fictions (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978), p. 123.

  11. Samuel Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron, p. 109.

  12. W. W. Robson, Byron as Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 29.

  13. Samuel Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron, p. 106.

  14. Antony and Cleopatra, I.iv.5-6 and Sardanapalus, I.i.43. All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Frederick W. Shilstone (essay date fall 1976)

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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 meaningfully with the dramas of Byron and of the nineteenth century in general. Treated as unique literary phenomena, conforming only to their own self-evolved structural and generic identities, these works provide insight into the entire Romantic tendency to experiment with and redefine traditional literary types for purposes of unique expression. The age was indeed dominated by a “lyric norm,” but this domination did not omit attempts by various writers to manifest that norm in several types of literary art.

Byron's dramas are chief among those designed to expand the boundaries of Romantic lyric expression. Readers have generally presupposed a direct split between the “natural,” straight-forward, and unpretentious overflowing of the Romantic soul in Manfred and Byron's more strained, atypical, and “artificial” attempts to write in a classical, historical mode. Critics feel comfortable with Manfred, rightly calling it a lyrical drama that makes no claims to being anything but an extended working out of the subjective physical and metaphysical problems forming the core of Romantic literary expression. But when confronted by The Two Foscari,Marino Faliero, or Sardanapalus, they lose this confidence and seem to become nervous about the apparently traditional dramatic qualities and the ways in which these qualities clash with sentiments evident in Byron's other works. Such discomfort, though not often directly stated, appears in many forms. The various readings of Sardanapalus (1821), which I use throughout this essay as my example of Byron's historical plays, are indicative of the trend. The most common response to this work has been to ignore completely the fact that it is drama by retreating to the confines of the biographical and broadly thematic: “all critics must admit … that Sardanapalus is an autobiographic revelation.”1 In making this assumption, readers have sought relentlessly for a thematic and, by extension, biographical norm in the play. Until recently, it has generally been accepted that Myrrha, the voice of “selfless love,” represents a normative check on the sensual self-indulgence of Sardanapalus. Both Myrrha and Zarina, the wronged queen, “compel our homage,” in one view.2 In radical contrast with this widely accepted reading is Jerome McGann's opinion that the nonviolent, generous “king of peace” (Sardanapalus) represents the true thematic norm.3 McGann's reading is based upon direct biographical correlations between Myrrha and Teresa Guiccioli on the one hand, and Byron and Sardanapalus on the other; even love, it seems, cannot stand in the way of the poet's self-esteem. While this entire thematic and biographical controversy is certainly fascinating, it tends to obscure the more important formal implications of the experiment represented in Sardanapalus and the rest of Byron's dramas. The play must be read in terms of its generic identity if it is to be treated as anything other than an artistic failure or oddity with deep thematic and psychological interest.

The first notion to be abandoned in approaching Sardanapalus is that of the positive split between the mode of Manfred and that of the historical piece. Thematic parallels have in a few instances been drawn among all of Byron's plays,4 but no real attempt has been made to relate them in fundamental structural terms. Both Sardanapalus and Manfred should be seen as examples of what Byron described as “mental theatre”:

… my dramatic simplicity is studiously Greek, and must continue so: no reform ever succeeded at first. I admire the old English dramatists; but this is quite another field, and has nothing to do with theirs. I want to make a regular English drama, no matter whether for the Stage or not, which is not my object,—but a mental theatre.5

Byron's description of his own art here is as usual less than precise, but it should be noted that Byron says his drama is both regular and innovative. It is a theater of the mind, but one that is kept within rather tight aesthetic bounds. One vital differentiation must be made at the outset; Manfred is in the purest sense lyrical drama, while Sardanapalus is not. The latter play involves a process of externalization, of confrontation of characters. The primary difference between the lyric mode of Manfred and the dramatic mode of Sardanapalus involves the concepts of character, time, and development through time. In Manfred, the reader is directly presented with a mental dilemma. The characters, natural and supernatural (the inclusion of supernatural elements here is one key indication of the differences between the plays), are merely elements of the struggle that the controlling consciousness of Manfred, who himself is not actually a character in any dramatic sense, confronts in his attempt to define his physical and metaphysical relationship with the world around him. The poem has an aura of stasis and preconceived completeness; there are no well-defined personalities, and one experiences no sense of character and plot development. It is, like a lyric, a moment of insight and expression. In Sardanapalus, the spectator or reader is introduced to obviously differentiated characters who confront each other in a realistically dramatic way; people interact and their aims and motives clash. The play involves definite development through time, a presentness about each scene, a qualitative sense of a now in each instance preparing for a future—as opposed to the past and complete identity of a narrative and the present but static and intense qualities of the lyric. Susanne Langer speaks of the dramatic illusion in the following terms:

It has been said repeatedly that the theater creates a perpetual present moment; but it is only a present filled with its own future that is really dramatic. A sheer immediacy, an imperishable direct experience without an ominous forward movement of consequential action, would not be so. As literature creates a virtual past, drama creates a virtual future.6

The two elements of dramatic confrontation of characters and present, impelling development through time, differentiate Sardanapalus from Manfred.

The direct relationship between these two plays is rather more complex. It is in a way thematic, if theme is broadly interpreted as the working out of a dilemma and not as an extractable statement about “life” or the “means of living.” For Sardanapalus is the mental dilemma of Manfred, with some modifications, transferred into dramatic rather than lyric terms. Because of the radical differences between the modes of the two works, Sardanapalus is quite definitely an experiment; it is an attempt to embody the lyric mode of Manfred in the dramatic development of an historical play and a quest to escape the formal confines of subjective, lyric expression. The unique quality of Sardanapalus is its experimentation with literary structures, its attempt to keep the Romantic sensibility from falling into a stultifying formalistic repetitiveness.

The particular type of experimentation found in this play was not without precedent, and Byron was not lacking models. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, German drama was changing slowly yet profoundly. In the process of reinterpreting its Volksgeist, and the role of art in the search for national identity, Germany was many years ahead of other nations in its experimentation with aesthetic forms for purposes of unique, often subjective, expression. Certainly some dramatists, notably Kotzebue, indulged in melodramatic excess for its own sake and could not handle the increased freedom allowed in the age. But German drama was also developing in less radical ways; in this more gradual line of experimentation lies a key to understanding Byron's method in Sardanapalus.

One of the ironies of the historical method of literary categorization is the fact that the German dramatists who are termed “classical”—Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, and others of their age—were the ones who initiated the redefinition of the dramatic mode. A swift juxtaposition of the French Berenice and Schiller's Die Räuber removes any notion that these plays follow a common classical norm. Schiller's drama is in several respects moving away from neoclassical ideals. Like Goethe's Faust, Die Räuber consciously, even defiantly, violates the unities, showing Schiller's contempt for them as arbitrary restraints on the dramatist's need for free expression. Even more importantly, Die Räuber shows signs of an emerging new dramatic emphasis. The play has a good deal of frenzied action and several characters, but these elements seem slightly subordinate to a more general and pervading interest, a governing problem, which makes the fate of even the major character, Karl Moor (the leader of the robber band), seem unimportant as an action. The eventual surrender of Karl to the authorities derives its major significance from the way in which it shows the defeat of one of the dominant elements of the play—passion—by the other—a mundane, controlled realism. These two elements conflict throughout the drama on every level: the personality of Old Moor clashes with that of Karl, until his final submission; the language of one scene clashes with that of the next; the wildness of the setting of the robber camp clashes with the order and stability of the governmental authority to which Karl finally surrenders. A recent critic of Schiller finds a “similarity of tone pervading Die Räuber [that] can easily be interpreted as a fault.” As a result, the individual characters are subordinated to a more basic purpose: “Schiller's aim, far from being realistic as the word is ordinarily understood, sets out to portray another plane of reality, the plane of the soul.”7 As Garland realizes, Schiller is willing here to sacrifice characters as well as other traditional elements to the basic purpose of the drama, the attempt to portray a sense of strife in the soul. And that strife is not only in Karl; it is in the play as a whole. Die Räuber is at least in part the presentation of a mental crisis in dramatic form. In this way, it is one of the first steps in the evolution of a truly dramatic mental theater.

Byron was extremely interested in the new developments in German literature, particularly those in the drama. While living in both England and Europe, he was connected through various channels with literary currents in Germany, even though he apparently could not read the language of that nation with any facility. He was most certainly exposed to Die Räuber, probably in an English translation, during his tenure on the Drury Lane Committee and on his less official journeys to the theater during the “years of fame” in England. He also was introduced to the literary musings of Madame de Staël, both personally, in meetings with her in England in 1814 and in Switzerland in 1816, and through her writings; in addition to reading de Staël's novels, he received at least a secondary acquaintance with German “classical” dramatists and stage practices from her De l'Allemagne. Byron's consistent curiosity about new appearances of dramatic experimentation in Germany is emphasized by the fact that the English poet seems always to have sought out a translator to help him overcome his difficulties in gaining access to the works of Goethe and his contemporaries. Monk Lewis was available to render Faust into English for him in Switzerland in 1816, and there is an enticing hint in one of Byron's letters to Murray from Italy, where the poet continued to follow the development of early nineteenth-century German drama while conceiving his plan for writing the historical tragedies, that he had recourse to similar aid during his exile in that country. While asking his publisher to send him a biography of Goethe in translation “if such there be,” he leaves Murray the option of forwarding a copy in “the original German” (LJ, V, 488). If there had been no one available to read the original text, it is unlikely that Byron would have offered the final alternative.

Whatever general effort Byron expended in quest of German literary knowledge, it is clear from his correspondence that his specific interest in Grillparzer was of special importance to the composition of Sardanapalus. In the same diaries and letters containing references to the writing of that historical play one finds admiring comments about Grillparzer and his works, the latter as they were exposed to Byron in Italian translations. In an extremely revealing diary extract written in January of 1821 (only a few months before he defined “mental theatre” for his publisher), Byron praises Grillparzer in unequivocal terms:

Read the Italian translation by Guido Sorelli of the German Grillparzer—a devil of a name, to be sure, for posterity … but with every allowance for such a disadvantage, the tragedy of Sappho is superb and sublime! There is no denying it. The man has done a great thing in writing that play.

(LJ, V, 171)

The very next entry in the diary states: “sketched the outline and Drams. Pers. of an intended tragedy of Sardanapalus, which I have for some time meditated” (LJ, V, 172). A reference to Sappho (III.i.67-68) is the most glaring anachronism in Sardanapalus; it suggests that the connection between this play and Grillparzer's involves more than temporal coincidence.

Sappho is a unique play because it carries the tendencies of Die Räuber noted above nearly to their ultimate limit. It is apparent that Grillparzer chose the story of Sappho because it could, with sufficient modifications, be used for the expression of a particular mental crisis. The action of the play is sparse, even incidental, to a far greater extent than in Die Räuber. There are no “reversals” or “recognitions,” in Aristotelian terms, because the plot, though varied enough to make the play stageworthy, is of little importance. The drama is fundamentally concerned with a crisis of character, but Sappho is only a part of, rather than a chief sufferer from, that crisis. She is the central character—the focus of interest—but she is also one element in the larger mental struggle that the play represents. On the surface, the central dilemma is that of the artist, wrenched by the problem of choosing between the noble and immortal realm of art and the transient but sensuous and feeling world outside the ivory tower—a major concern of Keats and his Victorian followers. But the more basic theme of the play is its overall focus on the tension between carnal, transient existence and spiritual aspiration in the “human condition.” As the play begins, Sappho has made an attempt to abandon her spirituality and to accept life in all its mundane domesticity. She is of course unable to do this; in the overall structure of the drama, she represents the aspiring element, the spirit that cannot accept the earthly progression of life toward inevitable death. The mundane has its representatives, too, in the characters Phaon, the young man with whom Sappho attempts to share her new earthly life, and Melitta, Sappho's servant and the female counterpart of Phaon; she is aptly described as “ein süsses, liebes, unbefangnes Kind.”8 If Phaon and Melitta were the only characters present, they would obviously marry and the play would be turned into a domestic comedy. But Sappho, the aspiring spirit, is strikingly present; the clash between acceptance of human life and the attempt to aspire beyond its limitations is the play's concern, and the individual characters are subordinated to that concern. Just before Sappho throws herself off a precipice to end her life (and the drama), she exclaims to the gods,

Zu schwach fühl ich mich, länger noch zu kämpfen,
Gebt mir den Sieg, erlasset mir den Kampf!

The force she represents cannot survive; death is an escape for Sappho, but it is also a larger resolution of the drama's conflict. The aspiring element must be removed if the worldly Phaon and Melitta are to endure. Only through a denial of the spirit, Grillparzer implies, can one go on living. But this denial is, of course, impossible. The death of Sappho is merely an image of the tragedy of the clash; as in the play, the conflict in man goes on until death. Whether the spirit lives beyond the clay is a question Grillparzer does not here confront.

Sappho becomes what Die Räuber prefigures. In complete reversal of the Aristotelian emphasis on action and characters in action, Grillparzer's drama is dominated by Character in a larger sense. Every element in the play works toward the presentation of a precise mental conflict and does so dramatically, through confrontation and resolution. It is, as Wordsworth said of his Lyrical Ballads, that the feeling (or mind, or “soul”) gives importance to the action (and characters, and setting) and not vice versa. So innovative had the German theater become.

English dramatic developments were not totally lacking in the tendencies Byron admired in the works of his German contemporaries. Romantic critics of drama—Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Lamb in particular—were beginning to look at plays predominantly in terms of character and thus, though often forced to impose a norm on older works to which this approach does not completely apply, were beginning to understand and propound the principles of mental theater. Further, Shelley, Byron's closest personal associate among the major English poets, saw fit to manifest his vision in Prometheus Unbound, one of the clearest attempts to reconcile Romantic aesthetic theory and the dramatic mode in a new type of poetry John Ehrstine has labeled “the drama of the mind.”9 It is not improbable that Shelley's Prometheus and The Cenci occupy similar positions in his canon as those held by Manfred and the historical plays in Byron's—as related attempts to create overtly lyrical drama and, subsequently, a relatively exoteric, perhaps even stageworthy, “mental theatre”—and that the elder poet's “Germanic” influence was at least in part responsible for the particular course Shelley's dramatic experimentation was to take after his spending time with Byron in Switzerland. All other attempts aside, though, it was Byron who, in Sardanapalus, achieved clearly in practice what a few of his contemporaries were approaching from the directions of criticism and creative experimentation.

Many of the interpretive problems in Sardanapalus can be solved if the play is related to this new dramatic emphasis—that on a mind in conflict with itself, imaging that conflict in a dramatic interplay of characters, yet presupposing the absolute ascendancy of the larger concept of Character (or mind) over the individual personalities and other elements of the drama. Surpassing the incidental problems of stageworthiness, the use of the unities, and the relative virtues of the characters is the pervading identity of Sardanapalus, the overall singleness of purpose in the play. The concern of the work as a whole is the problem of the mind of Manfred, with some variations in detail, expressed in externalized, dramatic terms. It is, broadly speaking, the ironic dialectic of the human mind, the conflict between carnal entrapment and spiritual, though not necessarily metaphysical, aspiration—man's condition as “half dust, half deity.” The only escape from this dilemma, as Manfred shows, is death, but it can be a triumph rather than a mere cessation. It is not difficult for Manfred to die because he has gained a willful, if ironic, ascendance over his own fate. Confident that there is no afterlife, he remains undefeated because he wills his own end; mind conquers the external defeat of the body; defiance conquers fatalism; spirit conquers clay. The lyrically mental drama of Manfred and the classical examples of Schiller and Grillparzer look forward to the extrinsically mental theater of Sardanapalus.

As in Sappho, the characters in Sardanapalus represent mental traits whose conflict provides the substance of the drama. Chew notes (p. 116) in a perceptive side comment that Byron's presentation of persons, both historical and uniquely created for this work, endows them with a “ruling passion,” thus pointing out the unilateral nature of even the major figures assigned the task of working out the play's dilemma. From the very outset of Sardanapalus it is clear that every character, far from being complex and changing, symbolically represents a single, well-defined trait. Each of these traits is made evident in one or more of the profuse and lengthy speeches that dominate sections of the play. Byron has been criticized for filling Sardanapalus with verbose soliloquies containing no information “that is not more fully imparted in the following expository scenes.”10 While this quality may not aid the play's stageworthiness, it is essential to the development of a mental problem that is the drama's excuse for being. The characters must be unilateral; they need to establish their precise roles immediately and forcefully in the long speeches assigned them.

The three primary characters in Sardanapalus—the title “hero” (or “she-king”), his brother-in-law Salemenes, and the concubine Myrrha—comprise the chief mental traits that here conflict. Their aesthetic reason for being is as symbolic counters of one another whose fundamental differences represent the subjective crisis at the core of the play. Sardanapalus, at the center of the drama and thus the chief factor in the mental dilemma embodied here, is drawn in several directions throughout the action by his fellow characters to show the intellectual turmoil this play inherited from Manfred. More than just a peace-loving sensualist, the “she-king” symbolizes the complete development of one half of the Manfred psyche: the commitment to “dust,” the absolute acceptance of man's transient mortality. Sardanapalus reveals his role early, when he replies to Salemenes' pleas that he emulate the heroism and “godliness” of his predecessors on the throne most scornfully: “I feel a thousand mortal things about me, / But nothing godlike” (I.ii.273-74). Later, when arguing with the priest Beleses, he expands his claim:

                                        I dispense with
The worship of dead men; feeling that I
Am mortal, and believing that the race
From whence I sprung are—what I see them—ashes.


The obvious and continuing emphasis on Sardanapalus' commitment to the fact of mortality is the first element in the mental drama, the symbolic externalization of one of the conflicting forces in the human mind.

Myrrha and Salemenes represent the two mental traits attempting to pull Sardanapalus into metaphysical realms. Myrrha, the king's concubine and totally a creation of Byron's imagination, is often considered the “voice of selfless love, the complement of Sardanaplus,”11 the fictional counterpart of Byron's Teresa Guiccioli. While she does exhibit qualities that might lead to such a conclusion, her primary role in the drama stems from her embodiment of a mental strength of will. Sardanapalus berates her at one point by exclaiming, “Thy own sweet will shall be the only barrier / Which ever arises betwixt thee and me” (I.ii.27-28), thus revealing Myrrha's role (one based on her Ovidian namesake's steadfast refusal to accept easy death as proper punishment for her lust for her father Cinyras), and Sardanapalus' ignorance of the fact that strength of will—symbolic merger with Myrrha—is his only hope for escaping obscurity. For without the complementary will of Myrrha, the Grecian fortitude that makes her “the very chorus of the tragic song” (I.ii.517), the sensuous life of Sardanapalus could end nowhere but in fatalistic obscurity, since it rejects completely any notion of existence, let alone triumph, in an afterlife. The parallel with Manfred's dilemma is clear: Manfred, too, would die obscurely if he did not have an almost existential control over his own death, a defiant relish in self-abnegation. In the symbology of Sardanapalus, Myrrha represents the mental power to deny the concept of immortality while at the same time achieving a triumphant death through absolute defiance of the fatalism implied in a totally material view of reality.

Salemenes, the king's brother-in-law who constantly protests the treatment given his sister, represents all those mental qualities pulling Sardanapalus away from his only possibility for grandeur. Since the character of Sardanapalus cannot significantly change because of his symbolic role in the play, the suggestions Salemenes makes to him are absurd. Salemenes offers cures for what he calls, in his opening soliloquy, the mental sickness of his king, but all of them presuppose a belief in immortality, both religious and heroic. The queen's brother is traditional in his beliefs; one should be brave in this life and then look forward to another existence after it. The impossibility of the alternatives offered by Salemenes is emphasized when Byron splits apart the two governing beliefs of his character—heroic militarism and religious orthodoxy—and embodies them in Arbaces and Beleses, the two rebels who materially as well as philosophically oppose Sardanapalus.

Sardanapalus, Myrrha, and Salemenes are, then, like the characters in Grillparzer's Sappho, elements of a mental drama, symbolic counterparts of the forces working on the troubled mind of Manfred. The structure of Sardanapalus involves a clashing of the three traits represented in these characters and embodies the quest to express the conflict and resolution of the mental qualities these personalities stand for in a symbolic action. The play is substantially a series of presentations of the opposing forces, of the conflict inherent in an irresolute mind, leading finally to the only end possible for the mental state here introduced. After the cerebral and physical confrontations, the arguments and rebellions, have run their course, it remains for Sardanapalus to triumph over his own mortality through a symbolic merger with Myrrha, the will, a merger that can allow him, like Manfred, to find victory in suicide, man's ultimate and perhaps only control over his own destiny. As Sardanapalus builds the funeral pyre that will welcome him and his concubine at the end of the drama, he speaks of the approaching act of leaping into the flames not primarily as suicide, but as merger: “the commingling fire will mix our ashes” (V.i.471). And a merger it is. With the mental unity of mortality and will symbolized in the dual suicide by fire, the tumultuous mind of the play is finally at rest. As in the case of Manfred, the merging of the two elements leads directly to death, but one that is triumphant and self-determined, the only grandeur available to a man cut off from the comfortable prospect of immortality. Working from the German classical precedent, Byron created, in both Sardanapalus and Manfred, mental dramas whose only remaining monuments are of clay. But they are of clay triumphant over itself.

In Sardanapalus, Byron undertook a practical experiment in his quest to reform English drama by attempting to realize his ideal of creating a “mental theatre.” In so doing, he paradoxically created a play that to some degree adheres to the Aristotelian “unities” (stage devices all) while being in most estimates a closet drama, and that expresses the dilemma of the lyrical Manfred through reinterpretation of historical fact. It is a drama that is, as Byron wanted it to be, both regular and innovative. Working from German precedents, Byron saw a way to manifest his predominantly lyric muse in a new and unique form. It is not surprising that his plays are more widely appreciated in Germany than elsewhere; in addition to Schiller and Grillparzer, that country produced Nietzsche, who later in the nineteenth century defined tragedy as “nur … eine Verbildlichung dionysischer Weisheit durch apollonische Kunstmittel.”12 Tragedy represents unruly and turbulent emotional states in meaningful and ordered artistic form—precisely the role of Sardanapalus. The experiment embodied in this play and in the whole attempt to create a “mental theatre” by Byron is a chief episode in the Romantic redefinition of the role and character of art.


  1. Samuel C. Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron: A Critical Study (1915; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964), p. 113.

  2. Bonamy Dobrée, Byron's Dramas, Byron Foundation Lecture (Nottingham: University of Nottingham, 1962), p. 17.

  3. Jerome J. McGann, Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 228-44.

  4. Chew (p. 113), for example, refers to Manfred III.i.163ff as a way of understanding the dilemma of Sardanapalus, and refers both title characters in these plays to Goethe's “Zwei Seelen” concept in Faust.

  5. Rowland E. Prothero, ed., The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals (London: John Murray, 1898-1901), V, 347. Subsequent references to these volumes will be cited parenthetically in the text as LJ. Quotations from Sardanapalus in this essay refer to The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry, ed. E. H. Coleridge (London: John Murray, 1898-1904), V.

  6. Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner's, 1953), p. 307.

  7. H. B. Garland, Schiller: The Dramatic Writer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 37-38.

  8. Franz Grillparzer, Sappho, ed. Keith Spaulding (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), p. 26. The quotation from the play below also refers to this edition.

  9. John W. Ehrstine, “The Drama and Romantic Theory: The Cloudy Symbols of High Romance,” Research Studies, 34 (1966), 86. Ehrstine's article is a perceptive and concise general introduction to the problem of why the English Romantics seemed obsessed with the need to write drama while being unable to create characters and situations suitable to successful stage production.

  10. Chew, p. 45.

  11. This specific quotation is from Robert F. Gleckner's Byron and the Ruins of Paradise (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), p. 320, but the same view is either directly expressed or taken for granted in most critical readings of the play.

  12. Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie, in Werke, ed. Alfred Baeumler (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1931), I, 174.

Principal Works

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Manfred 1817

Cain 1821

Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice 1821

Sardanapalus 1821

The Two Foscari 1821

Heaven and Earth 1823

Werner 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

Mazeppa (poetry) 1819

Don Juan, Cantos I-XVI. 6 vols. (poetry) 1819-1824

The Vision of Judgment (poetry) 1822

The Island; or, Christian and His Comrades (poetry) 1823

Letters and Journals. 11 vols. (letters and journals) 1975-1981

Daniel P. Watkins (essay date winter 1981)

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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 values which bind society. I believe moreover that proper attention to this social nexus will show the plays to be more consistent in their aims than has been recognized, and in addition will help promote the favorable response that Byron hoped would “in time” be given them.


Critics of Marino Faliero (1820) have written about the play's suitability or unsuitability for the stage, about its technical flaws, its psychological probings, its historical accuracy, its imagery and symbolism, its prophetic political commentary, and its political opportunism.2 It would seem that after such thorough consideration the play is incapable of yielding further possible interpretations. Yet there remains to be considered the specific social questions that ultimately encompass those issues which heretofore have occupied the bulk of critical attention. Three key social matters which are of especial interest have until now been treated only tangentially: ideology, class allegiance, and violence.

The social concerns of Marino Faliero are overshadowed by the play's political content. It is difficult to read such an obviously sympathetic exposition of treasonous conspiracy without suspecting Byron of simpleminded “radicalism.” Yet he insisted that the tragedy was “not a political play” (BLJ 7, 184). The popular tendency is to say that his comment is disingenuous, calculated to palliate the politically conservative Murray to whom he was writing; but to dismiss it so easily is to misunderstand Byron's purpose, which was not to deny out of hand the play's politics (he tells Murray plainly in the same letter that “you and yours won't like the politics which are perilous to you in these times”), but rather to direct attention to the human motives that created the political turmoil being dramatized. Both in his letters and within the play itself he voices this as his main interest. As early as 1817, when he first contemplated the Faliero conspiracy, he wrote to Murray: “Look into ‘Moore's (Dr. Moore's) view of Italy’ for me—in one of the volumes you will find an account of the Doge Valiere (it ought to be Falieri) and his conspiracy—or the motives of it— … I want it—& can not find so good an account of that business here. … I have searched all the libraries—but the policy of the old Aristocracy made their writers silent on his motives which were a private grievance against one of the Patricians” (BLJ 5, 174). Towards the end of the play, too, Byron has Faliero ask: “Were it not better to record the facts, / So that the contemplator might approve, / Or at least learn whence the crimes arose?” (V, i, 508-10). The motives of the conspiracy, Byron believed, transcended specifically political and even psychological considerations, and must be traced back to larger questions of the dynamics of Venetian society itself. To understand the conspiracy it was necessary to re-create Venice as it must have been in Faliero's time: the atmosphere that found aristocracy and plebian joining forces to defeat a common enemy, the passions of individuals who comprised the society, the obstacles and choices that could have arisen in the minds of the discontented citizenry. This social perspective, more than the purely political, suggests the aims of the play.

Just as he wanted Marino Faliero to be more than a political drama, Byron also wanted it to be more than a revenge drama portraying psychological unrest, and thus he chose not to found the play's action on jealousy. Michael Steno's irreverent conduct, he explained, provides only a “first motive”3—not a complete explanation of the conspiracy. The central issue, as critics since Chew's day correctly have remarked, is “the conflict … between the patricians and the people”4; the “private wrongs” recorded in the play “spring from public vices, from the general corruption generated by the foul aristocracy.”5 We need now to understand what this means in terms of the social construct Byron is re-creating.

To say that the aristocracy is corrupt is not necessarily to indict their private conduct nor to suggest that they publicly and physically abuse the Venetian citizenry. Their corruption lies in their consuming self-interest. They are morally blameable because they manipulate the power system to benefit only their own class, without concern for the larger body of individuals who comprise the state. As rulers they disseminate and uphold values which ostensibly represent the best interests of everyone, but which in reality do not recognize the needs or the integrity of private citizens.

One of the key ways Byron defines this corruption and pinpoints the built-in injustices of Venetian ideology is by emphasizing the disparity between the nobility of the aristocracy's language and the actual self-interest of their actions. They disguise their selfish motives and subdue the Venetian citizens with a hollow rhetoric that serves as an outward show of sincerity, dignity, and humility. For instance, while on the one hand the patricians insult the Doge's private integrity as well as his public office by imposing only a token punishment on Steno, at the same time their verbal position is one of esteem and concern for Faliero: “The high tribunal of the Forty sends / Health and respect to the Doge Faliero” (I, ii, 45-46). This kind of disparity is seen again in the episode with the patrician Lioni and the plebian Bertram. Actuated by true friendship and concern for human life, Bertram tries to save Lioni from imminent assassination. Lioni, however, uses Bertram's sincerity to extort information concerning the conspiracy. Speaking in noble language that professes the encompassing value and importance of the state (“who are traitors save unto the State?” “Say, rather thy friend's saviour and the State's,” IV, i, 299, 317) he persuades Bertram to compromise his personal integrity to save the patricians. The irony of this is underscored by the fact that Lioni's noble language consistently is contrasted by his fast regard not for the state but specifically for aristocracy. His interest in Bertram never extends beyond what “Beseem[s] one of thy station” (IV, i, 137); he is willing to assist Bertram only if Bertram “hast not / Spilt noble blood” (IV, i, 144-45). Once the conspiracy has been prevented, too, the patricians justify their brutal treatment of the prisoners in noble language. After being tortured on the rack, and before finally being executed, Israel Bertruccio and Philip Calendaro are told by the Chief of the Ten that they have committed treason “Against a just and free state, known to all / The earth as being the Christian bulwark 'gainst / The Saracen” (V, i, 10-12); further, they are told that they can save their souls only by confessing the injustice of their actions against the state: “… we would hear from your own lips complete / Avowal of your treason … / … the truth / Alone can profit you on earth or Heaven” (V, i, 29-32).

