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The Theatre of Shelley

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Chapter Six: Drama for a Purpose – Hellas & Fragments of an Unfinished Drama

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  • 1 Gisborne & Williams, p. 111.

1Like Prometheus Unbound, Hellas has a chorus and is modelled on a drama by Aeschylus, in this case very closely. Shelley described it, too, as a ’lyrical drama’ and, once again, it has been thought of as a poem rather than a drama. Edward Williams so described it, remarking that it would never be popular as it was ’above common apprehension’.1 If this is so, it would rule out one of Schlegel’s requirements for a successful drama but, like Prometheus, it may well have been more accessible to an audience than is generally thought when the visual and performable elements are taken into account.

  • 2 SPP, pp. 430-431.
  • 3 Hall & Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, pp. 270-272.

2Shelley does not state that its performance was his intention and called Hellas ’a drama from the circumstance of its being composed in dialogue’ but he went on to say, ’I doubt whether if recited on the thespian waggon to an Athenian village at the Dionysiaca, it would have obtained the prize of the goat’. As only dramas were entered in the Dionysiaca, this suggests that Hellas is a performable tragedy in Greek style, even if not a prizewinner, and the suggestion is reinforced by his comparison to The Cenci (’the only goatsong which I have yet attempted’), a tragedy successful enough to warrant a second edition. Given his high opinion of the improvisations of Sgricci, his description, a ’mere improvise’ may not be as dismissive as it sounds and may be a clue to his dramatic technique.2 There is no artistic reason why Hellas should not have been performed, and successfully, as Shelley knew The Persians had been. Hellas could be considered as a drama performable in a future theatre, like Prometheus Unbound but, bearing in mind that the very struggle for which Shelley was writing inspired a fashion for Greek drama, 3 that theatre was close at hand.

  • 4 SPP, p. 430; P.M.S. Dawson, ’Shelley and the Improvvisatore Sgricci: An Unpublished Review’, KSR, (...)
  • 5 William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free. The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (C (...)
  • 6 SPP, pp. 431-432; PBSLII, p. 365.

3Shelley mentions The Persians of Aeschylus as ’the first model of my conception’ for Hellas. It provided the structural basis although other elements were derived from contemporary performances which Shelley saw: Sgricci’s Quattro Etade La morte d’Ettore (The Death of Hector), upon which he wrote a review, and Dimond’s The Bride of Abydos, which has not to my knowledge been discussed at all in connection with Hellas.4 It is not surprising to find that The Persians, an especially political play, was an inspiration. The coming popularity of Greek drama shows that this connection was made by others at the time and in fact the awareness of the culture of ancient Greece caused much support for the Greek uprising.5 The avowed purpose of Hellas was to gain sympathy for the struggle for Greek independence. Shelley devoted more of the Preface to the politics than to the drama and urged Ollier to get it printed quickly before it lost its relevance.6

  • 7 BSMXVI, pp. viii-xxxiii.
  • 8 MWSJ, pp. 348, 350.
  • 9 Donald Reiman, ’Tracking Shelley’ in The Unfamiliar Shelley, p. 321.

4Reiman and Michael Neth suggest that Shelley may have begun a draft of a poem on the theme of Greek independence as early as February 1821, and, after a second sketch, laid aside his attempts, while he wrote Adonais. They conjecture that ’some time between late July and early September 1821’ he began a prologue reminiscent of the ’Prologue In Heaven’ of Goethe’s Faust, which he had read but not yet translated.7 Although these drafts preceded Hellas in the writing, this does not mean Shelley was prevaricating in saying The Persians was his first model. It may well have come to mind while he was reading ’fragments of Aeschylus’ on 10 January 1821, during a time when Sgricci was visiting the Shelleys. On 22 January, the day of Sgricci’s performance of The Death of Hector, Alexander Mavrocordato called.8 The combination of these events suggest that Shelley associated Hellas with The Persians and Sgricci’s improvisation before he put anything on paper, then considered using the technique of a modern poet he admired, Goethe, as a means of bringing his source up to date. For the Greeks, a performance was a religious occasion which honoured Dionysius, and Shelley may have been experimenting at including a form of religion in the drama by using a parallel to Goethe’s ’Prologue in Heaven’. But, as Reiman suggests, this would give an omniscient view which Shelley would wish to avoid.9 The presence of short lyrics among the speeches may indicate that he intended the Prologue to include a Chorus or they may have been written as they came to mind for another part of the play. Shelley discarded the Prologue, re-used some of the lines in Hellas itself and found other ways of making the Greek dramatic model relevant to modern readers..

  • 10 BSMXVI, p. xlvi.
  • 11 PBSLII, pp. 350, 368; Herbert Huscher, ’Alexander Mavrocordato, Friend of the Shelleys’, KSMB, 16 (...)
  • 12 William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still be Free, pp. 88-94, 348.

5As Reiman and Neth note, Shelley was unable to predict a Greek victory in Hellas; in fact, at this stage in the war, it seemed unlikely that the Greeks would gain their independence, but Shelley felt it important to rouse public opinion on their side.10 He wrote to Horace Smith in September 1821: ’All public attention is now centred on the wonderful revolution in Greece’. His confidence for Greece, once independent, was founded in the character of Mavrocordato, ’of the highest qualities, both of courage and conduct’. He believed he would ’probably fill a high rank in the magistracy of the infant republic’ and dedicated Hellas to him, quoting from Oedipus at Colonus, ’Prophet I am of noble combats’.11 He was right about the part Mavrocordato would play, but could not know the factors which meant that independent Greece would not even be a republic, let alone as enlightened as he would have hoped. 12

  • 13 Aristophanes, The Frogs, in The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs, trans.
  • 14 Richmond Lattimore, Introduction to Aeschylus I: The Oresteia (Chicago: Chicago University Press, (...)

6Aeschylus inspired Shelley’s hope for success. In The Frogs, performed in 404 BC when Athens was facing defeat in the war against Sparta, Aristophanes identifies Aeschylus as the tragic poet who can save the polis. In a competition with Euripides for the poets’ chair of honour in Hades, Aeschylus claims The Persians is ’An effective sermon on the will to win’ (II. 1026-1027).13 He wins the contest and Dionysius returns with him. Thus when Shelley thought of The Persians it was not merely as a drama by an admired classical Greek poet, but as a play which represented to the contemporaries of Aristophanes a declaration of the ’will to win’ by a man who had fought at Marathon against the Persians. It supplied him with an inherited framework which provided an ideal perspective for adumbrating another Greek victory over a tyrannical enemy. As Wasserman says, ’The tacit but presiding presence of Aeschylus’ play in Shelley’s is the presence of the earliest liberation of the Greeks in their struggle centuries later’.14

  • 15 Webb, A Voice Not Understood, p. 199; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, pp. 377-378; Walker, (...)

7It has often been said that the model of The Persians influenced Hellas but it has not been considered in what way the structure of Aeschylus’s play may have influenced the performability of Shelley’s. He had seen Sgricci’s improvisations which were structured ’on the Greek plan […] without the devision of acts and with chorus’s’, which showed him how effective this style could be on the stage. By describing Hellas as ’short and Aeschylean’ and ’full of lyrical poetry’, Shelley acknowledged how closely his dramatic technique was related to that of Aeschylus and, although he incorporated dramatic effects into Hellas from later periods, he follows The Persians closely in structure. This determined what was to be included or discarded; the Prologue was too elaborate for Aeschylean simplicity and economy. .15

The structure

8The Persians is set in Susa and Hellas in Constantinople – both locations would have been exotic to their audiences. In both, messengers bring news of battles and defeat, lists are recited to show the might of the empire and ghosts are raised which forecast the end of an empire. In each play the tyrant learns from his experience. The Persians opens with a long choral song by the Chorus of Persian elders, too old to take part in the war, lamenting that the huge army of Xerxes which had set out to conquer Greece has been so long away. They are beginning to lose faith in the victory they had expected.

  • 16 Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. by Seth G. Bernadete in Aeschylus II: Four Tragedies (Chicago: Uni (...)

Thus sable-clad my heart is torn
Fearful for those Persian arms. (115/117)16

9At the same time, they praise Xerxes as being ’the equal of god’ (81), say that ’Persians are never defeated/The people tempered and brave’ (191-192) and list the huge number of subject countries which have followed Xerxes to war. This chorus creates an atmosphere of conflict, a kind of disbelieving foreboding, in the minds of the audience before the late entrance of the Queen. Her subsequent speeches parallel the Chorus’s song when she describes a dream she has had and a bad omen she has seen which forecast the defeat of her son, Xerxes. She discovers that the Greeks ’are slaves to none’, a consequence of which was their victory at Marathon over great King Darius, her husband, and father of Xerxes. A herald enters with the news of the defeat at Salamis, where the Persian ships far outnumbered the Greek.

