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The Theatre of Shelley

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Chapter Five: Ideal Drama – Prometheus Unbound

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  • 1 Curran, Cenci, p. 200; Cox, ’The Dramatist’, p. 83.

1Critics rarely discuss Prometheus Unbound from the point of view of performability, although theatre directors such as Paul Fort and, more recently, Madge Darlington, have seen its performance possibilities.1 Shelley would have realised that it would have been unlikely to have reached the stage in 1818 because its style was based on Greek drama, which would not have been acceptable to the commercial London theatre. Although he published it as a poem for reading, there are signs that he initially conceived it as a performable drama, and he may have hoped that it would be performed in a future theatre. He had recently seen a dramatic form, the ballet of Viganò, which allowed him to realise that the moral and political qualities found in Greek drama could be conveyed effectively with the same beauty and sensitivity as had delighted the huge audience in fifthcentury Athens, and this form had been developed in a subsidised theatre.

  • 2 SPII, pp. 508n., 503n., 508-510n., 524n. There are further stage directions in BSMIX.
  • 3 PBSLII, p. 196; SPP, p. 205.

2Shelley described Prometheus Unbound as ’a drama’ to Medwin, although ’a composition of a totally different character’ to The Cenci. He also frequently referred to it as a poem but, although he may not have distinguished between the two, as the Greeks did not, an obvious difference between The Revolt of Islam or Queen Mab and The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound is that the narrative poems are told directly in verse with reported speech and action and landscape described, while the dramatic have speakers indicated against the dialogue and clear and practical stage directions. The stage directions are particularly numerous in Act I and they run throughout the drama. Yet they do not appear intended to enhance the reading since he cancelled many, but not all, of those he had written for Act I and wrote fewer in subsequent acts.2 The cancelled stage directions are extremely suitable for the theatre of his day and do not translate into descriptions of much help to the reader. Shelley did, however, reduce the stage directions, replacing some with lines of verse, as at the entry of the Furies (l. 520), and published Prometheus in a volume with other poems. The importance Shelley attached to his poetry being read aloud, however, can be seen by his use of rhetorical punctuation, remarked on by Neil Fraistat, and his opinion that John Gisborne would be better able to revise Prometheus for the press, because ’he heard it recited’.3

  • 4 Ibid., p. 8.

3These elements alone do not define a stage drama, but suspense, excitement, mystery and contrast create dramatic effect and these also are all present. Furthermore, Shelley appears to have considered the contributions made by characterisation, scene painting, stage machinery, lighting, music and dance. Certainly, Shelley’s remarks to Peacock in April 1818 about his intention of writing for the stage and his subsequent work on Tasso suggest that he might have originally conceived Prometheus Unbound as a performable drama.4 Fresh from the experience of seeing the ballet of Viganò at La Scala, he had an example in mind of an extremely beautiful production worthy of his Aeschylean ideal. I suggest that his original idea may have been to write such a drama, but that he changed his mind when he realised that there would have been little point in submitting it to a commercial London theatre since they did not perform Greek drama at that time. He therefore wrote for publication and wished to make it easier for the reader by reducing the stage directions. But it is not impossible to follow them, nor is it impossible to perform Prometheus Unbound. Shelley no doubt knew Hunt’s The Descent of Liberty, and his own scenic effects are never too many to be practically managed or to lose their effectiveness, while his stage directions are sufficient to explain to the professionals in those fields what he required. A director can also infer this from lines which make it clear that a dance or music will take place, or that an actor should have wings or purple and gold sandals. Shelley had planned both publication and production of The Cenci; it may be that, despite the publication of Prometheus Unbound, he did not rule out an eventual performance. He certainly made no alterations which would have made one impossible.

  • 5 PBSLII, pp. 116, 164, 174.
  • 6 William Keach, ’The Political Poet’ in Morton, Companion, pp. 130-132.
  • 7 SPP, p. 535.

4Shelley knew that Prometheus Unbound was ’of a higher character than any thing I have yet attempted’ and ’the best thing I ever wrote’, but thought it could not ’sell beyond twenty copies’, perhaps because only a few would recognise the many allusions to science and philosophy. He had read it to ’many persons’, including the Gisbornes, whose response was encouraging, but it was that of an élite minority.5 As William Keach suggests, however, Shelley was aware of posterity and that his future audience would increase.6 He knew that his ideal drama was not produced for lack of artists; he lived ’among such philosophers and poets as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last national struggle for civil and religious liberty’ and he had seen the greatest performers of his age.7

  • 8 PBSLII, pp. 4, 14; Gatti, p. 58; Curran, ’Prometheus’, p. 452; Rosselli, The Opera Industry, pp. 2 (...)
  • 9 See, for example, PBSLII, pp. 266-267, 291.
  • 10 Rosselli, Music and Musicians, pp. 21- 22; Hall & Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, p. 270.

5Although theatres in England were not subsidised, many theatres in Italy such as San Carlo, Naples, La Scala, Milan and Teatro Regio, Turin, were. These were, of course, court theatres and Milan was once again under Austrian rule when, at La Scala in April 1818, Shelley saw two ballets by Viganò which raised dancing to the standard of high art. Viganò had mounted a ballet, or coreodramma, entitled Prometeo, at La Scala in the Napoleonic years, ’one of its most splendid periods, at least in ballet and scene design’, when, as Curran says, and as Shelley most probably knew, the city was freer than it had ever been.8 He would therefore have seen the possibility that theatre could be subsidised in the future and that in a freer climate political censorship would not be necessary. At the time when he was writing Prometheus Unbound (1818-1819), he believed that it would not be long before Italy would be free. He also expected reform or revolution in England, and thus anticipated a favourable political climate in which a drama such as Prometheus Unbound could have been performed.9 To a certain extent this was correct since, by 1861, Italy had gained her independence and unification and, in 1821, Greek drama began to be performed in London.10


  • 11 Curran, Shelley’s Annus Mirabilis; Carl Grabo, Prometheus Unbound: An Interpretation (Chapel Hill: (...)
  • 12 Tetreault, ’Shelley and the Opera’, pp. 144, 154.
  • 13 Wasserman, Prometheus, pp. 201-203; Lisa Vargo, ’The Solitary Reformer: A Reading of Shelley’s Poe (...)

6Putting the commercial stage out of his mind, however, freed Shelley to consider how such a play ought, ideally, to be done. It has often been pointed out that Aeschylus, to whom he refers in title, dedication and preface, is the most important influence on his drama and Shelley’s Prometheus drew on many of the dramatic elements of Aeschylus. Scholarly work on this subject, however, has not concentrated on dramatic technique but on philosophy, science and politics.11 Although Tetreault sees Prometheus Unbound in terms of opera and ballet, it is as a ’text conceived on the analogue of musical drama’.12 Wasserman compares Act IV to a masque and Lisa Vargo finds a series of masques throughout the drama, but they are not considered as intentions for performance.13 Bearing in mind Shelley’s requirements for ideal drama, Prometheus Unbound might be expected to contain music, dancing, scenic painting and religious (or philosophical) references. It appears to draw on the styles of the melodrama, pantomime and comic opera of the London theatre of Shelley’s own period, the Jacobean masque and Viganò’s ballet as well as the ancient Greek drama. Yet Prometheus Unbound has been considered to lack one essential quality of drama. In Wasserman’s words:

  • 14 Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 111.

As nearly every critic of Prometheus Unbound has observed, the only dramatic struggles in the play take place in Act I, and all the subsequent action, including Demogorgon’s almost effortless overthrow of Jupiter, proceeds without worthy opposition and hence without dramatic tension.14

  • 15 Idem.
  • 16 H.D.F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1961), pp. 54-57.
  • 17 SPII, p. 472.
  • 18 David Grene, Introduction to Prometheus Bound in Aeschylus II (Chicago: The University of Chicago (...)
  • 19 OSA, pp. 271-272; King-Hele, p. 198; Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 144; Carlos Baker, Shelley’s Major (...)

7Wasserman accounts for this by ’the metaphysical level at which the play is conducted’.15 This view of drama, however, is from a narrow and modern European perspective, coloured by the idea of ’drama as conflict’ or belief that drama must be full of incident and action. Yet the dramas of the ancient Greeks focus very often on one event and do not have subsidiary plots; the same criticism has been made of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. As H.D.F. Kitto states, Aeschylus’ drama takes place in the mind of Prometheus, dramatic effects consisting in ’a series of impacts’; the impact of the Chorus, Oceanus, Hermes and Io contrasts with the initial ’disdainful silence’ of Prometheus and his solitude and spurs him to reveal a different aspect of his defiance.16 Shelley remarks that his own imagery has been ’drawn from the operations of the human mind’.17 David Grene notes that the complexities of Prometheus have made his story ’significant on a number of different levels […] rebel against the tyrant […] Knowledge against Force […] the champion of man […] against the would-be destroyer of man […] Man as opposed to God’, adding that Prometheus’ suffering equates him with man.18 Shelley’s Prometheus has been described as symbolic in a similar way: ’Regenerator […] Humanity’, ’enlightened thinker’, ’the One Mind’, ’the mind of Man’, ’mankind or the mind of mankind’ and, by Shelley himself, the ’Champion of Mankind’.19 An early nineteenth-century audience would readily see the similarity between Prometheus and Jupiter and the tyranny and oppression of their own time.