What critics mean—and what Byron meant—when they speak of the play's criticism of a corrupt aristocracy is that the ruling class value system does not serve the Venetian citizenry at large. The dominant values of the society, reflected in the language of the patricians, consist largely of an abstract honor that practically and materially benefits only a few people. Those who do not benefit (for example, Faliero and the plebians) eventually come to see themselves as slaves rather than citizens (I, ii, 106-08, and 461-62). The corruption, then, that generates the revolutionary conspiracy does not rest solely in the Steno decision nor in the physical abuse of Israel Bertruccio: it lies in the system of values that not only produces such atrocities but also sanctifies them.

Byron develops his characters' sensitivity to unjust Venetian values in terms of their growing awareness of social class. It is common for critics to remark Faliero's “aristocratic contempt for the mob,” his desire to “win real power,” or his habitual adherence “to a princely code of honor.”6 But Byron's treatment of Faliero involves more than this. It is intended to capture the sentiments and conflicting passions of an individual who suddenly finds himself standing outside the social sphere that he and his forbears have been bred into. Attention is not focused mainly on Faliero's drive for power nor on his princely conduct, but, as Andrew Rutherford puts it, on “the tensions in Marino's mind when he made common cause with the plebians against his own class.”7 The play examines Faliero's awareness that his class position allows only a narrow social perspective, incapable of alleviating the pervasive social injustices plaguing Venice, and follows him in his effort to cultivate a fuller understanding of society's needs.

Byron's emphasis on class consciousness is seen again in his handling of the conspiring plebians, who—like Faliero—must wrestle with the problem of class relationships. The conspirators are keenly sensitive to their position in the social hierarchy. When Israel Bertruccio informs Calendaro that a new member will shortly join their ranks, Calendaro responds: “Is he one of our order?” (II, ii, 161). And later when Falerio is introduced to the conspirators, reaction to him is unanimous: “To arms!—we are betrayed—it is the Doge! / Down with them both! our traitorous captain, and / The tyrant he hath sold us to” (III, ii, 90-92). Their initial response is as expressive of class prejudice as Faliero's. They, too, are presented the challenge of admitting that integrity and moral passion can be found outside their own class.

Byron's depiction of class consciousness suggests the range of social perspectives that is possible in any given culture. But more importantly it illustrates the necessity of becoming aware of class roles in order to overcome the barriers they impose. Both Faliero and the plebians must realize that their specific class attitudes do not reflect the views of all society, and cannot answer to the needs of the Venetian citizenry at large. They must learn to set class differences aside and explore their common needs as human beings; only in this way can they begin to generate social solidarity capable of defeating the injustices inflicted on them by the patricians. Moreover, only by developing a social rather than simply a class perspective can they hope to mount a revolutionary campaign that will do more than merely reverse or re-arrange existing class structures.

The play explores not only the necessity of recognizing and overcoming ideological assumptions and class barriers to bring about social change, but also the difficulty of rationalizing the physical violence that must accompany any effort to change the social structure. Violence against one's own state is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the play, and indeed the problem which finally destroys revolutionary hope. Even before Faliero meets with the conspirators he tells Israel Bertruccio that he cannot unfeelingly “take men's lives by stealth” (III, i, 108). And again, after the Doge has held commune with the plebians and agreed to lead them in the conspiracy, he asks: “And is it then decided! must they die?” (III, ii, 449). Though he realizes that “'Tis mine to sound the knell, and strike the blow” (III, ii, 491), still he “quiver[s] to behold what I / Must be, and think what I have been” (III, ii, 498-99).

In two main ways Faliero justifies the violence that he knows must accompany the revolution. First, he convinces himself that he has no choice; he is, as it were, a creature of circumstance who must perform the deeds that Fate has destined for him: “… the task / Is forced upon me, I have sought it not” (III, i, 9-10). He resorts to this justification more than once, giving the impression, as Professor McGann puts it, that he “act[s] freely against … [his] own will and feelings.”8 In trying to explain his actions, Faliero remarks that “there is Hell within me and around, / And like the Demon who believes and trembles / Must I abhor and do” (III, ii, 519-21). Another more practical and realistic way in which he comes to terms with violence is by refusing to see the patricians as individual human beings. He identifies them, rather, with the abstract mechanisms of the ruling order: “law,” “policy,” “duty,” “state” (III, ii, 351-54). Instead of looking on them as former friends, he tries to see them as “Senators” who inveterately have viewed him as “the Doge” (III, ii, 377-78):

To me, then, these men have no private life,
Nor claim to ties they have cut off from others;
As Senators for arbitrary acts
Amenable, I look on them—as such
Let them be dealt upon.

(III, ii, 382-86)

It is in this way that he must finally account for revolutionary violence. He must identify the individuals of the ruling class entirely with the corrupt political machine that is to be destroyed; only then can natural sympathy for human life be contained and prevented from interfering with the demands of revolution.

Byron does not treat the horrors of violence as uniquely a problem for leaders: all persons engaged in revolutionary activities must come to terms with violence. He illustrates this point in the character of Bertram, a plebian involved in the conspiracy. Bertram focuses the moral question that Faliero had raised: How does one rationalize the violence and deceit that is a necessary part of the drive to establish a right and just social order (III, ii, 64-69)? Unlike the Doge, however, he cannot separate the political machine from those who run it: “… even amongst these wicked men / There might be some, whose age and qualities / Might mark them out for pity” (III, ii, 24-26). Though he is as anxious for the revolution as Faliero or his fellow plebians, he ultimately destroys the possibility of revolution by his inability to resolve the moral question of violence; his decision not to betray his patrician friend Lioni transforms him into an unwilling informer: “Then perish Venice rather than my friend! / I will disclose—ensnare—betray—destroy— / Oh, what a villain I become for thee” (IV, i, 314-16).

If Marino Faliero gives the question of violence its noble, tragic dimension, Bertram gives it a universal significance. His concern with the morality of violence assures that we do not read the play as a narrow or incomplete picture of a moral dilemma unique to aristocracy. As with the other prominent social issues treated in the play, Byron implicates all classes of individuals, making them equally responsible for the way society is and for meeting the practical demands of social change.

These, then, are the social concerns at the heart of the play. Despite certain technical flaws (for instance, excess verbiage), Marino Faliero illuminates some possible private and public motives for engaging in political struggle and forcefully illustrates some of the moral questions that necessarily arise during this struggle. Byron probably found the play difficult to write (he contemplated it for more than three years) because he could not satisfactorily understand and present the social issues he though to be important to the political episode he was describing. But once his understanding of these issues matured, he produced a play that represents a vital part of his developing social thought.


Though it was, like Marino Faliero, a play about princes, queens, and popular disturbance, Byron trusted “that ‘Sardanapalus’ will not be mistaken for a political play—which was so far from my intention that I thought of nothing but Asiatic history” (BLJ 8, 152). As in Marino Faliero, his purpose in Sardanapalus (1821) was to recreate a historical situation in order to explore the dynamics of social reality. The play, however, does not simply duplicate the earlier drama. Although it treats some of the same themes that had marked the Venetian tragedy (violence, ideology), Sardanapalus attempts to display in greater detail both the circumstances that could make an individual feel out of step with the values of his culture, and the difficulties of overcoming alienation when the circumstances that caused it have not changed. Moreover, it attempts to distribute the blame for individual and social corruption more evenly than Marino Faliero had done. In the earlier play, the Doge had been shown to be clearly in the right and the patricians in the wrong; but in Sardanapalus the prince is shown to be as flawed in his alienation as Nineveh in the values it tries to uphold.

Marino Faliero begins at the moment of Faliero's decision to join the plebian conspirators, and thus does not dramatize pre-existing social conditions that could explain how the Doge came to be so far removed from the values of his society as to commit treason. Sardanapalus attempts to correct this deficiency by providing a background sufficient to explain its hero's alienation. In Acts I-II Sardanapalus is not drawn abstractly as a “luxury-loving and easy-going monarch” nor as “a debauchee who wants only to renounce his power.”9 His character is intended to reflect disgust for a society marked historically by violence. When Salemenes tries to inspire Sardanapalus by recalling the exploits of Semiramis, an illustrious ancestor, Sardanapalus asks: “And how many [corpses] / Left she behind in India to the vultures?” (I, ii, 131-32). And when Myrrha, attempting to instill in him a sense of civic responsibility, encourages him to read the histories of his culture, he replies: “They are so blotted o'er with blood, I cannot” (I, ii, 548). The Nineveh of the present, too, demands blood. When Sardanapalus is faced with the prospect of a rebelling populace he exclaims: “The ungrateful and ungracious slaves! they murmur / Because I have not shed their blood” (I, ii, 226-27). In short, Sardanapalus is not blindly hedonistic, but is driven (he feels) to hedonism in protest against the ideology of the society he is born to rule; his conduct expresses discontent with and condemnation of violence as a way of life.

This is not to say, however, that his hedonism—though explainable in social terms—is admirable, or even preferable to the dominant values of Nineveh. As a way of life, Byron shows, it is as unacceptable as Nineveh's traditional norm of violence. Though he wants to make “The weight of human misery less” (I, ii, 264) and thinks he can accomplish this best by leaving people to themselves (I, ii, 268-78), Sardanapalus actually helps create misery by leaving man defenseless; he fails to acknowledge any need whatsoever for the physical protection of life. When Salemenes warns him of imminent danger, Sardanapalus feels no compulsion to defend himself: “What dost dread?” “What must we dread?” (I, ii, 280, 285). Myrrha's efforts, too, to make Sardanapalus understand that “Kingdoms and lives are not to be so lost” (I, ii, 488) are met with the same simplistic and passive response: “Why, child, I loathe all war, and warriors; / I live in peace and pleasure: what can man / Do more?” (I, ii, 529-31). His attitude, Myrrha realizes, is potentially destructive both for himself and society (I, ii, 526-28) for it rests on the assumption that life is not worth defending. Sardanapalus admits this, claiming that life “is not worth so much” that he should always be “guarding against all [that] may make it less” (I, ii, 392-93). The weakness of his hedonistic philosophy is that he refuses to accept responsibility for his own life; by implication hedonism makes it impossible to accept responsibility for any life.

The initial acts of the play dramatize the struggle between equally unsatisfactory social philosophies. The Nineveh that Sardanapalus inhabits—and that his forbears inhabited—places an undue emphasis on violent aggression; Sardanapalus' attitude refuses to admit the value of any kind of physical violence. The central purpose of the play appears to be to show how these divergent outlooks are brought into line with one another. The conspiracy of Arbaces and Beleses reveals to Sardanapalus the insufficiency of his hedonistic creed and forces him to bear arms in defense of himself and his society. And, since he “fights as he revels” (III, i, 213) (that is, enthusiastically) he seems able at last to take up the duties required by his country. The final scene of the play, too, seems to mark the degree to which he has changed, for he commits suicide to escape the ignominy of being captured by the revolutionaries, and to prevent them from defiling his heritage.

But this reconciliation that seems to take place at the plot level does not resolve the deeper social issues that Byron has developed. Although Sardanapalus commits himself to the military defense of his country, his thinking remains unchanged: the real gulf between his private values and the public values of Nineveh is no closer to being bridged; he is merely acting against his own beliefs to preserve another set of beliefs that he does not share. This contradiction between Sardanapalus' private values and his public actions creates an “interior”10 drama that encapsulates and illuminates the play's concern with the fundamental relationship between individual and society.

The full social significance of this interior conflict is revealed in the dream that Sardanapalus recounts to Myrrha, for it illustrates the degree of Sardanapalus' continued alienation. In his dream Sardanapalus sees himself in the company of his ancestors, all of them ghastly and repulsive because of the violent atrocities they have committed in the name of their country. One holds “A goblet, bubbling o'er with blood” (IV, i, 111); others, “crowned wretches” (IV, i, 114), stare steadfastly at Sardanapalus, generating “a horrid kind / Of sympathy between us” (IV, i, 124-25).

These descriptions reveal Sardanapalus' instinctive fear of becoming such a villain as he considers his ancestors to have been, and his reluctance to commit himself fully to their system of values. Further, his description of the dream to Salemenes suggests his sense of superiority over his glorious ancestors, and his wish to remain apart from them: “… all the predecessors of our line / Rose up, methought, to drag me down to them” (IV, i, 174-75). In short, the dream shows that Sardanapalus has not changed suddenly from an easy-going monarch to a noble leader, but in assuming a military role has acted against his principles. It shows, moreover, that despite his display of military virtuosity, his pacifist sympathies remain strong. Finally, the incongruity between his thoughts and actions shows that the conflict of social outlooks presented at the beginning of the play is no closer to a resolution.

Indeed, the conflict is never resolved. Sardanapalus' hatred of war, and his refusal to see violence as necessary to social freedom, continue unchanged until the final collapse of Nineveh is imminent. Near the end of Act IV, when his commitment to defending his country is ostensibly total, he tells Myrrha:

To me war is no glory—conquest no
Renown. To be forced thus to uphold my right
Sits heavier on my heart than all the wrongs
These men would bow me down with.

(IV, i, 505-08)

He indicates here that he still sees no middle ground between the views he held at the outset of the play and the needs of his country. His longing continues for “An era of sweet peace” (IV, i, 512). Though forced by circumstance to don armor and weapons, his escapist desire to make “my realm a paradise” (IV, i, 517) persists. The “thirteen hundred years of Empire” (I, i, 7-8), the war, the lure of conquest: all the things that represent Nineveh's glory burden him.

This inability to resolve the conflict between his thoughts and actions is Sardanapalus' tragic flaw. He goes through the motions of leading his followers in combat, but he clings tenaciously to his belief that it is senseless and degrading to do so. By operating on two radically different levels, he creates a situation that will be fatal for himself and for his country.

Only after Salemenes' death and after the throne is doomed does Sardanapalus fully understand the error of his yearning for peaceful isolation—and even then he views himself as a victim rather than an accomplice in his downfall (V, i, 205-09). Whereas earlier in the play he had despised his ancestry for its blood-thirstiness, he now vows full commitment to defending “our long royalty of race” (V, i, 155). In the end, his suicide illustrates and confirms his understanding that one cannot commit oneself partially to society, but must accept fully all social responsibilities—even if this means dying to defend society. The suicide is intended not only to prevent the defilement of the throne by rebels, but also to show Sardanapalus' full commitment to social involvement. His action is neither melodramatic nor escapist, but tragic, for it is a sign of understanding that comes too late to save the kingdom.

Byron does not lay the blame fully at Sardanapalus' door. Sardanapalus is the tragic hero, to be sure, the one who must suffer for his sins; but his sins, Byron makes clear, arise from the kind of society that he is bred into. The main plot (the story of Sardanapalus changing from hedonist to military leader) is vital for this reason; it completes the interior drama by keeping in our minds the bloodshed and inhumanity that mark Nineveh's history, and that Nineveh requires Sardanapalus to accept. Sardanapalus' initial impulse towards hedonism and his later inability to commit himself fully to his country when it needs him have their roots at least partly in society—not wholly in his character. Looking at the play from this perspective, we see that the conspiracy of Arbaces and Beleses is not only Sardanapalus' fault but also Nineveh's fault, and consequently both are doomed to destruction. For just as Sardanapalus is unable to resolve the conflict between his thoughts and actions, Nineveh is unable to meet fully the needs of its citizens, unable to resolve the conflict between social glory and vicious conquest. The funeral pyre that ends the play marks not only the tragic suicide of Sardanapalus, but also of Nineveh.


The Two Foscari (1821) has been interpreted as a study in the conflict between “the state” and “the mind,” “self-will and duty,” or “the state and private freedom.”11 Certainly, it does present this conflict, for the play turns on the Doge's divided allegiance to Venice and his son. But to assume that a simple choice of one over the other would resolve the conflict is to miss the social concern that Byron had developed in Marino Faliero and Sardanapalus, and here takes yet a step further. This play does not only show that the Doge actively should have tried to aid his tortured son (though this is one point that is made), nor does it only show that the Venetian state is corrupt and morally bankrupt, and that thus the Doge is wrong in submitting to it (though this point is also made). Rather, building carefully on the argument of Sardanapalus, it suggests that the conflicts depicted arise because both the Doge and the state, as Jerome McGann puts it, have allowed “a gulf” to separate “the standards of public and private life.”12 I wish to clarify and develop this observation to show that the problem Byron tries to expose by writing about the two Foscari rests ultimately in the prejudices of Venetian ideology.

That the play describes a corrupt political machine is generally recognized.13 But why or how it is corrupt has not been adequately defined. If the ruling class oppresses the people—as it most certainly does—we should attempt to understand wherein that oppression lies. In The Two Foscari as in Marino Faliero, ruling class abuse of power is evident not only—and not mainly—in its treatment of citizens, but more clearly in the ideas that underlie its actions. By looking at what various characters take for granted as being true and just about society we can uncover much of the warped thinking in the political machine that protects and excuses such driven and inhumane individuals as, say, James Loredano.

First, everyone in the play except Marina takes for granted that the Venetian state is an abstract and mysterious power beyond individual comprehension. As one Senator comments to Memmo: “… men know as little / Of the state's real acts as of the grave's / Unfathomed mysteries” (I, i, 184-86). Or, witness again the Doge's several comments to Marina that she cannot understand the workings of the state (II, i, 84 and 115; or 125-26). This belief is accompanied by a corollary assumption: that the state is beyond reproach and thus commands absolute submission (usually represented as “commitment”). Cursed by Jacopo for presiding over his torture, an officer explains: “The sentence was not of my signing, but / I dared not disobey the Council” (I, i, 153-54). Again, Loredano, as a representative of state authority, implies the righteousness of state power when he asks: “… who shall oppose the law?” (IV, i, 258). These, then, are the major ingredients of Venetian ideology; individuals measure justice, morality, and humanity against them, accepting without question that they represent “truth” and “reality.” It is within the context of these generally accepted truths that such individuals as Loredano wield political power.

The picture of Venice closely resembles that depicted in Marino Faliero, except here Byron emphasizes more clearly that such values as these do not simply fall out of the sky, nor exist abstractly above and beyond humanity. Rather, he insists that they are created by people like the Doge and Loredano who sincerely or otherwise commit themselves so completely to a vision of society that they are blinded to the needs and feelings of individual people. The Doge's character is a vivid example of how the Venetian power structure has become corrupt. Through most of the play (until his son dies) he denies his own and others' needs when they conflict with the policies of state. He is, he says, “the State's servant” (II, i, 38), with “other duties than a father's” (II, i, 184). When Marina expresses her anger at the vile injustices of the state, the Doge admonishes her: “That is not a Venetian thought” (II, i, 276). Completely submissive to the dictates of the ruling order, he gives “deference due even to the lightest word / That falls from those who rule in Venice” (II, i, 298-99). This philosophy that endorses submission at all costs, though superficially noble, is dangerous and potentially destructive. For what it means in practical terms is that neither the Doge nor anyone else is materially and morally responsible for what the state does. By serving as willing “slaves” (II, i, 357) of Venice, and by “administer[ing] / My country faithfully” (II, i, 369-70) the Venetian ruling order is able to absolve itself of the moral burden of dealing with and administering to people. This kind of logic, to be sure, allows the state to expand and strengthen itself—“Under such laws, Venice / Has risen to what she is” (II, i, 400-01)—but only by setting up laws and policies that excuse the Doge and his fellow rulers from blame. The Doge actively embraces and helps to strengthen this system of personal irresponsibility by defining himself as “more citizen than either” Doge or father (II, i, 415). This cold reasoning allows him to accept Loredano's vindictive conduct as proper to state business, and to see his own son as a “traitor” (II, i, 385) and a “disgrace” (II, i, 175). The elder Foscari reminds one of Blake's Urizen: he acts from what he considers a noble and serious desire to create and preserve “order,” but his actions in reality are non-productive and contribute to the sum of human misery.

Byron's handling of the Doge's character shows that the play is not simply about allegiance either to Venice or Jacopo, but about faulty thinking that does not acknowledge that values rest as much in people as in ideas. The conflict of allegiances exists because the Doge—and others who think like him—has created it. By attaching the Doge to the matrix of Venetian ideology and having him represent Venetian values, Byron assures that the play is not primarily about private choices, but about ways of perceiving man and society. In the Venice that Byron portrays we are not allowed to imagine that the Doge could have resolved the conflict by showing more sympathy for Jacopo, for we are faced throughout the play with a dominant system of values that makes no allowances for its citizens. It is not the Doge, but the Doge and Venice that would need to change in order to resolve the conflict.

Marina provides the key to the social perspective of the play, for she consistently disentangles the confused logic and mistaken social notions of the other major characters (the Doge, Loredano, Jacopo). Only she recognizes the difference between people and state, and understands the proper relation between them. Despite the Doge's objection that she “speaks wildly” (II, i, 318) because of her “clamorous grief” (II, i, 132), in fact Marina provides a corrective to the dominant attitude towards society and social responsibility, and offers the only balanced vision in the play. She alone is fearless (II, i, 312) before the state and its ministers; she alone sees through the oppressive ways of the patricians.

Her clear-sightedness is best illustrated in her ability to take the unquestioned assumptions of the other characters and apply them to real people and situations so that they become visible in practical terms. For instance, when Memmo speaks of the ruling council's “duty” (I, i, 261) as a natural part of state matter, Marina points out to him, “'Tis their duty / To trample on all human feelings, all / Ties which bind man to man” (I, i, 261-63). Her exchanges with Loredano also show her ability to define Venetian ideology in practical terms. When the patrician visits Jacopo's dungeon cell Marina “let[s] him know / That he is known” (III, i, 267-68); that is, she shows that she does not confuse his “office” with his personal malice, but understands that he is using one to practice the other. With no deference to his political position, she launches a verbal attack that exposes both the real evil of his person and of the Venetian power structure that he represents (III, i, 252-433).

The full extent of Marina's understanding emerges in her conversation with the Doge. With acuity and force she batters the “maxims” (II, i, 300) that the Doge—and Venice—lives by, demonstrating how they have turned both individuals and the state into arch-villains. She illustrates that the gross injustices visited on her husband have their source not only in Venice, but also in the Doge. Again, the clarity of her thinking rests in her refusal to subject herself blindly to Venetian values; when the Doge attempts to explain that she cannot understand the workings of the state (II, i, 115), she retorts: “I do—I do—and so should you, methinks— / That these are demons” (II, i, 116-17). The Doge's remark had been the common one that those who do not occupy a ruling position cannot understand the ways of political power; this translates, of course, into an endorsement of mass ignorance: it is the role of the citizenry (i. e., everyone not in a power position) to be ruled, not to understand the forces that rule them. Marina dashes the logic of this argument by looking directly at people and their actions rather than at the great mystery of power. She teaches the obstinate Doge how the political system works, showing him that underneath the exteriors of noble Venetian precepts is to be found dishonor and malice: “Venice is dishonoured; / … / 'Tis ye who are all traitors, Tyrant!—ye!” (II, i, 164-67). Her viewpoint is explained best in her comment to the Doge that her thoughts are “human” rather than Venetian (II, i, 277). By refusing to accept a priori that Venetian values are right and good, and by looking directly at the material relationships between the people of Venice, she exposes the faults of the individuals and powers that rule the state.

The truth of Marina's assertion that Venetian ideology works against the best interest of its citizens, and, indeed, victimizes them, is evident in the character of Jacopo, who is perhaps the most unsatisfying character in the play.14 He has an unnatural affection for a country bent on torturing him, and, moreover, he is plagued with a melodramatic emotionalism that compromises his believability. Still he is proof of the evils imbedded in the Venetian value system. His attachment to Venice shows his need for society; as he explains to Marina: “… my soul is social” (III, i, 109). More specifically, it shows the vital significance of “place” in shaping his views of himself and the world. Venice contains the materials of his experience and it contains his heritage, and thus it provides the only context for whatever meaning his life has. That Venice tortures him without regard to his innocence or guilt15 substantiates Marina's claim that the state is “traitor” to its citizens.

The Two Foscari takes the social interests of Marino Faliero and Sardanapalus another step forward by focusing more closely on the relationship between individuals and the dominant ideology of their society. The social problems described in more or less general terms in the earlier dramas are shown here to lie ultimately in the rules, policies, and creeds that do not properly acknowledge the passions and needs of individuals. As the old Doge realizes too late, the fault with Venice is that

… There's no people, you well know it,
Else you dare not deal thus by them or me.
There is a populace, perhaps, whose looks
May shame you; but they dare not groan nor curse you,
Save with their hearts and eyes.

(V, i, 257-61)


Taken together, the history plays show Byron's attempt to cut through the obvious and largely superficial explanations of why social injustices exist, and to uncover some of the more primary—and difficult—causes. Marino Faliero, written first, is the least satisfying, because it turns on the easy assumption that an oppressive political machine is solely responsible for the stifling social situation described in the play, and that the overthrow of this machine is all that is needed to create a better society. Only when the revolution fails do we realize that social problems are not so easily explained or resolved. Sardanapalus improves upon Marino Faliero, illustrating that political machinery provides only a partial explanation of social injustice; individuals who serve in the power structure must be held equally accountable. Finally, The Two Foscari attempts to show in greater detail the precise relationship between individual and state in order to suggest that social problems arise often from the division of life into private and public duties, which often are mutually exclusive. This gradually sharpening perspective of social reality overrides the purely political or psychological elements in the plays, and suggests that Byron's interest was not simply in political structures nor in individual characterizations, but rather in how the relationship between them makes society what it is.

Another way of explaining the plays' social content is by looking at the way Byron restricts and focuses his thematic concerns from one play to the next in order to eliminate secondary considerations and bring primary social questions into view. Marino Faliero's three major themes—class allegiance, ideology, and violence—too numerous and too difficult to be treated effectively in a single play, are presented indiscriminately as being equally important. Sardanapalus attempts to alleviate this problem by minimizing the importance of class allegiance, and concentrating on ideology and violence. The Two Foscari then focuses the social content even further by omitting violence (except as a minor issue) and examining ideology in detail. This perhaps is a blunt breakdown of the plays' thematic interests, but it nonetheless suggests that Byron was becoming increasingly convinced that the way to understand society was to understand the ideas that govern it. His concerns in the plays move steadily from outward political issues to the underlying attitudes that define social values.

Perhaps the single greatest strength of the history plays is that they refuse to offer quick and ready explanations of complicated social issues. Their method is tentative, interrogative; they admit the reality of social injustices, but they refuse to admit that simple political revolution can by itself alleviate this injustice, just as they refuse to admit that uncritical commitment to existing social codes can make society better. The fundamental argument that they present is that any action to improve society must be preceded by a firm comprehension of social forces; man must overcome his ignorance of social reality if society is to be changed. By looking at the assumptions and beliefs that motivate certain kinds of social actions—by raising questions—these plays combat such ignorance, helping to uncover problems with man's social thinking, pointing to reasons for social unrest, and providing a groundwork of social involvement.


  1. All quotations from Byron's letters and journals are taken from Leslie A. Marchand, ed., Byron's Letters and Journals (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973-) and appear in the text as BLJ. All quotations from Byron's poetry are taken from Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed., The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry (1898-1904; rpt. New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1966).

  2. See, for instance, Boleslaw Taborski, Byron and the Theatre (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1972), pp. 108ff; Leslie A. Marchand, Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 98-101; Peter J. Manning, Byron and His Fictions (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978), pp. 107-22; Jerome J. McGann, Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 205-16; Edward Dudley Hume Johnson, “A Political Interpretation of Byron's Marino Faliero,Modern Language Quarterly, 3 (1942), 417-25; Thomas L. Ashton, “Marino Faliero: Byron's ‘Poetry of Politics,’” Studies in Romanticism, 13 (1974), 1-13; and Carl Woodring, Politics in English Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 181-86.

  3. “Preface” to the play, in Poetry IV, 333.

  4. Samuel C. Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron: A Critical Study (1915; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964), p. 92.

  5. B. G. Tandon, The Imagery of Lord Byron's Plays (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1976), p. 68.

  6. M. K. Joseph, Byron the Poet (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd, 1964), p. 113; Paul West, Byron and the Spoiler's Art (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960), p. 102; Woodring, Politics in English Romantic Poetry, p. 181.

  7. Andrew Rutherford, Byron: A Critical Study (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1961), p. 186. The drama of the play, indeed, is largely mental. Note Byron's letter to Murray in August, 1821: “I want to make a regular English drama—no matter whether for the Stage or not—which is not my object—but a mental theatre—” (BLJ 8, 186-87).