Had numbers counted
The barbarian warships surely would have won; (337-338)

  • 17 Kitto, Greek Tragedy, p. 41.

10He concludes, ’Some deity destroyed/Our host’ (345-346) but, while Xerxes threatened to execute his captains if they lost the battle (370-372), the Greeks in ’a great concerted cry’ exhort each other to ’free your fathers’ land’ (400-402), thus showing the contrast between tyranny and democracy. The Queen, by casting a spell, raises the ghost of Darius whose appearance is a spectacular dramatic effect. Darius prophesies that the unit Xerxes has left behind in Greece will find ’no safe return’ (797), forecasting the Battle of Plataea the following year which effectively ended the expansion of the Persian Empire. He descends, leaving the Queen lamenting that her son is dishonoured, and the Chorus that the life they had under Darius is no more. Xerxes returns, and, with the Chorus, performs a long lament which ends the play. Aeschylus reveals the changing emotional states of the Queen and Xerxes through the choruses and the prophecy of Darius. Although Xerxes appears in the play only as the broken man who in Kitto’s phrase ’limps home to port’, 17 the lessons he had learnt are already clear to the audience. The dramatic structure is therefore one of scenes not merely divided by choruses, but with a parallel theme in the chorus, the dramatic climax being the spectacular raising of a ghost of a great conqueror who prophesies defeat and end of empire.

11Shelley also opens his play with a Chorus and a royal Protagonist who does not speak immediately, who has had an ominous dream and wishes to know the future. Both Choruses are unable to take action, Aeschylus’ because of their age, Shelley’s because they are imprisoned in a seraglio. Shelley keeps to the Greek cast structure of Protagonist and Chorus with the second and third actors being Hassan and Ahasuerus. Both interact critically and sympathetically with Mahmud as the leader of the Chorus does with the protagonist in Greek tragedy. Shelley’s theatre employed more performers. This allowed him to increase the number of messengers and fulfil the expectations of his audience by showing them a Mahmud who, in commanding so many, accorded with their idea of an Eastern potentate. The function of the Herald in The Persians is performed by Daood and four messengers in Hellas, bringing news of Greek victories and revolts taking place in other parts of the Ottoman Empire. These cannot be described by Hassan as he is already on stage, but he remarks on the Greek ’will to win’. The successive appearances of messengers bringing bad news increases dramatic tension, as it does in Macbeth (V. iii). The lists of exotic names is reminiscent of the list of the subject peoples which had sent armies to join Xerxes in The Persians (30-58). The mention of the Aegean place names in Hellas (546-587), which were part of the Persian Empire in the fifth century BC, creates a further reminder of the similarity between the modern struggle and the ancient, and of the vastness of the Ottoman Empire.

The chorus

  • 18 For clarity, I have used a lower-case ’c’ for what is sung and upper-case ’C’ for the singers.
  • 19 Walker, ’The Urn of Bitter Prophecy’ p. 47; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 382.

12Shelley used a variety of rhythms and rhyme schemes in the choruses, varying the line lengths to correspond to the different metres used in Greek poetry and probably intending to make up for the comparative paucity of rhythm in the English language by the complexity and richness of the rhyme. They are not intended to be detached from the play since, like their Greek antecedents, they comment on the themes. The Persians has a Chorus of Persian elders and Hellas one of captive slavewomen.18 Shelley’s Chorus, like Aeschylus’, sets up the ambiguous atmosphere of foreboding with the first chorus, ostensibly a lullaby for Mahmud but actually the history of the Greek idea of liberty and the hope that it will triumph. As Constance Walker has noted, the words of the lullaby are ambiguous:19

Be thy sleep
Calm and deep
Like theirs who fell – not ours who weep! (Hellas, 5-7)

13While purportedly lulling Mahmud to sleep, the Chorus are covertly wishing him dead, since ’Theirs who fell’ refers to the Greek dead. This song engenders a tension similar to that in The Persians, but there is a conflict between what we know the Chorus think of Mahmud and what they are bound as members of a seraglio to perform. This is commented upon by ’the Indian’, who accuses the Greek women: they who ’love not/ With your panting loud and fast,/Have awakened him at last’ (111-113). But the Indian’s own prayers for Mahmud’s healthful sleep echoes their ’calm sleep/Whence none may wake, where none shall weep’ by her desire for it to be:

Clear and bright, and deep!
Soft as love and calm as death,
Sweet as a summer night without a breath (11-13)

14The association with death is repeated by the use of ’dead’ and ’weep’ in her following verse:

All my joy should be
Dead, and I would live to weep
So thou mightst win one hour of quiet sleep. (24-26)

15Thus the Indian echoes the first Chorus when they sing of their lack of sexual freedom, even as she believes she is singing of her love for Mahmud.

16The parallels between the sexual enslavement of women and the struggle for liberty sets up the theme for the chorus. The theme of liberty is traced from its birth in Greece, through the medieval Italian republics and a dark age to the early nineteenth-century revolutions in Spain and Greece (45-109). If performed, a Chorus singing of these ideas and dancing before a sleeping Mahmud would be a personification of the ideas themselves, also suggesting that the ideas form part of Mahmud’s foreboding dream of defeat and thus arouse his fears, causing him to wake.

17In the following scene, Mahmud expresses his fears and desire for reassurance about the future. He hopes that Ahasuerus, whom Hassan suggests is the immortal Wandering Jew but who is certainly a wise, abstemious hermit (136-161), will reassure him. The second chorus sings of immortality, spirituality, and Christianity versus ’the moon of Mahomet’. In parallel to this, Ahasuerus displays a Neo-Platonic philosophy in his words ’look on that which cannot change – the One, the unborn and the undying’ (768/769).

  • 20 BSMXVI, pp. 97, 99.
  • 21 Prometheus Bound, 888-905.
  • 22 BSMXVI, pp. 97-101.

18Shelley began a chorus which he discarded. Two songs of this link to the preceding scene. ’I would not be a king’ reflects Mahmud’s belief that kings have ’no repose’ (196); ’Judith loved not her enslaver’ reminds us of the beheading of Holofernes and echoes Mahmud’s casual, tyrannical order of an execution, ’Strike the foremost shorter by a head!’(193).20 The following verses were intended to be divided between Fatima (’the Indian’) and the Greeks, on the subject of the love of a slavegirl for her master, possibly deriving from the Chorus concerning Io in Prometheus Bound.21 The Greeks sing of a preferable love between equals, but begin to limit the choice of partner to those of the same country, religion and rank, approved by their ’friends’.22 In this they are not expressing Shelley’s opinions, since he himself had taken no account of rank or friends’ approval in his own marriages, and his infatuation with Emilia Viviani disregarded country and religion. The argument requires to be countered, but a continuation of this chorus would mean that it could not reflect the subject matter of the preceding scene. Moreover, it promised to be lengthy while the previous scene is short. Had Shelley developed this aspect it would have considerably increased the focus on sexual politics, but this would be diverging from his main theme of Greek liberation, in which the possibility of love between despot and slave is only an element.

19Shelley evidently saw that these verses would detract from the structure of Hellas, since the chorus would no longer reflect the subject matter of the scene. His desire for a structure similar to The Persians is shown by his discarding these verses and replacing them with the shorter and more fitting chorus which leads into a scene in which Mahmud’s confidence in victory is successively undermined by messengers. They bring news of the defeats of armies bearing ’the crescent moon’ (337) by those believing in ’the red cross’ (603), and the ’will to win’ embodied in those who are defeated and dying on the battlefield. The long third chorus, divided into chorus and semichorus, echoes that spirit of resistance, predicting the end of empire, proclaiming liberty and its continuation through Greece ’Based on the chrystalline sea/Of thought’ (699-700) and modified by the warning of ’the small still voice’ that ’Revenge and wrong bring forth their kind’ (729-732). The ambiguity of the love between master and slave suggested in the opening chorus is now commented upon in the attitude of Hassan, who would ’die for’ Mahmud (or Islam), yet whose ’heart is Greek’ (456-458). Shelley includes the Chorus’s attitude to slavery in:

Thy touch has stamped these limbs with crime,
These brows thy branding garland bear,
But the free heart, the impassive soul
Scorn thy controul! (678-681)

20Mahmud’s dialogue with Ahasuerus and the appearance of Mahomet II’s phantom prepare him for defeat and the end of empire which the preceding chorus had predicted. The phantom vanishes at the shouts of victory, but although Mahmud’s subjects are boasting of this, Mahmud pities them for their self-deception. His reconciliation with his own end and the possibility of defeat is followed by the final heroic and beautiful chorus from the Greeks. In this, they express their determination that ’Another Athens shall arise’ (1084), thus repeating the idea of the continuation of the idea of liberty and the belief of the preceding Semichorus that ’Greece, which was dead, is arisen!’ (1059) The ’golden years’ which will return will be better – ’A brighter Hellas’ (1067), ’a loftier Argo’ (1072), ’another Athens’ (1084) – but the long wars, revenge and cruelty of the ancient Greek world should die. Once again there is a warning from Shelley that revenge brings a continual cycle of war, and an element of foreboding in ’Oh, cease! must hate and death return?’ (1096).