  • 20 Schlegel, pp. 93-94.
  • 21 For a different view, see Peter Cochran, ’Byron and Shelley: Radical Incompatibles’, Romanticism o (...)

8Schlegel noted that there was ’little of external action’ in Aeschylus’ play, but that ’the poet has in a masterly manner, contrived to introduce variety and progress’; he refers to ’the silence of Prometheus’, the ’useless compassion’ of Vulcan, the ’solitary complainings’ of Prometheus, ’the arrival of the womanly, tender ocean nymphs’ which causes him ’to give freer vent to his feelings’, and of Oceanus and Io.20 Shelley’s play includes the stage effects of earthquake, thunder and lightning in Prometheus Bound (1080- 1090), Prometheus’ complaints of suffering (512-513), his defiance (270-273) and his invocation of the mountains, springs and earth (89-90). Prometheus explains to the Chorus that there are powers which can depose the gods (515-519), and these powers Shelley gives to Demogorgon. Prometheus’ dialogue with Hermes (941-1030) is recalled by Shelley’s Furies, Shelley’s Mercury having more in common with Hephaestus. Prometheus Unbound has the layers of dance, drama and poetry which Schlegel found in Greek drama and I do not consider it lacks dramatic conflict or characterisation.21

  • 22 SPP, p. 518.
  • 23 Schlegel, pp. 63-65.
  • 24 Quillin quotes only part of Schlegel’s discussion of opera in relation to Greek drama to support h (...)
  • 25 David Kimbell, Italian Opera, pp. 5-6.

9Shelley spoke of dance and music as elements of drama, but he did not mean that either should convey the whole of the poet’s ideas. He thought, rather, that they should accompany words as they had in Greece, where the poetry of dancing and music enhanced but did not replace the poetry of words, creating a multi-layered art form which could truly be described as drama. 22 In this regard, we may see him following Schlegel, who remarks that the delivery of the dialogue in a Greek tragedy could not possibly resemble the modern recitative or opera which he describes as an ’anarchy of the arts, where music, dancing, and decoration are seeking to outvie each other’. He admires the fantasy world the opera creates, but in opera ’the words are altogether lost in the music’ whereas in Greek drama ’the primary object was the poetry’. He asks why the Greek poets should have lavished ’such labour and art’ on their lyrical songs and choruses ’the most involved constructions, the most unusual expressions, and the boldest images and recondite allusions’ if ’it were all to be lost in the delivery’ and speaks of the variety of measures the poets use for the dialogue, showing ’the impetuousness of passion’ or ’the transition in the tone of mind’.Shelley’s contemporaries were also attentive to bold images and recondite allusions, both visual and verbal. Schlegel asks, ’What sort of opera-music would it be which should set the words to a mere rhythmical accompaniment of the simplest modulations?’.23 He does not envisage Greek drama as being submerged in operatic music, however fine, but that a musical accompaniment should enhance the words.24 If opera started as an attempt to revive Greek tragedy, it soon developed differently because of the ’primacy of song’.25 Shelley was certainly aware of this difference. His directions for Prometheus Unbound are for a simple musical accompaniment to enhance the poetry as Schlegel suggested the Greeks did.

  • 26 Curran, ’Shelleyan Drama’ in Cave, p. 63.
  • 27 CCJ, p. 88; MWSJ, pp. 198-200n., 203-207.

10Curran remarks that ’drama […] was on [Shelley’s] mind virtually from the point he arrived in Italy’.26 As Shelley read Schlegel on the journey, talked of the Alps as being a corps de ballet with the Jungfrau as Mlle. Mélanie, and saw the place which gave him his idea for Prometheus Unbound, it appears he arrived with his mind already primed. Ballet, the Prometheus story and Schlegel’s emphasis upon the value of the Athenian drama – together with the importance of dance to that drama – were linked in his mind when he saw the ballets of Viganò in Milan, La Spada di Kenneth, three times and Otello twice.27 Shelley described them to Peacock as:

  • 28 PBSLII, p. 4.

the most splendid spectacle I ever saw […] The manner in which language is translated into gesture, the complete & full effect of the whole as illustrating the history in question, the unaffected self possession of each of the actors, even to the children, made this choral drama more impressive than I should have conceived possible.28

  • 29 Morgan, Italy, I, p. 166.

11To express these changes of mood in mime required acting of a high standard and to bring out the meanings through gesture required a great director. Lady Morgan, too, saw a connection between Viganò’s ballet and ’the modern melodrame’ and she described Antonietta Pallerini (who danced Desdemona in Otello and Elisabetta Wallace in La Spada di Kenneth, as well as Eone in Prometeo) as ’unquestionably one of the finest actresses in Europe’ after seeing her performance in La Vestale:29

  • 30 Ibid., pp. 170-171.

Suddenly bursting into the conviction of her fatal secret, she exhibits all the struggles between nature and grace, passion and reason, that can agitate the bosom of a devoted woman. The horrible death which awaits the breach of her vow, and the impulses of a passion that is ready even to meet that death, rather than for ever resign its object, alternately madden and dissolve her; till, struggling, reeling, combating, as if her lover was present, she sinks overcome – into his arms…30

  • 31 Stendhal, p. 175; Morgan, Italy, I, p. 166.

12Lady Morgan’s account is borne out by Stendhal, who remarks, ’au troisième acte de la Vestale, celle-ci se rend à son amant; la pantomime qui dure un quart d’heure est tellement vraie et tellement gracieuse, que sans indécence, il fa tirar tutti.’ (In the third act of La Vestale, the heroine of the title gives herself to her lover; the pantomime which lasts a quarter of an hour is so true and graceful that without any indecency it tells you everything). For Lady Morgan, Viganò was ’the Shakspeare of his art; and with such powerful conceptions, and such intimate knowledge of nature and effect, as he exhibits, it is wonderful that, instead of composing ballets, he does not write epics.’.31

  • 32 Stendhal, pp. 96, 95, 186.
  • 33 MWSJ: for Otello, 5, 7 April 1818, see p. 203, for La Spada, 20, 21, 29 April, see pp. 205-207. Ma (...)
  • 34 PBSLII, p. 14; Stendhal, pp. 94, 115.

13Stendhal, too, compared Viganò to Shakespeare, saying ’l’action est profondément vraie’ (the action is deeply true) and regretted that ’cet homme de génie ne sait pas composer sur le papier’ (this man of genius cannot put his compositions on to paper). Viganò’s genius has been lost, as both these writers were afraid it would be, but Stendhal described him, like Rossini and Canova, as an extremely remarkable man, superior to any in Paris in fine arts or literature.32 Shelley described the opera which preceded Otello, Peter von Winter’s Etelinda (1754-1825), as ’not a favourite’.33 Stendhal was blunter, ’Une musique détestable est celle de Winter, l’Etelinda, sifflée hier soir’ (Winter’s detestable opera, Etelinda, was hissed last night). Shelley thought Camporesi ’a cold and unfeeling singer and a bad actress’ and Stendhal said she had ’une voix froide’ (a cold voice) though he did add ’et magnifique’. Since Stendhal’s opinion coincides with Shelley’s in these cases, it may be worth bearing in mind his views when considering Shelley’s reaction to the art of Viganò.34

  • 35 Luigi Rossi, Il ballo alla Scala 1778-1970 (Milan: Edizione della Scala, 1972), p. 53.

14Viganò was well-read, knowledgeable about the fine arts and music. His mother was the sister of Boccherini.35 He had a moral viewpoint which Shelley shared.

  • 36 Winter, The Pre-Romantic Ballet, p. 191.

Prometeo, Dedalo and I Titani were epic studies of mankind’s evolution with the developing, endless, unresolved struggle between his good and evil impulses. Even when the individual confrontations are paramount, in La Vestale, La Spada di Kenneth, and Giovanna d’Arco, there are always larger ethical issues raised.’36

  • 37 Ibid., p. 193.
  • 38 Stendhal, p. 96; Morgan, Italy, I, pp. 166, 169.

