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.
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.
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.