The magician Manfred summons a group of spirits to make him forget some secret, but they cannot. The next day, Manfred attempts suicide by throwing himself off a mountain, but a passing chamois hunter saves him. The hunter urges Manfred to repent of his secret sin, but Manfred claims that his sin is part of his destiny.
Manfred calls up the Witch of the Alps and reveals that the woman Astarte was destroyed by his love for her. Manfred then goes to the evil spirit Arimanes and demands that he summon the phantom of Astarte, who tells him that his torment will soon be over.
Manfred feels a great calm and prepares to meet his destiny. He encounters the Abbot of St. Maurice, who asks him to reconcile himself to God, but Manfred respectfully tells him that it is too late for repentance and that his fate is already decided.
Manfred, gifted, fiercely independent, and tortured by some secret guilt, is an excellent example of the Byronic hero, a figure which, based in part on Byron’s personal mystique, exercised an enormous appeal throughout the Romantic period. Manfred’s chief characteristic, in common with other Byronic heroes, is his pride; the play reveals this pride as both his glory, making him a great wizard, and his downfall, causing him to have a destructive love affair.
This pride alienates Manfred from human contact. His exalted life is a tormented search for escape from guilt. Yet Manfred’s striving for self-determination invests him with a superhuman grandeur, making him an ambiguous, but all the more compelling hero.
Butler, E. M. The Fortunes of Faust. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1952. Traces the Faust theme from its first appearance in 1587 to the present. Includes discussion of Manfred and compares Byron’s work with Goethe’s. For magic more generally, see Butler, The Myth of the Magus (1948) and Ritual Magic (1949).
Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A study of Byron’s reputation after death, exploring bitter and conflicting accounts by the wife he divorced and the sister he seduced.
Evans, Bertrand. Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947. One of the few studies, and certainly the best, on the topic of Gothic drama.
MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A biography that re-examines the life of the poet in the light of MacCarthy’s assertion that Byron was bisexual, a victim of early abuse by his nurse.
Marchand, Leslie. Byron: A Biography. 3 vols. London: John Murray, 1957. It is almost impossible to discuss Manfred apart from the unconventional life of its author, particularly because the setting, the hinted-at theme of incest, and the ambiguous treatment of remorse are so obviously central to its meaning. The standard biography of Byron. The author’s twelve-volume edition of Byron’s letters is equally admirable and should be consulted (volume 5 for Manfred), in part because Byron is an extremely interesting letter writer.
Rutherford, Andrew. Byron: A Critical Study. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961. Readable and superficially comprehensive on Byron, but often unsympathetic. Includes a full chapter on Manfred, which Rutherford, who believes the work to be a failure, ruthlessly dissolves into a pastiche of stolen references to Goethe’s Faust and other literary works.
Thorslev, Peter L., Jr. The Byronic Hero, Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. One of the most helpful books that a beginning student of British romantic literature can read. Thorslev describes the period as the last great age of heroes. He enumerates seven types of Romantic hero (a very useful classification), as well as the specific heroes that appear in Byron’s major works. Manfred and Cain are analyzed together in chapter 11 as “metaphysical dramas” dealing with the supernatural.