  • 23 SPP, pp. 430, 463.

21Mahmud’s resignation and increased self-knowledge, however, show that wisdom is not all on the side of the Greeks and there is therefore a hint at the accordance of mood between Chorus and Protagonist in Hellas which unites Xerxes and his Chorus in The Persians. As the Greek uprising was only in its early stages, Shelley could not end Hellas with a lament for the defeat of the Turks, but, although he would not have claimed to have known what the future held, he could ’suggest the final triumph of the Greek cause’ by analogy with the past. He calls the final chorus ’indistinct and obscure’ because it is about an optimistic future which is more difficult to portray than war.23 The last voice heard from the Ottoman side is an ugly threat:

Oh, keep holy
This jubilee of unrevenged blood!
Kill! crush! despoil! Let not a Greek escape!

  • 24 Walker, ’The Urn of Bitter Prophecy’, p. 36.

22This may include the Greek harem-girls of the Sultan and is certainly directed at their kith and kin. It does not prevent them singing with the Greek spirit of defiance and bravery. Walker points out that Hellas asks the reader to provide a resolution.24 A performance would end with the menace of their enemy off-stage or perhaps even entering, an imminent massacre which pleads with the audience to prevent it, in the confrontational style now described as Brechtian but not inconsistent with Greek drama.

  • 25 PBSLII, p. 349; SPP, p. 518.

23Shelley followed the simplicity of The Persians in Hellas which, alone among his plays, keeps strictly to the unities of time, place and action. He does not artificially force his material into these unities: it does not dislocate belief to have all the action taking place in the seraglio, thus keeping to a unity of place. The action is Mahmud’s realisation and acceptance that his empire, like all others, is coming to its end, thus the speeches reporting the battles and the ghostly appearance of Mahomet II allow Shelley to use the unity of time without distorting events by huge flashback explanations. This does not contradict his opinion that neo-classical drama was ’the wrong road’, for he does not employ this rule unvaryingly throughout his drama. It appears appropriate in Hellas where he is following Aeschylus rather than Racine, Dryden or Alfieri. He made certain modifications which fulfil the requirements of contemporary performance practice without losing the spirit of Greek drama. For the Greeks, the drama festivals were religious occasions and Shelley restores this aspect which ’has indeed been usually banished from the stage’, in accordance with his ideas expressed in A Defence of Poetry, with a philosophy rather than religion.25

  • 26 Kitto, p. 38; Seth G. Bernadete, Introduction to The Persians, pp. 44-46.

24Although Kitto stresses the religious aspect of The Persians, saying that ’Xerxes was to be smitten by heaven because he had committed hybris’, Seth G. Bernadete places more importance on the fight for freedom.26 But religion and patriotism were inevitably intertwined in The Persians, as they were for the Greeks, since a certain god or goddess protected a particular city. For example, the Chorus says, ’the gods saved the city/Of the goddess’, Pallas Athene (347-348). When Xerxes commits hybris by arrogating to himself the power of a god, he is defeated by the gods, while the enforced Persian army is defeated by the Greek army of free, democratic citizens. Shelley enlarges on the aspects which refer to hybris and the inevitability of the end of empire, and develops the references to Greek courage and the desire to be free. Indeed, the seraglio in Hellas is a graphic visual symbol of the Chorus’s lack of liberty and their triple oppression as a subject race, as slaves and as women. But as he could not expect his audience to share a common religion, as the audience in Athens in 492 BC would have done, the Christianity expressed by the Chorus is made vague enough to be acceptable to groups of differing Christian faith, and does not identify them with the Greek Orthodox church. As a result, the ’religion’ in Hellas is not Christianity but a philosophical and moral point of view which, when Mahmud is made aware of it, reveals to him his own temporality and frailty and that of his empire.

25In The Persians, the Queen performs a sacrifice to raise the ghost of Darius. The equivalent action in Hellas is Mahmud’s request to see Ahasuerus whom he believes to be an immortal, oracular being. Unlike the Queen, who asks advice of her Chorus, Mahmud has no interest in humans; a shout ’bodes/Evil doubtless like all human sounds/Let me converse with spirits’ (186/187). In contrast, the following chorus, ’Worlds on worlds are rolling ever’ (196-238) glorifies humanity. Ahasuerus, who is the symbol of the continuity of thought, ’The Present, and the Past, and the To-come’ (148), induces Mahmud to realise that empires and the whole material universe are temporary whereas thought is permanent, thus foreshadowing the words of the final chorus. Mahmud’s dialogue with Ahasuerus allows him, through the suggestion that Mahmud can foretell the future by considering the past, to imagine a dialogue with the ghost of his ancestor, Mahomet II, at the fall of Constantinople, thereby realising what his own place in history is to be.

Mahomet II, like Darius, is unwilling to return, saying:
the grave is fitter
To take the living than give up the dead (Hellas, 862-863)

26He echoes Darius’s words:

Ascent is not easy
The chthonic deities more readily
Receive than give. (The Persians, 688-690)

27Darius is ’a potentate’ among the deities (The Persians, 690-1); Mahomet II speaks of reigning over the ruins of his former empire in the world of death (Hellas, 887-888). He tells Mahmud:

The Anarchs of the world of darkness keep
A throne for thee (Hellas, 879-880)

28As Darius explains, Xerxes only hastens an inevitable end so, in Hellas:

The moon of Mahomet
Arose, and it shall set. (Hellas, 221-222)

29Like Darius, Mahomet warns of the end of empire and the impermanence of fame and dominion. Ahasuerus tells Mahmud that Mahomet is ’the ghost of thy forgotten dream’ and, despite Hassan’s suggestion (149-151), says he himself is not the Wandering Jew but ’no more’ than a man (739). The ghost of Mahomet II creates a second coup de théâtre when, rather than ’entering’ and ’exiting’, it ’appears’ and ’vanishes’, suggesting the technique of placing ghosts behind a gauze and a lighting change possible with gas. Shelley makes use of the theatricality of the supernatural in Hellas, while insisting that the drama is free from superstition. This accords with the view that his decision to discard the Prologue with its deities was because it might suggest that the Greeks would owe their victory to their faith rather than their ’will to win’.

  • 27 Bernadete, The Persians, p. 44.
  • 28 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 203.
  • 29 Paul Cartledge, ’The Greek Religious Festivals’ in Greek Religion and Society, ed. by P.E. Easterl (...)

30Mahmud learns compassion and acceptance of his fate from the philosophy of Ahasuerus. He is not in accord with the mood of his subjects at the end of the play when he hears a shout of victory and decides to ’rebuke/This drunkeness of triumph’ (928-929). The word ’drunkeness’ is a reminder that when a ’drunken crew’ had wearied him earlier, he had capriciously ordered a beheading in the style of the historical Xerxes. Now he comments, ’poor slaves’. Despite this maturing sympathy, Shelley is still critical of Mahmud, since, like Xerxes, he is a tyrant. As Bernadete emphasises, Aeschylus shows sympathy for the Persians, 27 but although he shows the Queen as dignified and pities the elders and the men killed in battle, he portrays Xerxes as foolish, greedy and sacrilegious. The Chorus mourns for the dead, but only the Queen begs for the dishonoured Xerxes to be allowed to remain ruler. Mahmud’s lines ’tomorrow and tomorrow are as lamps’ (649) are reminiscent of Macbeth (V. v. 19-23). Had Hellas reached the stage, this may have gained audience sympathy, as Wallace suggests, but it would also have helped the audience to see that Mahmud’s tyranny, like Macbeth’s, is finite, unsustainable and is destroying him (Macbeth, III. iv. 41).28 An audience of Shelley’s period might well have reacted vociferously to Mahmud’s tyranny, while also sympathising with his later mood. In this they would have resembled the Greek audience who ’wept openly, they applauded, hissed, booed, ate noisily, banged the wooden benches with their heels, threw food at the actors’.29

  • 30 Kitto, pp. 36-37; Bernadete, The Persians, p. 45.
  • 31 SPP, p. 431.