15Well-served by his dancers, he was fortunate to be able to work also with an outstanding costume designer, Giacomo Pregliasco, and a legendary scene painter, Alessandro Sanquirico.37 The reputation of Milan for ballet was pre-eminent: Lady Morgan considered that ’its ballets are superior to every thing of the same kind throughout Europe’, and the government of Milan was prepared to allow La Scala the expense of the scenery and costumes which dazzled the visitors. Stendhal describes the court of Neptune in Dedalo, ’Rien moins que des poissons dansants dans un palais de madrépores et de corail’ (Nothing less than dancing fish in a palace of madrepores and coral) while Lady Morgan described the chariots in La Vestale as being ’exactly as they are represented in the ancient basrelievoes’ and ’the living groups […] formed after the finest sculptures; and down to the bronze vase on the consul’s festive board, the lamp, tripod, and consular chair, all seemed borrowed from Herculaneum or Pompeii’.38

  • 39 PBSLII, pp. 4, 14.
  • 40 Stendhal, pp. 331, 104, 113.

16Despite his high opinion of the ballets, Shelley’s descriptions to Hogg and Peacock seem to excuse his enthusiasm: ’strange to say, it left no disagreeable impression’ and ’the story is so well told in action as to leave upon the mind an impression as of a real tragedy’.39 Stendhal, too, repeatedly insisted upon Viganò’s genius as if he was not believed: ’L’immortel Vigano […] Ah! Le grand homme!’ (The immortal Viganò […] Ah! The great man!); ’Dites à vos plats journalistes de vanter un peu les ballets de Vigano et les décorations de Milan’ (Tell your journalists to give a bit of a puff to the ballets of Viganò and the scenery of Milan); ’Canova, Rossini et Vigano, voilà la gloire de l’Italie actuelle’. (Canova, Rossini and Viganò, there is the glory of present-day Italy.’).40 Like Shelley, Lady Morgan wondered how Viganò’s art produced its effect:

  • 41 Morgan, Italy, I, p. 169.

one is tempted to ask by what lever one’s feelings have been so profoundly moved; what poetry, what eloquence, have wound up emotion to such painful excess. It seems incredible that such an effect has been produced, without one word being uttered, one shriek heard; and that the impression is due to the perfection of attitude and gesticulation.41

  • 42 Idem; Stendhal, p. 175.

17She saw that emotion could be given physical, rather than verbal expression since she remarks, ’In the grand ballet of Othello, the Moor appears literally dancing mad with jealousy’. Stendhal also remarks on Otello, ’les sénateurs exprimant leur étonnement; mais comment? Voilà le talent de ce grand homme. Il a observé admirablement les gestes humains.’ (The senators express their astonishment, but how? There lies the talent of this great man. He has been a wonderful observer of human gesture).42

  • 43 Winter, p. 193; Gatti, I, p. 58; PBSLII, p. 14.

18Since Viganò died in 1821, his art died with him and, as his style was replaced by the Romantic ballet, it is only from these descriptions and the prints of Sanquirico and Pregliasco that it is possible even to guess its impact. The acting and dancing were excellently performed and the scenery beautiful, with changes ’rapidi, meravigliosi, perfetti’ (rapid, marvellous, perfect); La Scala was capable of 11 changes of scene. Shelley’s description, ’a combination of a great number of figures grouped with the most picturesque and even poetical effect, and perpetually changing with motions the most harmoniously interwoven and contrasted with great effect’, suggests that the combinations created further images which also moved.43

  • 44 MWSJ, p. 205.
  • 45 Stendhal, pp. 115, 169.
  • 46 MWSJ, p. 252n.; Morgan, Italy, III, p. 63.
  • 47 Ferrero ’Staging Rossini’, p. 207; Stendhal, p. 186; Curran, ’Prometheus’, p. 450.
  • 48 Morgan, Italy, I, p. 166, Stendhal, p. 175.

19As Shelley had done with other performances he had particularly liked, Fazio or Don Giovanni, he saw the ballets again. Mary Shelley commented that they were ’very much delighted and amused’ by La Spada.44 Stendhal saw both ballets which Shelley saw. He described Otello and La Vestale as Viganò’s masterpieces (an opinion shared by Carlo Gatti), saying they were ’chefs-d’oeuvre, comme nous n’avons rien en France depuis Voltaire’ (masterpieces, such as we have not seen in France since Voltaire) and said, ’La Spada di Kenneth, roi d’Ecosse, est bien joli. On avait trouvé Otello trop fort, trop plein d’action, trop tetro, la Spada est une fête pour l’imagination.’ (La Spada di Kenneth, King of Scotland, is very good. One found Otello too heavy, too full of action, too intellectual. La Spada is a feast for the imagination).45 Since these writers from the north of Europe were in agreement about the greatness of Viganò, and had other views in common, it is to be expected that the ballets were discussed at, for example, the house of Signora Dionigi where both the Shelleys and Lady Morgan were entertained at Rome, although they did not meet.46 As prints were available, and Stendhal sent programmes of the ballets back to France, Curran is probably correct in thinking that Shelley had the opportunity of seeing literature connected with Viganò’s Prometeo (1813) and perhaps other ballets, such as Dedalo and Mirra (1817).47 Apart from his review of the improvvisatore, Sgricci, and his negative remarks on Kean’s Hamlet, Otello and La Spada di Kenneth are the only performances upon which Shelley made specific critical observations. Stendhal and Lady Morgan held their high opinion of Viganò not only because of the beauty of the dance but also because of his knowledge of human gestures reflecting the passions, which suggests that Shelley, too, responded to Viganò’s psychological insight.48

  • 49 Curran, ’Prometheus’, p. 451; Gatti, p. 58.
  • 50 Preface to Prometheus Unbound, SPII, p. 472.

20Viganò had arrived in Milan fresh from huge successes in Vienna, where he had already, in 1801 and 1802, produced versions of his Prometeo, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), for which Beethoven had written the music. Music for ballet was not considered important, usually selected from popular favourites rather than specially composed. For his 1813 Prometeo, Viganò discarded some of Beethoven’s music, selecting instead from other great contemporary composers including Mozart. His scenes were taken from famous works of art, at least one of which Shelley had the opportunity of seeing in Milan’s Pinoteca Braidense, and which he may have recognised if, as is probable, he had seen prints of Prometeo. Prometeo had been an outstanding success with audiences who flocked to see it not only from Milan but from the surrounding cities. Over 40 performances were given in that season. Given his interest in both Viganò and Prometheus, it would be rather more surprising if Shelley had not heard of this success than if he had. Curran mentions parallels such as Viganò’s ’succession of allegorical figures representing Darkness, Dawn, the Hours, Phoebus Apollo, the Year, the Seasons, and the Months’, the ’allegorical epithalamial dance’ in the fifth act and the name Eone, Ione in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Despite these similarities, in Prometeo it is Prometeo who is hurled from heaven, although he is comforted by humans in his fall to earth, and it is Giove who has the change of heart and forgives Prometeo, prompted by love, although specifically for his son Ercole (Hercules).49 Shelley, on the other hand, expressed himself as ’averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind.’ With Giove’s change of heart the political system does not change, though it may become a benevolent dictatorship. Shelley did not want tyrants to behave more benevolently, he wanted them abolished.50

La Spada di Kenneth

21The importance of Viganò’s work lies rather in the ballets Shelley did see, which enabled him to understand that it was an art worth taking seriously.

  • 51 Schlegel, p. 63; CCJ, p. 89n. She mistakenly calls Pallerini ’Maria’.

22It is clear from contemporary description that the directing of steps was only one element in a spectacle which drew on exquisite scenery, costume, music, dancing and mime of a very high standard. Schlegel described the Greek chorus as one in which ’their movement kept time with the rhythms of the declamation, and in this accompaniment the utmost grace and beauty were aimed at’ and ’a succession of statuesque situations […] the player remained for some time motionless in one attitude’. Clairmont’s remark that Pallerini’s ’walk is more like the sweepings of the wind than the steps of a mortal and her attitudes are pictures’ suggests that Viganò’s ballets followed Schlegel’s description.51 The scenery for La Spada di Kenneth, with its story of magic and chivalry, probably used fantasy elements and was close to that for Prometeo. This ballet, which has not been previously recognised as an inspiration for Prometheus Unbound, is worth describing in more detail.

