Themes and Meanings

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Shelley’s emotionally polemic poem is intended to further the cause of governmental reform, an issue that was dividing England at the time. Some of the reform efforts Shelley advocated were expanded suffrage and greater freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The poem supports these causes by metaphorically elaborating on the concepts of tyranny and liberty, describing the effects of each in concrete, poignant images. In simple yet searing language the poem vehemently denounces tyranny as exploitative and as going against the very laws of nature. Liberty, however, is a God-given right of every person. Living by the precepts of liberty will ensure a happier, more fruitful existence.

Liberty is seen in concrete and practical terms. The poem avoids any abstraction that would make freedom seem unrealistic and overly idealistic, a “superstition” doomed “soon to pass away.” On the contrary, freedom is “. . . bread,/ and a comely table spread.” It provides for the very necessities of life, clothing and food, things denied under tyranny.

Freedom is also associated with justice, providing for “righteous laws” that would forbid the kind of exploitation allowed by tyranny. Here one can see that Shelley did not advocate lawless revolution. Liberty does not mean the freedom to ignore law, but the establishment of equitable law. Lawlessness would be no improvement over tyranny. In fact, the masquerade of tyrants and the poem’s title itself show that Shelley equates tyranny with anarchy. Tyranny creates gross inequities that will inevitably cause revolution and anarchy. Shelley warns of this by reminding the reader of France (“Gaul” in stanza 59), where injustice led to bloody revolution and to a more malevolent tyranny under Napoleon. Thus, as the poem states, liberty “Thou art Peace . . .” Blood would never be shed if governments functioned based on the true precepts of liberty.

This adherence to law is seen in Shelley’s concept of the assembly and what they should do. This assembly, made up of the oppressed throughout England, is symbolic of the power of numbers against a lesser foe: “Ye are many—they are few.” Shelley advocates a kind of passive resistance. The members of the assembly are to stand strong and resolute, “With folded arms and steady eyes,” in the face of the enemy. They should allow the tyrants to “Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,—” without retaliating or making any attempt to defend themselves. This should shame the enemy into defeat; some (“true warriors”) will even join the protesters in their resistance. This is not a call for violent revolution or bloody revenge, but a plea for “righteous law” as suits the wisdom and reason of liberty.

In contrast, the consequences of tyranny are violence and suffering. This is seen in the bloodthirsty characters of the masquerade who knock out the brains of children and trample their subjects into a “mire of blood.” The effect of tyranny on the working class is slavery, poignantly described in the first section of liberty’s speech. Shelley created such a horrifying vision of tyranny that its antithesis—liberty—seems society’s only legitimate haven.

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