31Aeschylus deliberately adapted facts to make the story more accessible to his audience. Detailed accurate information was less important than the essence of what he had to say. Both Kitto and Bernadete point out that the religious sacrifice performed by the Queen in The Persians is Greek and that historical references were changed, exaggerated or wrong. Bernadete suggests that this was done to remove the Persian war into the realm of myth: the detail necessary to present a contemporary account being unpoetic. With Shelley, it may have been simply that he was unable to make his account accurate as he was unsure of the truth of his reports.30 A naval victory and reports of bravery on the battlefield he was sure of,31 and he may have realised that Aeschylus used no more.

Tommaso Sgricci

  • 32 PBSLI, p. 514.
  • 33 BLJV, pp. 125, 125n.
  • 34 Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron (London: Henry Colburn, 1824), p. 165.
  • 35 Eaton, III, pp. 262-263.
  • 36 Professor Irene Meloni, Facolta di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell’Università di Cagliari, pri (...)

32Whether or not Shelley had seen Greek drama performed in England, in Italy he saw a version performed by the improvvisatore, Sgricci. Shelley’s interest in the art of the improvvisatori was aroused before his arrival in Italy by a letter from Byron with a ’curious account […] of the Improvisators and the Curiosities of Milan’.32 This letter has not survived, but Byron wrote on 6 November 1816 to Thomas Moore that Sgricci’s ’fluency astonished me. A few very commonplace mythological images, and one line about Artemisia, and another about Aegius, with sixty words of an entire tragedy about Eteocles and Polynices’.33 Byron is said to have been ’sceptical’ about the improvvisatori, saying, ’There is a great deal of knack in these gentry; their poetry is more mechanical than you suppose’.34 He was presumably referring to their use of stock images, verses and lines, although this was part of their skill. Their subjects, and often the ’rhyme and measure’ were chosen for them by the audience, sometimes including a verso obbligato, lines which they had to introduce at the end of a stanza. Eaton describes improvvisatori as having a ’wonderful talent […] it is sort of inspiration, or poetic fervour that carries them on’. Their verses are sometimes ’very bad; but they are occasionally wonderfully pretty […] they have similes and thoughts ready prepared; they are versed in all the commonplace of poetry […] By far the most interesting performance of the kind is when two sing together, or rather against each other, in alternate stanzas’.35 Her description is confirmed by a recent eyewitness in Sardinia where the art has recently revived, although it had almost died out. Cantadori perform at festivals today, improvising and competing for hours on such themes as ’Hector and Achilles’.36 It is particularly interesting that this theme is still popular, since it was one chosen for a performance by Sgricci which the Shelleys saw and which Shelley reviewed.

  • 37 Angela Esterhammer, Romanticism at the Improvvisatore: Tommaso Sgricci and the Spectacle of Improv (...)
  • 38 CCJ, p. 198.
  • 39 Eaton, III, p. 261-263.

33Sgricci’s performances were quite unlike those of the improvvisatori just described, as he did not use rhyme or music as an aid. Described as a ’shy pretty little man’ and ’a sorcerer’, dressed in the Byronic style, he was admired for the ’purity of his expression’. He performed on a very simple stage, set with only a chair to which he crossed when he required to change character. He was accompanied by a small boy with an urn containing slips on which the audience could write what they wanted him to improvise.37 Clairmont described his performance as ’wonderfully fine […] it seemed not the work of a human mind, but as if he were the instrument […] of a God; the expression was so strong and fresh, a feature which belongs peculiarly to the art of the Improvisare’.38 Eaton said he was the only improvvisatore who ’attempted tragedy’ and was ’most calm in his action – the most free from all those violent contortions or distortions which, whether the effect of natural agitation or affected passion, are peculiarly unpleasant to witness’. She saw him perform Medea, with a friend who had heard him perform it before. Sgricci this time introduced two new characters, began the action in a different part of the story and did not repeat ’a single scene nor even speech’.39 Sgricci could:

  • 40 Ibid., p. 261.

compose entire extempore tragedies, on any given subject, with all the plots, incidents, and dramatis personae, – repeat all the parts himself, and bring the whole to a regular denouement […] no words can do justice to the perfect ease, the energy, and unhesitating flow of verse.40

  • 41 Eaton, III, p. 261.

34She thought it ’might have done honour to a drama deliberately finished off in the closet’.41 Shelley’s review also compared it favourably to written dramas:

  • 42 Shelley’s review translated in Dawson, ’Shelley and the Improvvisatore’, p. 29.

The envious perhaps will say that if it were written down, a tragedy produced in this way would display many artistic imperfections which are not noticed in the recital .– But among these who is there who has produced, even with the labour and sweat of a year, a tragedy in which there would not be a crowd of errors, a thousand faults to be forgiven?42

  • 43 Idem, pp. 27, 28.

35Remarking on Sgricci’s ’tone of […] voice, his countenance’, Shelley called his performance ’a marvellous exhibition of the power of the human mind’ and said that ’the most splendid poetry was united with passion of unexampled tremendousness’.43

  • 44 Ibid., p. 28.

Troy resounds with the cry of victory, – in [contrast?] with which, Cassandra rapt by the spirit of prophecy predicting the death of the victor. The effect of this scene was astounding and highly dramatic, and the contrast between the exultant joy of the city and the terrible sorrow of the maddened prophetess, the despairing sister who already sees her own brother and the support of her country staggering beneath the sword of Achilles and dragged around the walls, which the poet depicts in words and gestures, while the very theatre was transformed to that which he was representing, was in the highest style of tragic poetry and electrified the theatre. – from that point onwards the drama continued on its way ever upwards.44

  • 45 Idem.

36Shelley follows this by describing Sgricci’s portrayal of Achilles whose ’hatred shines through and bursts out in the most terrible threats’, Hector taking his leave of Andromache and his son ’a scene full of tenderness’, Paris who, ’bringing the fatal news that Hector is dead’, ’depicts, in words whose terror and sorrow made one tremble, the outrage done to the body’, and ’the mingled grief of the wife and the mother, the empty consolations, the broken cries […] dark and sublime distress’.45 It is clear that Sgricci created these characters in his performance, and Shelley’s remarks bear witness to the brilliance of his interpretation. What is more, it showed him that a form of Greek tragedy was still effective, relevant and popular.

16. ’Eastern Palace’ (watercolour), set design undated. Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/349.

  • 46 MWSJ, pp. 341-344, 348-350; MWSLI, pp. 176, 182.
  • 47 Dawson, ’Shelley and the Improvvisatore’, p. 28.

37Mary Shelley said that in seeing Sgricci’s Inez de Castro ’when Pietro unveiled the dead Ignez, when Sancho died in despair on her body, it seemed to me as if it were all there; so truly & passionately did his words depict the scene he wished to represent’. Like Eaton, Mary believed Sgricci completely original in his performance. As Sgricci visited the Shelleys at least a dozen times, there was opportunity for discussing his art with them both. To Mary Shelley, Sgricci mentioned his inspiration at Cassandra’s prophecy and that ’Apollo had also touched his lips with the oracular touch.’. 46 This suggests that Shelley remembered this conversation when writing his review since he comments that ’it was rather a God who spoke in him, and created the ideas more rapidly than the human reason could ever have combined them’, adding that in Sgricci’s Hector, ’the choruses by which the tragedy was divided were without rival in their kind’.47 helley used a similar division by choruses in Hellas, and it is probable that the character of Ahasuerus owed something to Sgricci’s air of having been divinely inspired. Shelley was aware, however, that performers such as Kean could also achieve this effect.

  • 48 CCJ, p. 190.
  • 49 MWSLI, p. 165.
  • 50 Seen by me, October 1979.

38Sgricci was said to be at least sympathetic to the revolutionary Carbonari and both Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont saw him on an occasion when ’Sgricci improvisava upon the future independance of Italy’.48 Mary Shelley said, ’He recalled that Petrarch said that neither the very high Alps nor the sea was enough to defend this unsteady and aged country from the foreign masters – But he says – I see the Alps grow – and the sea rise and become agitated in order to impede the enemies’.49 Shelley’s reference to Hellas as ’a mere improvise’ perhaps should be interpreted as being similar to this, a poem on the future independence of an occupied country, optimistic and inspirational but not precise, such as Adam Mickiewicz’s Improwizacja (1832), a poem performed in Poland for similar reasons in 1979.50

The Bride of Abydos

  • 51 MWSJ, p. 194.
  • 52 William Dimond, Preface to The Bride of Abydos (London: Richard White, 1818), p. 1.