23La Spada di Kenneth is set in Scotland. Elizabeth Wallace, the daughter of William Wallace, has been promised in marriage by her father on his deathbed to Robert Bruce, whom she loves. Scotland is now under the rule of Queen Margaret of Norway, who promises to marry Elizabeth against her will to her own nephew, Balliol (Baliolo). Elizabeth is distraught and Bruce, suspecting the Queen, arrives at the court and challenges Balliol to a trial by combat. Elizabeth, overcome with grief and fear that her beloved will die in this duel, is taken by Gilbert, a faithful old retainer, to a kinsman who is a Druid. When they arrive at his cave the Druid is invoking the Spirits of the Air and playing a harp. In the cave is the sepulchre of Kenneth II, the King who united Scotland, and lying beside him is his magic, invincible sword. The Druid tells Elizabeth that if she has the courage to descend into the tomb and ask for the sword she will be given it. She climbs down the steps below while the Druid and Gilbert pray until she reappears, bearing the sword. The Druid explains that Elizabeth will have to use the sword as it will only work for the person who has claimed it. To prevent Bruce from fighting the duel, she is to give him a magic sleeping potion. She returns to find Bruce armed for the fight. Elizabeth offers him a drink to give him luck, in which she has put the sleeping potion. Although Bruce’s suspicions are aroused by her excessive joy when he drinks it, as the trumpet sounds declaring the opening of the tournament, he is overcome by sleep and collapses on a couch. Elizabeth changes into his armour and leaves for the battle on the sound of the second trumpet when Balliol is already claiming victory because his opponent has broken his pledge by his non-appearance. Elizabeth is assumed to be Bruce and the fight begins. Balliol fights well, but at last Elizabeth kills him with the magic sword. Bruce arrives at that moment, ready to fight the impostor in the lists. Elizabeth raises her visor and he recognises her. There is general joy and amazement and their marriage is announced.

24In both Prometheus Unbound and La Spada di Kenneth a woman goes to the rescue of her lover who is prevented from playing an active part in the drama. Elizabeth’s descent to the tomb on a quest on behalf of Bruce foreshadows Asia’s descent to the cave of Demogorgon on behalf of Prometheus. Her scene with the Druid takes place in a mysterious, magical and frightening cave, like Asia’s scene with Demogorgon. Elizabeth is like Asia in her loyalty to her lover. Her consultation with the Druid results in finding that she should rely on herself, as Asia discovers in consulting Demogorgon. Both Shelley and Viganò make use of unseen spirits. The Spirits of the Air in Act III of La Spada are not mentioned on the cast list, which suggests they do not appear and their voices alone were used. Prometheus Unbound can be seen as a response to the visual and aural stimuli of the scenes in La Spada combined with a reading of Aeschylus’ play and the experience of reports and prints of Viganò’s Prometeo. The appreciation of how Viganò staged his ballets allowed Shelley to understand the possibility of creating a drama which would allow Greek drama to ’spring again from its seed’. The music, dancing, beautiful scenery and high moral purpose of Viganò’s ballets were requirements for Shelley’s ideal drama, but excluded the most important: the poetry of words which Shelley was able to supply. By examining what staging he required in terms of what he had seen in the theatre, it becomes clear that Prometheus Unbound is Shelley’s attempt to put his theory of drama into practice and shows that his ideas, which reveal a knowledge of stagecraft gained by observation, were both practical and dramatic.

Characterisation and dramatic conflict

25Although Prometheus Unbound has no deep psychological characterisation, Asia, Panthea and Ione all have characters, while the Earth is recognisably an old, sad, weary grandmother in Act I and the Spirit of the Earth an impish child in Act III. Asia’s impatience (II. i. 14-25), her complaint (II. i. 32-34) and her questions of Demogorgon (II. iv. 8-128) followed by her glorious – and, in performance, visible – transfiguration (II. v. 16-35) show her development from a rather human sea nymph into the great goddess symbolising love, nature and energy. Demogorgon himself, with his terrifying appearance and laconic answers, appears at times a comic and brutish monster from melodrama. In Prometheus Bound, the Oceanides are fiercely loyal and courageous, but Aeschylus does not differentiate them. Shelley distinguishes Panthea’s supportive and Ione’s more timorous natures. It is his achievement to give them both their own characters and symbolic meaning – they are thus not a chorus as in Aeschylus but defined minor roles in a modern drama.

26The defiant and proud character of Prometheus, revealed in the opening of his first speech, is drawn from Aeschylus but is subtly developed to show a character who has remained defiant despite having suffered long. Shelley shows Prometheus change during this first speech in which there are five dramatic moods. In the first (I. i-23) he addresses Jupiter, speaking of his pride and defiance; in the second he bewails his pain (I. 23-30); and in the third tells of his ability to endure (I. 30-53). At the turning point in the speech (I. 53), not just the mood changes but the whole character. Prometheus was able to endure his pain because he knew that Jupiter’s fall was at hand, but at this point he begins to consider Jupiter’s pain and his wish that no ’living thing’ should suffer pain causes him to reject his curse (I. 53-58). To see this rejection as the only action in Prometheus Unbound is to use hindsight, for although those familiar with the play realise that this is the turning point from which all else follows, it is by no means established at this point that the release of Prometheus and of mankind will result. In a performance during which the audience does not know, as Earth does not, that it will bring his release, they will share her reaction. The speech changes mood once more to end with an appeal for help in remembering the curse (I. 58-74). Dramatic conflict is revealed through the changes throughout the speech, and its completion engenders yet another, since his request is refused. Other characters are introduced, though these are unseen: the Earth, the Voices from the Mountains, Springs, Air and Whirlwinds.

  • 52 BSMIX, pp. 152-153.

27Mercury’s temptation of Prometheus is another example of dramatic conflict and the Chorus of Furies brings yet another since it is clear that Prometheus weakens during their torture and almost succumbs (I. 597- 615) until the remaining Fury vanishes or, as Shelley originally wrote, ’exit’ (I. 634). The entry of the kind Spirits that bring comfort is dramatic in its contrast with the preceding scene and in the suddenness of their spectacular appearance and disappearance. Mercury had a vivid dramatic, even balletic, gesture here, ’he represses them [the Furies] with his wand’; once again this would be more graphic and effective on stage.52 Another kind of dramatic effect is seen in Prometheus’s longing for Asia, an emotion which he, bound to the precipice, can do nothing to fulfil. Throughout this Act, there are points of dramatic tension and characterisation and it is far from lacking in visual and aural effect to enhance these. There is less of this tension in the following acts but there are different forms of dramatic effect; the shift of emphasis away from Prometheus’ struggle as an individual towards that of the struggle of humanity as a whole allows the audience to participate in the cosmic events.

Stage effects

  • 53 Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 38.
  • 54 SPII, p. 495n.

28The appearance of the Phantasm demands a huge scenic effect: the ghostly impression achieved with gauze and accompanied by the sound effects late Georgian theatre mechanists did particularly well, whirlwind, earthquake, fire and cloven mountains. Shelley has described the Phantasm’s facial expression and frightening demeanour as if to an audience: ’cruel […] but calm and strong/Like one who does, not suffers wrong’ (I. 237-238). He also gives him purple star-inwoven robes (I. 234) with a golden sceptre, the colours he so often uses to denote tyranny. Although we know that the change of heart in Prometheus has taken place, the actual recall of his curse occurs here, in front of witnesses as it were, since he asks the Earth, ’Were these my words, O Parent?’ (I. 302). The Earth’s distressed reaction, echoed by the Spirits, is one of woe rather than pleasure, yet another dramatic point (I. 303-305). Wasserman pointed out the stage effect in which ’the audience watch[es] the Phantasm uttering the curse against him of whom it is the Phantasm; it also observes Prometheus facing his own former self in Jupiter’s ghost since all of Jupiter’s nature […] existed in Prometheus when he cursed his oppressor’.53 A reader cannot realise this without some thought but it is apparent at once to an audience. A good actor, like Pallerini, can convey a visual impression with body language rather than words and the point can be made by the actors making identical gestures and expressions. Another cancelled stage direction for Prometheus reads ’he bends his head as in pain’ at the line ’I wish no living thing to suffer pain’ (I. 305).54 This gesture on stage, reminiscent of ballet, would be very moving and convey a great deal in a theatrical representation but it gives nothing extra to the reader.

  • 55 SPII, pp. 508n., 503n., 510n., also see p. 524n.

29Immediately afterwards, Mercury enters, wearing gold and purple sandals (I. 320), denoting his attachment to Jupiter, but, as he is not entirely in this livery and his serpent-cinctured wand might suggest he is a free spirit, the effect of his being betrayed by his feet is more readily grasped on the stage. Cancelled stage directions at this point for the Furies (I. 520, I. 538) ’Enter rushing by groupes of horrible forms; they speak as they [rush by canc.] pass in chorus and [Another canc.] a Fury rushing from the crowd’ indicate that Shelley originally thought of this being performed, particularly as he replaced them more suitable lines for a poem (I. 521-524).55 Again, ’Look’ (550) was originally to have had the more dramatic pointing ’Look!’.