  8. McGann, Fiery Dust, p. 207.

  9. Francis M. Doherty, Byron (New York: Arco, 1969), p. 97; Manning, Byron and His Fictions, p. 135.

  10. I am using William H. Marshall's term. The Structure of Byron's Major Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), p. 25.

  11. Marchand, Byron's Poetry, p. 102; Allen Perry Whitmore, The Major Characters of Lord Byron's Dramas (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1974), p. 56; Manning, Byron and His Fictions, p. 136.

  12. McGann, Fiery Dust, p. 218.

  13. See, for instance, Chew, The Dramas of Lord Byron, p. 100; Marchand, Byron's Poetry, p. 102; or John W. Ehrstine, The Metaphysics of Byron: A Reading of the Plays (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1976), p. 69.

  14. See McGann's comments in Fiery Dust, p. 220.

  15. See the exchange between Loredano and Barbarigo (I, i, 9-18), or Marina's comments to the Doge (II, i, 156-67; and 181-83).

Giorgio Melchiori (lecture date 1985)

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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 what he stated in so many words in the letter he wrote to his publisher John Murray on 15 February 1817, when offering for publication his very first dramatic production, Manfred.1

I find this embarrassment of mine most stimulating because it urges me to reconsider along new lines the whole question of the contribution of the romantic poets not to literature, but more specifically to the theatre. Now if by theatre we mean a collective experience, close communication and participation between stage and audience in the presentation of the inner reality of man in all its aspects (not excluding the social and even political ones)—which is how theatre was understood in Shakespeare's time and fortunately is again understood now—if this is theatre, then there was no theatre in England at least since the Licensing Act of 1737. The Act had introduced an appalling discrimination, recognising as legitimate theatre only those entertainments offered to an audience who went to the playhouse not so much to see and be involved in the play performed, as to be seen by their fellow spectators, or at most to assess the individual art of star performers (and there were no doubt great actors like David Garrick), or, at a lower level, to admire and wonder at the new developments of stage machinery and special effects.

Now this, the legitimate theatre, was the only kind of dramatic expression that Byron had come into touch with in his time, when on the Drury Lane Committee—this and the travesties of Shakespeare for the benefit of the great contemporary actors. By refusing to have his plays performed in that theatre, Byron, by nature a rebel against any form of legitimacy, was reacting as it could be expected from him. But his protest did not and could not take the form of a return to Elizabethan or Shakespearean theatre conditions, because those conditions had been completely lost sight of. The original texts of Shakespeare's plays (as distinct from those presented on the stage) had become simply Literature. Even Charles Lamb, who rightly claimed to have been ‘the first to draw the public attention to the old English dramatists’ in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets contemporary with Shakespeare, published in 1808—even Lamb at the same time maintained that a play like King Lear could not and should not be acted on the stage, but could and should be appreciated instead only by reading it in the quiet of one's study; and the same was true of all the other specimens he had enthusiastically as well as piously rescued from oblivion. It is not surprising therefore that Byron, while rejecting on the one hand the theatre of his own time, should on the other object also to Shakespeare, whose genius and style he admired and more or less consciously even imitated, but whom he considered a bad, a deleterious model to modern playwrights, in so much as he ignored the rules that literature had imposed on drama. In the Preface to Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari Byron was to write that with any departure from the ‘unities’ ‘there may be poetry, but can be no drama’; and went on deploring ‘the unpopularity of this notion’ in the modern English theatre, pointing out that, not very long ago, it was ‘the law of literature throughout the world, and is still so in the more civilised parts of it’.2

Byron must find a different way of contesting the current legitimate theatre. This is what I propose to suggest, taking, I think, a different view from the current one on the meaning itself of Byron's dramas, and on the reasons for considering them not—as is generally done—either idiosyncratic or harking back to past models, but rather as essentially innovative, and, in many ways, modern—far ahead of their time. So that I shall look for terms of reference rather to our century and even to our contemporaries, than to his own or, Heaven forbid, to his predecessors, great as they may have been.

But let me first remind you of a few facts and data.

One: all Byron's dramas were written after he had left England for good, when he had severed all connections with the legitimate theatre of London and Drury Lane. This, I think, is in itself significant.

Two: they were written in Italy (even if the first of them was conceived in Switzerland), a country that gave Byron not only that wealth of sensual pleasures that everybody pretends to deplore, but also a different outlook on life, on interpersonal relationships, extending to the social field and the political.

Three: when in Italy, he stopped writing the sort of poems, the verse tales, that had given him the greatest fame and contributed so much to the creation of the mythical projection of his personality, the Byronic hero. The poems of Italian inspiration, like The Lament of Tasso, The Prophecy of Dante, show a completely different mood, and so, in another way, does that more delightful of his tales, Beppo, a Venetian Story, a happy prelude to at least one aspect of his unfinished masterpiece, Don Juan. The third canto of Childe Harold, begun in Switzerland and completed in Venice, lost the character of a travelogue shared by the first two, acquiring rather that of a more private reflection, though it must be acknowledged that the last, the Italian fourth canto, tries to meet the expectations of an English audience who had appreciated the first two parts of the poem as a kind of spiritual guidebook. But what we must keep in mind most is that all his dramas but one were written concurrently with his major work, Don Juan.

The dramas that Byron wrote are altogether eight, two of which he left, I think deliberately, unfinished. The word ‘dramas’ is in fact inadequate: he actually took great care in labelling each of them in a more appropriate way. The first of them, Manfred, written in 1816-17, he called ‘A Dramatic Poem’. All the rest he composed within four years, between 1820 and 1825. This gap between the first and the rest of his plays is important; so much so that Manfred is generally seen as the conclusion of a poetic phase, while Marino Faliero marks the real beginning of Byron as a dramatist. I believe that this view must be modified, and we shall see why later. In fact the first idea of Marino Faliero came very close in time to Manfred. In a letter to his publisher John Murray of April 2, 1817, a letter in which Byron asks whether Murray has received the entire text of Manfred, he discusses the merits of Otway's Venice Preserved, and then goes on:

but the story of Marino Falieri—is different—& I think so much finer,—that I wish Otway had taken it instead;—the head conspiring against the body—for refusal of redress for a real injury;—jealousy, treason—with the more fixed and inveterate passions (mixed with policy) of an old or elderly man—the Devil himself could not have a finer subject—& he is your only tragic dramatist.3

At this stage Byron saw the subject merely as a missed opportunity for Otway and had no idea of writing a drama about it himself; it took him quite a while to convince himself that he could supply Otway's place, and for a time he thought of presenting that of the Venetian Doge as a private tragedy:

It is now four years that I have meditated this work; and before I had sufficiently examined the records, I was rather disposed to have made it turn on a jealousy in Faliero. But, perceiving no foundation for this in historical truth, and aware that jealousy is an exhausted passion in the drama, I have given it a more historical form.4

This he wrote in the long preface to the play, adding:

I have had no view to the stage; in its present state it is, perhaps, not a very exalted object of ambition; besides I have been too much behind the scenes to have thought it so at any time. And I cannot conceive any man of irritable feeling putting himself at the mercies of an audience. The sneering reader, and the loud critic, and the tart review, are scattered and distant calamities; but the trampling of an intelligent or of an ignorant audience on a production which, be it good or bad, has been a mental labour to the writer, is a palpable and immediate grievance, heightened by a man's doubt of their competency to judge, and his certainty of his own imprudence in electing them his judges. Were I capable of writing a play which could be deemed stage-worthy, success would give me no pleasure and failure great pain. It is for this reason that, even during the time of being one of the committee of one of the theatres, I never made the attempt, and never will.5

It is in a way a candid statement, the obvious implication being that, disgusted with what was called theatre in his own time, Byron was writing for a yet unborn type of theatre, a theatre of the future of which he could not envisage the advent, and that is why he called it later a ‘theatre of the mind’. His definition of Marino Faliero was ‘An Historical Tragedy’. The same definition he used for The Two Foscari, which appeared next year together with Sardanapalus. The latter he described simply as a tragedy, and in the preface to the two works he insisted that they were not composed ‘with the most remote view to the stage’.6 For Cain, instead, which also appeared in the same year, he used the subtitle ‘A Mystery’, ‘in conformity’, as he explains in the Preface, ‘with the ancient title annexed to dramas upon similar subjects, which were styled “Mysteries, or Moralities”’.7 In this case the awareness that the chosen subject, and especially his treatment of it in making Cain the hero rather than the villain, might give offence, prompts a disclaimer based on the subtitle itself:

The author has by no means taken the same liberties with his subject which were common formerly, as may be seen by any reader curious enough to refer to those very profane productions, whether in English, French, Italian, or Spanish.8

And a further justification is felt necessary for the language used, especially in the case of Lucifer:

With regard to the language of Lucifer, it was difficult for me to make him talk like a clergyman on the same subjects; but I have done what I could to restrain him within the bounds of spiritual politeness.9

Shortly after Cain Byron undertook the writing of another mystery, and in this case the choice of subject was a deliberate challenge: it is based on a controversial passage of Genesis to which Byron had already referred in Manfred: ‘And it came to pass that the Sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose’.10 This was taken to refer to the loves of the angels with earthly women from which a race of giants had been born, as Manfred says:

                                                                                          the vigorous race
Of undiseased mankind, the giant sons
Of the embrace of angels with a sex
More beautiful than they …(11)

The mystery, entitled Heaven and Earth, is deliberately lyrical in mood, experimenting in a number of stanzaic forms that suggest a musical rather than a literary pattern. It is the shortest of Byron's plays, and the reason given for this brevity is its unfinished state. Byron published the two scenes in Leigh Hunt's periodical The Liberal in Pisa as the first part of a work in progress that he would complete only after seeing what kind of reaction it met with. The fact is that the scene of the outbreak of the deluge with the destruction of mankind while Noah's ark sails on the waters and the angels fly away to unknown interstellar spaces with their woman lovers, is a grandiose conclusion to a story that cannot have any further development. I believe that Heaven and Earth was actually conceived as the representation of a mystery, and as such it was meant from the beginning to present no solution; its message is in its lack of conclusion: Byron had conceived it as an open work.

It is somehow surprising to find, immediately after Heaven and Earth, the most elaborate and sensational of Byron's ‘tragedies’ bearing a traditional title: Werner; or, the Inheritance. It is conceived in the style of the more orthodox Gothic tales, and in fact Byron acknowledges that it is based on a sensational story called ‘The German's Tale, Kruitzner’, which he had read in a popular collection when he was a boy of fourteen. He explains:

I had begun a drama upon this tale so far back as 1815 (the first I ever attempted, except one at thirteen years old, called ‘Ulric and Ilvina’, which I had sense enough to burn), and had nearly completed an act, when I was interrupted by circumstances.12

But the most interesting remark about this sensational story is Byron's avowal that ‘The German's Tale’ ‘may indeed be said to contain the germ of much that I have since written’.13 It is a revealing acknowledgement of Byron's consciousness of the waywardness of the creative process. Surely the anonymous original story translated or adapted from an even more obscure source had no particular literary merit. It was exploiting all the commonplaces of a genre which was fast losing all pretence at literary dignity. By pointing to it as ‘the germ of much’ of his later work, of whose merit he had no doubt, Byron is suggesting that the work of art is not the result of a mysterious inspiration from above, but springs from a common ground, part and parcel of everyday experience in reading as in writing. There is definite defiance in his next remark: ‘I merely refer the reader to the original story, that he may see to what extent I have borrowed from it; and I am not unwilling that he should find much greater pleasure in perusing it than the drama which is founded upon its contents’.14 Actually Werner was the only play by Byron that was successful on the stage during the nineteenth century: its highly melodramatic tone and the opportunities it offered for conventional histrionics suited the tastes of the audiences of exactly that theatre that Byron deplored. But, with the advent of the new awareness of the proper function of the theatre, it was again forgotten. Byron's dramas that have instead survived into this century, but for very different reasons, are those that lend themselves to being turned into something else. I have used the words ‘melodramatic tone’ for Werner. Melodrama, if taken in its original meaning and not simply as a derogatory epithet, is a key for the understanding of these survivals. Verdi has transformed Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari into operas that still hold the stage, while Schumann's Manfred in oratorio form, with a voce recitante taking the role of the hero, can still be a very exciting theatrical experience. And the more so if the actor taking Manfred's part is not afraid of abandoning himself to the most blatant vocal histrionics, like Carmelo Bene a couple of years ago in a memorable performance at the Rome opera.

Now this should give us pause. Why should Manfred lend itself to and come alive under such treatment? Let us turn to Byron's text and take a closer look. Manfred, as I stated earlier, was taken formerly to be the final expression of the Byronic hero, transgression personified, the ultimate romantic ideal, the fatal man described by Mario Praz as the last metamorphosis of Satan. Now this is largely true. But should we take these definitions in dead seriousness? Should we approach him as a clinical case to whom the most refined tests of modern psychological science can be rewardingly applied? Let us look at the text. We are immediately informed:

The Scene of the Drama is amongst the Higher Alps … Act I, Scene i. MANFRED alone.—Scene, a Gothic gallery.—Time, Midnight.

The lamp must be replenish'd, but even then
It will not burn so long as I must watch:
My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance of enduring thought,
Which then I can resist not: in my heart
There is a vigil, and these eyes but close
To look within; and yet I live, and bear
The aspect and the form of breathing men.
But grief should be the instructor of the wise;
Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
Philosophy and science, and the springs
Of wonder, and the wisdom of the world,
I have essay'd, and in my mind there is
A power to make these subject to itself—
But they avail not: I have done men good,
And I have met with good even among men—
But this avail'd not: I have had my foes,
And none have baffled, many fallen before me—
But this avail'd not:—Good, or evil, life,
Powers, passions, all I see in other beings,
Have been to me as rain unto the sands,
Since that all-nameless hour. I have no dread,
And feel the curse to have no natural fear,
Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes,
Or lurking love of something on the earth.(15)

The echoes of Doctor Faustus's opening monologue in Marlowe's play are obvious. They are actually so deliberate, and the evocation of a medley of seven spirits in the following lines is so highfalutin' that a suspicion begins to emerge in my mind. A suspicion reinforced by the Gothic gallery as a background and the midnight hour mentioned in the stage direction. I cannot help feeling that there is a strong element of parody in all this set-up. In order to test this uneasy feeling I turned to the available statements of Byron about Manfred. The most obvious is the letter to John Murray of 15 February 1817, when he had just finished writing the play. And here we find:

I forgot to mention to you—that a kind of poem in dialogue (in blank verse) or drama … is finished—it is in three acts—but of a very wild—metaphysical—and inexplicable kind.—Almost all the persons—but two or three—are Spirits of the earth & air—or the waters—the scene is in the Alps—the hero a kind of magician who is tormented by a species of remorse—the cause of which is left half unexplained—he wanders about invoking these spirits—which appear to him—& are of no use—he at last goes to the very abode of the Evil principle in propria persona—to evocate a ghost—which appears—& gives him an ambiguous & disagreeable answer—& in the 3d. act he is found by his attendants dying in a tower—where he studied his art.16

Incidentally, this is an admirable synthetic summary of the play, and a fair one—but what about its tone? The letter, which I have quoted in part before, goes on to explain: ‘you may perceive by this outline that I have no great opinion of this piece of phantasy’, its only merit being, according to Byron, that of being unperformable.17 A month later Byron wrote about Manfred to his friend the poet Thomas Moore (the author, incidentally, of a poem on The Loves of the Angels—see Heaven and Earth):

Almost all the dram. pers. are spirits, ghosts, or magicians, and the scene is in the Alps and the other world, so you may suppose what a Bedlam tragedy it must be.18

At this point I have no doubts: Manfred, this Bedlam tragedy, the Witch Drama, as Byron called it later in his correspondence with Murray, was a final revisitation of the Byronic hero conceived in a spirit of self-irony. I do not mean that he wrote it with his tongue in his cheek, as a laborious joke at the expense of the candid reader who would take it at its face value and be duly shocked by it. That of Manfred is a deeply tragic theme, entailing a total involvement of the author, who recognised in the hero's his own intimate plight. It has nothing in common with satire proper, that Byron had so ably handled in his earlier poetry; but neither does it share the single-minded earnestness of The Giaour, The Corsair or Lara. We must remember once again that the writing of Manfred was followed very closely by that of Beppo, the Venetian story, apparently the most light-hearted of Byron's works—but when he sent it to his publisher Byron advised him not to include it in the magazine that he edited but to print it separately, because ‘it won't do for your journal—being full of political allusions’.19 What I wish to suggest is that, improbable as it may look, Manfred and Beppo belong together: they mark a new mood, Byron's discovery of ambiguity as the essential quality of great poetry as well as great drama. In the same way as behind the amusing irony of Beppo and inextricably linked with it there is ferocity and politics, so behind the grandiloquent tragic self-searching of Manfred there is a constant ironical strain, a deliberate supererogation of feeling, that acts as mockery of the tragic. Mind you, I believe that there is nothing more serious than this kind of mockery and irony: it creates a double level of apprehension, in so much as the inner conflict between the playful, the ironical consciousness (what is now called the ludic element) and the highly dramatic becomes the very substance of a tragic view of life. Nobody was more conscious of it than that greatest of dramatists, Shakespeare: the jokes of the clown who brings the asp to Cleopatra, the indecent puns of Lear at the height of his madness are among the most obvious examples. They are not, as it was said at one time, comic relief: they bear witness to the inextricable tangle of human feelings and reactions which is the substance of tragedy. Goethe knew that Mephistophilis was a comedian (and Byron dedicated to Goethe as the author of Faust two of his tragedies, significantly the two that at first sight seem the least Faustian that he wrote), and Goethe had learned it from his model, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which, as we saw, Byron deliberately parodied in the opening scene of Manfred.

The real trouble with the legitimate theatre of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was the utter separation of the genres: tragedy being exclusively tragic from beginning to end (except perhaps for the obtrusive insertion of some clowning by low characters) and comedy had to be comic from beginning to end. What was lost was the sense—to put it in Yeats's words—that ‘Hamlet and Lear are gay; / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’.20

Reacting, as we saw, to the legitimate theatre, Byron found another way of breaking up the lifeless divisions it had established, of recovering the lost gaiety of tragedy: through self-irony, through parody, through transparent over-emphasis that acted as a deforming mirror of the inner reality, lending it the quality of the grotesque. He had models for it at hand. Why was melodrama—I mean Italian opera at its grandest—the most valid form of tragic theatre in the nineteenth century? Because the requirements—the intrusion—of the music, give a completely new dimension to the drama, introducing in the acting a palpable element of the grotesque that reacts against the commonplace and makes the world of feeling larger than life. And I suspect that when in 1821 Byron explained to John Murray that his ‘dramatic system’ was ‘more like a play of Alfieri's than of your stage’,21 he was referring to the same sort of thing. The utterly unrealistic language and action of Alfieri's tragedies have the same powerful grotesque effect of grand opera. And Byron had experienced it personally: in August 1821 he wrote from Bologna:

Last night I went to the representation of Alfieri's Mirra,—the last two acts of which threw me into convulsions.—I do not mean by that word—a lady's hysterics—but the agony of reluctant tears—and the choaking shudder which I do not often undergo for fiction … The worst was that the ‘dama’, in whose box I was—went off in the same way—I really believe more from fright—than any other sympathy—at least with the players—but she has been ill—and I have been ill and we are all languid & pathetic this morning—with great expenditure of Sal Volatile.22

In this case the comic intrudes in the comment, but at the origin of it is the situation created by the theatrical fiction—a word emphasised by Byron. In a way Alfieri's, like opera, is theatre of the absurd, and it is exactly in the absurdity of it that the ludic element lay, or lies. What I wish to suggest is that we are wrong in approaching Byron's dramas in a mood of solemn seriousness, as expressions of profound psychological inner conflicts. Of course, there is also that, but there is as much deliberate grotesqueness, irony, sardonic deformation.

This tendency to approach works of fiction as solemn and humourless works of art to be sounded in depth, without suspecting that they may be or contain jokes at their own or our expense, prevents, I feel, a real appreciation of some of the greatest works of literature of our century. It is the case, for instance, of Joyce's major novels: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are extremely serious, substantially tragic and deeply committed books, but from most of the highly appreciative criticism one reads of them it hardly appears that they are also masterpieces of humour deserving a place side by side with Byron's Don Juan. And surely this accounts for Joyce's sympathy with Byron. We have Stanislaus Joyce's word for the authenticity of the episode the novelist recounts in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when as a boy in the Jesuit College at Clongowes he was discussing with fellow pupils the best English writers. As the best prose writer he indicated Cardinal Newman, meeting with the approval of the others; but when it came to the best poet the other boys agreed on the name of Tennyson, he countered with ‘Byron, of course’. The others ‘joined in a scornful laugh’; one said that Byron was ‘a heretic and immoral too’, another that he was ‘a bad man’, at which they all got hold of him and started hitting him and forcing him against a barbed wire fence, shouting:

—Admit that Byron was no good.





—No. No.

At last after a fury of plunges he wrenched himself free. His tormentors set off … laughing and jeering at him, while he, torn and flushed and panting, stumbled after them half blinded with tears, clenching his fists madly and sobbing.23

That this was no youthful infatuation is confirmed by the fact that in later life, when in Paris in 1930-31 Joyce wanted to help the Irish tenor John Sullivan for whom he had the greatest admiration, he tried to convince the musician George Antheil to turn Byron's Cain into an opera; when asked by Antheil to rewrite the text in libretto form he replied ‘I would never have the bad manners to rewrite the text of a great English poet’, but offered to lend his name as adapter of the text by judicious cutting, commenting ‘I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissor and paste man’.24 Unfortunately nothing came of the project; but Joyce's intuition of Byron's melodramatic genius is evidence enough of a deeper affinity.

But there is another feature of Byron's dramas that reveals them as surprisingly modern. In spite of the exasperated individualism of their heroes, all Byron's dramas, to use the words with which he defined Beppo, have politics and ferocity, that is to say a strong ideological commitment and as strong a streak of cruelty. These are elements hardly present in the theatre of his time, while they are, I should say, endemic—and fortunately so—in that of ours. At their best and most powerful, commitment, cruelty and, emphatically, the grotesque characterise the works of an author that I consider the one great English tragic dramatist of our time, Edward Bond. Stylistically he and Byron seem poles apart, and it may well be that Bond has never read Byron's dramas; but in fact their motivations, their approach to the function of drama, their constant echoes and parodies of the Elizabethans, the ironical emphasis of the tragic action is identical. Should we say that Byron is the Bond of his time or that Bond is the Byron of our time?

I have mentioned up to now only seven of the eight dramas that Byron wrote; I have left out the last because it is extremely indicative of the road that Byron the dramatist was going to take. The title itself of this play is extraordinary: The Deformed Transformed—and in this case the author could not find for it any better definition than ‘A Drama’. Not a tragedy, or a history or a mystery, but a mixture of them all. The Advertisement warns us:

This production is founded partly on the story of a novel called ‘The Three Brothers’, published many years ago, from which M. G. Lewis's ‘Wood Demon’ was also taken; and partly on the ‘Faust’ of the great Goethe. The present publication contains the two first Parts only, and the opening chorus of the third. The rest may perhaps appear hereafter.25

In fact it did not. Byron died in Missolonghi shortly after the publication. The action moves freely in time and space from a German forest to the walls of Rome besieged by mercenaries fighting for the Constable of Bourbon, from inside St. Peter's to ‘a Castle in the Appennines surrounded by a wild but smiling Country’.26 The autobiographical note is sounded from the very first lines, when a cruel mother insults her lame and deformed son (Byron had always resented deeply his mother's scorn because he was slightly lame). A mysterious stranger appears to the boy Arnold and, with an incantation, in exchange for his soul, gives Arnold the shape of Achilles while the demon himself assumes Arnold's deformed body and the name of Caesar. They join the Bourbon at the siege of Rome. Here, quite casually, there is a brief fight between Arnold and Benvenuto Cellini, who has just shot dead the Constable of Bourbon. Shortly after in St. Peter's the soldiers assault the Pope, with the Demon Caesar as cheer-leader:

Now, Priest! Now, soldier! the two great professions
Together by the ears and hearts! I have not
Seen a more comic pantomime since Titus
Took Jewry.(27)

And in fact the whole thing is a comic pantomime, as when Olimpia Colonna jumps on the main altar and, embracing a massive crucifix, casts it down on a soldier who tries to reach her and kills him. When Arnold arriving asks why the soldiers want to kill her one replies:

Count, she hath slain our comrade.
With what weapon?
The cross, beneath which he is crush'd; behold him
Lie there, more like a worm than man; she cast it
Upon his head.(28)

The play could ramble on like this for ever, interspersed with songs, incantations, and choruses of soldiers, citizens and spirits, but it suddenly stops after a chorus of peasants which is supposed to begin the third part, before the gates of a castle in the Appennines. How far had Byron planned its continuation? We shall never know. What we know is that Byron in 1823 was already writing a play that could be indifferently claimed by the theatre of the grotesque, the theatre of cruelty and the theatre of the absurd. No mean achievement for his time.


  1. Byron's Letters and Journals, edited by Leslie A. Marchand, 12 volumes (London, 1973-82), V, 170.

  2. The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, (Oxford Standard Authors, London, 1904; reprinted, 1957), 453.

  3. Byron's Letters and Journals, V, 203.

  4. The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, 408.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid, 453.

  7. Ibid, 520.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid, 521.

  10. Genesis, VI. ii.

  11. The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, 403. (Manfred, III. ii. 4-7.)

  12. Ibid, 560.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid, 390. (Manfred, I. i. 1-27.)

  16. Byron's Letters and Journals, V, 170.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid, 188.

  19. Ibid, VI, 7.

  20. W. B. Yeats, ‘Lapis Lazuli’, Collected Poems, (Second Edition, London, 1950; reprinted, 1960), 338.

  21. Byron's Letters and Journals, VII, 182.

  22. Ibid, VI, 206.

  23. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by C. G. Anderson, (New York, 1964), 80-82.

  24. Cited by Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, (London and New York, 1959), 640.

  25. The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, 605.

  26. Ibid, 623.

  27. Ibid, 620. (The Deformed Transformed, Part II, Scene iii. 30-3.)

  28. Ibid, 621. (II. iii. 75-8.)

Criticism: Manfred (1817)

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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 that Byron was the foremost narrative poet of his period. Whereas his friend Shelley gravitated to philosophy, science, and what we would call political science, Byron was attracted to history, the record of human acts, and anthropology, the comparative life and manners of peoples. His biography displays the same concern with meaningful action that his writing does. He was drawn to liberation struggles—in a practical, hands-on way—not as an armchair agitator.3 Hence to appreciate Byron's depth as a thinker, we must study his handling of action; we need to regard the units of his thought as acts, noting actions that indicate (in Lyotard's term) a master narrative—the forms of what is an essentially dramatic imagination. For Byron's narrative impulse was theatrical, blocking the action in scenes of dramatic conflict or intensity, not as continuous parts of a plot-line; thus the ease with which they could be—and were—adapted as operas.

The master plot that sustains Byron's obsession with action is specific in shape, underlying his poems of action. To sum it up: the protagonist is a brilliant man who leaves (or is expelled from) society through some act that makes him a threat to authority. Departure, like birth, is traumatic and typically deprives him of social identity. Now an alien, he wanders disoriented, disconsolate. Then comes a crisis: he finds either a community where he truly belongs or some other source of identity that not only replaces his lost social function but also is more existentially authentic; or the hero clings, yearns for a lost home, or is obsessed by a broken love and so is doomed to suffer even worse. This is a drama of exile, the same story one finds historically—and ironically—in Byron's own life.

Three distinct foci emerge: (1) a break with society, often involving a life-threatening ordeal (e.g., Mazeppa's “ride,” Marino Faliero's injury and conspiracy, Bonnivard's collision with religious power, or the exile trauma that dominates The Two Foscari); (2) alienated wandering (e.g., Childe Harold's painful introspection abroad or the restless roaming of the Giaour); (3) self-transformation, usually associated with finding a new community, like Torquil in The Island or Sardanapalus achieving authenticity with his mistress—and without his wife. If the hero fails to achieve this self-transformation he becomes a kind of lost soul, like Cain, totally alienated.

The final phase, even if successful, may feature the death of the hero. That is because dying in Byron is always less to be feared than not gaining the power of meaningful action. In gaining that power, even if one dies, one does the most that a person can do in this life, given the impossibility of acquiring some all-explanatory scheme for comprehending reality. This is the crisis: the hero finds a new identity source—or is doomed because he clings to the past. The two works that most clearly display this crisis in Byron—Manfred and Cain—also share a specific paradigm that other writers have used: in effect, a temptation genre. Before Byron, we find Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound; the medieval Everyman; Milton in Samson Agonistes; after Byron, Arnold in Empedocles on Etna, Shaw in St Joan, and Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral. Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych is a prose fiction example—one as tightly constructed as a drama. Movie examples include the Jack Hawkins film The Cardinal and the classic western High Noon, with Gary Cooper. An example from music is Beethoven's oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberge, 1803). The logic of action presents similar problems in each so that Byron's drama must be studied intertextually, illuminating and illuminated by other examples.