39One of the more important, though hitherto unrecognised, influences on Hellas was the melodrama set in modern Turkish Greece, The Bride of Abydos (1818), adapted from poems of Byron by William Dimond, which Shelley saw at Drury Lane (23 February 1818).51 Plays, melodramas and operas with Turkish settings had been performed in Western Europe since at least the mid-eighteenth century, among them Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Flight from the Seraglio) and Inchbald’s A Mogul’s Tale. Dimond’s other plays included Abon Hassan, ’derived […] from the Arabian nights’, and Aethiop, or the Child of the Desart. Presumably, the Shelleys were curious to see The Bride of Abydos because of Byron’s poem. Dimond did use passages from this, but explained in his preface that the ’characters and events […] were not sufficiently numerous and busy, to supply the material of a stage representation continuing for three hours’. Moreover, he added, ’the catastrophe of the Poem so magnificent in its melancholy – so appalling in its horror was altogether unfitted for a dramatick purpose. An incident from The Corsair was made the substitute’. It was, therefore, The Bride of Abydos with a happy ending and ’interpolations of the Dramatist’.52

  • 53 The Bride of Abydos, pp. 9, 15, 26, 27, 38, 43, 49, 65.

40Shelley’s remarks about Viganò’s Otello show that he appreciated that stage adaptation need not be literal; the Shelleys may have enjoyed The Bride of Abydos for its own sake. It certainly had a distinguished cast including Alexander Pope, Henry Johnston and Mrs. Bland, all popular stars, with Kean as Selim, T.P. Cooke as Osman Bey and the beautiful Mrs. Mardyn as Zuleika. The scenery by Greenwood was attention-catching and the music was by Michael Kelly. The eight songs included a ’Duett’, a ’Bass solo’ and a ’Glee’, with an opening chorus. Each scene ended with a song and, in II. ii, the song carried the action. There were also dances. Miss Tree led ’the Almas or Dancing girls of the East’.53

17. ’View out to sea through colonnade’ (watercolour), set design undated. Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/398.

  • 54 The Bride of Abydos, pp. 28, 31; SPP, p. 433.

41There are striking similarities between Hellas and The Bride of Abydos. Act II of The Bride of Abydos opens in ’a quadrangle of the Haram with a fountain in centre’. Hellas is set ’on a Terrace of the Seraglio’, the part of the Sultan’s palace in which the harem was situated. An 1821 audience would have been unfamiliar with a Greek chorus but they were accustomed to women dancing and singing in comic opera or melodrama. Shelley’s Chorus of Greek slavegirls, like the ’Almas’ in The Bride of Abydos, might realistically be supposed to dance and sing in their official capacity of ministering to the Sultan. In The Bride of Abydos ’female slaves advance joyously some with musical instruments, others employ themselves in disposing stands of flowers’ (II. ii). Just as Dimond includes ’an Indian maid’, Shelley’s Mahmud has ’an Indian slave sitting beside his couch’.54 Dimond’s play makes great use of both sunrise and sunset, no doubt capitalising on the possibilities offered by the introduction of the new gas lighting. Dimond’s opening scene has a boat with ’Dawn breaking’ and a ’Song (Quartette)’ followed by a ’Song chorus’, ’the crew betaken themselves to the various morning labours of a seaman’s life; climbing the masts and repairing the rigging, &c. &c.’. Dawn ’becomes perfect, and the action of the characters general when the scene closes’ and ’sunset fires the west’. In III. v, there is a ’lattice’ revealing the sky and the sunset, while IV. iv is set in a ’cave beneath the haram, the Hellespont flows beyond the last of the arched rocks of which it is composed and the tide washes into the centre of the scene. The red glow of departing sunset streaks both sky and wave at the extremity of the perspective’.

42In Hellas, from its terrace setting, the sun can also be seen at the symbolic time of sunset, recalled when Mahmud directs Hassan to look at the moon (337-348) and at the end of the play when ’the weak day is dead’ (1034). Had Hellas been performed, the theatre lighting effect would have been used in three ways: as a romantic setting which changes throughout the play; as a visible reminder of time passing which also shows that the unity of time is being adhered to; and metaphorically, to show that the Ottoman Empire was declining. The themes of liberty and end of empire are thus inherent in the staging and casting of Hellas.

43The Bride of Abydos appears influential in other ways, too, perhaps the most important being in IV. iv, when the trusty Hassan takes Selim – who believes himself to be the illegitimate son of Giaffier, the cruel ruler – to meet Mirza the Pirate Chief.

Hassan: Youth! now the volume of thy fate unfolds
And he who reads the past and future, greets thee.

Mirza slowly emerges form an inner cell, and pausing upon an elevation of the ground stage, gazes intensely upon Selim.

Hassan: Hail! Lov’d and honour’d! Tis the prosperous hour,
Sunset and Selim meet thy search together.

Mirza continues his steadfast gaze. Selim as sway’d by involuntary feelings sinks on his knees beneath the penetrating gaze of Mirza.

Selim: Methinks a prophet rises from the rock,
Inspired and swelling with eternal will.

18. T.P. Cooke, toy theatre illustration, c. 1829, unknown artist, private collection.

  • 55 The Bride of Abydos, IV. iv, pp. 44-48.

44Mirza’s gaze causes Selim to faint. He finds out that Mirza, supposedly murdered by Giaffier, is really his father and the rightful ruler. At this point ’Mirza winds a horn. The blast repeated by small echoes dies away down the distant caverns; suddenly a groupe of Pirate forms protudes from each aperture of the surrounding rock’.55

45Ahasuerus also has a hypnotic gaze, is believed to know the past and future, dwells in just such a cave and can only be questioned by someone willing to ’sail alone at sunset’ (Hellas, 166) calling ’Ahasuerus’ (173) when ’the caverns round/will answer’ (175) by echoing the name. Although the powers of Ahasuerus are those of thought rather than of physical power, the resemblances are striking enough to indicate that the melodrama was recalled by Shelley in his own drama. It is possible, also, to read Hellas metaphorically; the caverns have a function as the mind and thought of Mahmud, with the Chorus, Hassan and messengers representing his fears and worse actions, and Ahasuerus and Mahomet his better thoughts.


  • 56 For example, BSMXVI, pp. xlii-xlv.

46An awareness that a contemporary audience would expect a greater degree of characterisation than in Aeschylus can be seen in Hellas. Mahmud’s character, with its foreboding premonitions, sudden rages and exhibitions of power and eventual acceptance of possible defeat, is the only one which has been discussed by critics.56 Yet an effective play cannot depend upon only one interesting character and Shelley wrote good parts for other actors. In the dialogue between Mahmud and Hassan (260-527), Mahmud is not only a despotic tyrant, but one in the process of change, a character with doubts and fears. In response to this, Shelley develops the character of his servant, Hassan, to take on a protective though still deferential role, persuading his master that he is still strong with his reports of armies and battles. Mahmud’s premonition of defeat, and his subsequent doubts and fears, are initially countered by Hassan, who stresses the unassailability of the Ottoman Empire with its 10,000 cannon, full arsenals and armouries and powerful allies. Hassan has a double function for, to comfort the Sultan, he must show pride in Turkish strength but, if he is to report a Turkish victory accurately, he must include the very defiance which shows the spirit of the Greeks and thus reinforces his own ’idiot fear’ (357). Mahmud’s belief that:

The spirit that lifts the slave before his lord
Stalks through the capitals of armed kings (351-352)

  • 57 SPP, p. 463.

47accords with Shelley’s own belief that ’circumstances make men what they are’.57 The conflict in this scene is not only between Mahmud and Hassan, but within Hassan himself, servant as he is, torn between loyalty to his

19. ’Sea Battle and sailing ships’ (watercolour), set design undated Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/350.

48Sultan and Empire and admiration for the Greek spirit which would enable him to gain freedom himself. Mahmud’s leadership is undermined by his lack of confidence and the necessity for his lieutenant to put courage into him but Hassan is no mere vehicle for an argument, just as Mahmud is no stereotypical Oriental tyrant.