  • 56 PBSLI, p. 344; Sacontala or The Fatal Ring: An Indian Drama by Cálidás reprinted from the translat (...)

30Act II concentrates on the journey of Asia and Panthea to Demogorgon. The drama partly lies in the mystery, wonder and sheer beauty of it, which would be created in performance by the actors’ gracefulness in their plumed costumes, scene painting, music and sound effects. Dramatic tension is created for the audience by the uncertainty of whether the nymphs are in danger, as they watch them led by invisible forces in a forest of unearthly atmosphere with strange music. The fear is increased when they descend the volcano (II. iii), but the mysterious appearance of Demogorgon is relieved by the comic effect of his brusque oracular answers in his dialogue with Asia. Demogorgon’s ’Behold!’ and Asia’s astonishment (II. iv. 128) lead to the coup de théâtre, the volcanic eruption (II. iv. 155). The symbolism of this, the arrival of the charioteers and the struggle with Demogorgon would work on different levels for an audience, as it does for a reader. These effects are similar in a melodrama or an opera, say, The Magic Flute. There is no evidence, however, that Shelley – who enjoyed Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro – ever saw The Magic Flute. He did know Kalidasa’s Sakuntala in Sir William Jones’s translation Sacontala, and the fact that it may have come to mind would be consistent with the Indian references in Prometheus Unbound. In Sacontala, there are voices and music ’behind the scenes’ (pp. 38, 73-75, 95-96) and a chorus of invisible wood nymphs (p. 85); there are magical elements (pp. 75-77, 109) and Dushmanta travels in a car above the clouds (p. 137); Dushmanta and Sacontala share a poem (pp. 61-62) and two Bards repeat stanzas (pp. 94-95).56

  • 57 Geoffrey Matthews, ’A Volcano’s Voice in Shelley’ in SPP, p. 561.

31Geoffrey Matthews cited Shelley’s interest in volcanoes and violent geological phenomena, the imagery of which he uses in Prometheus Unbound, and his conviction that a tyrant would not allow his own peaceful removal, to show that the struggle between Demogorgon and Jupiter (III .1. 59-82) would have been violent.57 It is a war between elemental forces – recalling the War of the Titans in which earthquake and thunderbolt contended – which has its basis in the imagery of Prometheus Bound and not therefore the unopposed conflict which Wasserman suggests. It would be far more dramatic and exciting to watch than to read as, in performance, the audience would not know the outcome. The scene is one of suspense, a detailed struggle enhanced by Demogorgon first warning Jupiter ’Lift thy lightnings not’ (III. i. 56) then conceding that it is ’the destiny/Of trodden worms to writhe till they are dead’ (III. i. 59-60). Jupiter is initially confident that he will win (III. i. 63), then pleads for mercy and for Prometheus to judge him (III. i. 63-69). Shrieking and calling for his ’elements’ which will not obey him (III. i. 79-80) he sinks ’dizzily down […] mine enemy above’ (III. i. 81-82) in Demogorgon’s final victory.

  • 58 Hazlitt, III, p. 205.

32The scenic effects were easily achievable on the late Georgian stage. Shelley had seen spectacular stage struggles in Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, both in the opera and Pocock’s The Libertine, where the Don was carried off by ’fiends come hot from hell with flaming torches’, and sank ’into a lake of burning brimstone on a splendid car brought to receive him by the devil, in the likeness of a great dragon, writhing round and round upon a wheel of fire’.58 He far exceeds them in this scene:

Sink with me then –
We two will sink in the wide waves of ruin,
Even as a vulture and a snake outspent
Drop, twisted in inextricable fight,
Into a shoreless sea. Let hell unlock
Its moulded oceans of tempestuous fire,
And whelm on them into the bottomless void […] (III. i. 70-76)

33The violence of Jupiter’s descent is followed by the contrasting calm of the scene with Apollo and Neptune, which prepares for the long scene of the Caucasus and the unbinding of Prometheus. The dramatic conflict might be said to conclude with this. But the visual and aural impact of the

14. ’Mountains’, set design undated. Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/409.

  • 59 John Gibson Lockhart qtd in Barcus, The Critical Heritage, p. 238; Tetreault, ’Shelley and the Ope (...)

34combination of poetry, dance, mime, scenery and music is also dramatic. It is not merely a feast for the senses, but also a profound stimulation to thought, providing a framework for new moral ideas. Prometheus was recognised to ’end in a mysterious sort of dance’ in an early review, and Act IV, with its celebratory music and dancing, has been seen as a masque or a ballet following an opera. Yet masque and ballet are combined. Shelley did not expect his lyrics to be merely read on the page, as Wasserman and Tetreault appear to suggest.59 If Prometheus was to be performed, he intended them to be danced.


  • 60 Eaton, II, p. 42.

35Greek drama was performed in the open. Charlotte Eaton saw open air theatre on several occasions in Italy but there is no record of the Shelleys having done so.60 The whole of Prometheus Unbound is set out-of-doors but this could be recreated on stage by such great scene painters as Sanquirico at La Scala or the Grieves and Greenwood in London.

  • 61 R.B. Peake, Presumption, III, v, in Cox, Seven Gothic Dramas; e.g. Thomas Morton, The Children in (...)

36Each scene is consistent with the style of theatre painting of the period. Not only was mountain scenery popular (an instance is in Presumption, a dramatisation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) but there are many examples of wings painted as part of a forest with standing pieces as rocks, trees or caves, so that actors could move between them, appearing lost in mysterious depths.61

37The perspective scenery, with wings one behind the other, was suited to creating this effect, as it was for representing a serried mountain range. If depicted on stage, the ravines and mountains of Act I would have formed a spectacular setting, possibly with borders of icicles, and with the precipice to which Prometheus is bound as a standing piece. Asia’s vale in Act II creates a contrast by being a spring landscape rather than a wintry one; the setting, however, could be easily adapted with a drop. The wings, however, would not need to be changed since surrounding mountains would be suitable for ’a vale’. The forest scene of II. ii includes caverns and rocks; the rock for the fauns to sit upon and the snowy mountain tops (II. iii, II. v) would have been furnished by standing pieces. For Demogorgon’s cave – very dark since he sits on an ’ebon throne’ and is a ’mighty darkness’ (II. iv. 1, 3) – and the scene in Heaven (III. i), more scenery would be added. Viganò’s Prometeo was noted for its spectacular scene in Heaven and magnificent Throne for Jupiter. Following the violence of Jupiter’s fall, there is the peaceful contrasting setting, ’The mouth of a great river’ (III. ii), in Atlantis, offering the scene painter the opportunity for an imaginative response with strange birds and beasts. There is a return to the first scene for III. iii. Prometheus’ cave and forest (III. iv) might be slightly adapted for Act IV, with the forest formed of the wing pieces, whereas the cave is ’in the background’. Shelley undoubtedly would have realised that the gradual breaking of the dawn throughout Act I would be best achieved with gas lighting.

38As noted in Chapter 1, late Georgian mechanists were easily able to bring about such spectacular scenic and sound effects as whirlwind, earthquake and fire at the appearance of the Phantasm (I. 231-232), ’thunder and lightning’ required by the partially cancelled stage direction (I. 432n) when the snow-laden cedar is struck (I. 433), earthquake for Demogorgon’s chariot arriving (III. i. 46-47) and earthquake and thunder for the fall of Jupiter (III. i. 55-83). There is a volcanic eruption accompanying Demogorgon’s ’Behold!’ (II. iv. 128) and a sound of waves (III. ii. 48). The wings of the Oceanides themselves make ’Æolian music’ (II. i. 26) but, when the Furies enter, Ione hears ’the thunder of new wings’(I. 521). Shelley originally had the direction, ’The Furies having mingled in a strange dance divide, & in the background is seen a plain covered with burning cities’ (I. 539n). Since there is no reason to specify the dance dividing to show the back scene purely for the reader, this direction makes more sense as one for performance. As mentioned in Chapter 1, a transparency was commonly used to achieve the effects of ’burning towns’, mist for the Furies, ’steaming up from hell’s wide gate’ (I. 517) and also ’crimson foam’ with the addition of coloured silk across a light. The Furies’ wings, which are ’blackening the birth of day’ (I. 441), and the brilliant colours of the costumes of Jupiter and Mercury would have created a stage effect by their visible contrast to white mountain scenery. When Panthea and Asia descend to Demogorgon, this would have been accomplished, as Elisabetta’s descent in La Spada di Kenneth no doubt was, by trapdoor, as would Demogorgon’s exit with Jupiter and the entrance of The Phantasm and the ’winged child’ (III. iii. 147).