‘Temptation’ is from the Latin temptare, “to try” (whence “attempt”). Temptation is above all a trial or test, an ordeal that strengthens—or drains—identity; it is a matter of power poetics. Temptation precedes sin, which may be defined in this context as a wish that one acts on in defiance of authority. Temptation, inciting rebellion against authority, opens fissures in psycho-social norms. Falling may spell disaster, as in Adam's fall (the classic case—and the paradigm for human action in Don Juan). But if one overcomes temptation, the very struggle strengthens rather than depletes one's power. Then temptation becomes a means of self-transformation, a sort of spiritual homeopathy. Temptation functions as a turning or even a kind of conversion. As a struggle for power it is, in form, a contest: a tempter manipulates—he may not force—a victim; the fall must be voluntary. The contest is very subtle: there is no use tempting someone who is going to do the forbidden act anyway. Yet unless something in the tempted person wants to do the tempting action, one would not succumb. Thus the temptation genre focuses on a figure of divided consciousness: a dipsychus.4

Temptation is the arena of conflicting impulse: to give in—to resist—and so has a binary resolution. Failure means a disastrous fall—a tragic cadence as in Cain, where the protagonist is so confused that he commits murder. But overcoming temptation confers authority; as a testing transition to another life-phase, it has a comic cadence, transcending the limits of prior identity. Manfred's protagonist frees himself from both past guilt and demonic possession. If temptation does not drain the protagonist's power, it acts as the very means by which the self is emancipated from slavery to circumstance. The generic point of the action is thus transformation.

A close student of the Bible, Byron found in it crucial precedents, one being the temptation of Eve and Adam, resulting in the fall of all humanity—the ultimate disaster. Yet as the doctrine of the fortunate fall shows, by making God's heroic redemption of humanity necessary, the fall was actually good. Such paradoxes characterize the temptation paradigm. Even disastrous temptations have a heroic dimension, for merely to be tempted shows that one is something worth struggling for. There are of course “comic” temptations in the Bible, notably that of Abraham by God to sacrifice his first-born son Isaac. Abraham is tempted to exchange his allegiance to God for his allegiance to another human being, his own child. He chooses to obey God above saving his son and is rewarded for this choice by being allowed to retain Isaac. The assumption is that one's first allegiance is to a spiritual power, not to other human beings however compelling their claims. The God-human relation is more important than the father-son relation. There is also the temptation of Job by Satan, with God's explicit instruction to test whether Job would abandon his faith; temptation typically tests allegiance to God—that is, to the authoritative principle in life. In Job's case, it combines physical torture and intellectual argument, then modulates into a series of superhuman visions. Job regains all that he has lost and acquires new awareness through his tribulations and visions. Finally there is the New Testament temptation of Christ by Satan in the fast in the wilderness which so fascinated Milton. One may also cite Christ's vigil in Gethsemane with its strong temptation features, especially the doubt and fear he faces; isolation; abandonment by his disciples, who make promises to him they promptly break—the basis of Beethoven's oratorio.

Temptation works subtly on one's weaknesses. It promotes self-betrayal, encouraging the victim to feel inferior and useless and so to lay down control of life, to hand it over to the enemy—the impulse “in a crisis” “to do what [your] enemy wants [you] to do.”5 In the traditional (systematic) Christianity that Byron distrusted, what God wants is alone important. To do otherwise is really a yielding to temptation—a result of Adam and Eve's yielding to temptation. The Romantics tend to see the external enemy as a projection of the part of oneself that is self-betraying. The real enemy is self-doubt—what Goethe called Mephistopheles: the spirit who always denies.6 In Blake, it is Satan the Accuser—the self-hate that urges one to desperate acts, like Despair in Spenser. Influenced by Byron, Poe developed this concept as the “imp of the perverse,” a spirit of malicious self-destruction. In the temptation genre the hero confronts this doubt—and exorcises it, for it may indeed be visualized as demon.

What is interesting about temptation for the student of action is that it has definite recurring features. Many are constitutive of Byron's plots, of Manfred and Cain especially. Manfred is particularly crucial, for it marks a turning point in Byron's writing career that divides the early from the mature work. It also marks a watershed in his own life: exile from England, from his wife—and from acceptance by the establishment at home. Given the central role of action in Byron, the scenario of Manfred requires particularly close scrutiny. This means identifying and analyzing the configuration of actions that informs Manfred and the other examples cited.

The hero in this configuration is alienated from society; he must find identity outside its structures and values. He is a figure of life-in-death, immobilized in an impasse. Manfred epitomizes this alienation figure. He is separated from his society and, even more, from himself, from whatever it is that, for him, gives authenticity or validation to life. Because isolated, the alienation figure is vulnerable; isolation is an exposed position—no protecting social structures or roles under which to shelter. In the Byronic-hero manner, Manfred repeatedly stresses that he is no ordinary man. He respects the Chamois Hunter and Abbot, for instance, but his apprehension is more like a god's than like a man's. The motto Byron took for Manfred serves for all protagonists of the temptation genre: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The hero knows more because he sees more. Being outside the assumptions of his community, he can see what those assumptions block out for others. In Manfred's case alienation is at once marked: “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life,” he soon announces. Meaningful action is the tree of life; knowledge—abstract systematizing—is a paralyzing legacy of the dead. What Manfred wants is to be freed from the past in order to allow authenticating action in the present moment. He is in effect facing the wrong direction, looking back at the guilt of the past; he must turn around and face forward. Past guilt is identified with the lost-love figure Astarte, whom he believes he destroyed and whose forgiveness is all he can think about.

A series of testing visitors tries in effect to convert the protagonist. They are not simple tempters, for they often do not see themselves as tempters or as struggling for psychic control of the protagonist. They typically present themselves as helpers (compare Screwtape, who calls his victims “patients,” or the Mephistophelean Chillingworth in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, who enters as a doctor). Thus the spirits offer to “help” Manfred when they can give nothing and wish only to consume him; the Abbot tries to “save” Manfred—but ecclesiastical approval is not what he needs. I refer to such figures as Visitors in order to distinguish them as roles whose function is to test the protagonist, not merely to interact. Along with the Visitors (or replacing them) is a series of visions: alien realities, past, future, or non-ordinary modes of being.

The Visitors are often different from the protagonist; they come from a different level of being, from a higher status or alien society. What this difference represents is a different consciousness from the hero, who is in the prototypical existentialist predicament of having to authenticate his life by repudiating external authority in favor of inner integrity.

The emphasis is on talk, not action; the protagonist debates a range of intellectual issues with the self and the Visitors, normally in a sequence of one-on-one exchanges. Probing intellectual discussion of ethical or metaphysical questions is needed: verbal duelling. The action thus resembles a courtroom trial, with the audience or reader as jury (and prosecutor-devil figure[s] as opposing lawyer); the use of chorus figures (like witnesses) is appropriate—figures like Manuel and Herman in Manfred.

There is a strong emphasis on the past, on analyzing or coming to terms with the past. A disastrous crime, a violation of the status quo, is often the focus of the drama with its struggle-for-power plot. This past action may consist of failing in an earlier temptation; hence the task now involves correcting or accepting that failure. Thus Manfred feels guilty for damaging his beloved Astarte; Cain is obsessed with his parents' temptation. Suicide is prominent—successful, attempted, or suggested. Manfred tries to jump off a cliff. Empedocles does. Cain is suicidal.

The characters speak for parts of the protagonist's personality; they act as mouthpieces for inner conflicts. Thus the temptation genre is related to the psychomachia; the characters symbolize especially the self-doubting, self-damaging parts of personality. To resist the Visitors therefore is to overcome self-doubt—internal voices of self-alienation.

Temptations of the flesh (food or sex) and of power (intellectual or political) matter less than the impulse to doubt or hate oneself, or to pursue some change that is disastrous for the self. Manfred has tried everything, like Ecclesiastes, but he is trapped by his own guilt and doubt. Here temptation is once again not simply the presenting of forbidden desires but a testing ordeal that forces psychic confrontation—and transformation.

The turning-point is a shift from talk to action, from psychic paralysis to action of definite, decisive type—self-affirmation in the face of potent, subtle pressures against such affirmation. Sometimes it is accompanied by the exorcism or externalizing of the protagonist's self-doubt and inner failure—the appearance and rejection of a negation-spirit. In Manfred this shift occurs when he stops negotiating with the spirits. Cain goes from theological arguments to a physical attack on Abel.

A pivotal character type is a female figure who represents the protagonist's guilty past or guilt from the past: victimization. Since Manfred's Astarte is a classic example, I refer to the type as the “Astarte figure.” Typically the speaking role of this figure is small, the symbolic importance great. As a symbolic figure, she represents past guilt and is the focus of everything that is wrong now. Manfred, obsessed with Astarte, is in effect grieving for her. Unable to let go, he is mesmerized by the past, like a traumatized person. Byron was fascinated by characters obsessed with a deep trauma—characters stuck in the past, unable to move in time (“there is no present,” says Manfred) but paralyzed by grief, guilt, or obsessive memory. Manfred believes that he destroyed Astarte, that he crushed the human being that gave meaning to his life. What could be worse? Destroying what one loves is worse than suicide, for it makes existence torture—existence which is a life-in-death without the peace of actual death. Besides this figure, another common character type is the plain-dealer, a figure limited in intellect but helpful to the hero in practice (not in theory)—e.g., the Hunter and the Abbot.

Among the Visitors, two types recur: one intimidates with force (a bully or braggart); the other argues with deceptive logic (a deceiver or confidence artist). The spirits in Manfred include both types.

The setting typically features verticals: cliffs, walls, trenches. The vertical scenery articulates the vertical spiritual struggle of the action. In Manfred the mountains are prominent, as are the tower and the cliff where Manfred attempts suicide. In Cain, the walls surrounding Eden are the mute epitome of the entire play: exile. Cain also descends to the “abyss of space” with its underworld spectacles. In Empedocles on Etna the mountain setting is both height and depth, a volcano that the hero climbs—then jumps in, like the terrifying black sack in Ivan Ilych. In Murder in the Cathedral, the cathedral is the focus of action, just as a pillared Philistine temple frames the action of Samson Agonistes. In High Noon, the title articulates the vertical moral crisis occurring in the morally flattened town.

Typically, death is treated positively as release or as a paradoxical triumph and not as feared end. The thrust of the plot is self-transformation, and death may be the paradigm of transformation. The protagonist lets go of obsession with the past, releases lost love or past guilt into oblivion, thereby freeing the self—the life-energy dammed up within.

The protagonist's isolation is not really proud arrogance even if the protagonist is proud and arrogant. Pride and arrogance are unimportant compared to the fact that isolation enables one to see and experience things which society cannot perceive. The isolation of the protagonist reveals a secret vision and power. Hence the first thing that Byron's inscrutable Manfred will do is to conjure up spirits. Manfred is emphatically not “one of us.” Similarly, the isolated Cain knows that something is wrong with reality long before Lucifer appears to tempt him with visions seen by no other mortal. Christ's temptation in the desert by extraordinary visions of power and glory is proof that he is the Christ. But isolation also exposes the protagonist to forces that do not affect ordinary people—forces determined to crush any who venture away from their societal mooring. Byron had a predilection for alienation figures of this type as a means of presenting perceptions, situations, emotions (e.g., Manfred's criminal love) excluded by the world view inculcated by society. Byron's pre-Manfred poetry is full of heroes of this type. The alienation figure is really an action-trope by which to explore themes not acceptable to traditional—to socially hegemonic—values. The temptation genre raises disturbing questions about assumptions that society invents for itself—for example, the Abbot's institutional religion or the standardized rituals of Adam's family in Cain—and then treats as if laid down by God or Nature.

In Manfred, the isolated protagonist meets a series of Visitors. There are more of these than perhaps necessary, consisting of the nasty elemental spirits, the Witch of the Alps, and Spirits and Destinies (as in Hardy's very Byronic Dynasts) in addition to Arimanes and Nemesis. Manfred wants to use them to get what he wants, while they want to bag him, and assume they will, because in their eyes they are the master race. Lucifer in Cain is similar; he has nothing better to do than to show off to Cain what a superior being he is. The fact that Manfred can command the spirits is thus extremely important—the equivalent of Prometheus' possession of the secret of Zeus' destruction in Aeschylus and Shelley. Like reactionary kings gathering their powers of repression in post-Waterloo, Holy Alliance Europe, the spirits want to erase the revolutionary power which Manfred has won and to enslave him—i.e., to return him to the rank of mortals. Manfred does not at first realize what this power over the spirits means; he tries to manipulate them to serve him, à la sorcerer's-apprentice-and-broom. The power over the spirits, who all externalize his own weaknesses, is actually and finally the strength to free and save himself—and not an external manipulation-power over others.

Allegorical visions sometimes replace (or supplement) the Visitors. Cain, for instance, uses only one Visitor: Lucifer. This condensing of Visitors into a single character results, dramatically, in a tight, focused action. Cain has a dramatic, cause/effect plot (unlike Manfred, which is closer to a Shelleyan procession than a “well-made” play). Lucifer in Cain has far sharper outlines than any of the negative characters in Manfred who have a somewhat pasteboard quality. Replacing a varied ensemble with a single figure allows for individualized personality, for Lucifer displays many moods: sneering, fear, laughter, assurance, euphoria, rage—and panic. In place of the Visitors is a complicated, variegated dialogue as well as spectacular visions of other places and times, a son et lumière spectacle of stars, planets, and alien beings. Manfred opens with incantations, Cain with incantatory hymns. The temptation genre often features dramatic mood-swings coupled with emblematic spectacles such as the star seen in the dark hall in Manfred followed by the shimmering apparition of the lost Astarte.

Byron had great difficulty, in terms of dramatic construction, in achieving anything more than dialogue for two characters. Typically the action of his plays is a series of debates between two people, for he seemed to lack the dramatic skill needed to integrate three or more characters in a single situation, especially in Manfred and Cain where the action is mainly the protagonist talking to one other character at a time. Even the historical plays, notably Sardanapalus, are conversational duets, one speaker being the title character and the other varying as the action proceeds. In fact this switching of dialogue-partners may be said to constitute the action. An exception is the remarkable Heaven and Earth, a drama of contrapuntal and even operatic texture, with its doubled pairs of lovers, its doubled heavy senex iratus figures (Noah and Raphael), and its sharply contrasting brothers. Byron projected a sequel but abandoned it; clearly the technical difficulties of co-ordinating so varied a cast were too great, and the action was simply going out of control. The temptation genre is in essence a confrontation between protagonist and a series of visitors/visions that externalize internal psychic forces—a form suited to Byron's skills.

Conspicuous in Manfred is the figure of Astarte. She epitomizes a key character-type in Byron, a female ghost figure of life-in-death (sometimes an Aeschylean fury). This type forms the basis of The Giaour, perhaps his most important tale where she is destroyed, as in Manfred, by the Giaour's guilty love; her memory drives the Giaour to desperation—guilt and obsession so intense that he cannot escape but eventually must die. She is also a mute character, dead long before the poem begins. Medora in The Corsair and in the background of Lara is a similar type. The Astarte figure of The Siege of Corinth, Francesca, actually enters as a ghost and proceeds to terrify and enrage the guilty infidel hero much as Lucifer goads Cain's murderous loss of self-control in Cain. The Astarte figure in Cain is Eve, the originator of human guilt—hence her bitter reproaches to Cain, for she bears primal, annihilating guilt. In Sardanapalus the bloodthirsty queen Semiramis, conjured up in dream to accuse the hero, is the same type.

One should note the prominence in Cain of the role of the protagonist's wife, Adah, and the relatively de-emphasized role of the Astarte figure Eve. Adah is the play's anti-tragic voice, a figure whose love, self-sacrifice, and concern for the future make her the opposite to the Astarte figure with her clinging guilt.7 Adah is significant in Byron's development. She is in a line of potent female figures that became steadily more important as his writing evolved—female figures such as Marina in The Two Foscari, Myrrah in Sardanapalus, Aholibamah in Heaven and Earth, and above all Neuha in The Island. These heroic females symbolize loyalty, liberty, honest indignation; they belong to what we may call the Cordelia archetype. Gulnare in The Corsair is an early sketch of the type.8 The dramatic effect of this figure is to diminish the protagonist with his divided-mind paralysis. There is no room for such a powerful female in Manfred, one notes. Adah's potency in Cain is emphasized by her ability to disconcert Lucifer, who is a sexist snob. Her presence has the effect of diminishing Cain, who is perceived as far less imposing than Manfred; Cain never speaks with the voice of authority as Manfred does. Byron was aware of this diminishing effect, for he keeps Adah's role to a minimum; more of her would upset the dramatic balance. The same effect can be observed in Heaven and Earth; the strong Aholibamah upstages the weak, confused Japhet, who is nominally the protagonist and who displays typical features of the alienated dipsychus of the temptation genre proper. In Sardanapalus, Myrrah and Sardanapalus are much more evenly matched; they die together, heroically. Byron ridiculed freethinking women, but his Aholibamah is a superb positive sketch of just such a woman. Indeed she may be read as a tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, of whom Byron knew through her deep admirers, her daughter Mary and her son-in-law Shelley.

The Astarte figure is inappropriate for the looser texture of Don Juan with its anti-narrative digressions. If Don Juan were less comic-satiric in action, Julia, Juan's first love, would become an Astarte figure. Her illicit love for Juan, who leaves her and her pathetic vows of love, destroys her. Juan's ship sinks, and he nearly dies, suggesting punishment for his guilt. She could easily have been developed as a haunting ghost of the mind who obsesses and agonizes the hero long after he leaves her, his departure being closely associated with her destruction (and potentially his own).9 But Byron does not treat Julia this way; he gives her a distinctive, memorable personality, unlike Astarte, Medora, et al., who are shadowy, indefinite, more powerful dead than alive—terrifying reference points. This is because of the difference in generic action. They are shadowy and indefinite because they are symbolic figures; they are so to speak demonic anima figures. They symbolize the grip of the past and cannot be independent or realistic in characterization. They signify the hero's own death-wish. The appearance of real personality would distract from their symbolic function. They are related to ghosts, which in literature so often symbolize undigested, obsessive traumas of the past, the ghost of Hamlet's father being the classic example.

As Byron's poetic powers developed, this Astarte figure declined. The hero of Mazeppa leaves his lost love behind with a pang of grief, but not with obsessive agony such as Manfred or the Giaour exhibit. Don Juan lacks an Astarte, but interestingly there is a female ghost figure at the end who is a parody of the Astarte type. Neither ghost nor symbol of a guilty past, she embodies active erotic energy in the present moment. In Heaven and Earth, possibly Byron's most sophisticated drama, the lost-love figure is Anah, another potential Astarte. Japhet's God, after all, is about to drown her—an injustice that paralyzes the ineffectual Japhet. But Anah actually rejects Japhet, then flies away with a lover more energetic. Byron wrote Manfred not long after his wife—the princess who turned out to be a frog—had left him. With her went English society. Letting go of the obsessive emotions he felt for her—love, guilt, rage, and hate—was a vital psychic task, and Manfred expresses this release allegorically. Astarte thus represents Anne Isabella Milbanke far more than Byron's half-sister. The receding power of the Astarte figure shows genuine psychological growth.

Critics soon noted the resemblance of Manfred to Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which Byron said was very important for him10 and which exhibits key temptation genre features. (1) Its focus is the alienated Prometheus, who grapples with a series of Visitors. Almost all urge him to give up his one remaining power, a secret he cannot surrender without destroying his self-authenticity. Prometheus has defied and blasphemed the authority of almighty Jupiter. (2) One Visitor, Ocean, resembles the Abbot in Manfred both in character and action. Wishing to help Prometheus, Ocean is in fact in need of the kind of strength the hero embodies. (3) The Astarte figure is Io. Io, the archetype of female suffering in Greek mythology, causes intense anguish for Prometheus because he must reveal that her future sufferings will be even worse than what she already has endured. (4) The correctness of Prometheus' past actions is debated at length. The trickster Hermes is especially probing. (5) In conclusion the hero enters a new torture—not death (he is immortal), but life-in-death. The hero wills this death by refusing to submit to his Visitors' temptation/coercion. This conclusion is ambivalent. In appearance it is terrible, but it is nevertheless a triumph. Prometheus will be tortured further, like Io, but he is morally justified. A great hero will liberate—and vindicate—him. The fact that the rest of the Prometheus trilogy is not extant exaggerates the play's tragic/ironic features.

Cain has a similar ambivalence. Cain succumbs to temptation and loses power. He commits murder—and self-destruction. Byron emphasizes the suicidal element in Cain's crime; Cain wishes he had died, not his brother, and he offers his life for Abel's. Psychologically, Abel seeks martyrdom, a way of proving his superiority over his older brother. Cain immediately repents, showing he is indeed “his brother's keeper.” He begs God to resurrect Abel—and to take him in exchange for Abel. Abel is no mere free agent, after all; he is needed by his wife to beget children. God's refusal to accept Cain's self-sacrifice has the appearance of spite. “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friend.” Cain, exiled, marked (in effect cursed) by God, faces a sentence of life-in-death. This Cain is not the monstrous progenitor of Grendel. As with Prometheus, Cain is in part vindicated.

The temptation genre informs Milton's Samson Agonistes and also Arnold's Empedocles on Etna, which could not have been written without Manfred.11 Arnold was a close student of Byron and in some ways carried on the stream of Byronic thought into the Victorian era. As for Milton, Samson Agonistes undoubtedly influenced Manfred and certainly Cain, but the influence was a generic one: Samson is a powerful use of the same paradigm. Samson is a pure example of an alienation figure of the same type as Manfred and Cain, isolated from others, alienated from self. With his labor not his own, he is alienated even in the technical Marxian sense of alienation. Samson is blind because he has lost spiritual perception; i.e., having lost the source of value in life, he is without vital power. Manfred in the same way seeks suicide because he is cut off from the source of meaning in life; Cain's obsession with death suggests a similar wish. By confronting the Visitors Samson confronts his own guilt, fears, doubt; defeating each in turn, he defeats his own self-destroying impulse.12 Samson's dialogues constitute a complex analysis—and exorcism—of the past, of self-obstructing beliefs.13

Samson's withdrawal—his isolation and alienation—is doubly dramatic because of his blindness. The Visitors—Manoa, Dalila, Harapha—cannot be seen, and therefore they modulate easily into voices in the hero's own mind. They personify doubt, fear, and guilt as if they were the voices of his own psyche warring for domination. The Astarte figure in Samson Agonistes is the Philistine enemy-wife Dalila, whose main and most persuasive point, naturally, is that Samson betrayed himself before she did anything: she only consolidated his error.14 Embodying Samson's guilty past, she says only what Samson has already said to himself in the opening soliloquy so that, like Astarte in Manfred, she mirrors and echoes the hero's own state. The Abbot figure here is the feeble Manoa;15 his blandishments, spiritually speaking, are as dangerous as the more subtle wiles of Dalila or the giant Harapha's dim bullying. In temptation actions, friends are often dangerous (as foes are) but in a different way: corporeal friends/spiritual enemies.

An extraordinary amount of subtle legal, religious, and ethical analysis of Samson's past is done in the play.16 The whole point of the plot is to use this intellectual discussion as mental action to liberate Samson from his guilty obsession with the past and the life-in-death that buries him at the outset of the drama. The same type of discussion characterizes Manfred and Cain. Samson's language resembles Manfred's; he calls his life “a living death” and a “moving grave”—phrases as Byronic as anything Satan utters in Paradise Lost. When he has purged his own self-hate, he is ready to live again, to act purposefully in accord with God's will. Renewing life and defeating doubt are thus the same thing. The action of temptation is to release the tyranny of the past and so to liberate present life.

In Manfred, the hero's struggle with the temptation Visitors reveals that the healing of alienation comes from a source inaccessible to reason, knowledge, or routine—a source outside the controlling rituals of society and superego. An inexplicable “kalon,” it manifests as a state of mind, not as a system or objective concept. Whatever it is, it works only with releasing the grip of the past—a letting-go that recalls the Ancient Mariner's blessing (“unaware”) of the water-snakes, accompanied by the release of the dead body round his neck. For Manfred, this release begins when the phantom of Astarte says farewell. The characters, expressing voices in the protagonist's own mind, articulate doubts and fears that are actually impulses of self-destruction. For Byron (as also for Milton) the temptation action discloses a divine power that acts from within the self.

Thus when the Astarte phantom at last says “Farewell,” she is actually helping him. She is signaling dissolution of his paralysis—and her own freedom. Astarte has a destiny of her own and is not Manfred's dependent creature. She is not the captive of his egotism, a being determined by his deeds, whatever they were. Thereafter the motif of saying goodbye, of release, is conspicuous—hence the farewell to the sun and the beautiful ruins meditation. Here Manfred describes the moonlit ruins of Rome covered with greenery. Usually a meditation on ruins will declare the vanity of worldly power, as in Shelley's “Ozymandias.” But Byron's use is a reversal. The ruins, moon, and imagery of greenery enfolding the stones express the life-force's healing presence, obliterating the guilt and glory of ancient Rome—and of Manfred's own past.17 He can now act with undivided purpose, much like Sardanapalus once the fighting begins. He is no longer a dipsychus.

Samson Agonistes offers a major precedent. It concludes with Samson's feat of pulling down the evil temple of his oppressors—a feat now possible because, by reuniting his will with God's will for him, he is reunited with his strength. This causes Samson's own death—it looks suspiciously like suicide—and marks the play's curious tonality. Technically a tragedy, it is actually—as a liberation from oppression and a vindication of faith—a comedy. An ambivalent attitude toward death is typical of the temptation genre, which often features suicide. In the action of temptation, life-in-death is always worse than physical death; dying is treated as liberation, a signal that the spiritual task has been accomplished. Thus, death is transformation—not extinction—and so has a positive value. In terms of the logic of action, it is a marker of the end of the old life (not of life itself) on the principle that every new life is a form of death. Hence Manfred closes with one of the most resonant lines in Romantic literature; refusing all religious consolation, the protagonist says to a fearful Abbot, “Old man! 'tis not so difficult to die.” This line's shock value cannot be exaggerated. When, on Gifford's advice, his publisher John Murray deleted it, Byron was furious. The line is vital to the play—to Byron's work as a whole.

The positive use of death in the temptation genre is conspicuous in the Byronic Empedocles on Etna. Though his most important work, it caused Arnold acute anxiety—anxiety very like that of Gifford facing the death-defying Manfred. Arnold, dramatically censoring it from his 1853 volume, argued that it described a state of life-in-death, alienation so disturbing that one must not read or even think about it, a state that finds no vent in action. But Arnold was not telling the truth here, for Empedocles does “find a vent for action.” Arnold's term “vent” is a striking pun, for a vent is a volcano shaft, precisely what Empedocles does find—a “vent” for action.

Empedocles is tempted to resume his old social role, which is false and useless, a past symbolized by the plain below Etna and by a woman whom he—like Manfred—apparently raised from the dead. Pantheia, the Astarte figure in Empedocles, symbolizes the empty past from which he wishes to escape. He ends his alienation by jumping into the volcano which he has been climbing throughout the play. By this ecstatic leap he rejoins the pantheistic current of divine energy; it is in no way an unhappy or frustrated end. Callicles' song, which closes Empedocles, is a beautiful vision of serenity, a resonant C-Major chord of psychic and spiritual closure. The temptation genre can release a vast power in the protagonist; by eliminating the past, one recovers some potent psychic energy that makes genuine, meaningful action possible. The conversion from sterile thinking to liberating action typifies the paradigm.

Manfred has often and correctly been linked to Prometheus Unbound. It responds to Manfred, to what Shelley saw as its nihilism. The logic of Shelley's play is close to that of Byron's with its isolated, alienated hero.18 Note (1) his obsession with the past, with unraveling the true meaning of what happened; (2) the Visitors, especially tricky Hermes; (3) the expanded visions of time and space; (4) the intense intellectual questioning; (5) the exorcism of the demonic Jupiter and the epiphany of a mysterious power; and (6) the motif of transformation, passive disconnection from life to freeing action. Jupiter signifies Prometheus' own negative obsession; his death marks freedom from the tyranny of the past and thus exorcism of the negation-spirit. Yet Shelley develops the temptation paradigm, deleting the Astarte figure; there is no female figure representing past guilt. Earth has a faint trace of this role but is too weak and forgiving to be a true Astarte. Deleting this role leaves a gap in the structure that Shelley fills with his most original creation, the powerful non-sexual being, Demogorgon. Demogorgon is the power of the future, the very opposite of the Astarte figure whose tortured sexuality represents clinging to the past.

Shelley's drama Hellas is more Byronic than Prometheus Unbound; it is also more typical of the temptation genre, with its gloomy self-obsessed tyrant visited by the mysterious Ahasuerus, who shows wondrous visions of past and future. The climax is a mass death as the protagonist sinks into deeper alienation. This somber work thus corresponds in some ways to Cain. Its static dialogues, its obsession with the past and calling up the dead, who embody the guilt/anguish of the alienation figure, all typify the genre. Dealing with Ottoman tyranny, Hellas tries to integrate social analysis into the temptation genre. A drawback of this paradigm for Byron is the absence of historical context; Cain absorbs cultural-religious elements in a manner similar to Hellas (unlike Manfred, which operates in a cultural vacuum).