49Shelley wished to suggest that the struggle of the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire was the 19th century counterpart of the defence of Greece against the Persians celebrated by Aeschylus’ play and that it would be victorious if inspired with the same spirit of liberty. ’The spirit’ has already shown itself on the battlefields where the Turks were victors and the Greeks preferred death to slavery, and the image is actually personified when a dying man is compared to:

a corpse which some dread spirit
Of the old saviours of the land we rule
Had lifted in its anger, wandering by… (406-407)

50It is repeated in the phrase the dying man uses, ’the crushed worm rebels beneath your tread’ (425). The tyrant is associated with blood, vultures and dogs while the soldier calls on ’Famine, Pestilence and Panic’. This reported scene is reminiscent of the fragment on Bonaparte discussed in Chapter 4, a voice from among the dead on the battlefield. ’The spirit’ enters Hassan himself, who says it ’wrenched me within’ (456). His words betray his devotion to Mahmud just as the Indian slave betrays hers by the imagery she uses. The revelation is a shock for Hassan himself as well as for Mahmud, a dramatic revelation in the play and a significant dramatic turning point, particularly when it is followed by Mahmud’s insistence that Hassan should ’outlive/Me and this sinking Empire’ (458-459). By dramatising such a spirit among the Greeks and such demoralisation among the Turks, Hellas reinforces the idea that the Greeks might win their liberty because of this spirit.

51Hassan’s reports of battles have within them many changes of mood: anticipation, tension, exhilaration, relief and a sudden change to grief. Shelley turns a theoretical disadvantage in his play, a messenger with mere reports to deliver, into an arresting character which gives the scene human interest and dramatic potential. The delivery of the speeches from a forestage was more exciting since the actor was more immediately in contact with the audience. Plays on naval themes were very popular, suggesting Hassan’s speech on the sea battle would have met with success had it been performed, particularly by such an actor as T.P. Cooke, whom Shelley had seen in The Bride of Abydos.

  • 58 Harold J. Nichols, ’The Acting of Thomas Potter Cooke’, Nineteenth-Century Theatre Research, 5.2 ( (...)
  • 59 Booth, English Melodrama, p. 108.

52Cooke’s popularity was ’wonderful’ and his playing of sailors particularly true to life.58 ’He was known and idolized for his nautical parts which he performed by the dozen’, all the more effectively since he ’really had been in the Navy, gone through a battle and been shipwrecked.’59

53The speeches lead into the scene with the messengers. The flight of the Russian Ambassador, showing lack of confidence in the Turks, the Greek victories, the revolts in other parts of the Ottoman Empire and finally the defeat at sea are disasters which accord with Mahmud’s own premonitions. The superstitious element is emphasised by the omens in the third messenger’s speech. Shelley has given each messenger a speech interesting in itself, and sufficiently different from the preceding one for a certain amount of individual characterisation to be possible.

  • 60 MWSJ, pp. 342, 342n.-343n.

54The final speech on the defeat at sea is interrupted by the announcement of Ahasuerus. Mahmud says the shouts of Victory have broken his ’mighty trance’, and Shelley, who had himself undergone ’animal magnetism’ performed by Medwin, 60 intended Ahasuerus to possess hypnotic powers, noting that he was:

  • 61 SPP, p. 463.

tempting Mahmud to that state of mind in which ideas may be supposed to assume the force of sensations through the confusion of thought with the objects of thought, and the excess of passion animating the creations of imagination. It is a sort of natural magic, susceptible of being exercised in a degree by anyone who should have made himself master of the secret associations of another’s thoughts.61

55Ahasuerus echoes lines 351-352, 406-407 and 425 when he tells Mahmud that he does not disdain ’the worm beneath thy feet’. Mahmud disdains the Greeks as infidels and rebels, but he also fears their rebellion as being the end of his empire, an end suggested in the first chorus (54-85) where a first liberation inspires others. In his scene with Ahasuerus Mahmud traces his own history, a parallel to the Greeks’ tracing of theirs in the choruses.


  • 62 Hall & Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, p. 241.

56The apparent influence of techniques from three sources, all of which were successful on stage, suggests that Shelley intended Hellas to be performable, but he could not have submitted it to a London theatre. Censorship would have prevented its performance at Covent Garden or Drury Lane, and if, as Williams thought, the philosophy appeared too difficult, it might not have been considered suitable at a minor theatre, although the music and dancing would have enabled it to be described as a burletta. It might have been suitable for a private theatre such as the West London, but this did not stage Oedipus Tyrannus until November 1821. The fashion for performing Greek drama increased later in the decade, so Shelley was in accord with his time, if slightly ahead of actual London theatre practice. Shelley shows skill in characterisation and was certainly aware of the enhancement brought to poetic choruses by sympathetic dancing and music, and that scenery and lighting would form a graceful and metaphorical background to both chorus and dialogue.62

  • 63 ’Shelley’s Hellas ’, ed. by Judith Chernaik, with original music by David Cain, produced and direc (...)

57In 1976, the distinguished actor, Paul Daneman, played Mahmud in a radio performance of Hellas63 This version confirmed the success of many of Shelley’s dramatic techniques since the scene with the messengers did build to a climax, Ahasuerus seemed both hypnotic and wise and the ghost, created with an echo, was effective. The verse was excellently sung and spoken, Daneman’s delivery being particularly moving, showing that the sung choruses could be easily understood and that the philosophical argument was clear when spoken. The accompanying music, with Greek and Oriental influences, was atmospheric, rhythmic and sometimes exciting, although three verses of Shelley’s famous and beautiful final chorus were inexplicably cut and the setting, although pretty and melodious, did not do it justice.

  • 64 BSMXVI, p. 81; SPP, p. 445.

58As a whole, very little was cut, but the alterations shifted the play towards a mystical interpretation which Shelley had taken pains to deny. It opened with verses from the Prologue, ’The curtain of the Universe/Is rent and shattered’, followed immediately by the chorus beginning ’In the great morning of the world’ (46). Shelley opens with the physical, concrete and sexual image of Greek women dancing and singing with one woman sitting by Mahmud’s couch. In a stage presentation, the audience would be constantly aware of the potentially subversive presence of this Chorus. In the radio version, partly because voices on radio are of necessity disembodied, they sounded more like supernatural beings. Mahmud’s character was softened by cutting his most bloodthirsty lines (193, 241-249). A Narrator described him as ’long a secret admirer of Western liberalism’, although Shelley does not. Hassan’s ’Yet would I die for –’(458) was completed by ’Islam’. This introduction of religion emphasised the mystical aspect which contradicts even Shelley’s original intention, since the ms. has ’for Islam & for thee’. The final text shows that he preferred to leave the reader, or audience, guessing.64

  • 65 PBSLII, p. 184.

59The addition of a Narrator was not only contrary to Shelley’s dislike of footnotes in poetry but also increased the number of male voices.65 There were female voices but, as the main speakers are male and many of the choruses were allotted to men, a uniformity was produced which Shelley’s all-female Chorus counteracts. This was, nevertheless, a beautiful interpretation which served to show how much more effective a staging would be, with the visual additions of the coups de théâtre, the scenery and the dancing of the Chorus.

60Hellas and Prometheus Unbound were based on Greek dramatic models which were known to have been performed, incorporating elements drawn from theatre of Shelley’s time. The very fact that they are great poetry can act as a barrier to seeing them as stage plays of which songs and dances are an integral part, yet it is possible to set great poetry to music without losing the literary effect. Just as the expectation of a ballet is not the same as that of a prose play, so a drama which is a combination of the arts should not be judged by criteria relating to a different single genre. In performance, the way in which music and dance interact with poetry are critical factors. Shelley appears to have planned this interaction of myth, music, poetry, dance and spectacular effects in a play he began to write for his own circle in 1822, but with a bold addition. This was a re-telling of a story which one of his performers had told of himself and a setting in India which made use of the genuine background of two of the others.

The Fragments of an Unfinished Drama

  • 66 OSA, p. 482; BSMXIX, pp. xlix-1i.
  • 67 BSMXIX, pp. lxxx, l-li.

61These ’fragments’ were ’part of a Drama undertaken for the amusement of the individuals who composed our intimate society’, a private performance or reading as Crook and Webb suggest. If a performance was considered, because of so many other events that spring, it was never carried out. Crook and Webb suggest the evidence of Shelley’s notebook points to the Fragments having been written in April, but they also consider it not unlikely that the idea was conceived as early as February when, with the Carnival in full swing, Byron suggested performing Othello.66 The second suggestion seems more probable. The Shelleys and Williamses were seriously househunting for the summer in April, and were shortly to move to Lerici; it appears too late to begin writing something for their Pisan entertainment. On the other hand, Byron dropped the idea of Othello on 28 February which may have encouraged Shelley to begin writing the drama partly to compensate Trelawny, who was to have played Othello, for the loss of this part. As Crook and Webb have shown, there were connections with the Fragments and the stories of Trelawny’s life with which he had been captivating the Pisan circle, so the part of the Pirate would have allowed him to shine in a role tailor-made for him.67 As Othello was intended to have been performed, so it seems that would have been the case with the Fragments, particularly as Shelley could call on the musical talents of Jane Williams and the artistic talents of Edward Williams to paint the scenery. Shelley characteristically demanded a spectacular entrance for the Spirit, accompanied by ’earthquake and lightning’. Nevertheless, these can be simply managed by shaking the scenery for the first and using a piece of tin for the second.