39Scenes iii and iv in Act II are unusually brief: 53 and 45 lines respectively without their songs. The only happening in Scene iii is the descent of Panthea and Asia into Demogorgon’s cave and they do not arrive there until Scene iv. In a poem intended for reading, it makes no sense to split these scenes. However, on stage they cannot be combined as the actors would have to go through a trapdoor in order to descend to the cave, necessitating a scene change so that they can re-enter via the wings as if just descended. Shelley’s scene change enables this practical problem to be solved by pulling aside the wings depicting the mountains to reveal the next set: Demogorgon’s cave. Panthea and Asia, having exited through the trapdoor, can now enter and, at exactly this point, Shelley has written a song which is long enough to cover the change. When the charioteers leave (II. iv. 135, 174), a similar swift change would have created an impression of flying, a rapid drawing back of the wings allowing them to appear on top of the cloud-capped mountain. Clouds were often hung as borders and, in this case, could give the impression of extreme height as the chariots are now near the top of Olympus. It could also differentiate the location if the same scenery was used as for the ’pinnacle’ (II. ii) and for the scene within a cloud on the top of a snowy mountain (II. v). These scene changes suggest that Shelley had performance in mind.

  • 62 MWSJ, p. 193n.; Moody, Illegitimate Theatre, p. 224; Crabb Robinson, p. 81.
  • 63 SPP, pp. 518.

40A further suggestion that Prometheus would have been staged without difficulty at a theatre of Shelley’s time is that the scenes follow in the sequence described in Chapter 1. There is no scene change in the first Act, except for the drops mentioned above, but Act II has four changes. Asia’s vale (II. i), like the Caucasus, is a long mountain scene with a vista in the background. Shutters showing a forest would then be pulled across for a short scene (II. ii). For the next long scene (II. iii), Asia’s vale could be used again with a built-up practicable piece in the foreground, the ’pinnacle’ which is, of course, a volcano. Act III opens with a long scene, Heaven with a large number of gods and goddesses, followed by the short river scene and the long scene of the Caucasus. The forest and cave could easily be drawn across for a short scene to end the act, with adaptations for Act IV. Dancing, masks, costume and scenery combined to create comic or beautiful effects in the pantomimes Shelley saw, such as Harlequin Gulliver on 16 February 1818, when Grimaldi lampooned the ’luxurious narcissism’ of fashionable female dress by appearing in a coal scuttle, iron stove pipe and a plum pudding. Crabb Robinson called it one of the best pantomimes he had ever seen, mentioning ’the Laputian masks’ and ’the descent of Laputa… a beautiful painting’.62 Shelley therefore knew the imaginative use to which costume could be put and in a performance of Prometheus it is possible for a director to extrapolate how Shelley would have wished the characters to appear. For example, it is clear from the text that the Oceanides have huge wings. Ione’s ’wings are folded o’er mine ears/My wings are crossed over my eyes’ (I. 221-222). While Ione describes them as giving a ’silver shade’ (I. 224), Asia describes Panthea’s wings as ’sea-green’ (II. i. 26). A combination of sea-green and silver seems intended, giving a shimmering effect. Prints of Pregliasco’s costumes for Prometeo indicate the flimsy apparel of Viganò’s dancers which may have been what Shelley imagined for the Spirits. The Furies would wear wigs to simulate ’hydra tresses’ (I. 326). Demogorgon is ’veiled’, ’a mighty Darkness’ and ’shapeless’ (II. iv. 1, 2, 5) which suggests black draperies. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley expresses a preference for masked actors and he may have envisaged the Furies and Demogorgon as masked.63 The Spirit of the Moon’s ’countenance, like the whiteness of bright snow’ could also suggest a mask, as it is entirely in white even to the hair (IV. 220-225).

  • 64 Mayer, Harlequin in his Element, p. 28; Dario Fo, The Tricks of the Trade, trans. by Joe Farrell, (...)
  • 65 MWSJ, p. 193, 193n.; SPII, p. 496n.

41These would not have been the papier-maché ’big head’ masks worn in English pantomime since they were too difficult to dance in, but the type of leather mask worn by commedia dell’arte players which are designed to fit the actor’s face ’like a shoe’, as Dario Fo explains, and must be able ’to breathe’ so that it can ’absorb your sweat as well as to live in symbiosis with your body heat and breathing rhythms’.64 Ione recognises the Hours as charioteers although they have no chariots (IV. 56), which suggests they are wearing a costume like those of the ancient Greek charioteers which Shelley had seen in the Elgin Marbles. Chariots will convey Demogorgon and Asia and Panthea; Asia’s, like Aphrodite’s, is shaped like a shell just as one of the chariots was in Charles the First.65


  • 66 Schlegel, p. 65.

42I believe that it is clear from the stage directions and from the many songs that Shelley would have expected a musical accompaniment to the drama, if staged, but it was unlikely to have been orchestral. Ione (I. 669-670) asks if what she hears at the entrance of the Spirits (I. 664-666) is ’the music of the pines?/ Is it the lake? Is it waterfall?’ which suggests not orchestral music but a harp which gives a rippling effect. A flute is mentioned (II. ii. 38) and there is also a ’small, clear, silver lute’ (III. ii. 38). Off-stage pipes may have sufficed for the ’nightingales’ (II. ii. 24). Since the Fauns speak of ’delicate music’ (II. ii. 65), it seems Shelley required it to be as Schlegel imagined the music of the Greek theatre: ’not in the slightest degree to impair the distinctness of the words’.66

  • 67 Concealed singers in pantomime in Cox and Gamer, Broadview Anthology, p. 213; theatre songs, e.g. (...)

43The Spirits are unseen, but they sing. Not all of the verses given to them are specified as sung but they are written in a style easily adapted to music. In some cases, Shelley entitles the verses ’song’, as he does with the Song of the Spirits (II. ii. 54-97). Its repetitive refrain ’Down, down’ particularly lends itself to the singing style of the late Georgian theatre. Singing indicates the difference between the more abstract and the more developed characters. Although Earth is an unseen Spirit, addressed by Prometheus as ’Melancholy Voice’ (I. 152), she is a character who interacts with Prometheus rather than an abstraction and her speeches are in blank verse. However, when the Spirit of the Earth appears in Act IV, it is accompanied by ’music wild’ (IV. 252). The Voices of the Mountains, Springs, Air and Whirlwinds are written in short rhyming verses which, especially if sung, make an effective counterpoint to Prometheus’s demand, the long speech contrasted with the supernatural singing voices. The Echoes (I. 312-313), repeat Earth’s words using the same form as she does. Singers were placed, according to contemporary stage practice, behind the wings or even below or above the stage. The practice of concealing voices behind the scenes occurs in Sacontala.67

  • 68 Sir H.R. Bishop,’The Celebrated Echo Song’ (William Reeve) (London/ Dublin: Goulding, D’Almaine, P (...)

44In Act II, Panthea first says the Echoes ’speak’ (II. i. 171) but later she speaks of ’the strain’ (II. i. 189) and Asia of ’the notes’ (II. i. 195). Echo songs were sufficiently popular in the London theatre of the period for Henry Bishop’s wellknown one to be re-used for Presumption by the composer, Watson.68 At the beginning of II. ii, there is music since the Fauns are required to be ’listening’ (stage directions, p. 539). The Oceanides produce their own music when they move their wings, but no other music is required until the Spirit’s song (II. iv. 163-174). The stage directions (p. 571) call specifically for music (II. v. 36) and for the following verses (II. v. 48-71) to be sung, presumably also Asia’s verses (II. v. 72-110) in response. This lovely duet, with its imagery of boats and music associated with love while Asia glides in her shell-like chariot across the stage, perhaps drew on Shelley’s memory of the candle-lit boats which glided across the stage in Dibdin’s The Cabinet referred to in Chapter 1. In performance, the sight of both Asia and the boat would reinforce the symbolism of the song.

45At the opening of Act IV, the stage direction requires the Voice of Unseen Spirits to ’awaken [Panthea and Ione] gradually during the first song’ (p. 612). ’The train of dark Forms and Shadows’ also sings (IV. 9-29) and Ione and Panthea have similar verses which suggest they respond in song. The Unseen Spirits (IV. 40-55) and then the Choruses and Semi Choruses of the Hours continue in song. Panthea and Ione hear ’the deep music of the rolling world’ (IV. 186) which signifies the presence of the Earth. Since the Earth is on stage until the end of the drama, this music must accompany the poetry and dance but not dominate, perhaps varying so that the Earth and the Moon can dance. There is also the sound of the conch shell, the ’mighty music’ which the Spirit of the Hour ’loosens’ (III. iii. 81), an instrument which was used in Greek drama and continues to be used in Polynesian drama.