Keats explicitly viewed the opening episode of Endymion as a first attempt at drama. Interestingly, it exemplifies the temptation genre. Its focus is a hero alienated from his social role; he passes from frozen life-in-death to freely determined action. The ordeal of Peona's probing, hostile questioning brings this transformation about. She represents Endymion's past role and identity; her caresses suggest incestuous enfoldment—a determination to block freedom in a new life. She bullies; she coaxes. Her blandishments are more dangerous to Endymion than the fears that paralyze him. A similar testing struggle informs The Fall of Hyperion in which Moneta, the epitome of past anguish, accuses the hero, shows him visions, and forces him to transform so as to manifest a divine power.

Cain has a tragic cadence. A typical alienation figure, Cain is frozen by doubts/anxieties obsessively focused on the past. What the protagonist achieves is paralysis, not freedom, thus becoming prisoner of the past instead of freeing himself from it. The motif of entrapment by the past hangs over the play; it is identical with the mystery of original sin, newly invented by Cain's parents (and the race's). Hence it is not personal guilt but the guilt of his parents in eating forbidden fruit. The alienating guilt of the past is thus original sin—the primal anxiety of disobeying authority.

But in Byron's hands this original sin becomes a metaphor for something else, something worse, really, than the original sin of Christianity: meaninglessness. Cain's alienation is really the nonsensicalness of the traditional Christian world view with its legalism, its fetish for blood sacrifice and damnation, its angry God of absolute, arbitrary power over subordinates, and its heritable sin. God punishes those who disobeyed him—and those who did not. The “knowledge” of the fruit was nothing. God stays inscrutably remote—the worst model for an authority figure, someone who acts arbitrarily—and then refuses to explain acts that determine the life/death of his subjects. Hence, in confronting this oppressive mystery, which validates social coercion, the play is close to metaphysical satire like Blake's Marriage of Heaven & Hell or Byron's own Vision of Judgment—a satire on the world view inculcated by authority.19 (Vision indicates just how central to Byron the temptation genre is, for Vision condenses the action; a cosmic spectacle itself, the focus is a trial—an argument about past wrongs—between angels and devils for the soul of a king, a king who by grace [not will] goes from alienated life-in-death to freedom in death.)

Cain's disturbing questions attract Lucifer just as the thrashing of a wounded swimmer draws sharks. As tempation-Visitor, Lucifer gives visions of expanded time/space; he argues theologico-philosophy (like Satan with Christ in Paradise Regained). The climax is a death-epiphany. Enraged by Abel's sadistic killing of a lamb, Cain is panicked; God likes deliberate, cruel killing. This God, unlike Jesus', has set his heart on sacrifice, not on mercy. Abel's touchstone line, “I love God far more / Than life,” is the ultimate blasphemy for Byron. When he kills Abel in a fit, Cain attacks himself, thus entering life-in-death far worse than his original alienation.

Byron's Cain is confused, not evil;20 he is recognizably human and is not merely the archetypal murderer with the primal elder curse upon him. Abel, loving God more than life, would unhesitatingly kill Cain if he thought God wanted it, just as Abraham would kill his son as a special offering. If Cain had made Abel a sacrifice to God, perhaps the crime would have been gratefully accepted. The Angel sees Abel as sacrificed to an alternative power—to earth, a female being who, says the Angel, drank Abel's blood. It is not a crime because it is murder, a destroying of life (God already condemns all life to death), but because it violates power relations and hence denies God's hegemony. The play, in explaining (not justifying) Cain, deconstructs the God to which society bows. The God of Cain resembles Dagon in Samson Agonistes—not a god one worships. This God and Lucifer have more in common with each other than either has with humans. In keeping with temptation practice, their difference is one of power, manipulation forces pitted together. Rejecting God and killing Abel thus resembles Samson's paradoxical suicide-murder, attacking a false god and, like Cain, the ritual celebration of a false religion.

Cain ends where Manfred starts, in chill life-in-death, anguish, past guilt. Cain causes the state from which Manfred achieves freedom. Manfred is logically the sequel of Cain, a repetition of form that succeeds where the earlier trial failed. Led by Satan, Cain goes back into the past—and never escapes. Manfred passes from obsession with the past to freedom from it. His victory over the evil spirits is a rejection of the old Urizen-God of exclusivistic Christianity (and of Byron's wife). Astarte may so be seen as original sin redefined: the guilt not of Eve and Adam, who disobeyed that God, but of Cain, who broke faith with human beings starting with himself. Here original sin is self-separation; alienation from self inevitably accompanies alienation from others. Cain deconstructs the presiding God. A true divinity—a power to heal alienation—cannot be like Cain's remote God, who shows his power by unimaginable destructiveness, as in Heaven and Earth.

In Manfred, the real God manifests as the power of self-transformation: freeing-from-the-past. This is the play's mysterious “power” that enables Manfred to call up, then elude, the spirits. Shelley developed this concept in his Prometheus—“primal power,” in Mary Shelley's notes. This power also manifests as egalitarian solidarity—what the Hunter and Abbot are there to show. The paradigm in Byron for such caring is innocent, erotic love. Cain is intellectually very sophisticated, but he hardly glimpses the genuine deity whose witness is the erotic Adah. Manfred unfolds profound human concerns, indicating Byron's range and depth of thought as actions. Cain and Manfred comprehend the possibilities of the temptation genre—and of Byron's vision.


  1. “Byron was [viewed as] merely frivolous or strident” (Michael Cooke, “How It Was,” Studies in Romanticism, 21 [1982], 569); Philip Martin, for example, says Cain “is as potent an affirmation of Byron's bankruptcy as a philosophical poet as we are likely to find” (Byron a Poet before His Public [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982], p. 148); Shelley, with some claim to authority as a critic, called Cain a “revelation not before communicated to man” (quoted by Charles Robinson, Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976], p. 195.

  2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Works, ed. J. Slater (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), II, 161; see especially Don Juan XIV.1-2. For a presentation of the existentialist view of Byron see Paul Cantor, “Byron's Cain: A Romantic Analysis of the Fall,” Kenyon Review, n.s. 2, No. 3 (1980), 50-71.

  3. For Byron's political impact on Italy, see Michael Foot, “Byron and the Risorgimento,” Byron Journal, 15 (1987), 29-37; Daniel Watkins has analyzed political awareness in Byron's apparently apolitical tales (Social Relations in Byron's Eastern Tales [Cranbury, N. J.: Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1987]); Michael Kelsall, Byron's Politics [Brighton: Harvester, 1987], presents much information but misses the point of Byron's role in history.

  4. “Dipsychus” is the title of a poem by Arnold's friend Arthur Clough.

  5. Northrop Frye, The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton's Epics (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 139. Lucifer's strategy is to smash Cain's self-esteem; see T. G. Steffan, Lord Byron's ‘Cain’ (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1968), pp. 8ff. The term ‘temptation genre’ seems to work for this dramatic form, but readers uncomfortable with it may prefer the term ‘paradigm’ (or ‘complex,’ ‘form,’ or even ‘pattern’).

  6. My epigraph: “Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!” (Faust, Part I, l. 1338). Faust, Part I, has many features of the temptation genre. Goethe assumed (wrongly) that Manfred was a copy of Faust; he loved Cain and Heaven and Earth. Byron dedicated Sardanapalus to Goethe; Goethe put Byron in Faust, Part II, as Euphorion—an extraordinary tribute.

  7. Peter Manning observes: “Our first mother appears as the negative of the potent figure whose positive is Adah” (Byron and His Fictions [Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1978], p. 154).

  8. See Gloria Hull, “The Byronic Heroine and Byron's ‘The Corsair’,” Ariel, 9 (1978), 78; and also my “Female Emancipation in Romantic Narrative,” Women's Studies, 18, Nos. 2-3 (1990), pp. 309-29.

  9. See Andrew Rutherford, Byron: A Critical Study (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1961), p. 154.

  10. Jeffrey's review of Manfred saw in it “the Prometheus of Aeschylus” and noted “The tremendous solitude of the principal person,” “the supernatural beings with whom alone he holds communion” (Andrew Rutherford, ed., Byron: The Critical Heritage [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976], p. 118). Byron himself wrote: “The Prometheus—if not exactly in my plan—has always been so much in my head—that I can easily conceive its influence over all or anything that I have written;—but I deny Marlow and his progeny” (Letters and Journals, V, 268). See K. M. Luke, “Byron's Manfred,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 40 (1970), 14, and also John Clubbe, “‘The New Prometheus of New Man’: Byron's 1816 Poems and Manfred,Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Lionel Stevenson, ed. Clyde de L. Kyals et al. (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1974), p. 38.

  11. For links between Arnold, Byron, and Aeschylus see Warren Anderson, Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1965), p. 36; Kenneth Allott, “Arnold's Empedocles on Etna and Byron's Manfred,Notes and Queries, n.s. 9 (1962), 300-03; Douglas Bush, Matthew Arnold: A Survey of His Poetry and Prose (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 56; William Buckler, On the Poetry of Matthew Arnold: Essays in Critical Reconstruction (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1982), p. 136. On Arnold's choice of selections from Manfred in his edition of Byron, see Leon Gottfried, Matthew Arnold and the Romantics (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1963), p. 112. But Arnold's view of Byron shifted (see Bernard Beatty, “Empedocles and Byron,” Essays and Studies 1988, ed. Miriam Allott [London: John Murray, 1988], pp. 80-95). For other aspects of Arnold's poem, see June Hagen, “Arnold's ‘Empedocles on Etna’ in its Own Terms,” Arnold Newsletter, 2, No. 1 [1974], 5, and “Coleridge, Hamlet, and Arnold's Empedocles,” Papers on Language and Literature, 8 suppl. (Fall 1972), 17-25. John F. Andrews sees Samson Agonistes as in the same tradition (“‘Dearly Bought Revenge’: Samson Agonistes, Hamlet, and Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy,” Milton Studies, 13 [1979], 81-107). The temptation genre informs Hamlet (from which Byron took Manfred's epigraph and the title of Heaven and Earth) with its alienated hero, Astarte figure (Gertrude), spirit visitor (ghost), intellectual questioning, expanded visions, transformation from passive inaction to decisive struggle.

  12. See the observations on Samson's strength in Hugh M. Richmond, The Christian Revolutionary: John Milton (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1974), pp. 184-85.

  13. On the “internalized action” of Samson Agonistes, see Northrop Frye, “Agon and Logos,” Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1976), p. 214, and also the remarks of Christopher Grose (“‘His Uncontrollable Intent’: Discovery as Action in Samson Agonistes,Milton Studies, 7 [1975], 53, 63).

  14. According to Herman Rapaport, “Dalila creates the effects of uncanniness … a kind of double: she is Samson's other half, his wife. What makes her entrance eerie is that she is the intimate partner who is radically estranged, who appears as if in a dream of the one who represses” (Milton and the Postmodern [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983], p. 136). For Charles Robinson Astarte is “less of a psychological equivalent to Manfred in mirroring his mind, and more of a psychological complement … in conflict with his immortally aspiring mind” (Shelley and Byron, p. 57; italics mine); and for Stuart Sperry Astarte expresses “his disastrous love-life as a whole—the compulsive self-destructiveness that characterized all his affairs and even his marriage” (“Byron and the Meaning of Manfred,Criticism, 16 [1974], 193). In dramatic role, uncanny Dalila and Astarte in Manfred are alike. Writing to Murray, Byron refers to his “moral Clytemnestra” (his wife), then to his “witch drama” (Manfred); his phrase implies that Manfred was his exorcism of his wife (V, 191-92). For the pivotal role of Manfred in Byron's evolution as writer see Frederick Shilstone, Byron and the Myth of Tradition (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1988), pp. 153-71; Frederick Garber, Self, Text, and Romantic Irony: The Example of Byron (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988); and, above all, Jerome J. McGann, “‘My Brain is Feminine’,” in Byron: Augustan and Romantic, ed. Andrew Rutherford (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 5-30.

  15. C. A. Patrides usefully notes Manoa's likeness to Aeschylus' Ocean (“The Comic Dimension in Greek Tragedy and Samson Agonistes,Milton Studies, 10 [1977], 8). Andrews' account of Samson applies to Manfred (“Dearly Bought Revenge,” p. 84). See also Luke, “Byron's Manfred,” p. 14, for the observation that “External agents cannot grant reprieve” from Manfred's troubles; “his task is one of self-conquest.” Not self-conquest, but self-forgiveness.

  16. See Frye, “Agon and Logos,” pp. 218-19; cf. Lynn Sadler, “Coping with Hebraic Legalism: The Chorus in Samson Agonistes,Harvard Theological Review, 66 (1973), 359.

  17. On the moonlight imagery which indicates “synthesis … clarity of vision or timelessness,” see John Ehrstine, The Metaphysics of Byron (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), p. 40, and also Daniel McVeigh, “Manfred's Curse” SEL, 22 (1982), 603-12. Manfred's soliloquies signify reintegration with a spiritual life-energy equivalent to Samson's regained faith or to the pantheism of the dying Empedocles.

  18. Robinson, Shelley and Byron, details parallels with Byron (chap. 6); see also Shilstone, Byron and The Myth of Tradition, p. 153.

  19. Like Cantor and McGann, Stuart Curran views God and Lucifer in Cain as basically similar (“The Siege of Hateful Contraries,” in Milton and the Line of Vision, ed. J. Wittreich [Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1975], pp. 219-21); Wolf Hirst (“Byron's Lapse into Orthodoxy,” Keats-Shelley Journal, 29 [1980], 151-72) misses this as well as, incredibly, the irony of Cain. In Vision of Judgment and Heaven and Earth party—not nature—divides angels from devils.

  20. Critical consensus beginning with S. C. Chew (The Dramas of Lord Byron [1915; rpt. Russell and Russell, 1964] understands Cain as basically good. Leslie Brisman notes that Cain's offer to die to restore Abel to life is casually and “summarily dismissed by the angel” (“Troubled Stream from a Pure Source,” in George Gordon, Lord Byron, ed. Harold Bloom [New York: Chelsea Press, 1986], p. 82).

Criticism: Cain (1821)

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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 for a world in which he has no share. With its protagonist someone who seeks to clear space for desire by refusing an unwanted patrimony, Cain explores the possibility of rebellion against the metaphysics of a fallen world. For what Cain obsessively rejects—in the phrase with which Stanley Cavell describes Faust's turn from the world—is “the condition of human knowing,” which he has inherited from his parents.3 This condition entails the cancellation of solipsistic innocence and figures, to use the vocabulary of the contemporaneous metaphysics that could itself bring out Byron's cynicism, as the Coleridgean “coincidence” of subject and object, the intersection of mind and world, an involvement directed against the human alienation from things that defines the legacy of the fall. Or, to shift frames of reference, it means sharing criteria with others, coming to agreements with them. Cain, whose acts effectively deny that mind can, should, or need have anything to do with its objects, catastrophically deifies rationality as the way towards autonomous life; his path towards knowledge is not through the “meeting” or “encounter” left to humans after the loss of Eden. Refusing the dependencies implied by such terms, he dissects his world in order to commit murder in it.4

Just as friction over what properly belongs to him makes Cain a useful representation for Byron's own domestic life, his turn from immanence and into a life of uncertainty, confusion, and denial makes him a logical focus for an investigation into the skepticism central to the stances most characteristic of Byron's later writing: the mobility, celebrated in Don Juan, through which he negates any center his consciousness might care to hold, and the critical posture which—certainly in the case of received readings of Cain—seems the ethical measure of ontological freedom.5 That in Cain Byron finds an understudy for the roles he has played both as guilty heir and as “idiot questioner” means that his tragedy can serve as a locus for testing the legitimacy of his own skepticism. An undercurrent of the play thus allows it to consider the philosophically respectable way in which denials are able to conceal illusions, and the ease with which the self can become bound to the altar of its own bad faith. The provocations of the play have far less to do with the inviting “mental mode” that Byron dramatizes through Cain, and that through the work he is familiarly read as endorsing, than with his exposure of an epistemic stance that, while it seems wholly congruent with radical freedom and apparently licenses a bold inquiry into religion and morals, distances him from the humanness for which he claims to speak.6

One of the more unsettling features of Byron's own history is the story of his way with legacies; Cain, complaining about what in justice belongs to him, gathers into focus the tragic dimension of an inclination to pursue, but not always honor, hereditary rights. Byron's economic position is one that recent critics have come to plausibly read as situated liminally, “between two worlds”: an aristocratic capitalist, he uses wealth and titles he has inherited to claim a speculative role for himself in the world of commercial enterprise.7 The autonomy demanded of someone in pursuit of success in a capitalistic order works in tension for Byron with—and finally dominates—the poetically induced obligation to past and future worlds that life as aristocratic heir also enjoins. The logic of history seems to have had more than its share of victories in a personal financial record that includes episodes of liquidating (or struggling to liquidate) familial holdings—Newstead Abbey, the Rochdale mines—in order to pay off debts incurred against his estate in order to sustain an image of aristocratic prerogative, and also of using the assets of one title to leverage the purchase of another.8 What seems to fail Byron in these stories is the premise of obligation, as well as an ethic of reciprocity. In selling off inherited property, and also in pursuing the “being more intense” that necessitated such a sale, he acts on the apparent assumption that future Byrons will not need ancient Byron lands or rents, though he entitles himself to the advantages such assets confer. Byron's eagerness to inherit the Noel name, for which he had contracted through his marriage, indicates that both the name, and the marital history that allowed him to inherit it, had elements of the trophy-hunting which Veblen locates near the origins of economic activity. The Noel title is something to be appropriated from a family to which he was not bound by ties of affection or esteem.9 With investments of feeling, interest, and desire kept to a minimum, he eventually manages to obtain it at a significant discount.

These different ways of appropriating and using legacies carry with them a concealed aggressiveness that finds its echo in a bearing Cain helps bring into the world. Everything about him—his anger, his openness to be in dialogue with Lucifer, his brooding over mortality, his estrangement from his family—instantiates his grievance over what he cannot inherit, and his behavior throughout the play is largely directed towards negotiating compensation for the Eden he was not given. If he cannot have everything—Edenic amplitude and security—he works for his own portion of it, for a partitive legacy, one that allows him to pit one strand of his family's history against another. Cain writes the terms of the bequest he receives. Just as Byron, staging himself as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” rejects the role of good steward in order to make himself the logical heir to the Wicked (fifth) Lord and to Mad Jack Byron, Cain, instead of laying claim to the piety of his parents by searching for ways of acting justly in the eyes of God, seizes on the rebelliousness in their history by demanding what he determines to be justly his. If he cannot have Eden, he will claim his mother's place in it and be the child of someone who has forgotten “the mind / Which made her thirst for knowledge” (I.i, 180-81). He will forget his mother's remorse in order to recall and recover her primal thirst. In both practical and moral terms, this choice means that he will allow no one else a share in Edenic peace, that he will spoil whatever settlement others have made with their loss: if he cannot be proprietor of Eden, neither will any other member of his family. In a strategy roughly akin to repression, Cain, following Byron's own lead, effectively chooses not to know one dimension of his identity—that bound to others, and to their brief history—in order to cultivate desire, symbolically the early “fruit of the ground” that he can neither share nor sacrifice.10 In this representation of Cain, Byron seizes on what is implicit in the problematics of Eve's announcement of his conception and birth in the biblical narrative—“v'tahar v'teled et-kayin v'tomer kaniti ish et h'adonai” (“and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said: I have gotten a man from the Lord” [Genesis 4.1]). Her evident silence about her pregnancy until after she has brought it to term is one sign of an inheritable wish not to be fully known—or of an opacity about one's own condition. More directly pertinent to Byron's purposes is that Cain's name, etymologically related to “kaniti,” works as a sign in search of specification. The name generates a field of possible meanings, one of which he seems fated to choose at the expense, suppression, or denial of others.11 Eve's “I have gotten” could as easily read “I have created” or “I have bought.” Cain thus is poised to know himself as a creation or as a purchase, as actor in either a moral or an economic drama. That in a demand for a just inheritance he speaks out of a hunger for economic justice allows him to yoke these two strains of his life, but in a way that perversely places his sense of himself as a commodity with quantifiable value ahead of his notion of himself as moral agent.12 He barters away what is meaningful in his name for what is measurable in it, as if trading on it, trading up for it. Unreceptive to the pertinence of his own name, he cannot be the fully humanized hero, resisting injustice from on high, of his deepest longings: he speaks for a form of life he only thinks he knows.

Skepticism thus embeds itself within Cain's economic life. This pattern extends beyond his way of valuing himself. By becoming the first actor in history to expand upon the injunction to earn and eat one's bread by the sweat of one's brow to encompass possibilities of trade and inheritance, he in effect seeks to turn words God spoke to his parents against themselves in an agile hermeneutic maneuver. Knowledge—or at least knowledge enacted in just this way—erodes confidence in its object. To the extent that Cain is reinterpreting divine language in a way that serves his own advantage—with a phrase such as “cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Genesis 3.17) effectively warranting him in looking at his own birth as a curse inflicted upon him by his parents, whom he thus places in his debt—he is behaving economically, trading one meaning (about, say, how to know the ground on which he stands) for another. The murder itself, played out over the issue of blood sacrifice, is also cast in economic terms: God asks too much for too little. He gets pleasure and gives nothing tangible in return for “the pain of the bleating mothers, which / Still yearn for their dead offspring” (III.i, 300-1). Thinking in utilitarian terms, he cannot think in terms of meaning, of what is intended and of what is asked.

The interweaving of epistemic and economic themes is perhaps nowhere so thickly textured as in Cain's lament for his just inheritance. Skepticism emerges as an issue in the play not just through a pattern of questioning or articulation of doubt—through Bayle's influence on Byron—but, independent of conscious control, as lurking within the logic of certitude itself: part of Cain's condition is that he cannot put a border on skepticism, and thus does not know where his failures of knowledge leave off.13 The quiet desperation, the failure to acknowledge others or to accept oneself as acknowledged, and the sense of being lost to the world that belong to Cavell's picture of skepticism all figure in this complaint, as does, more pertinently, Cain's distance from his own words: he can no more fathom what he is saying than he can parse sense out of his name.14 The fear that he has gotten nothing from his parents' gamble is his way of registering his sense of living without acknowledgment. With his birth predicated on his parents' loss of Eden, with his despair catalyzed by his realization that they have brought death into the world, with his anger funded by his resentment of having to serve a too just God, and with his crime, when it occurs, rooted in his irritation that Abel is insufficiently irate and unwilling to claim what is his, he can only speak in a spirit of obliviousness about where his words naming his legacy as an unjust inheritance lead. For not only do they imply regret over the fact of his own life even as they will the death of his parents, they also claim property rights on the practical basis of primogeniture that would dispossess his brother and sisters, rather than on any ingrained commitment to distributive justice. Unable to foretell that he will be tricked into crime, he cannot perhaps be faulted for not hearing the irony within his claim: that he is an authentic heir to the Eden story, as temptable as his parent and thus not in the least debarred from what is his. What Cain cannot hear himself saying is that others have turned, in his eyes, from ends into means. His parents, his brother, and his sisters provide him with resources, status, and an occasion to exercise power. He gives over knowing them as human. He lives skeptically, as if in a world with no trace of the sacred, and void of what counts as life.

Cain's inability to hear himself, to take others as having intrinsically meaningful lives, or to do much to gauge the fault lines within the world he has constructed permits Byron to use him to bring into resolution the twin themes of the Genesis story, and to explore the mechanism through which the human inheritance of a given form of knowledge—insatiable questioning, inquiry into a world premised on the thought that everything in it is hostile, an object needing the control of an ordering subject—creates death. Cain as skeptic cannot answer to others any more than he can answer God's angel when he is called upon to do so. The voraciousness with which he demands Eden is one sign that he cannot hear or acknowledge the call of others. The violence he uses against Abel is another. It signals that he has given up on explanations, that he doubts he has a voice audible to others, and that he cannot get what God is telling him by setting him in relationship to a brother.

Perhaps the most useful articulation of the condition Cain finds himself in comes during the exchange that Abel initiates following the family's morning prayers. Abel asks “Why wilt thou wear this gloom upon thy brow, / Which can avail thee nothing, save to rouse / Th' Eternal anger?” (I.i, 52-54). By defining despair in economic terms, as a poor bargain, he engages Cain's own preoccupations. His question, which seems to derive from a genuine sense of mystification, puts together his brother's emotional state with his epistemic standing: Cain has entered into the desperation that negates the being of beings and that empties the world of presence. Cain's answer, “Abel, I'm sick at heart, but it will pass” (58), indicates that his mood has no real cause, that it is neither predicated on any structure of belief nor the result of the expansive insight of someone driven into a life of undistracted thinking. That Abel speaks his brother's language, that he regards his autonomy to the point that he does not presuppose to define for Cain the operations of his own subjectivity, and that he nonetheless offers him terms which, brought together, could lead Cain to a deepened understanding of the life he has taken on, suggests an ethic of respectful closeness—a belief in, or reverence for, the human—that is bound to the piety that he also brings to this encounter. The uncanniness of the fact that Abel is looking at a metonymy for the sign of his own death suggests that his words, though in a way not really audible to him, are his attempt to preserve his life: they are meant to erase the gloom on Cain's brow before it is replaced by something indelible. Embedded in this function is the notion that language between humans can amount to prayer, that words as they stand in dialogue have something holy to them, and that Cain's language of death and denial is not the only valid representation in the play of how to do things with words.

Cain's own account of his life, offered just after the homicide and before his exile, suggests that he could not immunize himself against a central fear of skepticism: “I am awake at last—a dreary dream / Had madden'd me” (III.i, 378-79). Cain's seemingly interminable dream has a number of constituents, from the oneiric, and synecdochical, tour of the abyss with Lucifer, through an inability to make good sense of the rules structuring his world, and including sustained confusion about the ontological status of everything and everyone. This portrait is one of skepticism from the outside, once it has broken down. From the inside, it looks different, defiant. When Cain tells Lucifer, “I never could / Reconcile what I saw with what I heard” (I.i, 168-69), he anticipates this later confession. The disjunctiveness of dream becomes a trope for the absurdity that keys his nihilism. Yet his words to Lucifer also represent his stance in heroic terms: no other story, beyond one he could construct, could accurately picture the world. He renounces everything from the value judgments of his parents to the master narrative that accounts for the structure and texture of post-Edenic life. He also tells him that he is, in Cavell's terms, where “Criteria come to an end,” that he lacks any sense of attunement to a broader conversation about reality.15 That he is living outside the shared agreements that otherwise work to animate dialogue between the members of his family registers in a variety of ways. His presence during the morning ceremony mainly takes the form of an intrusion; his colloquy with Adam effectively breaks its mood. He puts his father on the defensive when he asks him “Have ye not pray'd?” and receives, as an embarrassed answer, “We have, most fervently.” When he completes Adam's thought with a choral comment—“And loudly: I / Have heard you” (I.i, 23-25), the derisiveness of his response annuls any sense of reverence established during the hymn and forces Adam into the sort of self-consciousness that makes “full speech”—expressive, spontaneous, vibrant—impossible to sustain. Marriage, if it is “the name of our only present alternative to the desert-sea of skepticism,” should be the critical scene of acknowledgment in Cain's life.16 Yet his words seldom seem attuned to Adah's. This pattern is strikingly evident during their disagreement about whether or not Cain should follow Lucifer. It proves especially arresting when Adah hears Cain threaten Enoch. Rather than bequeath to his son “The germs of an eternal misery,” he judges “better 'twere / I snatch'd him in his sleep, and dash'd him 'gainst / The rocks” (III.i, 123-26). Through her inarticulate plea in response, “Oh, my God! / Touch not the child—my child! thy child! Oh Cain!” (III.i, 126-27), Adah establishes herself as an appalled mother deeply protective of a child, but also as someone who cannot tell whether her husband is still inside the criteria of his world, whether its deepest concerns are intelligible to him. She fears in him the skeptic who cannot or will not say that another is in pain.17

Further distancing them is the way Cain and Adah use what should be a common language: their different ways with figuration, for instance, suggest distinct takes on the world that are not likely to tally. Adah, in her more lyrical moments, seems to draw out the interactive property of metaphoric reference that Max Black identifies as a defining characteristic of the trope.18 When she tells Cain of “the fruits [that] / Are ripe, and glowing as the light which ripens” (I.i, 338-39), she images both fruit and sun as though each were the other. Her lyrical description of Lucifer extends this strategy in an ethical direction:

                                                                                                                        thou seem'st
Like an ethereal night, where long white clouds
Streak the deep purple, and unnumber'd stars
Spangle the wonderful mysterious vault
With things that look as if they would be suns.