  • 68 BLJIX, p. 37; SCII, pp. 568, 597; Richard Cumberland, ’Remarks upon the Present Taste for Acting P (...)

62Shelley probably took part in amateur dramatics as a young man as Byron had done, and as his cousins, the Groves, did. Most amateur theatres then, as now, attempted performances of popular plays. Richard Cumberland, author of The West Indian and The Wheel of Fortune, and ’one of the very few constructive critics’ of the amateurs, considered that they would do better to have plays specially written for them by writers who knew them and their locale, in order to capitalise on their strengths.68 The belief that it is best to write for or improvise with amateur actors parts which have characteristics associated with their own is endorsed by professionals who work with them today, since amateurs, however, talented, often do not have the training or experience to create a character different from their own. Whether or not Shelley knew this advice, his practice in the Fragments accords with it.

  • 69 MWSLI, p. 218; Wolfe, II, p. 172.
  • 70 OSA, pp. 482-483.
  • 71 G.M. Matthews, ’Shelley’s Lyrics’ in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. by Donald H. Reiman and Sharo (...)
  • 72 MWSJ, p. 342, 342n.
  • 73 PBSLII, p. 34.

63There appear to be suitable parts in the Fragments of an Unfinished Drama for the members of the Shelley circle. The part of the Pirate was suited to Trelawny with his dark ’half-Arab’ looks and tales of ’blood and horror’ and a Spirit would have concurred with his friends’ perception of Shelley.69 There are actually two spirits: ’a good Spirit who watches over the Pirate’s fate’ and ’leads, in a mysterious manner, the lady of his love to the Enchanted Isle’; and the spirit who brews the tempest for the Enchantress.70 It is possible that Shelley intended both parts for himself, and that they were not to be on stage together, but the ’good Spirit’ might have been invisible, its presence created by music and sounds behind the scenery. This would leave the part of the Youth for Williams, with his agreeable nature and pleasant looks. This casting nearly coincides with that of Matthews, but his suggestion of Jane Williams as the Lady and Mary Shelley as the Enchantress appears quite out of accord with the known talents of these women and the parts as they stand.71 Jane was noted for her beauty and musical talents, particularly her ability to play atmospherical Indian melodies. She also had a skill in ’magnetism’, the fashionable treatment for ailments.72 The fascinating Enchantress, who casts spells and sings and perhaps has hypnotic qualities, appears to have been intended for her, while Mary’s good memory and ’grace in reading’ were strengths more suitable for the speaking part of the Lady, with its long speeches.73

  • 74 Stuart Curran, Annus Mirabilis, p. xvii; Tilar J. Mazzeo, ’The Strains of Empire, Shelley and the (...)
  • 75 BSMXIX, p. 329; MWSLI, p. 374.

64A number of scholars have mentioned the attraction that Indian culture had for Shelley. Tilar J. Mazzeo believes that Shelley heard music of this kind before his meeting with Jane Williams, possibly as early as 1804, since it was fashionable for English women to play it, dressed in Indian clothes. Although Sir William Jones had carefully distinguished Hindu music from that of the Moghul court in general, Anglo-Indians did not make any distinction and actually described as ’Indian or Hindustani airs’ the love lyrics sung by the Nautch dancers at the Moghul court.74 This is the case with the one song we are certain that Jane Williams knew, Tazee be tazee no be no, although she knew a number of others.75

  • 76 Curran, Annus Mirabilis, p. 213; Curran, ’Shelleyan Drama’ in The Romantic Theatre, p. 65.
  • 77 BSMXIX, p. xlix.
  • 78 Sacontala, p. 26.

65Curran believes Shelley was familiar with ’eastern tonalities and versification’ and describes the Fragments as ’an attempt to adapt the perfumed, fantastic, and amorous atmosphere of the Sakuntala of Kalidasa’.76 Elements of Sacontala are prominent in Prometheus Unbound and there are instances in the Fragments which resemble not just the style, but the story. King Dushmanta forgets his beloved wife, Sacontala, because he is enchanted by a holy man who felt she had neglected her duty. Sacontala is disconsolate, as is Dushmanta once her memory has been recalled by means of a magic ring. The Pirate ’recalling the memory of her whom he left and who laments his loss, escapes from the Enchanted Island and returns to his lady’.77 The Indian Youth and Lady may have had a similar memory loss, or the ’mutual déjà vu’ suggested by Crook and Webb. The lady tends plants, as it was Sacontala’s religious duty to do.78

  • 79 BSMXIX, pp. xlix-l.
  • 80 The Cabinet, p. 15.

66It is supposed that a number of songs were to form part of this play: the Enchantress’s invocation ’He came like a dream at the dawn of life’ was definitely one; Matthews proposed that ’One Word is Too Often Profaned’ as another, to have been inserted in the scene between the Youth and the Lady.79 Although Jane Williams was the most proficient musician among the group, Edward could also sing. In this context, however, the song would amount to an emotional turning-point in which the Youth sings a formal renunciation of his claims on the Lady except as an unobtainable object of worship, whereas in the existing scene he still seems to cherish some hope of her love, so there is no part of the dialogue which would naturally lead to the song. Shelley integrated songs into the context, although other writers of the period did not, as can be seen from the songs in Dibdin’s The Cabinet.80 The poem may, however, have been intended as a song for another part of the play.

  • 81 BSMXIX, pp. 261-260, 271-270.

67Mary Shelley has sketched part of the story which Shelley planned, but not its final resolution or its significance. A magical or supernatural element is clear; there is an Enchantress, Spirits, spectacular stage effects and a magic plant. There is also a suggestion of the events being a dream in the Lady’s mind, ’If I be sure I were not dreaming now/I should not doubt to say it were a dream’. The Spirit has its mansion ’within the silent centre of the earth’ and may be the Spirit of the Earth as in Prometheus Unbound or perhaps the Spirit of Love, since that word is crossed through before the word ’Spirit’. 81 The references to Indian mythology suggested by the setting may have had greater significance. Perhaps the Pirate, who does ’the tasks of Ruin’, is connected to the God Shiva, and the theme of the play is to suggest that that which destroys also preserves, as in The Ode to the West Wind.

  • 82 OSA, pp. 484-485; BSMXIX, p. lii.

68How far the Hutchinson edition is corrupt may be seen by comparing it with Crook and Webb’s transcription. Since the drama was unfinished, there are missing sections and different versions of speeches in the manuscript. Hutchinson misattributes speeches which should be divided between the Lady and the Youth. The order is also confusing, suggesting that the ’awful’ pirate is also ’a simple innocent child’.82 In fact:

he was a man of blood and peril,
And steeped in bitter infamy to the lips. (pp. 272-273)

  • 83 BSMXIX, pp. 271-270.
  • 84 Nora Crook, ’Shelley’s Late Fragmentary Plays; ”Charles the First” and the ”Unfinished Drama”’ in (...)

69Although it is difficult to judge dramatic quality in the case of a drama of which only fragments remain, sufficient speeches remain of the Fragments of an Unfinished Drama to warrant discussion of its dramatic potential, with the proviso that Shelley’s practice was to revise repeatedly and to discard. It is easier to see his working method by looking at Hellas, from which he discarded two sections which have intrigued editors: the Prologue and the debate between Fatima (’The Indian’) and the Greek slavegirls. In Charles the First, Shelley made repeated attempts at drafting the speeches in Scene III, from which he may have selected or amalgamated parts. The interest of any particular part of a fragment cannot guarantee its forming part of the final version while repetitive and overlong speeches which seem unperformable might be considerably shortened, altered or discarded. Shelley’s speeches in his completed plays are not too long to remember, or to speak comfortably. This suggests that the Lady’s reply to the Indian Youth’s questions, ’when didst thou depart the spring of Indus?’ and ’how thence didst pass this intervening ocean’83 would have been reworked. It appears to be a very long non-sequitur about a magic gourd she tended, although the Indian Youth has occasional interruptions and asides. These could have been developed into a dialogue or the speech might have been shortened or aided by music, props or other effects. Crook has suggested that the end of the speech might have revealed the answer: that the Lady travelled to the Enchanted Island in the gourd which turned into a boat, following the Shelleyan precedent in The Witch of Atlas.84 As the drama contains musical and magical elements and was written to amuse friends, it is probable that the story would have been a fantasy with a happy ending, of the kind that were popular with London audiences.