  • 69 Gilli Bush-Bailey, ’Still Working it Out’ in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 29.2 (Winter 200 (...)

46Dancing is mentioned throughout the drama. Although Shelley does not specify what ’strangeness’ the dance of the Furies consists of (p. 510n), the libretto of La Spada di Kenneth shows that even Viganò did not describe dance more fully. If staged, the part of the Furies would require proficient dancers since, whether spoken or sung, the dancing must emphasise the words and change when the metre changes as the chorus in Greek drama did; when they call the second group of Furies, who have a short lined ballad metre, their dancing must be co-ordinated and keep time to continual changes of metre. The dancers would have been expected not to dance in unison but to keep tempo with each other while ’rushing’ or darting forward as in the cancelled stage directions (pp. 508 & 510n). The skills of the dancers of the period were very high, even in the minor theatres, as noted by Bush- Bailey.69

47Shelley admired and described the ’harmoniously interwoven’ movements in pictorial groupings and attitudes shown in the prints of Viganò’s ballets, and it seems likely that, in a performance version of Prometheus Unbound, he would have intended to use this style of dancing to form a dramatic contrast to the Furies and convey the personality of the Spirits. The physical presence of the Oceanides on the stage, visible to the audience from the beginning of the Act (although they are silent until I. 222), compensates for the fact that the Mountains, Springs, Air and Whirlwinds and the Earth are unseen Voices. Ione’s first speech mentions her use of her wings and Shelley, having seen Viganò’s work, would have no difficulty in imagining how they might perform with these, gracefully miming their reactions to the speeches. Although the performer need not be a trained dancer, a dancer would more easily achieve the desired effect.

48642 Gilli Bush-Bailey, ’Still Working it Out’ in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 29.2 (Winter 2002), p. 15.

15. ’Auguste Vestris’, contemporary print (artist unknown. From Ethel L. Urlin, Dancing, Ancient and Modern (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1914), p. 140.

49The magical effect of the scenes in which the supernatural beings, Spirits, Oceanides and Fauns, appear throughout the drama, would be lost if the movement were not graceful, suggesting that Shelley had dancers in mind.

  • 70 PBSLII, p. 4.

50The Dreams which enter and ’disappear’ (II. i. 115-126, 127-132), must do so swiftly, and Shelley probably intended them to be played by nimble dancers, perhaps children. He had admired the ’unaffected self-possession’ of the children from Viganò’s La Scala ballet school.70 A child could also have danced the Spirit of the Earth in III. iv, which, at first, being ’not earthly’, ’glides’ (III. iv. 1) but finally is ’running’ (III. iv. 24).

51Shelley was familiar with Comus and with the works of Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher, presumably including their masques. Act IV, like a masque, has characters equivalent to courtiers, Panthea and Ione, asleep in the forest who wake to song. This is followed by ’A train of dark forms and Shadows passes by confusedly, singing’ across the backstage (IV. 9-25).

52Shelley reverses the seventeenth-century practice; this anti-masque of the gloomy funeral of the hours precedes the masque (IV. 40), emphasising that the following dance can be joy unrestrained as there is no longer any need to mourn. In the theatre, Panthea and Ione would have been placed near a wing painted like a cave opening or a standing piece representing a rock or tree while the ballet took place on the forestage.

  • 71 SPII, p. 645.

53The Voices are unseen, but once again dancing is mentioned. The ’charioteers’ (Hours) enter (IV. 55) perhaps dancing. Certainly they do so soon afterwards, as indicated by ’leap’ (IV. 67, 68) and ’Weave the dance on the floor of the breeze’(IV. 69), repeated by ’weave the mystic measure’ (IV. 77) which imply passing deftly between each other. The Chorus of Spirits ’join the throng/of the dance and the song’ (IV. 84), both groups of dancers sing and dance together, and ’whirl, singing loud’ (IV. 169) suggests they continue to do so. The line ’We are free to dive, or soar, or run’ (IV. 137) shows that Shelley thought of very lively dancing as well as singing. Performers with good breath control can do both and, moreover, with a large group of dancers, some can dance more energetically while others can carry the song. This would be necessary in the case of the long dance of the Earth and the Moon, where the words are very complicated to deliver and important to understand. Kelvin Everest considers that Panthea’s lines (IV. 514-515, p. 645n) indicate that the singing may have been by ’the bright Visions […] singing Spirits’.71 After the chorus of Hours and Spirits end their dance, ’some depart, and some remain’ (IV. 176); the only point in some remaining would be to carry part of the singing. The Earth and the Moon may begin by speaking or singing their verses, but their later dancing suggests pirouettes followed by more pirouettes (IV. 444, 457, 470, 477) when it would be impossible for them to speak. A portrait of Auguste Vestris pirouetting at the King’s Theatre, indicates the kind of wild joy that Shelley required of the Earth and Moon. As noted in Chapter 2, Shelley had seen Armand Vestris, Auguste’s son, equally famous for his pirouette, at the same theatre.

54Ethel Urlin calls the tarantella ’the great national dance of the Sicilians and Neapolitans […] the most passionate and picturesque of all dances’ and explains how ’the partners salute each other, draw off, and dance timidly and separately; they then return to each other, stretch out their arms and whirl madly together at the highest possible speed’. She quotes a description from ’an old writer’ which she believes shows their Greek origin:

  • 72 Qtd in Urlin, p. 70.

The Neapolitan girls dance to the snapping of their fingers, and the beat of a tambourine, and whirl their petticoats about them with greater elegance in the position than other Italians, and more airiness in the flow of their draperies; striking likenesses of them may be found in the paintings of Herculaneum.72

55She also quotes Stolberg’s description:

  • 73 Qtd in Ibid., p. 69.

The tambourine is always played by a woman. This is enlivened by the singing of the girls that dance. The songs they sing in general are the complaints of lovers, and the cruelties of the maiden beloved. You imagine you behold a priestess of Apollo seated on the tripod, and that the music is the inspiration of the god […] No dance is so full of grace and decorum as this. The head inclining, the downcast eyes, the noble dignity of mien and the inimitable elasticity, are indescribable.73

  • 74 MWSJ, p. 243; Morgan, Italy, III, pp. 197-198; Urlin, p. 68.

56At Naples, Shelley re-read de Staël’s Corinne, in which she describes the tarantella. Shelley had the opportunity to see it there, as it was often performed in the street. In the early nineteenth century there was a belief that the Neapolitans’ dances were descended from the Greeks, since the Neapolitans had long preserved the many of the customs of ancient Greece. 74 The belief that the whirling and spinning dance was a form of ancient Greek dancing suggests that the dance of the Moon and Earth originated in the tarantella. The use of this dance in Prometheus Unbound would be in perfect accord with Shelley’s idea of Greek drama.

  • 75 SPP, p. 519.
  • 76 Schlegel, pp. 56-59.

57The whole drama is not solely masque, opera, poem or ballet, but a new form of drama which combines these, using as its framework the Greek drama from which Shelley took the myth itself. Shelley’s scientific and philosophical references show that man could understand natural phenomena and need not be enslaved by religion, war and revenge, but could bring about liberation through forgiveness. Prometheus Unbound attempts to provide the ’religious institution’ lacking in modern theatre, of which Shelley complained in A Defence of Poetry. Despite his admiration for Calderón’s Autos, he did not feel they supplied this, but were marred by ’the substitution of the rigidly defined and ever-repeated idealisms of a distorted superstition’.75 Prometheus Unbound in its overthrow of Jupiter, replaces these with ’living impersonations of the truth of human passions’, especially love, and intellectual achievement.76

58Although he clearly did not intend Prometheus Unbound to be performed in the immediate future, Shelley had seen that an audience could appreciate the philosophical and poetical ideas in Viganò’s ballets at La Scala. Viganò did not have to commercialise his work as the theatre was subsidised. It is clear that in 1818, the poetry, music, ballet, scene painting and technology required to perform the spectacular effects in Prometheus Unbound existed and their existence would have offered Shelley the opportunity of foreseeing the revival of drama not as an imitation of the Greek but as a modern equivalent, retaining aspects of earlier periods but with completely new elements. While this might have been possible at La Scala, however, there was no comparable theatre in England; the theatres were run on a commer cial basis.