(I.i, 510-14)

His darkening presence mimes what is in the night; the stars, perceived through the screen he provides, seem capable of the sort of usurpation he attempts. When she warns Cain to “walk not with this spirit” (I.i, 361), and, shortly afterward, to “go not / Forth with this spirit” (I.i, 375-76) her words seem multilayered: the spirit she has in mind is both external to Cain, and internal to him. As she speaks, she appears inoculated against taking each object in terms of bordering objects, as finding meaning from something beyond it. Thus of Vesper she can say, “It is a beautiful star; I love it for / Its beauty” (I.i, 497-98): neither the star nor its beauty takes its meaning or value from a symbolic function—this in opposition to Lucifer, who can only claim of “yon bright star” that it “Is leader of the host of heaven” (501-2). Her question during an exchange about whether or not God can be happy, “What else can joy be but the spreading joy?” (481), preempts, through its tautological construction, dialogue about a line of inquiry Lucifer wants to pursue.19 She restricts his power to name God's condition and to dictate a theology by taking an emotion as meaningful in itself and as resistant to definition.

Her language is relational, where Cain's is, by contrast, experiential.20 Adah does not speak as she does simply to express an otherwise private world. Rather, the effect of her words is to create mutuality and a dialogic existence: she means to extend her mode of understanding, and intends to include others in a form of life. Cain, by contrast, seems to speak a private language. When, on the threshold of Hades, he contrasts it with “the huge brilliant luminous orbs” (II.ii, 3) he has just seen, he recalls, with a self-referential nod, “Their swelling into palpable immensity / Of matter, which seemed made for life to dwell on / Rather life itself” (9-11): instead of seeing light that ripens, or even an organic connection between dweller and dwelling, he perceives stark opposition. That matter can swell with process does nothing to link it to, say, the Edenic life to which he lays claim. Even when such worlds do seem alive to him, his perceptions come across as projections, as in a description of an exceptionally forbidding landscape. He tells Lucifer of worlds that

Seem'd full of life even when their atmosphere
Of light gave way, and show'd them taking shapes
Unequal, of deep valleys and vast mountains,
And some emitting sparks, and some displaying
Enormous liquid plains, and some begirt
With luminous belts, and floating moons

(II., 183-88)

He can discern a sign of life because he can discern signs of things that threaten life. The massing of unequal shapes gives symbolic form to a moral order in which human fate is out of keeping with human choices, in which innocence is inexplicably and without warrant punished. Articulating a discourse of protest, he cannot play a language game one rule of which is to accept the premise that there are others who hear or care about his words, who take an interest in them, and who receive acknowledgment through them. Where Adah, following her trope comparing him to the night sky, offers Lucifer sympathy in exchange for sympathy—“Thou seem'st unhappy; do not make us so, / And I will weep for thee” (I.i, 518-19)—Cain, seeing through the medium of “a fearful light” (II.i, 177), responds to Lucifer's wish to intimidate by being intimidated.

What Cain cannot accept is the capacity of others to word their world, to say what they mean, or to mean anything. He assumes the role of unhappy consciousness entitled to gloat over its exposure of the false consciousness of everyone else in his family. He does not, in other words, believe that the fall into knowledge happened to anyone other than himself, for no one else is in possession of anything he can recognize as knowledge, which, in turn, can be nothing other than the negation of any proposition, belief, or perception. This tendency filters into trivial conversational exchanges, as when, at the opening of the third act, he wonders what Adah could possibly have meant in putting their child to sleep underneath a cypress tree, with its mournful suggestions. To her response that the tree offered a practical way to shelter Enoch from the heat—it is fit “to shadow slumber” (III.i, 8)—he replies by seizing on the metaphoric resonances of shadow: “Ay, the last— / And longest” (III.i, 8-9). Cain works to trump Adah because pragmatic answers to the contingencies of survival are to him beneath thought. Less trivially, he challenges his brother for imagining symbolic meanings to the two altars he has built for the sacrificial rite he has planned. Where Abel recognizes difference in inviting Cain to choose which of the two he would prefer for himself, Cain insists on the emptiness of any distinction—he shifts towards the practicality he contested in his wife. When he attacks Eve for repenting her draught of knowledge, he interprets it as her expression of fear, rather than as the consequence of strenuous inquiry into her own prior motives: having risked “an eternal curse” (I.i, 182) once and lost, she lacks the courage to gamble again. She could only have been what her son is: a rebel against all that is given. She could not have been an agent who would egoistically rate her own desires ahead of someone else's well-being. Abel is but a timid “watching shepherd boy” (I.i, 83), bounded by the limitation of a pastoral vision, and not capable of meaning that vision as an expression of caring. Prayer is not an articulation of full consciousness in deep relationship to another, but an empty act of weakness and propitiation. The created world is not an arena for overpowering encounters, but a theater in which an angry God takes spectatorial pleasure in watching a regime predicated on laws that tempt and slay take shape. Cain is not necessarily wrong in any of these judgments—his skepticism would not humanize him were it only an inability to recognize the world and others in it as real—but they are, nonetheless, products of his resistance to finding value in dialogue, to taking words that are not his as though they could be seriously thought through.

Cain codifies his stance when he says of the tree that “It was a lying tree, because we know nothing” (II.ii, 161). This articulation of a skeptic's position and the ways he has of “living” his skepticism—in avoidance of the lives of others—mutually reinforce one another: his stated beliefs keep others at bay; their distance keeps him from taking their world with much seriousness and from treating them as if they are, say, real.21 The irony of his assertion captures the broader irony of his situation: he advances a claim about a collective consciousness, even as he suspects whatever others claim to know. His belief here that he knows the criteria by which to recognize a lie is at odds with any proposition that he knows nothing. Cain's early account, for Lucifer, of his skeptical posture both seizes on it to advance a case for his own freedom, and implicitly concedes his despair of any belief in the reality of the things he sees: “I look / Around a world where I seem nothing, with / Thoughts which arise within me, as if they / Could master all things:—but I thought alone / This misery was mine” (I.i, 175-79). The opposition of thought and thing represents the mode of thinking called for by the “Master of Spirits”: the bodily may count as a case for thought—something to be taken, for instance, as an illusion, but is not integral to it. His hoped for mastery of things that, by his own logic, are not things—what, for that matter, constitutes the world he talks about?—feels to him like a source of transcendent power, but emerges as little more than the exemption he grants himself from having to enter into agreements, to share criteria, with others. Embedded within his syntax, the phrase “I thought alone this misery” inadvertently condenses the pathos of his condition. As someone who knows nothing, it isn't clear how Cain knows that this thought is his alone. His statement does conform to Cain's general presumptuousness—and opacity—about other minds. Fitting as well into an emerging pattern of circularity, it indicates that he has an opinion about his misery, but it only suggests obliquely some corollaries that he seems not to consider: that his misery is something he has constituted of his thought, and that thinking alone may be a repudiation of thinking. His skepticism may not, then, be directed solely toward the world and others in it, but may, in his dialogue with Lucifer, have started to become a self-consuming thing.

This dialogue, as it unfolds in the second act of the play, spans two symbolically pertinent and causally connected settings, “The Abyss of Space” and “Hades.” The story this juxtaposition tells is one of both expansion followed by contraction and of perception as grounding meaning: to sense emptiness is to find no intersubjective other in which to find oneself, with Hades serving as the space in which phantom being finds its only available reflection. Lucifer, who sets himself up as the voice of Cain's half-articulated—repressed—life (“I know the thoughts / Of dust, and feel for it, and with you” [I, 100-1]), draws on and offers himself up as a participant in Cain's tendency to cast things in synecdochical terms. The abyss into which Lucifer leads Cain thus defines the universe, and Hades proves the condensation of all of God's purposes. Lucifer's own story, of principled defiance as having greater authenticity than does any form of reverence, and as warranting any punishment that might come out of it, becomes, through this same strategy, the only narrative worthy of thoughtful attention. When Cain tells Lucifer he would be “proud of thought” that found in “the dust of … dull earth” (II.i, 49, 46) the defining trope of being, he acquiesces to the notion of the human as an illusion. Though he cannot recognize that his own pride will be compromised by the thought he finds so exalting, he absorbs the sort of language that will allow him to tear down altars and turn living form into the fragmented shapes needed to expose it as no more than the “animated atoms” (47) Lucifer offers him as an adequate figure for the reality he knows. Lucifer, posing as the voice of strict dialectic and demystification, mentors Cain in a rhetoric that occludes other voices, that debars other stories from pressing their claims on him, and that ultimately sets terms for the fratricide of Act III.

The pride that Cain imagines carries with it the shame implicit in his acceptance of Lucifer's reduction of his life to the dust that “high thought” (II.i, 50) takes as constitutive of humanness. When Lucifer redefines desire as “A most enervating and filthy cheat” (II.i, 57), Cain, presumably through the agency of shame, feels eros begin to collapse before Thanatos: “if / It be, as thou hast said … / Here let me die” (65-68). Lucifer's mapping of the inner structure of desire and his exposure of life as gross matter sustains a process of humiliation that extends throughout the encounter he stage manages with the sublime. As the pair race through the “beautiful / And unimaginable ether,” Cain, reveling in the “multiplying masses of increased / And still-increasing lights” (II.i, 98-101), sets up for himself a choice that permits of only one real resolution: “let me expire, or see them nearer” (117). Nearness—Emerson's “proximity”—is as likely an answer as any to skepticism: life without closeness is death, and that Cain wants to take the stars as alive figures in the way he apostrophizes them.22 That it proves impossible—something Cain concedes when he classes the ether as unimaginable—means not only that the cure he seeks is as remote as the stars, but also that he will have one more occasion to feel shame, this time over the inherited fact of human limitation. His way of expiring is through his life of skepticism, something Lucifer accentuates when he asks “Art thou not nearer?” (118): Cain cannot gauge what he is near to, only that he is far from, estranged, from his own world, which is lost to him within “a mass / Of most innumerable lights” (119-20).

As the abyss gives way to Hades, and as spatial gives way to temporal extension—he sees in Hades phantoms of both the past and the future—the mathematical sublime starts to work alongside of the dynamic sublime to make Cain feel trivial in relationship to the numberless phantoms who have entered the world of the dead. Lucifer shows him evidence of “a most crushing and inexorable / Destruction and disorder of the elements, / Which struck a world to chaos” and enjoins him to “Pass on, and gaze upon the past” (II.ii, 80-82, 85). Cain's response, “'Tis awful!” (85), anticipates the larger impact of the passage through Hades, which is to bring him, after a sustained encounter with evidence of catastrophe, to declare himself inwardly dead: “Alas! I seem / Nothing” (II.ii, 420-21). Cain, if he is anything at all, is one more commodity in a system resembling that of postindustrial manufacture: replaceable, dispensable, unindividuated, and less valuable than the massed “Living, high, / Intelligent, good, great, and glorious things” (II.ii, 67-68). With Cain's declaration of his own nothingness, Byron consolidates the link between skepticism as a way of life and as a mode of thought, for it comes as an answer to Lucifer's summary of his purpose in leading him through the abyss: “Didst thou not require / Knowledge? And have I not, in what I show'd, / Taught thee to know thyself” (II.ii, 418-20). Cain's deepening immersion into skepticism is subtended by the way in which Lucifer also radically relativizes knowledge for him. The shifting perspectives on time—the journey that feels to him to have taken years lasted only two hours—of which he learns when he returns home, give it an illusory quality. And even as Lucifer argues that “Evil and good are things in their own essence” (II.ii, 452), his insistence on deeply subjectivist criteria for moral understanding—“But if he gives you good—so call him” and “judge / Not by words, though of spirits, but the fruits / Of your existence” (454, 456-58)—undermines any possibility that confident judgment will work as a brake on skeptical thought.23

Near the beginning of their encounter, Lucifer tantalizes Cain with the prospect of alterity: “I would have made ye / Gods” (I.i, 202-3). Their journey reveals to Cain what it means not to have been made a god; it gives him the chance, not that he would know how to take advantage of it, to find meaning in the precariousness of his human existence. As the journey gets underway, Lucifer affords Cain a fleeting experience of unconditioned, godlike life: “I will not say / Believe in me, as a conditional creed / To save thee” (II.i, 20-22). At neither of these junctures does Cain challenge Lucifer's own orthodoxies. In the first case, he does not think of the uniqueness that obsesses him. Even should he grant Lucifer the power or the imagination to have created the human form divine, Cain, if he takes his power for reasoning seriously, would still have to object that Lucifer could at most have created someone like him, but not him himself, with his own qualia and quiddity. By not making this argument, Cain effectively denies that he is unique, that other causes could, and still can, raise him. In the second case, Cain cannot bring himself to argue that there is something saving about belief, that his belief in Adah, for instance, allows him to maintain such buoyancy as he has, that taking others at their word is what dialogical life amounts to. That such answers are lost on Cain indicates that in describing himself as nothing, Cain articulates the tacit understanding he has shared with Lucifer from the beginning of their confrontation.

When Lucifer gives Cain the advice meant to help him withstand existence in a catastrophic world, he instructs him in how to live as if he were the god he failed to make him; the continuing temptation to skepticism implies that the two have in effect traveled nowhere:

One good gift has the fatal apple given—
Your reason:—let it not be over-sway'd
By tyrannous threats to force you into faith
'Gainst all external sense and inward feeling:
Think and endure,—and form an inner world
In your own bosom—where the outward fails;
So shall you nearer be the spiritual
Nature and war triumphant with your own.

(II.ii, 459-66)

Lucifer's godlike habit of taking back what he gives as he grants it here figures in the way in which constructs such as “external sense” and “inward feeling” are problematized by not having an “outward” world within which to operate. Ignore for the moment that for Cain to take advice from another is at odds with the project of forming an inner world. As a recommendation that Cain set his own rules, trust to his own predictions, and give primacy to his feelings, the injunction, if followed, does little to inoculate him against committing murder; rather, it seems to increase the chance that he will do so. Lucifer thus positions his acolyte to triumph over his own belief in his largely benevolent nature. What Cain does not recognize is the ungrammaticality of “inner world”—the words he hears remain lost on him. The metaphoricity of the phrase works seductively; it conceals the fact that things Cain apparently cares about—others, his own body, his inheritance—all would remain outside the world Lucifer would have him inhabit. Where would they then go? What would be the place where one looks after these things? Cain has no way of answering such skeptical questions.24 One of Lucifer's tricks is to tease Cain into deferring reflection on this impasse; another is to keep him from hitting on the thought that there is an element of sociality to thinking. The speech resonates allusively against Michael's analogous statement to Adam in Paradise Lost, on the possibilities of building a somewhat less encompassing “paradise within.” Where Adam's compensatory paradise is enabled by his instruction in the canons of conscience, forbearance, and charity, by acknowledgment of the claims of the world and of others in it, Cain finds himself pointed away from the space where such claims can press upon him. Lucifer tells him to live where dialogue stops, and nothing in Cain's subsequent behavior indicates his dissent.

Byron stages Cain's murder of Abel as the moment where the different forms of deep skepticism converge. Abel identifies this linkage in his allusive prayer for his brother: “Forgive his slayer, for he knew not what / He did” (III.i, 319-20). As the cognitive coefficients of repression, Cain's skeptical drives enmesh themselves in a system of denials: he needs to be forgiven not just for his failure to know what he does, but what he is. What he particularly denies would be the history of his rage. Encompassed by such a description is an apparent economic motive that Cain screens from his own direct scrutiny: part of his skeptical condition is that he cannot tell the extent to which his moral case for assaulting his brother is a displaced iteration of an economic complaint. Yet only after the mark of Cain's labor is rejected—after his sacrifice fails—does he turn on Abel, whose burnt offering has succeeded. Abel's success indicates that he has become the effective heir of Eden—of the calm of mind that Cain insists forever eludes him—and Cain's immediate symbolic goal, in moving to rip down Abel's altar, is to reduce it to the condition of Eden as it stands: to make of it a useless ruin, something that will bring Abel's words back to him ironically, so that his investment, of works and prayers, will avail him nothing. That Cain's economic performance is rejected thickens his experience of shame, something explicit in the biblical account of his face as having fallen at this moment (“v'ychar kayin m'od, v'yiplu panav”—“and Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell” [Genesis 4:5]) and driving him out of himself.25

If as skeptic, Cain is asleep to his own life—and dreaming that the insights coming to him through his dialogue with Lucifer are worth inscribing as postulates upon which to ground a way of thought—one of Byron's ways of capturing this motif is through his most consequential revision of the biblical narrative.26 In Byron's version of the story, the sacrifice immediately precipitates the murder. God rejects Cain's offering, and in his rage at what this rejection signifies, he strikes out at Abel. Biblically, the sequence is of course fuller: following the sacrifice, God rebukes Cain for his anger. If he does well, he will find favor; if he does ill, sin will lie in wait for him at the door (“lapetach chatat rovetz”).27 The murder then follows, after a subsequent and undescribed encounter in the field. Byron's elision effectively leads him to a moment of condensation: to commit murder is to be asleep to something, to the life around oneself, couched in a state of sin.

Yet it is less through implied stories of repression than through Cain's broad imperviousness to language—his refusal to accept that others have meaningful words to say to him—that the murder becomes a working out of his skepticism. Cain can only tell one story to account for the rejection of his offering: God wants blood, not fruit. He cannot envision Abel as having made an offering gladly, or that his is rejected for having been given in his indifference to its fate and in his anger over its having been asked. Abel, defending his altar, confronts Cain in a pietistic idiom that he immediately contests. To Abel's “I love God far more / Than life” (315-16), Cain replies, “Then take thy life unto thy God, / Since he loves lives” (316-17). On one level, the response is emotionally laden: his fear seems to be that Abel has said something meaningful, and his immediate need is to reduce his statement to rubble before it presses a claim upon him. On another, it counts as a dialectician's way of maintaining the primacy of reason in the face of the ethical and the emotional: his premises are that Abel has loved an object measurable as unworthy of love and that he needs to be punished for having invested desire where it does not belong.28 Abel has no countervailing story to tell, or at least none Cain is willing to hear. The pattern is one of demystification: Cain wishes forcibly to expose the inner logic of his brother's words.29 Yet after the assault, he as much as concedes that his own reply was empty, that, apart from his participation in a language game played for maximum dramatic impact, he had no sense of what he meant: “Abel! I pray thee, mock me not! I smote / Too fiercely, but not fatally” (327-28). The lines represent a moment of inversion, with Cain's discourse of mockery attached to the image of death, and his language shifting to a mode from which he absented himself earlier in the morning. What Cain lights on, through this phrasing, is that to pray is not necessarily to choose submission over autonomy, but that it can also be a way of spontaneously soliciting the most intense forms of dialogue, of, in Buber's metaphor for intersubjective connection, saying “you” to another.30 His “I pray thee” establishes a meaning he could not envision as long as his life seemed nothing, and insofar as he lived under Lucifer's spell—on this score, his skepticism can be interpreted as his avoidance of forms of language that work dialogically.

This discovery anticipates one of still greater moment, of what sacrifice is about: “let him return to day, / And I lie ghastly” (III.i, 512-13). He may mean that he is offering to go on as he has gone on, that his life has been that of a phantom until this point. More pertinently, in his living through the concrete facts of a circumstance that seems to him to demand sacrifice, he comes to recognize it as something other than submission to the power of another. It is his refusal to be in dialogue over just this issue that precipitates the murder. His thinking up to the point of Abel's death remains tethered to Lucifer's notion of a God who, animated by bloodlust, will make of his own son a sacrifice (I.i, 163-66), and who creates in order to witness life annulling itself, either by taming desire or, vicariously, through ritual killing. Such rituals are, for Cain, always modes of economic expression: one trades the life of an animal in order to have a life of one's own. The blockage of other possible meanings is instrumental to this understanding—Cain sacrifices his ability seriously to credit his brother with having a mind of his own, to think a God who is “Sole Lord of light! / Of good, and glory, and eternity” (III.i, 231-32).31 What remains beyond thought are possibilities that blood sacrifice illustrates human complicity in the fate of the animal world, or that what sustains humanness comes from God and must, however tragically, be returned to him, or that the essential test of humanness after the fall is the capacity for selflessness demonstrated through mincha—the term, meaning both offering and gift, that figures in the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis (“v'yveh kayin mipri ha'adamah mincha l'adonai”—“and Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord”)—or that the broader Hebraic concept of sacrifice, korban, referring to a moment of approach, an attempt at nearness, is what he most needs in order to live as if the world and others in it are real. If sacrifice can serve as a gift of recognition of what human life is, the power to engage in it is beyond the reach of skepticism. Unable to imagine such meanings, Cain closes Abel off to conversation. He cannot live with him on intersubjective terms—cannot “come to understandings” with him, or embrace, as a place that he must share with him, “the world about us that is there for us all, and to which we ourselves none the less belong.”32 As dispossessed heir, Cain cannot concede that the world is there for us all; as estranged from its criteria, he cannot bring himself to believe that he belongs in it. And to lose life on such terms is, in the tragic formula of the play, to be capable of murder.33

What Cain in effect sacrifices is the possibility of an act of intrinsic meaningfulness—of overwhelming feeling, and the Byronic possibility of “a being more intense” (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 3.6)—to the demands both of symbolizing and of a life of skeptical abstractions. Because, like Lucifer, he insists on interpreting an inexplicable God rather than approaching him, he forgoes immanent knowledge of that God for his construction of him. Because he interprets Abel's gesture as a form of service to that God, rather than a reaching towards him, Abel, too, becomes an abstraction. He arrives at what he takes to be a condition of understanding, without ever trying to arrive at an unmediated encounter with the objects he would explain away. This configuration of his skepticism derives from the dualism that Lucifer preaches (II.ii, 404): Cain withdraws from bodily experience of, and surrenders his claim on, the material world to occupy the cerebral phantasmagoria into which Lucifer has absorbed him.

When Cain insists that he is awakening from a dream, he identifies his fate up to that point with a slide into a private language.34 Just as the narrator of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III, dreams of speaking as lightning, destructively and unintelligibly, Cain's dream is to have one thing to say, but to say it every way he possibly can. Whether in declaring his own nothingness, or in insisting that he cannot square what he sees with what he hears, or in an interrogation of others meant to reduce them to silence, or in countereidetic reductions of the things that matter to them to their atomized constituents, Cain dreams of leaving his mark on everything. Yet for him to have a private language is not just to say things in a certain and singular way and identify it with high thought, or to pitch his words beyond dialogue. Thinking such a language, he also places himself out of the range of the words of others, and stands beyond where their affect reaches. If he cannot reconcile what he hears with what he sees, then the language that would tell him another is in pain, or feels love for him, proves empty, without reference. This pattern starts to rupture with the homicide, for Cain has a sudden and desperate wish to be in conversation with his brother, in a world of reference:

Life cannot be so slight, as to be quench'd
Thus quickly!—he hath spoken to me since—
What shall I say to him?—My brother!—No:
He will not answer to that name; for brethern
Smite not each other. Yet—yet—speak to me.
Oh! for a word more of that gentle voice,
That I may bear to hear my own again!

(III.i, 351-57)

The belated recognition is that he was in a world of shared meanings, one he refused to acknowledge as such. His awakening to the fact of his own humanness is still more firmly demarcated as a return to language in an exchange with Adah, with both of them worrying about Enoch's cry. Adah replies to Cain's question about whether “my boy will bear to look on me” (III.i, 523) in a menacing, and egoistic, language that is new for her: “If I thought that he would not, I would—” (524). Cain's answer, “No, / No more of threats: we have had too many of them” (524-25), reflects the possibility that for him, and in their marriage, language might have recovered a dialogical function. More importantly, it also reveals Cain's understanding that he has thrown Adah from her moorings, that she is starting to echo the language of his skepticism—her conditional syntax carries with it the possibility that she is not quite certain what she thinks, even as the tenor of her statement mimes Cain's earlier threat to sacrifice Enoch—and that he has arrived at an empathetic awareness of her condition. The tragedy behind this statement is that he has had to commit a form of human sacrifice to earn it.

What Byron dramatizes through these last gestures of Cain's is a moment in which language disrupts skepticism. For Cain to be returned to his words and speak with reference to what others say indicates that he is no longer content with his self-serving projections of what they mean. Throughout the unfolding of this tragedy, his skepticism serves his desire: he absolves himself of a need to listen, to understand, to encounter. He grants himself the luxury of finding bad faith everywhere. But language at last, if only momentarily, becomes for him something other than an arbitrary system meant to enforce enslaving hierarchies; it becomes a medium existing between people, one in which someone can class a threat as a threat, decide what it says about the condition of its speaker, and determine whether or not to value it.35

Cain's release from skepticism and into intersubjective awareness finds one of its most telling iterations when Adah responds to the angel who has sentenced her husband to life as a fugitive.36 She is speaking Cain's words, one of Byron's main revisions of the narrative of Genesis 4: the dislocation reveals equally Cain's reticence to use language in a way that could be construed as bartering for his own advantage, and also Adah's nearness to him, meaning that he has now made himself available to her. He is no longer concealed, and, though silent, acts as though he has pried himself free of his private language. Her way of talking about Cain's principal fear—“thou driv'st him from the face of earth, / And from the face of God shall he be hid”—works off of a similar doubling in Genesis: “thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid” (4:14). And it picks up on Cain's language immediately after the murder, as he struggles to read Abel's face: “His eyes are open! … / His lips, too, are apart” (III.i, 337-39). From these facts, Cain begins inferring that his brother may be alive, a surmise that takes as its predicate the understanding that he was at one time certainly alive. He looks to the face for information, but it is its uncanniness, rather than any set of data he can extrapolate, that serves as his index into the possibility of Abel's livingness: he cannot worry the question without now thinking that to be human is to be alive, to be a being with being. Adah, presumably, sees something analogous in Cain's face: she not only takes his meaning, but, for at least this one moment, sees as he sees, understands as he understands, and has a stake in his terror. This type of interplay between her speech and Cain's suggests that Byron is edging him towards a resolution of his fate explicable within the terms Emanuel Levinas sets down for recognizing what a face is and tells. Citing a regime of traditional and antique ontologies in which “ethical strata would be superimposed” and within which “the other does show himself, but in ‘appresentation’”—this last term akin to Kantian apperception—that is “always announced by signs, gestures, facial expressions, language and works,” he describes a competing form of knowledge, one that Cain, recovering from skepticism as first philosophy, seems to embrace: “Compared to the knowledge the other man can have of himself, appresentation is but a diminished knowledge. But is not the secret of the face the other side of a different way of thinking—one more ambitious, and presenting a different configuration than that of knowledge-thinking?”37 Knowledge-thinking may be the sort into which the fall plunges the human, and skepticism, including the skepticism Byron is frequently seen as admiring, may be the apotheosis of such thinking. But the humanness that is constituted outside of Eden and that thinks itself free is free to choose this “other side.” Cain, getting a glimpse of what it means to be alive, seeing his brother's face clearly, though only with his death, allows Adah to do for him what he has done really for no one, and to live, with respect to him, in a condition of “inexhaustible responsibility.”38 In doing so, he shows his face to her, acknowledging her humanness and asking both her and the angel to acknowledge his.

The fall of man, according to Emerson, phrases our belief that we exist.39 Belief, in this story, dislodges the unmediated feeling that preempts any need to think through whether or not we are alive. As soon as belief becomes an issue, so does disbelief, an origin of which Byron dramatizes through his iteration of Cain's story. Emerson tries to speak for everyone in his aphorism: my condition looks like your condition. In Byron's version of the story of disbelief, Cain's problem is a cognate one: he cannot believe that we exist. This problem surfaces with reference: he may speak to others, but he avoids dialogue with them. He seizes on the fact that one can never know another perfectly to distort everything anyone says to him. The condition of disbelief, closed off only after its consequence begins to register as real—only as Cain's life comes back to him in the most catastrophic of ways—provides Byron with a vantage point from which he can assess his own skepticism. If he has not lived murderously in his world, he has lived doubtingly. Doubt, in its most extreme forms, may scarcely look like itself—so he can write in Don Juan that he scarcely knows if doubt is doubting—but can instead take the form of longing for an inheritance—of wealth, of a new name—even as it can become nostalgia for Edenic privilege carrying with it release from the press of others, or a demand for an emotional and social economy that takes them for dead. If Byron sees himself in Cain, he opens the prospect that vigorous questioning can readily disguise, and occur in, an emotive and mental abyss, that to live skeptically is not the same thing as coming to live humanly.


  1. Byron, Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann and Barry Weller, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-93), 6: Cain (I.i. 86-87). Future citations of Byron's poetry are to this edition, and are provided parenthetically in the text.