70The scenes show Shelley writing parts for amateur performers which are within their capabilities and display their skills, thus giving them a chance to shine. It is, of course, impossible to know what effect the completed play would have made upon the audience – presumably the Shelleys’ Italian, Irish and English friends – but Shelley was offering them something far more interesting than an imitative amateur production of Othello; a new and original verse play which wove what Shelley knew of Indian drama and music into the adventures which Trelawny claimed as his own. Whether or not he knew that these stories were invention, Shelley wittily made Trelawny the hero of his own mythology. The resultant play would have given a modern story a mythical perspective derived seemingly from Sacontala with its use of music, spectacle, poetry and myth, thus once again conforming to the observations Shelley puts forward in The Defence of Poetry. It shows Shelley’s grasp of the practical requirements of a playwright: an ability to write for performance in the environment where it was to be shown. The strengths of the drama would be enhanced by the addition of the music and dancing which cannot be shown on the page and therefore are under-estimated by the reader. This is even more true in the case of Swellfoot the Tyrant, which depends on comic forms which do not transfer easily to the page, and so it has often been misjudged. To what extent Swellfoot would come to life on stage will be discussed in the ensuing chapter.


1 Gisborne & Williams, p. 111.

2 SPP, pp. 430-431.

3 Hall & Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, pp. 270-272.

4 SPP, p. 430; P.M.S. Dawson, ’Shelley and the Improvvisatore Sgricci: An Unpublished Review’, KSR, 32 (1981), 19-29.

5 William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free. The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2008), pp. 53-54.

6 SPP, pp. 431-432; PBSLII, p. 365.

7 BSMXVI, pp. viii-xxxiii.

8 MWSJ, pp. 348, 350.

9 Donald Reiman, ’Tracking Shelley’ in The Unfamiliar Shelley, p. 321.

10 BSMXVI, p. xlvi.

11 PBSLII, pp. 350, 368; Herbert Huscher, ’Alexander Mavrocordato, Friend of the Shelleys’, KSMB, 16 (1965), 29-38.

12 William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still be Free, pp. 88-94, 348.

13 Aristophanes, The Frogs, in The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs, trans.

by David Barrett (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964).

14 Richmond Lattimore, Introduction to Aeschylus I: The Oresteia (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973), p. 1; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 378.

15 Webb, A Voice Not Understood, p. 199; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, pp. 377-378; Walker, ’The Urn of Bitter Prophecy’, pp. 37-38; PBSLII, pp. 364, 357; MWSLI, p. 171.

16 Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. by Seth G. Bernadete in Aeschylus II: Four Tragedies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 52. The line numbers cited here, due to complications in the line numbering of the translation, are taken from Persai in Septem quae Supersunt Tragoedias, ed. by Denys Page (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

17 Kitto, Greek Tragedy, p. 41.

18 For clarity, I have used a lower-case ’c’ for what is sung and upper-case ’C’ for the singers.

19 Walker, ’The Urn of Bitter Prophecy’ p. 47; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 382.

20 BSMXVI, pp. 97, 99.

21 Prometheus Bound, 888-905.

22 BSMXVI, pp. 97-101.

23 SPP, pp. 430, 463.

24 Walker, ’The Urn of Bitter Prophecy’, p. 36.

25 PBSLII, p. 349; SPP, p. 518.

26 Kitto, p. 38; Seth G. Bernadete, Introduction to The Persians, pp. 44-46.

27 Bernadete, The Persians, p. 44.

28 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 203.

29 Paul Cartledge, ’The Greek Religious Festivals’ in Greek Religion and Society, ed. by P.E. Easterling and J.V. Muir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 127.

30 Kitto, pp. 36-37; Bernadete, The Persians, p. 45.

31 SPP, p. 431.

32 PBSLI, p. 514.

33 BLJV, pp. 125, 125n.

34 Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron (London: Henry Colburn, 1824), p. 165.

35 Eaton, III, pp. 262-263.

36 Professor Irene Meloni, Facolta di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell’Università di Cagliari, private communication. On my visit to Sardinia (August 2009), I was unable to see the cantadori but I did hear a folksinger whose chant is similar, according to Professor Meloni.

37 Angela Esterhammer, Romanticism at the Improvvisatore: Tommaso Sgricci and the Spectacle of Improvisation, paper given at Romantic Spectacle conference, 8 July 2006.

38 CCJ, p. 198.

39 Eaton, III, p. 261-263.

40 Ibid., p. 261.

41 Eaton, III, p. 261.

42 Shelley’s review translated in Dawson, ’Shelley and the Improvvisatore’, p. 29.

43 Idem, pp. 27, 28.

44 Ibid., p. 28.

45 Idem.

46 MWSJ, pp. 341-344, 348-350; MWSLI, pp. 176, 182.

47 Dawson, ’Shelley and the Improvvisatore’, p. 28.

48 CCJ, p. 190.

49 MWSLI, p. 165.

50 Seen by me, October 1979.

51 MWSJ, p. 194.

52 William Dimond, Preface to The Bride of Abydos (London: Richard White, 1818), p. 1.

53 The Bride of Abydos, pp. 9, 15, 26, 27, 38, 43, 49, 65.

54 The Bride of Abydos, pp. 28, 31; SPP, p. 433.

55 The Bride of Abydos, IV. iv, pp. 44-48.

56 For example, BSMXVI, pp. xlii-xlv.

57 SPP, p. 463.

58 Harold J. Nichols, ’The Acting of Thomas Potter Cooke’, Nineteenth-Century Theatre Research, 5.2 (Autumn 1977) <">> [accessed 10 January 2007] (paras 2, 25).

59 Booth, English Melodrama, p. 108.

60 MWSJ, pp. 342, 342n.-343n.

61 SPP, p. 463.

62 Hall & Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, p. 241.

63 ’Shelley’s Hellas ’, ed. by Judith Chernaik, with original music by David Cain, produced and directed by John Theocharis, trans. BBC Radio 3, 13 June 1976, 1810-1915.

64 BSMXVI, p. 81; SPP, p. 445.

65 PBSLII, p. 184.

66 OSA, p. 482; BSMXIX, pp. xlix-1i.

67 BSMXIX, pp. lxxx, l-li.

68 BLJIX, p. 37; SCII, pp. 568, 597; Richard Cumberland, ’Remarks upon the Present Taste for Acting Private Plays’, qtd in Rosenfeld, ’Jane Austen’, p. 45.

69 MWSLI, p. 218; Wolfe, II, p. 172.

70 OSA, pp. 482-483.

71 G.M. Matthews, ’Shelley’s Lyrics’ in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 691.

72 MWSJ, p. 342, 342n.

73 PBSLII, p. 34.

74 Stuart Curran, Annus Mirabilis, p. xvii; Tilar J. Mazzeo, ’The Strains of Empire, Shelley and the Music of India’ in Romantic Representations of British India, ed. by Michael J. Franklin (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 181, 184; Bennett Zon, ’”From very acute and plausible” to ”curiously misinterpreted”, Sir William Jones’s ”On the Musical Modes of the Hindus” (1792) and its reception in later musical treatises’, in Romantic Representations, pp. 200-201.

75 BSMXIX, p. 329; MWSLI, p. 374.

76 Curran, Annus Mirabilis, p. 213; Curran, ’Shelleyan Drama’ in The Romantic Theatre, p. 65.

77 BSMXIX, p. xlix.

78 Sacontala, p. 26.

79 BSMXIX, pp. xlix-l.

80 The Cabinet, p. 15.

81 BSMXIX, pp. 261-260, 271-270.

82 OSA, pp. 484-485; BSMXIX, p. lii.

83 BSMXIX, pp. 271-270.

84 Nora Crook, ’Shelley’s Late Fragmentary Plays; ”Charles the First” and the ”Unfinished Drama”’ in The Unfamiliar Shelley, ed. by Alan Weinberg and Timothy Webb (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p. 308.

Table des illustrations

Légende 16. ’Eastern Palace’ (watercolour), set design undated. Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/349.
Fichier image/jpeg, 73k
Légende 17. ’View out to sea through colonnade’ (watercolour), set design undated. Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/398.
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Légende 18. T.P. Cooke, toy theatre illustration, c. 1829, unknown artist, private collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 70k
Légende 19. ’Sea Battle and sailing ships’ (watercolour), set design undated Grieve Family Collection. Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London, MS1007/350.
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k