  • 77 Barcus, The Critical Heritage, pp. 225-251; Neil Fraistat, ’Shelley Left and Right’ in SPP, p. 649

59It is true that the ideas and poetry of Prometheus Unbound are complex and this might appear to contradict Schlegel’s theory, since Schlegel emphasises the importance of conveying ideas in the theatre in a very clear way. On the other hand, a physical representation of great beauty and emotional appeal might have clarified aspects which puzzled critics for many years. The earthquakes and volcanoes would have been seen and heard and the scientific and natural phenomena could have been visually portrayed. Perhaps Shelley underestimated his audience, since, as noted in Chapter 2, the poem had favourable reviews in 1820, one of which even acknowledged that the ending appeared to be ’a kind of dance’. As for a wider audience, the radical publisher, William Benbow, brought out a pirate edition of Shelley’s poetry in 1826, suggesting that he expected a readership for it not only of a select few but also of the very radicals to whom Shelley wished to appeal in poems such as The Mask of Anarchy. Had Shelley been able to arrange a performance, he would have reached an audience wider still.77

60In the twentieth century, theatrical subsidies allowed such directors as Peter Brook to experiment with innovatory forms which draw on different cultures and myths. It is possible to envisage, even today, a drama such as Prometheus Unbound being performed with the sensitivity it requires. Viganò’s term coreodramma may be a more suitable one to apply to Shelley’s ’lyrical dramas’, since the songs and dances are an integral part. What is important and extraordinary about them is the extent to which they can stand alone as poetry, yet can be enhanced rather than spoiled by the incorporation of music, dance and stage effects. Hellas, also based on an Aeschylean drama, also includes these theatrical elements.


1 Curran, Cenci, p. 200; Cox, ’The Dramatist’, p. 83.

2 SPII, pp. 508n., 503n., 508-510n., 524n. There are further stage directions in BSMIX.

3 PBSLII, p. 196; SPP, p. 205.

4 Ibid., p. 8.

5 PBSLII, pp. 116, 164, 174.

6 William Keach, ’The Political Poet’ in Morton, Companion, pp. 130-132.

7 SPP, p. 535.

8 PBSLII, pp. 4, 14; Gatti, p. 58; Curran, ’Prometheus’, p. 452; Rosselli, The Opera Industry, pp. 29, 74 and Fig. 1 for tables of endowment.

9 See, for example, PBSLII, pp. 266-267, 291.

10 Rosselli, Music and Musicians, pp. 21- 22; Hall & Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, p. 270.

11 Curran, Shelley’s Annus Mirabilis; Carl Grabo, Prometheus Unbound: An Interpretation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935); Desmond King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work (London: Macmillan, 1971); Earl R Wasserman, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound’ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965); Webb, A Voice Not Understood.

12 Tetreault, ’Shelley and the Opera’, pp. 144, 154.

13 Wasserman, Prometheus, pp. 201-203; Lisa Vargo, ’The Solitary Reformer: A Reading of Shelley’s Poetry’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Toronto, 1983), pp. 174-202.

14 Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 111.

15 Idem.

16 H.D.F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1961), pp. 54-57.

17 SPII, p. 472.

18 David Grene, Introduction to Prometheus Bound in Aeschylus II (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), pp. 134, 136.

19 OSA, pp. 271-272; King-Hele, p. 198; Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 144; Carlos Baker, Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 92; SPII, p. 472.

20 Schlegel, pp. 93-94.

21 For a different view, see Peter Cochran, ’Byron and Shelley: Radical Incompatibles’, Romanticism on the Net 43 (2006) < n43/013589ar.html> [accessed 25 January 2007] (para. 53 of 100).

22 SPP, p. 518.

23 Schlegel, pp. 63-65.

24 Quillin quotes only part of Schlegel’s discussion of opera in relation to Greek drama to support her belief that Shelley turned to music because language was ’no longer an effective mode of aesthetic mediation’. Jessica Quillin, ’”An assiduous frequenter of the Italian opera”: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa’, Opera and Romanticism: Praxis Series Romantic Circles <> (paras. 4, 5, 12, 21 of 21).

25 David Kimbell, Italian Opera, pp. 5-6.

26 Curran, ’Shelleyan Drama’ in Cave, p. 63.

27 CCJ, p. 88; MWSJ, pp. 198-200n., 203-207.

28 PBSLII, p. 4.

29 Morgan, Italy, I, p. 166.

30 Ibid., pp. 170-171.

31 Stendhal, p. 175; Morgan, Italy, I, p. 166.

32 Stendhal, pp. 96, 95, 186.

33 MWSJ: for Otello, 5, 7 April 1818, see p. 203, for La Spada, 20, 21, 29 April, see pp. 205-207. Matteo Sartorio, Museo alla Scala confirms that the performance noted on p. 206 was La Spada, email 11 July 2005.

34 PBSLII, p. 14; Stendhal, pp. 94, 115.

35 Luigi Rossi, Il ballo alla Scala 1778-1970 (Milan: Edizione della Scala, 1972), p. 53.

36 Winter, The Pre-Romantic Ballet, p. 191.

37 Ibid., p. 193.

38 Stendhal, p. 96; Morgan, Italy, I, pp. 166, 169.

39 PBSLII, pp. 4, 14.

40 Stendhal, pp. 331, 104, 113.

41 Morgan, Italy, I, p. 169.

42 Idem; Stendhal, p. 175.

43 Winter, p. 193; Gatti, I, p. 58; PBSLII, p. 14.

44 MWSJ, p. 205.

45 Stendhal, pp. 115, 169.

46 MWSJ, p. 252n.; Morgan, Italy, III, p. 63.

47 Ferrero ’Staging Rossini’, p. 207; Stendhal, p. 186; Curran, ’Prometheus’, p. 450.

48 Morgan, Italy, I, p. 166, Stendhal, p. 175.

49 Curran, ’Prometheus’, p. 451; Gatti, p. 58.

50 Preface to Prometheus Unbound, SPII, p. 472.

51 Schlegel, p. 63; CCJ, p. 89n. She mistakenly calls Pallerini ’Maria’.

52 BSMIX, pp. 152-153.

53 Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 38.

54 SPII, p. 495n.

55 SPII, pp. 508n., 503n., 510n., also see p. 524n.

56 PBSLI, p. 344; Sacontala or The Fatal Ring: An Indian Drama by Cálidás reprinted from the translation of Sir William Jones (London: Charlton Tucker, 1870).

57 Geoffrey Matthews, ’A Volcano’s Voice in Shelley’ in SPP, p. 561.

58 Hazlitt, III, p. 205.

59 John Gibson Lockhart qtd in Barcus, The Critical Heritage, p. 238; Tetreault, ’Shelley and the Opera’, p. 159; Wasserman, Prometheus, p. 197.

60 Eaton, II, p. 42.

61 R.B. Peake, Presumption, III, v, in Cox, Seven Gothic Dramas; e.g. Thomas Morton, The Children in the Wood in Sutcliffe, Plays by Colman and Morton.

62 MWSJ, p. 193n.; Moody, Illegitimate Theatre, p. 224; Crabb Robinson, p. 81.

63 SPP, pp. 518.

64 Mayer, Harlequin in his Element, p. 28; Dario Fo, The Tricks of the Trade, trans. by Joe Farrell, ed. by Stuart Hood (London: Methuen, 1991), pp. 66-67.

65 MWSJ, p. 193, 193n.; SPII, p. 496n.

66 Schlegel, p. 65.

67 Concealed singers in pantomime in Cox and Gamer, Broadview Anthology, p. 213; theatre songs, e.g. ’When first to Helen’s lute’ in The Children in the Wood, Elizabeth’s song in Presumption.

68 Sir H.R. Bishop,’The Celebrated Echo Song’ (William Reeve) (London/ Dublin: Goulding, D’Almaine, Potter & Co., [WM 1820]) BL H.1654 p. (24) 004603022/004832989.

69 Gilli Bush-Bailey, ’Still Working it Out’ in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 29.2 (Winter 2002), p. 15.

70 PBSLII, p. 4.

71 SPII, p. 645.

72 Qtd in Urlin, p. 70.

73 Qtd in Ibid., p. 69.

74 MWSJ, p. 243; Morgan, Italy, III, pp. 197-198; Urlin, p. 68.

75 SPP, p. 519.

76 Schlegel, pp. 56-59.

77 Barcus, The Critical Heritage, pp. 225-251; Neil Fraistat, ’Shelley Left and Right’ in SPP, p. 649.

Table des illustrations

Légende 14. ’Mountains’, set design undated. Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/409.
Fichier image/jpeg, 58k
Légende 15. ’Auguste Vestris’, contemporary print (artist unknown. From Ethel L. Urlin, Dancing, Ancient and Modern (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1914), p. 140.
Fichier image/jpeg, 63k


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