  2. Cain's implied covetousness works alongside the self-hatred by which Leonard Michaels sees him as besieged to suggest that Byron characterizes him as an archetypal Jew, the figure in whom all stereotypes meet. Cf. “Byron's Cain,PMLA 84 (1969): 71-78. Michaels is too tactful directly to link the theme of Cain's self-hatred to Byron's anti-Semitism, which erupts into “The Age of Bronze” about a year after the publication of Cain (Cain appeared in December 1821, and Byron began work on the satire in January 1823). Michaels argues that Cain is “difficult to explain by reference to its cultural and historical environment” (71), but more recent approaches to the play that have suggested its pertinence to Byron's broader ideological goals also imply ways in which Byron may have crafted a work that, while it does not figure itself as anti-Jewish polemic, does cultural work similar to that of such polemics. The formula typically invoked in such approaches is that Byron means to demythologize the narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis, and, by extension, that book, and the Old Testament. Peter T. Murphy, for instance, describes the poem as a “philosophical dispute” in which only one side, the one expressing horror that the human was created as dust, has a voice. The seditiousness of such a move is evident through the critical and legal efforts it incites to chasten and cheapen the play. Cf. Murphy, “Visions of Success: Byron and Southey,” Studies in Romanticism 24, (1985): 355-73. Peter A. Schock, in “The ‘Satanism’ of Cain in Context: Byron's Lucifer and the War against Blasphemy,” Keats-Shelley Journal 44 (1995): 182-215, argues for a more focused strategy on Byron's part. In order to contest the authority of ministries that were trying to secure the social order through a series of trials involving the publication of blasphemous material, Byron, following Shelley's lead, empowers Lucifer to expose the arbitrariness of the scriptural account of the fall, by way of challenging the theological legitimacy of Christianity. Byron cannot beat back the story of human origins in Genesis for its support of atonement theology without the collateral effect of simultaneously attacking a text that has a radically different status in Jewish thought, a status that includes a standing invitation to narrative enhancement and fabulation. (Cain, in one Midrashic story, emerges as a trickster, who offers to split his inheritance—the world—with his brother by offering Abel everything that moves and reserving only the soil for himself. The murder takes as its pretext Abel's act of trespass on Cain's agreed upon inheritance.) The high romantic mode of opposing Christianity thus entails endorsing a Christian perspective on Judaism as preoccupied with the appeasement of an angry and implacable father. Caroline Franklin sees Byron as working directly to provide such an endorsement: the angry responses of Adam and Eve to Abel's murder are, to Franklin, reflections of “the punitive response to be expected of Jehovah” (Byron's Heroines [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992], 237). Byron, by this account, faults figures within “Judaic ideology”—an ideology “predicated on man's sinfulness”—for believing that Abel's death warrants either a parent's anger or a just response (238). A competing critical approach speculates about ways in which Byron accepts and responds to scriptural provocations. See, for instance, Wolf Z. Hirst, “Byron's Lapse into Orthodoxy: An Unorthodox Reading of Cain,Keats-Shelley Journal 29 (1980): 151-72, and Harold Frisch, “Byron's Cain as Sacred Executioner” in Byron, The Bible, and Religion: Essays from the Twelfth International Byron Seminar, ed. Wolf Hirst (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991), 25-38. Hirst's argument is that there is nothing in Byron's version of the Cain story radically at odds with its scriptural telling; Cain discovers, along with human responsibility for the moral structure of the world, the inscrutability of God as he is represented both in Genesis and in Job.

  3. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 455; for one of Cavell's most precise explanations of his interpretation of Wittgensteinian criteria, see 31. Someone who loses interest in criteria, as Cain does, loses one route towards experiences of both astonishment and intimacy. On the experience of “encounter”—synonymous with “meeting”—as a way towards knowledge, see Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), 62-63. For an attempt to place the significance of the concept of meeting as an alternative to the Hegelian path to dialogue, see Emanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 15.

  4. Cain's orientation is not, however, just a matter of resistance to modes of knowing that are communal and intersubjective. He also thinks as he does because of God's withdrawal from the world, because he can feel his presence as no more than a trace. For the epistemic consequences to Byron of life in a cognitive world figurally mapped by gaps, abysses, and missing spaces, see Mervyn Nicholson, “Indeterminacy in Byron,” English Studies in Canada 16 (1990): 35-53.

  5. Peter L. Thorslev, Jr. traces Lucifer's skeptical influence on Cain to Bayle's Dictionary; he parallels Lucifer's epistemological stance to his stoicism. See The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 176-83. The most thorough study of the bearing of skepticism on the play is Terence Hoagwood's chapter on it in Byron's Dialectic: Skepticism and the Critique of Culture (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1993). His general point is that Cain's failure lies in a failure of nerve, of his not being skeptical enough: he cannot see his stance through to its logical conclusion. Much of the critical work on the play acknowledges the importance of skepticism as a theme. David Eggenschwiler describes how Byron works to undermine the myth of the Genesis account by, among other techniques, allowing Lucifer to expose the gaps in the first story generally thought by Byron's readers to include him (“Byron's Cain and the Antimythological Myth,” MLQ 37 [1976]: 321-38). Cain, in this reading, does not recognize, and Lucifer does not help him recognize, the limits of what Eggenschwiler terms his own countermyth of heroic individualism, hence Cain's evolution from ironist to mythic protagonist. As in Hoagwood's account, Cain is here figured as someone who cannot live according to a skeptical code. Jerome McGann's discussion of the play notes that it is about the limits of knowledge: while Cain can have confidence in his skepticism about Jehovah's intentions, he fails to bring a similar skepticism to his thinking about Lucifer's program of violent revolution. See McGann, Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 245, 259. Schock notes the importance for romantic skeptics of the “offensively irreligious position” that since “religious belief is not subject to the will, it follows that faith cannot be meritorious,” and that lapses from it should not be prosecuted. See “The ‘Satanism’ of Cain in Context,” 209. What tends not to be stressed in this general line of inquiry is the reciprocal possibility that unbelief cannot be willed, that skepticism cannot be controlled, that it is not a form of transcendental insight, but that it instead is something that overcomes Cain. There is little critical sentiment which suggests that Byron's skepticism in general or Cain's in particular has anything in common with what, to Cavell, Thoreau means by quiet desperation, and yet Cain's indication to Abel that he is “sick at heart” (I.i, 58) would suggest the usefulness of the analogy. See Cavell, The Senses of Walden (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), 56. The allusion to Macbeth suggests forebodings about being disseated forever, and a way of life “fallen into the sere.” Having neither home nor path, he is arguably lost to something other than a healthy skepticism.

  6. “Mental mode” is Hoagwood's term. (Byron's Dialectic, 125).

  7. For a thorough study of how Byron realized the authorial potential of his title and turned it into a commodity see Jerome Christensen, Lord Byron's Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). For analysis of the relationship between creative and economic transactions in Byron, see Kurt Heinzelman, “Byron's Poetry of Politics: The Economic Basis of the ‘Poetical Character,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23 (1981): 361-88. Both follow McGann in interpreting “speculation” as the sign under which financial and intellectual investments meet and pay dividends. Christensen establishes the corporate nature of the enterprise driving Byron's career, while Heinzelman looks at Byron as singular entrepreneur.

  8. The fullest history of these transactions is given in Doris Langley Moore, Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). The Rochdale Estate comes as close to anything in Byron's own history to counting as a just inheritance to which he did not have ready access. For Catherine Byron's attempts to recover the estate and its assets for her son and to see to its proper management despite the malfeasance of John Hanson, his attorney, see 91-94.

  9. The appropriation is complete just after the publication of Cain, with Lady Noel's death, in January 1822. Byron's first display of the trophy appears to be in a letter to Douglas Kinnaird dated February 17, two days after he learned of the death. See Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 12 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973-82), 9: 106. Afterwards cited as BLJ. For the rules governing Byron's signature and his behavior under those rules, see Christensen, Lord Byron's Strength, 358-63.

  10. Genesis 4:3 of the King James translation establishes the “fruit of the ground” as Cain's offering. Among Cain's earliest efforts in the play are attempts to establish the symbolic meaning of the fruit he both cultivates and sacrifices. He argues in the first scene that because of Eve's haste to get to the Tree of Knowledge before a dilatory Adam could claim a similar prize from the Tree of Life, of what they have “all the fruit is death!” (I.i, 108). Fruit is similarly a skeptical marker, a point made by Eve, who, in hearing Cain insist that he has nothing to be thankful for, attaches to his words the graphic emblem of “The fruit of our forbidden tree” (I.i, 30).

  11. The etymological connection between Kayin and kaniti is explicitly made in the tradition of rabbinical commentary by Rashi. Cf. The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi: Bereishis vol. 1, tr. Avrahom Davis (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1991), 42. This edition is the source of all transliterations.

  12. There is Midrashic precedent for taking Cain as the first economic man: according to B'reishit Rabah (22:6), “He became a farmer who was so obsessed with farm work that he allowed it to dominate him entirely.” According to Shmot Rabbah (31:18): “It is Hashem's [God's] will that a man should work only in order to earn the minimum amount necessary for living. Since Kayin's love of the earth drove him to constant labor, he was therefore later cursed to become a wanderer, and as a result he could no longer indulge in farming.” Cited in The Midrash Says: The Book of Beraishis, ed. and trans. Moshe Weissman (Brooklyn: Benei Yakov Publications, 1980), 61.

  13. For Bayle's influence on the play, see Thorslev's “Byron and Bayle: Biblical Skepticism and Romantic Irony,” in Byron, the Bible, and Religion, 60-69.

  14. For Cavell on the need to become “capable of serious speech again,” see The Senses of Walden, 34; on the return to language as a way out of skepticism, as an aspect of “our occurring to one another,” see 63. For an instance of how lack of acknowledgment looms as a problem that affects both the person who withholds it and the one from whom it is withheld, see Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 381-83.

  15. Cavell, Claim of Reason, 412.

  16. Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 65.

  17. Part of what panics Adah is that she can no longer be certain that Cain recognizes his child as his own, something audible in the emphasis she places on the second person possessive. Cain's expression of skepticism is similar to that of Leontes in Cavell's analysis of The Winter's Tale. Cf. his Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 193-221. This moment in the play is decisive, for it reveals that Lucifer has both inflamed Cain to act rashly and taught him to think in his own philosophical vein, something that shows up in at least two ways. Cain is acting upon an ancient and traditional agenda here as he determines what is and is not good for another, dictating the terms on which life is not worth living. And he is acting skeptically: in projecting his own sense of pain onto Enoch, he not only treats him as unreal, but he also fails to rise to the more difficult challenge of imagining the pain his threat will cause Adah. “If one has to imagine someone else's pain on the model of one's own this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 101. Enoch is here the equivalent of another place in Cain's body, Adah the closed off other. Cain cannot anticipate Adah's “pain-behavior,” or tally its potential meaning, and for him “Not to know this would be the same as not knowing what a body is. And yet this seems to be knowledge that Wittgenstein takes philosophy to deny” (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 340). Cain's ethical and cognitive misfires qualify him as Byron's symbol of the origins of metaphysics, a tragic counterpart to the comedic figures of Plato, the go-between, and Coleridge, who needs to explain his unintelligible explanation of first things to the nation. Cf. Don Juan: 1,116 and Dedication, 2.

  18. Max Black, “Metaphor,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 55 (1954): 273-94. The aphorism that he uses to illustrate an “interaction view” of the figure is “If to call a man a wolf is to put him in a special light, we must not forget that the metaphor makes the wolf seem more human than he otherwise would” (291). For screening and filtering as features of metaphoric discourse, see 288.

  19. To Franklin, Adah's speech instances false consciousness, an instance of projection, in which she mistakenly “portrays the god's attributes in her own image” (Byron's Heroines, 238).

  20. The opposition between experiential and relational comes from Buber, I and Thou, 56.

  21. See Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 454.

  22. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Complete Works, ed. Edward W. Emerson, Centenary Edition, 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-4), 2:72.

  23. Hoagwood points out that just before his closing exhortation to Cain, Lucifer, in posing questions about the validity of standing definitions of good and evil—“He as a conqueror will call the conquer'd / Evil; but what will be the good he gives?” (II.ii, 443-44)—falls into the kind of discourse of binary oppositions that, imposed and fictive, working on “unwitting slaves,” brings them to reproduce the terms of their own enslavement, and that promotes the dogmatisms, negative and positive, which oppose skepticism (Byron's Dialectic, 141). The damage Lucifer is doing may be different in character than this account suggests. While Hoagwood's description of skepticism would equip Cain not to commit the violence of the dehumanized dogmatist, it would not necessarily give him the vocabulary to call fratricide evil. The assertion that murder is categorically bad would fit into the dualism of which tyranny is one (likely) expression, and thus should be disallowed. One could counter that the ethical imperative of Cain is that people must love one another or die, and that the guarded, self-correcting, continuously doubting language and stance which Hoagwood sees Byron as recommending can do little to promote either the emotional need or the vision of goodness that this stark ethic demands. Lucifer's speech about judgment seeks to reinforce Cain in his role as economically determined factor: he is to judge by the return he himself gets from anything God gives him or stipulates for him. The criteria for judgment he urges on Cain equate the good with good fortune, commensurate with the Epicurean ideal of pleasure as relative exemption from pain. Were Cain the kind of skeptic that Hoagwood generally sees him as being, he should be able to scrutinize Lucifer's argument both for its appeal to him in an economic role, and for its egoistic language.

  24. For a contrasting argument, see Schock, who argues that Cain, in the third act, refuses to embrace the freedom of conscience Lucifer endorses in these lines. “Cain does not resolve to live independently of compelled belief, but merely to endure tyranny or to rebel.” (“The ‘Satanism’ of Cain in Context,” 213). Hoagwood makes a strong case for the general conservatism of Lucifer's advice, especially given the tenor of Adah's near reprise of his speech at III.i, 38-40. See Byron's Dialectic, 117. Schock's argument about the speech does, however, accord with Hoagwood's general reading of the play—that Cain is inadequate to the mental mode to which he begins laying claim.

  25. Byron points out to John Murray that Cain does not kill Abel out of envy, something that may translate into an indication that he must kill him out of principle, or out of rebellious anger (BLJ 9:53-54). Readings in this vein, including McGann's (which accepts that “Cain is subject to feelings of jealousy toward Abel”) and Hoagwood's, argue for the righteousness of Cain's position, and of his anger, but not of his violence, and both are in keeping with Byron's warning that his Cain does not act upon a “contemptible” motive. See Fiery Dust, 259, and Byron's Dialectic, 146. Yet Byron's letter warns against turning Cain into too principled a figure: the murder is result of the “mere internal irritation” that Byron tells Murray is a consequence of Cain's “abasement” and of the depression it is “the object of the demon” to induce. The wish to get out from under Abel's gaze is arguably as pertinent as any desire on Cain's part to correct his brother's theology. On shame as a motive in skeptical tragedy, see Cavell, Disowning Knowledge, 57-59.

  26. For a brief summary of how Byron modifies his source text, see Wolf Hirst, “Byron's Revisionary Struggle with the Bible,” in Byron, the Bible, and Religion, 93.

  27. The language of the RSV, “sin is couching at the door,” comes closer than does that of the King James translation to picking up the connotation of “rovetz,” a term that evokes an animal lying in wait. God's warning to Cain is that refusing to do well will dehumanize him. While only a trace of this warning finds its way into the text of Byron's play, one of its most pressing ironies lies in the fact that it is Cain's obsession with his humanness which keeps him from taking such thoughts seriously.

  28. Just as Cain can be interpreted as living out one etymological association of his name at the expense of others, he here seems to be trying to bind Abel—in Hebrew, Hevel—to one etymological link to his own. “Hevel” designates breath, but also denotes vanity and nonsense: Cain wants to understand his brother's project, of either obedience or approach to God, as vain and to make it so, even as he stations himself to explode as nonsense his most urgent words. And if Abel tries to realize himself as breath—through a synecdoche for humanness—Cain works to associate that trope with the ephemerality of the human, with the nothingness he feels in himself. The murder, from this perspective, is not only a story of opposition, but also of projection and self-loathing.

  29. To the extent that the murder is over language, Byron aligns the dramatic action of the play with the text of his source. In Genesis 4:8 what immediately precipitates the murder is Cain's speaking unspecified words to his brother (“v'yomer kayin el-hevel achiv …” The King James translation, “And Cain talked with Abel his brother,” neutralizes this language somewhat, for scripturally “v'yomer” almost invariably prefaces a speech of considerable weight. The Fox translation indicates the lacuna with ellipsis marks, “Kayin said to Hevel his brother …”), as if his practice with language were itself a form of aggression (cf. The Five Books of Moses, tr. Everett Fox [New York: Schoken Books, 1995]). That the scriptural text omits the words of the provocation indicates a limitation to Murphy's critique of both the original scriptural text and of Byron, for amplifying and commenting on it. He argues that the original story is of an arbitrary Jehovah setting narrow parameters for formal worship, and rejecting Cain's offering as a technical failure; Byron's play, according to Murphy, falls into a long line of commentary, Rabbinic and Patristic, that seeks to evade the astringencies of the original. Cf. Murphy, “Byron and Southey,” 355-357.

  30. See Buber, I and Thou, 59.

  31. A near critical consensus has formed around the thought that Byron insists on such a blockage. It finds its sharpest articulation in Jerome McGann's reading of the play, in which Lucifer is the intellect warring with Abel's god, a provisional figure, to be overruled, somehow, by an unspecifiable life force, and who “brutalizes creation (and circumscribes himself) with his demand for blood sacrifice” (Fiery Dust, 260). Such a figure can have “no more sympathy with hypostatic man than Lucifer does.” In a more expansive vein, Jerome Christensen writes that “The challenge to sacrificial logic is as fundamental to Romantic writing as its ink” (Lord Byron's Strength, xxi). The refusal to credit Abel, or any member of the original family, save Cain, with an ability to think is another matter about which there is virtually unanimous critical agreement. Thus Hoagwood argues that during the opening scene Cain is the only member of his family interested in “truth, knowledge, inquiry, or thought” (Byron's Dialectic, 107) and later identifies the family as striving toward “the conformist norm” (122). Murphy points towards Abel's stubborn formalism in worship (“Byron and Southey,” 359), William D. Brewer characterizes as “simple-minded devotion” the response Jehovah elicits from everyone but Cain (“The Diabolical Discourse of Byron and Shelley, PQ [1991]: 54), and Michaels labels Cain's intelligence as “the quality which distinguishes him from his family” (“Byron's Cain,” 73).

  32. Edmund Husserl, Ideas, trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1962), 95.

  33. That sacrifice can itself promote intersubjective awareness with respect to each of Husserl's criteria figures in Buber's understanding of it. His description of “the capricious man” considers someone like Cain, whose “world is devoid of sacrifice and grace, encounter and presen[ce], but shot through with ends and means” (I and Thou, 110). And that it works as a way past estrangement and alienation is at the heart of his claim that “in truth there is a cosmos for man only when the universe becomes a home for him with a holy hearth where he sacrifices” (150).

  34. Hoagwood assigns episodes of dreaming considerable philosophical weight and thematic consequence. Just as during the voyage Lucifer had attempted to show Cain, through the agency of phantasia, “the phenomenal limits of perception and understanding,” so Cain comes to understand “the phantasmic status of human interpretations … within the inescapable perceptual limits” that encircle him. Because he achieves this understanding, Cain's skepticism deepens, he develops a wariness about the dangers of submitting thought to any final authority, and he comes to rest in “the skeptical isothenia, or equipollence of contradictories” that signals his philosophical stance as mature (Byron's Dialectic, 116).

  35. For the opposing argument, that Byron explores language as imposing a categorical understanding arbitrarily, and that the play helps him demystify any illusions his reader might have about its function, see Hoagwood, Byron's Dialectic, 136-37.

  36. This release is not necessarily total. Nicholson presents a very strong case that the blankness of Cain's closing words (“But with me!—”[III.i, 561]) points to the condition “of being made mute.” Cain has only the void to wander in, and the cry is one “of psychic annihilation close to what Burke called ‘astonishment’” (“Byron's Indeterminacy,” 40-41).

  37. Levinas, Outside the Subject, 93.

  38. Ibid., 125.

  39. Emerson, “Experience,” 3:77.

Jerome J. McGann (essay date fall 1992)

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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. …

(Sardanapalus IV.i.78-81)

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. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”1 Perhaps no English writer, not even Wilde himself, executed this theory of the mask so completely as Byron. “Before Oscar Wilde was, I am.”

Many of Byron's masks are famous, Childe Harold being, I suppose, the most famous of them all—and the prototype of those subsequent masked men we call Byronic Heroes. But Byron was operating en masque from his first appearances in print. His three early books of poetry, now known collectively as his Hours of Idleness, construct a fictional self for establishing contact with his audience. When the role is attacked and ridiculed in public by Henry Brougham, Byron rewrites his character in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Childe Harold, evolving from these earlier fictional selves, mutates quickly and repeatedly: the Giaour, the Corsair, Lara, Manfred are all masks of Byron in the Childe Harold line. But then so is the figure of Napoleon in Byron's famous Ode of 1814. Indeed, Napoleon is the first of Byron's historical self-projections, a collateral line which includes, among many others, Voltaire, Rousseau, Dante, Tasso, Pulci and a series of remarkable worldly characters who lived during the Italian Renaissance.

The autobiographical aspects of Sardanapalus are equally plain and need no rehearsing. But the work is not to be read simply as if Byron=Sardanapalus, Zarina=Annabella, and Myrrha=Teresa. These historical associations are invoked by indirection and only as special forms of desire. “Sardanapalus” is recognizably “Byron” because we register certain symmetries between constructs in the play and correspondences in the world. Insofar as the play is an autobiographical work, it is carried out in masquerade.

The symmetry between the triangle Byron/Annabella/Teresa and Sardanapalus/Zarina/Myrrha, for example, acquires force because of other, related symmetries. Crucial here are certain intertextual markers. Myrrha is less a portrait of the historical Contessa Guiccioli than she is the latest incarnation of the Byronic female known by various names, including Leila, Zuleika, Gulnare, and Kaled.2 (At the most abstract political level she represents the desire for freedom of those who feel themselves in bondage.) She is, in short, the incarnation of Byronic dreams about romantic love and romantic revolution—highly equivocal dreams, needless to say. For her part, the character of Zarina resembles Byron's wife only as she corresponds to certain of his more romantic, post-separation fantasies: Lady Byron not as the princess of parallelograms or his moral Clytemnestra, but as an angel in the house. Zarina, Byron's imaginary portrait of the forgiving wife, recalls the woman addressed in 1816 by “Fare Thee Well!” and “Lines on Hearing that Lady Byron was Ill.”

Such characters—they are typically Byronic—face in two directions, “referentially” toward certain socio-historical frameworks, and “reflexively” toward the poetical environments within which they are aesthetically active. What is distinctive about Byron's imaginative works, including the dramas, is that they make the play of those double-faced relationships their principal field of attention. Thus, we do not read “The Lament of Tasso” as a study of the Italian poet, but as a poetical representation of Byron in a contemporary act of imagining himself as Tasso. The subject of the poem is neither the Renaissance Italian poet nor the romantic English poet, it is the masquerade of their relations as they get played out in the poem. The poetical subject is personal only in a dramatically indirect way.

This important distinction has to be kept clearly in mind for those texts that carry autobiographical references. Lord Byron-as-Sardanapalus is a masquerade which gives Byron the power to expose and explore certain interesting and important subjects. To stay for a moment with the evident domestic salient of that masquerade, the play represents Zarina acting out the role of the forgiving wife. This is a role in which Byron tried, quite unsuccessfully, to cast his wife from the earliest period of their separation in 1815. It is the role he offered, and she refused, most famously in “Fare Thee Well!” But in the more elaborate fictional world of Sardanapalus, Byron—for better and for worse—gets his wish.3

The key text here is Act IV of Byron's play, which contains one of Byron's most elaborately coded examples of secret (or half-secret) writing. At the level of the semi-private code, the text is addressed to the three women who, in 1821, most dominated his conscious thoughts: that is to say, Teresa Guiccioli, Augusta Leigh, and Lady Byron. A reading of Act IV imagined from each of their very different points of view seems to me a necessary reference point for any further acts of reading. In this essay, however, I shall concentrate only on the interpretive horizon which opens up when we think of the text in relation to that psychic field which in Byron's discourse is named “Lady Byron.”

This small drama of the king and queen is one of the play's most fascinating interludes. In the historically correlative events recalled through the play, Lady Byron rebuffed all of Byron's repentant confessions of error and efforts at reconciliation. To her he was simply bad and untrustworthy, and his overtures were seen as part of a cunning policy to regain power over her. In Byron's play, however, things appear, and turn out, very differently. Lady Byron as Zarina does indeed, once again, rebuff “her lord” and his professions of repentance, but this time she appears not as cold and removed, but as sympathetic and benevolent.

The scene opens with an interchange between the king and queen that is astonishing in its autobiographical directness:

                              Your brother said,
It was your will to see me, ere you went
From Nineveh with—
                                                                                                    [he hesitates]
                                                                                Our children: it is true.
I wish'd to thank you that you have not divided
My heart from all that's left it now to love—
Those who are yours and mine, who look like you,
And look upon me as you look'd upon me


Lady Byron's greatest fear, throughout the Separation, was that Byron would seek to gain custody of their child. This he did not try to do. Through this text Byron has addressed his wife all but explicitly, recalling to mind how he dealt with her about their daughter Ada. In the drama, this interchange is important as an unmistakable cue to the intimate talk that is going on just below the public level of the play.

Later in the scene Zarina listens to her husband catalogue his sins and errors. The queen, however, brushes all such recriminations aside. She refuses to think in such terms. Love, however wronged, conquers all: that is her theme.

Our annals draw perchance unto their close;
But at the least, whate'er the past, their end
Shall be like their beginning—memorable.
Yet, be not rash—be careful of your life,
Live but for those who love.
                                                                                          And who are they?
A slave, who loves from passion—I'll not say
Ambition—she has seen thrones shake, and loves;
A few friends who have revell'd till we are
As one, for they are nothing if I fall;
A brother I have injured—children whom
I have neglected, and a spouse—
                                                                                                                        Who loves.
And pardons?
                                                                      I have never thought of this,
I cannot pardon till I have condemn'd.


The text clearly exhibits Byron's poetry of masquerade, where what he liked to call “realities”4 are represented in the form of conscious pseudo-disquise. Byron wants his audience (and in particular certain of his audiences) to see both the similarities and the differences between Zarina, Sardanapalus, and their immediate life-originals. Seeing them, however, exposes the text's witty and wicked ironies. Zarina's way of refusing to pardon her husband amounts to a critical commentary upon a similar resoluteness in Lady Byron toward her husband.

But of course Zarina here functions—as she does throughout the play—not as “Lady Byron” but as Lord Byron's emanation—an imaginary Lady Byron whom he conjures partly to reproach the real living woman (even as the fictional wife refuses to reproach Byron's masquerade-figure, the Assyrian king). The strength of the text emerges precisely from the explicitness of the masquerading talk, from the evidently self-serving character of Byron's textual manipulations. But Byron's ironies turn back upon himself—the ironies are perceived as self-serving—because the text as a masquerade is necessarily opened to points of view that must and will see what is being said here in ways that do not correspond to Byron's ways.

Such a scene multiplies interesting complications. Most immediate—at the simple level of the plot of the play—is the problem of how to separate the now-reconciled husband and wife. This is managed jointly by Sardanapalus and Salemenes, Zarina's brother and the king's principal supporter and advisor. Salemenes comes to drag the reluctant and fainting queen from her husband because, he says, she and her children must be saved from the impending disaster. The king ruefully agrees to this policy, which he also translates into more personal terms:

Zarina, he hath spoken well, and we
Must yield awhile to this necessity.
Remaining here, you may lose all; departing,
You save the better part of what is left. …
Go, then. If e'er we meet again, perhaps
I may be worthier of you—and, if not,
Remember that my faults, though not atoned for,
Are ended. Yet, I dread thy nature will
Grieve more above the blighted name and ashes
Which once were mightiest in Assyria—


All this would translate into the merest claptrap were we not seeing the text as a masquerade involving two fictional characters who are never named in the play, Lord and Lady Byron. When we register those invisible presences, the texts turn deeply and even savagely comical. Here, for example, the projection of Lady Byron in perpetual grief for the “blighted name and ashes” of her estranged husband is grotesque, set against the “realities.” But is that image any less grotesque than Sardanapalus' thought, repeated throughout this scene, that his wife is too good for him?

In handling his text as a masquerade, Byron is manipulating it for certain personal ends—in this case, as in the earlier “Fare Thee Well!” to forge indirectly a sympathetic image of himself. Byron is of course quite conscious of what he is doing. At a crucial point in this scene, as Salemenes is attempting to force the queen away, she resists:

I must remain—away! you shall not hold me.
What, shall he die alone—I live alone?
He shall not die alone; but lonely you
Have lived for years.
                                                                      That's false! I knew he lived,
And lived upon his image—let me go.


Salemenes does not mince words with his sister: the king is an adulterer who has neglected his wife and who will die in the arms of his mistress. To Zarina, however, all that is mere “reality,” for she is devoted to an imaginary form of Sardanapalus, to a sublimed “image.”5

Read literally, the text will appear clumsy and sentimental—though we shall also come to see that we cannot altogether dispense with this literal reading, that it is a necessary feature of the poetical effect. As a masquerade, however, the text is something different, and far more complex. We probably respond first to the shocking aspect of the scene—to the exposure of an imagination of sexual and domestic relations which, in the romantic period, is most strongly revealed in the texts of Blake, Mary Shelley, and Laetitia Elizabeth Landon. What is shocking here is not the simple fact of the illusionism of these romantic ties, but the darker truth that the victims of these illusions are also their conscious constructors. Zarina is devoted to an “image” of Sardanapalus because she is Lord Byron's emanation in this text, the index of his illusory desires.

This aspect of the scene emerges only when we observe Byron the poet as the principal character in the text, the key figure generating the agon of his perceptions and misperceptions. Byron puts on a mask and is able to tell the truth about himself—a truth that comes across only because the text at the literal level is an imaginary execution of the denial of that truth. The text displays Byron, and perhaps his wife as well, as figures who have been playing a masquerade of their domestic and amatory connections. In Sardanapalus Byron translates Zarina's benevolent posture toward her husband into a mordant reflection upon Lady Byron's coldness and intransigence. But this critical reflection necessarily reverses direction when it is situated in the aesthetic space of the play, where the transformational laws of metaphor and metonymy rule.

Those laws, however, also reverse the cruelty of the text, and allow us to glimpse one of its unguessed and more sympathetic horizons. Thus, when we read the phrase “He shall not die alone” as a reference to Myrrha, and a dramatic prolepsis of the play's final immolation scene, the masquerading text (with its referential demands) also summons Lord Byron and contemporary Greece into the play. Byron will not die in Missalonghi until 1824, and Sardanapalus was written in 1821. Nevertheless, by making his historical self a character in his poem, Byron opens this passage to the futurities which are so essential to this play's desire. Those futurities are most fully represented in the king's final long soliloquy, at the end of the fifth act. However we read that last, highly equivocal text, this much is clear: that Byron's poem is able to realize an imagination of its own self-transcendence, a survival from the wreckage of its self-deceptions and stupidities:

But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre. …

(Childe Harold IV, st. 137)

By representing itself in these heroic terms, such a survival seems, in the Childe Harold context, at once splendid and ridiculous. Domestic disorders, Byron's middle-class sorrows, undermine his grand gestures. But a play like Sardanapalus makes it very clear that the transcendence here spoken can only be constructed on comic, even ridiculous, grounds. The grotesque features of Childe Harold's sublimities are essential to the work, and ultimately function to satirize and deconstruct the reader's correspondently sublimed poetical expectations. Byron's Sardanapalus enters into his glory precisely because he is a fop, and because Byron's text is unembarrassed by that fact. The autobiographical equivalent of the king's absurdities are Byron's petty self-justifications and deceptions, which are equally a subject of the text. In Sardanapalus, as in Manfred, Byron sets his poetical house in a place of excrement, the foul rag and boneshop of his cruel and ridiculous heart. That heart thereby exposes its truth precisely by striking sympathetic poses, by putting on masks that cover a will to power. An exorcism of the will to power follows upon these cunning masquerades, and the possibility of a redemption that will not merely disguise further enchantments.


Let me try to generalize what Byron is doing in these kinds of texts before I turn to a few more examples of the method. Briefly, Byron puts on the mask of Sardanapalus in order to tell certain truths about the life he has known and lived. From a structural point of view, the scene with Zarina should be read not as if it were a drama, addressed to a large and general audience, but as if it were a masquerade, a closet drama performed by and for the actors involved. In the present instance I am imagining it as it is addressed to Lady Byron by Lord Byron. Other interpretive emphases are imaginable, and are anticipated in the text. For example, though the figure of Myrrha/Teresa does not appear in this scene, her presence is strongly felt, so that the text is also imaginable as a masquerade in which she too is involved. Whatever the frame of reference, Byron's masquerades are requests (or perhaps temptations) for someone to play a correspondent part in the imagined scene. Beppo and Don Juan are full of these wicked and seductive invitations. The Sardanapalus/Zarina relationship is a poetical figure, a fiction disguising the correlative relationship Lord Byron/Lady Byron.

As in the famous cases of Manfred and Don Juan, Byron makes personal allusions to his texts that he expects his audience(s) to register. Unlike Wordsworth's Lucy poems, where the personal elements are forced to operate at an unconscious level, Byron's work uses masquerade as a device for breaking down the censors of consciousness. Particular readers are called into the texts by Byron's constructive imagination. As a consequence, Byron—or rather, Byron's textual seductions and manipulations—become the principal subject of his own fictions.

The best gloss on texts of this kind, therefore, is a passage like the following, from Manfred:

There is a power upon me which withholds
And makes it my fatality to live;
If it be life to wear within myself
This barrenness of spirit, and to be
My own soul's sepulchre, for I have ceased
To justify my deeds unto myself—
The last infirmity of evil.


Byron, like Manfred, ceases to justify himself in his romantic imaginations only when he makes those imaginations the self-conscious subject of his work. There is a power working upon Byron forcing him to display those aspects of the imagination that are seldom exposed to view: those self-justifying desires and needs that constitute, according to this penetrating text, a person's ultimate “barrenness of spirit.” In Byron, as in all the romantic poets, the “last infirmity of evil” is exactly the belief that one can know one's self, and hence he master of the (poetical) deeds that are the (illusory) self's justification.

In Sardanapalus the imagination of Zarina (i.e., both Byron's imagination of her, and her imagination of her lord) is so arranged as to move at the plot level outside the dynamics of justification and even forgiveness. The two terms are closely related for Byron, of course, as we know from the famous passage toward the end of Canto IV of Childe Harold, where Byron—now in acknowledged masquerade as Childe Harold—utters his thunderous forgiveness-curse upon his enemies and detractors.

                              a far hour shall wreak
          The deep prophetic fullness of this verse,
And pile on human heads the mountain of my curse!
          That curse shall be Forgiveness.—Have I not—
          Hear me, my mother Earth! behold it, Heaven!—
          Have I not had to wrestle with my lot?
          Have I not suffered things to be forgiven?

(sts. 134-35)

The self-justification is one with the curse, and the equivocal words descend alike on the just and the unjust, on the speaker and on all those for whom, and to whom, he speaks.

Act I of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound involves a conscious interpretive replication of this text from Byron. As we would expect from Shelley, his is a text that presages ultimate freedom through knowledge and the deliverance of mind. In Byron's case, however, “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life” (Manfred I.i.12), and it never is. Rather, as the same text from Manfred declares, “Sorrow is knowledge”—which is not at all the same thing as to say “Knowledge is sorrow.”

In the Byronic world, if one is truly committed to an intellectual existence, then one must forgo all those resolutions whose ultimate figura is happiness. The intellectual life, as Blake also saw, is a perpetual agon, and Byron's Satan, at the end of Act II of Cain, gives the most complete expression to Byron's conception of a “spiritual” and intellectual existence:

One good gift has the fatal apple given—
Your reason:—let it not be oversway'd
'Gainst all external sense and inward feeling:
Think and endure, and form an inner world
In your own bosom—where the outward fails;
So shall you nearer be the spiritual
Nature, and war triumphant with your own.


Satan here is explicitly Byron's emblem of the spiritual life. His posture and his words are magnificent, but they achieve that condition only because they have consciously chosen the tree of knowledge over the tree of life, and hence have chosen sorrow over happiness.

The greatness of this text, however, depends upon our seeing that it is addressed to someone else—most immediately to Cain, but finally to anyone, ourselves included. The speech is a challenge and a temptation in which a great prize is offered to those who can choose it; but it is a prize for which one must pay a terrible price: in the end, “all that a man” or a woman hath. Satan's great knowledge, his supreme consciousness, may be had, presumably, by anyone. To acquire it, however, one must consciously choose to share his consciousness, one must consciously choose damnation and what damnation represents, the pain of ultimate loss, an existence of perpetual suffering. Anything less—anything more resolved or synthetic—is here, paradoxically, a departure from the life of knowledge.

This discussion of Byron's ideas about knowledge as suffering is relevant to Sardanapalus and to Byron's poetry of masquerade. Zarina's benevolent posture toward her husband recalls, for example, Julia's farewell letter to Juan when she tells him simply “I've nothing to reproach, or to request” (I, st. 193). In each case mildness descends upon the text like a new vision of judgment. “Elle vous suit partout” is the sign under which Juan's life of emergent unhappiness and disaster unfolds, paradoxically, under a comic and satirized horizon. In Sardanapalus Zarina's love is the spring that releases the king to his tragi-comical sorrows. To this point in the play Sardanapalus has been relatively untouched by either sorrow or knowledge, despite the fact that his entire world stands on the brink of extinction. The more he is judged (as good or bad or both) by those around him—by Salemenes, by the conspirators, even by Myrrha—the more he seems to gravitate to an amoral, Lucretian existence (“Eat, drink, and love; the rest's not worth a fillip” [I.ii.252]). Zarina's refusal to judge him comes, therefore, as a redemptive sign, and opens for Sardanapalus space for a vision of judgment:

My gentle, wrong'd Zarina!
I am the very slave of circumstance
And impulse—borne away with every breath!
Misplaced upon the throne, misplaced in life.
I know not what I could have been, but feel
I am not what I should be—let it end. …
                                                                                                                        I was not form'd
To prize a love like thine, a mind like thine,
Nor doat even on thy beauty—as I've doated
On lesser charms, for no cause save that such
Devotion was a duty, and I hated
All that looked like a chain for me or others. …


Masquerading in public as Sardanapalus, Byron frees himself to deliver this set of judgments on himself.6 Devoted to an image, Zarina now can listen to that illusionary icon deliver up some of its melancholy truths, like some new statue of Memnon.

Such a text pitches us back to Byron's “[Epistle to Augusta]” of 1816—but most emphatically not to the two other pieces he addressed to his sister at that time. Those other two poems were published as part of his domestic warfare, as part of his campaign to make a public triumph over his wife and her supporters. In that campaign Augusta was to function as the gentle foil to his ferocious wife, so that the two published pieces “to” Augusta came as massive acts of public self-justification. Like “Fare Thee Well!” the two sets of “Stanzas” to Augusta are duplicitous and hypocritical works, and all the more wicked for the way they involved Byron's sister in their machinations.

The “[Epistle to Augusta]” is, by contrast, a private poem addressed directly to Augusta and written to remain in manuscript. Not a poem in masquerade, it is a personal meditation on the conditions that call out the poetry of masquerade.

With false Ambition what had I to do?
          Little with love, and least of all with fame!
And yet they came unsought and with me grew,
          And made me all which they can make—a Name.


Byron wants to keep the poem in manuscript, addressed only to Augusta, because he is struggling to imagine himself as something other than a text, an “image,” a “name.” It is a vain and self-contradictory desire, belied even as it is expressed, and when the “[Epistle to Augusta]” does finally appear—when it is posthumously published—it comes to its more general audience as a fiction or masquerade of Byron's desire for a pure self and a poetry of sincerity.

By attempting to situate his poem in private, in a space imagined as set apart from the murky and impure conflicts of right and wrong, of good and evil, Byron approaches his vision of judgment:

The fault was mine—nor do I seek to screen
          My errors with defensive paradox—
I have been cunning in mine overthrow
The careful pilot of my proper woe.


It is a splendid poem in which a person who has completely lost his way seeks to make nothing from that loss. Candor and self-knowledge come and go as untransformed and untransformative conditions. The dialectics of loss and gain implode in an imagination that no longer tries to draw illusory distinctions between them: “But now I fain would for a time survive / If but to see what next can well arrive” (31-32). This is the wisdom that, according to Manfred, is “born from the knowledge of its own desert” (Manfred III.iv.136). It is the wisdom that casts a cold eye on life and death alike. Let life go on or, as Sardanapalus says, “let it end”: when the illusionistic character of existence is Byronically constructed, either event is equally imaginable, because existence is being imagined beyond the dialectics of desire and indifference. The consummate expression of such an intelligence appears as Don Juan, which is Byron's Memoirs written in the form of masquerade, and under the following thematic sign: “In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing— / The one is winning, and the other losing” (DJ XIV, st. 12).


After Yeats (and to a certain extent Pound), when we think of a theory of masking we imagine it as a device toward “the heart's discovery of itself.”7 In this view the mask is a vehicle for introspective revelation—for that Socratic self-understanding we commonly pair with science as one of the two types of knowledge human beings have imagined for themselves.

The type of masking that Wilde both theorized and executed, and that we see displayed throughout Byron's work, is quite different. Not that their masks could not be used for introspective exercises. Byron certainly meant to use the mask of Childe Harold in order to objectify himself to himself, in order to know himself more clearly; and the same is true of those many other masks he fashioned, particularly in the years 1812-1815. Nevertheless, even as Byron employed this type of masking he clearly found the method unsatisfactory:

Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,—could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe—into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.

(Childe Harold III, st. 97)

Mask after mask is fashioned but to no redemptive avail. Worse, as Manfred and the “[Epistle to Augusta]” show, the masks rise up to reproach Byron as mere nominal and imaginary forms: names, images, illusions. They are his circus animals, the creatures of his cunning schemes of self-bafflement, because they are, after all, only his constructs, only his self-imaginings. They perform according to his poetical orders, whether he is aware of those orders or not. At best they give him only further figurae of what he is, further ranges of desire he, by himself, might imagine.

It seems clear to me that in 1816 Byron finally grasped the problem of the self-limits of imagination. The Separation Poems, Childe Harold Canto III, and especially Manfred are the texts through which Byron moved his poetry beyond the device of masks and into the dangerous scenarios of masquerade. Where masking is personal and introspective (or, as on the Greek stage, impersonal and mythic), masquerade is interpersonal and social. In the masquerade Byron's creative or constructive self moves into a space where he can no longer imagine or control the range of interactive relations that the masquerade makes possible. Byron writes and directs the intimate dramas of his work, but he finds himself, as writer and director, taking part in the action, and therefore falling subject to the action: as participant in the interpersonal exchange, and as the spectacular focus of a more generalized attention. The knowledge that emerges from this dynamic is neither subjective nor objective, it is social: an objective display of interpersonal relations lying open to an indefinite range of alterations from within and from without.

Of course, because Byron—unlike Wilde—operates out of a romantic ideology, these masquerades in his work come to us in a subjective mode. Wilde is not a character in The Importance of Being Earnest or The Picture of Dorian Gray as Byron is a character in the Ode to Napoleon buonaparte and Manfred and The Lament of Tasso.Sardanapalus, for its part, makes a gruesome and pitiless comedy of Byron's domestic and erotic relations. The play licenses Byron to imagine those relations in a series of connected masquerades that call out to certain specific persons, and invite them to assume certain roles. In making those invitations, however, Byron has brought imaginations into his texts that are not his in any sense, and that may wield their own authority, including authority over his own imaginations. At least three (but usually four) individuals are needed if one is to play at masquerade.

Besides one's conscious self, there is, in addition, the mask one assumes. The mask has a life of its own and cannot simply be manipulated by the poetical mind. In Canto III of Don Juan, for example, Byron stages a complex masquerade with his famous “The Isles of Greece” lyric. Lambro's court poet is represented as Robert Southey in a revealing costume. But this masked figure is also the emanation of the poet himself, who enters the text under its double disguise. As the satiric exposure of Southey unfolds in this text, therefore, it also turns back upon its maker, and the poem creates an extraordinary identification of Byron with his most hated “self,” the poet laureate. The costume which Byron had fashioned for Southey becomes, for Byron, a kind of Nessus-shirt.8

A similar kind of double-disguise operates in the first two acts of Sardanapalus. In this case we have to register one of the play's witty topical allusions. It comes at the first entrance of the king who appears, according to the stage direction, “Effeminately dressed, his Head crowned with Flowers, and his Robe negligently flowing, attended by a Train of Women and young Slaves”:

Let the pavilion over the Euphrates
Be garlanded, and lit, and furnish'd forth
For an especial banquet; at the hour
Of midnight we will sup there: see nought wanting,
And bid the galley be prepared. There is
A cooling breeze which crisps the broad clear river:
We will embark anon.


This pavilion is the play's principal emblem of the king's despotic oriental voluptuousness. It is not, however, exactly what it appears to be. Through it Byron is glancing satirically at George IV, who spent millions furbishing the Brighton Pavilion as his exotic pleasure dome. The “Paradise of Pleasure and Ennui” (DJ XIV, st. 17) that, for Byron, summed up the world of the Regency is recalled to our attention in the sybaritic scenery of Byron's play.9

In Canto XIV of Don Juan Byron refers directly to the Brighton Pavilion, which he properly identifies with King George. “Shut up—no, not the King, but the Pavilion, / Or else 'twill cost us all another million” (st. 83). The satire of this text helps to explain the more equivocal function of the pavilion in Sardanapalus. If the Assyrian king is in one obvious respect a mask of Byron, he is, in another, a mask of George IV. As a mask of the English king, Sardanapalus becomes a double-disguise in exactly the same way that Lambro's court poet does in Don Juan. Playing masquerades of this kind forces Byron to become what he beholds, to reflect himself in the guise of the last, and most contemptible, of the English Georges.10

To write in this way is to be cunning in one's own overthrow. In these cases we are astonished at the boldness of Byron's self-exposures, at the self-conscious level of his critical moves. Byron puts on a mask, or a double-mask, and seems to invite it to exert its own power over him. By plunging his desires and consciousness into his poetical medium, he surrenders his imagination and authority to alien orders, both malign and benevolent. The masking texts are summoned to speak the truths the poet in propria persona might not otherwise be able to tell.11

Three times in his work Byron donned the mask of Napoleon—in the 1814 Ode, in Canto III of Childe Harold (1816), and finally in Don Juan, Canto XI.12 Although in each case the tone shifts with the poetical genre, in all three the mask asserts its independent authority. Each time the text passes a judgment upon the figure of Napoleon, a translation occurs:

An empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild,
But govern not thy pettiest passion, nor,
However deeply in men's spirits skill'd,
Look through thine own, nor curb the lust of war. …

(Childe Harold III, st. 38)

In poetic privacy to his sister, Byron will say the same things of himself. Here the mask of Napoleon becomes Byron's occasion of making the truth public.

But quiet to quick bosoms is a hell,
And there hath been thy bane; there is a fire
And motion of the soul which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the fitting medium of desire. …

(st. 42)

Of this “fever at the core” the text will say that it is “Fatal to him who bears, to all who ever bore.” Yet this fatality, though in one sense a “bane” and malignant condition, is in another a redemption, for it springs the self free from “its own narrow being” and from every “fitting medium of desire.” The mask of Napoleon is what Blake would have called “the death” of Lord Byron.

The autonomy of the mask, so far as the poetry of masquerade is concerned, is matched by the integrity of the individual masquers. Byron cannot play these deceptive games alone, his texts necessarily draw others into the fictional spaces he invents. The poetry invites others to play a part in its action, and if the masks Byron assumes have set limits on those that can be assumed in turn by others, the outcome of these textual interactions stands beyond anyone's, including the author's, control.

Manfred is a good index of the dangerous freedom offered through these masquerades.13 In its original context at least three specific women could have been seen, or could have seen themselves, in the role of Astarte: Lady Byron, Augusta, and Mary Chaworth-Musters. We know that the first two did assume the role: Augusta saw herself as Astarte and was filled with anxiety, whereas when Lady Byron first identified with that figment, she registered a kind of satisfaction.14 In each case the text becomes a kind of precipice that draws one on—like Manfred, like Byron—either to the self or to the destruction of the self.

Canto XIV of Don Juan opens as an exercise in negotiating these precipitous kinds of text. The passage addresses the reader directly on the problem of meaning, but in doing so it casts the reader in the role of an interpreter, and specifically an interpreter of poetical texts—most immediately this text. The passage represents its mysteries as an abyss of the self, “our own abyss / Of thought” (st. 1), so that knowledge appears as the possibility of ultimate self-revelation.

          You look down o'er the precipice, and drear
The gulf of rock yawns,—you can't gaze a minute
Without an awful wish to plunge within it.
'Tis true, you don't—but, pale and struck with terror,
          Retire: but look into your past impression!
And you will find, though shuddering at the mirror
          Of your own thoughts, in all their self-confession,
That lurking bias, be it truth or error,
          To the unknown; a secret prepossession,
To plunge with all your fears—but where? You know not,
And that's the reason why you do—or do not.

(DJ XIV, sts. 5-6)

A text of this kind does not have a meaning, cannot be solved. It is rather temptation and threat, promise and invitation. More, it declares that poetry is of such an order, and that its significance unfolds as a dynamic of how its players do or do not choose to act in its terms. Byron's readers may succumb to, play with, or resist his spectacular intimacies. The history of his work's reception is a complex and fascinating story of responses that have been as widespread as they are diverse. By the law (or lawlessness) of these texts, every reader becomes, like “Every Poet,” “his own Aristotle” (DJ I st. 204).

Being released into such a freedom, however, will prove as problematic for the reader as for Byron. This is the point of the admonitory passage from Canto XIV of Don Juan. Byron's intimates and family connections are not the only ones who come to play a part in Manfred. The notorious secrecies of that drama are the sign under which the general reader gets enlisted in the masquerade as spectator and interpreter. This is the role, or mask, that Byron's work always prepares for us. Of course a poem's interpreter—like those “attendant Lord and Ladies” of the play, or the audience in the theater—can seem safely removed not so much from the work's complications, but from any dangers that might be imagined a part of those complications. But in Byron, as the passage from Canto XIV of Don Juan makes plain, one is required to assume those roles at a risk. Indeed, a major function of this work is to remind readers that they do not stand at a remove from the action. Like Brecht's audience, they are forced to play a role, and hence to confront themselves in the objectivity that their role constructs. Baudelaire, one of Byron's greatest readers, understood perfectly the dynamics of the process: “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frére.”

We think of 1816 as a watershed moment in Byron's career, and we are right to think so. In 1816 he was forced by “circumstance, that unspiritual god” (CHP IV, st. 125) to confront the hypocrisies of romantic imagination—its hypo-crises and its hypo-criticisms alike; in general (and in terms of a contemporary idiom), its “hyped” condition. But we should not forget that the poetry of 1816-1824 is in certain important ways only an extension of the earlier work. The Byronic Hero, fashioned (in every sense) between 1812 and 1815, is a hero with a thousand faces—what William Burroughs in our own day called a “soft machine.” Sardanapalus, Satan and Cain both, Mazeppa, Tasso, Fletcher Christian and Torquil, Juan and his narrator: like the Byronic Heroes of 1812-1815, these are all figures of the same order, poetical constructions designed to summon their rhetorical doubles, Baudelaire's hypocritical readers. Now we tend to privilege the later figures and works, but certain of the earlier texts—The Giaour and Parisina especially—yield nothing to the poetry of Byron's exile. Both of those tales—does this even need to be said?—are evident masquerades.


  1. See “The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic. Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982) 389.

  2. For a good related discussion of Byron's treatment of such figures see Cheryl Fallon Giuliano, “Gulnare/Kaled's ‘Untold’ Feminization of Byron's Oriental Tales,” in Studies in English Literature, forthcoming.

  3. The text of Byron's poems, including Sardanapalus, is taken from Lord Byron. The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980-1990), in seven volumes. Sardanapalus is in Vol. VI, jointly edited by McGann and Barry Weller. Prose references are to Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1973-82), here cited as BLJ.

  4. See Byron's comments upon The Bride of Abydos, where he spoke of it as running too close to realities in Poetical Works III: 435.

  5. For an extended discussion of these sublime imaginary dialectics between Byron and Lady Byron—and, in general, between Byron and various women who were attached to him in his life—see James Soderholm's important study The Muses of Enchantment. Studies in Fantasy, Deception, and the Byron Legend (Ph.D. Dissertation: U. of Virginia, 1990).

  6. For Sardanapalus/Byron to speak of himself as “the slave of circumstance” (my emphasis) underscores the problematic nature of the masquerade here. Byron was an abolitionist at a time when the slave trade was an important issue in England (one recalls his famous aphorism that “There is no freedom, even for masters, in the midst of slaves” [BLJ 9: 41]); and of course Sardanapalus is a monarch in a slave-holding society. It is, in other words, the presence of Byron in the character of the king (and of the king in the character of Byron) that gives such an edge to the word “slave” in the poetical context.

  7. See Per Amica Silentia Lunae in Essays (London: Macmillan, 1924) 485.

  8. For a full discussion of this text see my “The Book of Byron and the Book of a World,” in Social Values and Poetic Acts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988).

  9. Byron told John Murray that his play had no contemporary references to “politics or personalities” (BLJ VIII: 152), but his disclaimer can hardly be taken seriously—indeed, his remarks were probably meant to be seen as slyly disingenuous. See the discussion of these matters in Poetical Works VI: 610-11.

  10. On the Marine Pavilion see Lewis Melville (pseud. for Lewis Saul Benjamin), Brighton, Its History, Its Follies, and Its Fashions (London: Chapman & Hall, 1909), esp. chap. III, “The Prince of Wales and the Marine Pavilion.” The Pavilion was begun in 1787, and when its last additions were completed it had cost altogether over £70,000. The public was first admitted to view the Pavilion in 1820. It was this public viewing that triggered Byron's poetical response in Sardanapalus, just as it was the completion of the constructions in 1822 that was the immediate occasion of Don Juan Canto XIV, st. 83.

  11. In an excellent study (“‘A Problem Few Dare Imitate’: Sardanapalus and ‘Effeminate Character’”) Susan Wolfson likewise remarks on the conflicting forms of Byron's self-projections in the play: “Byron's Ravenna was already under foreign domination, and the politics were all concerned with revolt and subversion. Byron was participating with money, advice, and collaboration. In this respect he was acting as one of the rebel satraps, rather than as Sardanapalus” (874). See the essay in ELH 58 (1991): 867-902.

  12. There is a sense in which he also donned that mask in The Age of Bronze.

  13. Lady Byron said of Manfred that it was meant “to perplex the reader, exciting without answering curiosity” (see Malcolm Elwin, Lord Byron's Family [London: John Murray, 1975] 175).

  14. The Hon. Mrs. George Villiers, who was the confidante of both Byron's wife and of his sister as well, had no trouble reading the text of Manfred as a masquerade of the truth. For a good discussion of these matters see Ralph Milbanke, Earl of Lovelace's Astarte (London: Chiswick Press, 1905) chap. 3.

Further Reading

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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 century.

Corbett, Martyn. Byron and Tragedy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press, 1988, 232 p.

Full-length study of Byron's plays.

Dennis, Ian. “‘I Shall Not Choose a Mortal to Be My Mediator’: Byron's Manfred and ‘Internal Mediation.’” European Romantic Review 11, no. 1 (winter 2000): 68-96.

Explores the enduring appeal and influence of Manfred.

Edwards, Barry. “Byron and Aristotle: Is Manfred a Tragedy?” The University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1991): 55-62.

Discusses Manfred as a melodrama and a tragedy.

Ehrstine, John W. The Metaphysics of Byron: A Reading of the Plays, The Hague: Mouton, 1976, 145 p.

Examines thematic and stylistic aspects of Byron's plays.

Garofalo, Daniela. “Political Seductions: The Show of War in Byron's Sardanapalus.Criticism 44, no. 1 (winter 2002): 43-63.

Investigates the compelling role of war, violence, and power as evinced in Sardanapalus.

Goldberg, Leonard S. “Byron's Sardanapalus: Displacement and Dialectic.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30, no. 1 (spring 1988): 1-27.

Asserts that Sardanapalus “records the cognitive and moral evolution—some readers would call it a regression—of its hero from overly committed sensualist to canny interpreter, from voluptuary to heroic warrior.”

Howell, Margaret J. “Sardanapalus.The Byron Journal, no. 2 (1974): 42-53.

Describes the 1853 staging of Sardanapalus.

Knight, G. Wilson. “‘Agonized Self-Conflict’: Marino Faliero.” In The Plays of Lord Byron: Critical Essays, edited by Robert Gleckner and Bernard Beatty, pp. 69-86. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

Delineates the paradoxes found in Marino Faliero.

Meritt, Mark D. “Natural History, Manfred, and the Critique of Knowledge.” European Romantic Review 9, no. 3 (summer 1998): 351-62.

Interprets Manfred “both as dramatizing a threat of interpretive uncertainty similar to that plaguing the still nascent field of natural history and as critical of rhetorical stances that construct a unified subject capable of elucidating the workings of a stable world.”

Roston, Murray, and Jerome J. McGann. “Orthodoxy and Unorthodoxy in Heaven and Earth.” In The Plays of Lord Byron: Critical Essays, edited by Robert Gleckner and Bernard Beatty, pp. 291-300. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

Discusses religious themes in Heaven and Earth and compares the play to Milton's Paradise Lost.

Simpson, Michael. “Ancestral Voices Prophesying What? The Moving Text in Byron's Marino Faliero and Sardanapalus.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 38, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1996): 302-20.

Discusses Sardanapalus and Marino Faliero as moving texts.

Wolfson, Susan J. “‘A Problem Few Dare Imitate’: Sardanapalus and ‘Effeminate Character.’” ELH 58 (1991): 867-902.

Delineates the implications of Byron's effeminate characterization of Sardanapalus.

Additional coverage of Byron's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers, Vol. 4; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 96, 110; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; Exploring Poetry; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 12, 109; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 16; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 14; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.


Lord Byron: Critical Essays on Poetry