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The Theatre of Shelley

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Jacqueline Mulhallen

Chapter Seven: Satirical Comedy – Swellfoot the Tyrant

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1It was Athenian drama once again that gave Shelley his starting point for Swellfoot the Tyrant but this time it was the Old Comedy and the satyr-play. He introduced elements from modern comedy into this too: commedia dell’arte, and its deformed but lively descendants, British pantomime, Punch and the eighteenth-century burlesque.

  • 1 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 810.
  • 2 McCalman, Radical Underworld, p. 163; William W. Wickwar, The Struggle for the Freedom of the Pres (...)
  • 3 White, ”Swellfoot”, pp. 333-335; e.g. McCalman, Radical Underworld, p. 169.

2As Swellfoot the Tyrant is a satirical response to Queen Caroline’s return to England in 1820 to contest George IV’s divorce case against her, the play was of course influenced by the popular, political and satirical prints which drew enthusiastic crowds on their publication and exhibition in shop windows, and became part of the life of the street.1 Printers such as William Hone and Richard Carlile risked and endured imprisonment for publishing the radical point of view, but often the prosecution was literally laughed out of court since the publication submitted as evidence was so funny.2 Since White’s seminal article, many excellent discussions have detailed the similarities between these 1820 pamphlets and Swellfoot, suggesting that Shelley saw some of them.3 The relationship between the radical printers and the private theatres noted by Worrall presents the comic possibilities of a recreation of their grotesque visual effects in a performance. I do not suggest, however, that Shelley expected Swellfoot to be performed in a radical private theatre because no evidence has emerged to my knowledge of such performances as early as 1820. It is nevertheless a highly performable play which might have been successful in such a milieu since the stage directions are detailed, the characters are written as impersonations offering great scope for comic performance, and the structure and style draw on plays oriented primarily on highly skilled and very successful performance.

  • 4 SPP, pp. 520-521.
  • 5 Webb, Violet in the Crucible, p. 137; Tetreault, The Poetry of Life, p. 159; Wolfe, I, p. 337.
  • 6 ’On the Manners of the Ancient Greeks’ in Shelley’s Prose, p. 223.
  • 7 ’An Athlete’ in Shelley’s Prose, p. 346; PBSLII, p. 207.

3Performance would capitalise on a quality which Shelley considered in Restoration comedy to reflect the ’decay of social life’. This was obscenity, which he defined as ’a capability of associating disgusting images with the act of the sexual instinct’.4 Critics generally sympathetic to Shelley’s work, such as Webb and Tetreault, find Swellfoot out of character and, in the case of Tetreault, ’repugnant’. Hogg described Shelley as ’in behaviour modest, in conversation chaste’ and said that ’the gross and revolting indecency of an immoral wit wounded his sensitive nature’.5 Shelley was, however, on the side of greater frankness about sex. In writing Laon and Cythna and The Cenci, he was constrained by concerns about censorship. He disliked the practice of covering nudity in art, remarking, ’Curse these figleaves, why is a round tin thing more decent than a cylindrical marble one?’6 While he admired Niccolò Fortiguerra’s robust and comic Ricciardetto, 7 which he was reading at the time of the news of the Caroline affair, he said of Barry Cornwall:

  • 8 PBSLII, pp. 239-240.

His indecencies too both against sexual nature & against human nature sit very awkwardly upon him. […] In Lord Byron all this has an analogy with the general system of his character, & the wit & poetry which surround, hide with their light the darkness of the thing itself.8

  • 9 SPI, pp. 230-237; PBSLII, p. 220.

4Shelley’s idea of what was acceptable frankness or ’filthy’, ’indecent’ obscenity therefore varied with the context, and he appears to have linked coarseness with political satire, as did the radical press. In his own satirical poem, The Devil’s Walk (1810), about the Prince of Wales as George IV then was, George’s corpulence and over-indulgence is a legitimate target. Shelley believed that the divorce was ’silly stuff […] to employ a great nation about’,9 and his attitude to Caroline was that:

  • 10 PBSLII, p. 213.

Nothing, I think shows the generous gullibility of the English nation more than their having adopted her Sacred Majesty as the heroine of the day, in spite of all their prejudices and bigotry. I, for my part, of course, wish no harm to happen to her […] but I cannot help adverting to it as one of the absurdities of royalty, that a vulgar woman, with all those low tastes which prejudice considers as vices, and a person whose habits and manners everyone would shun in private life, without any redeeming virtues should be turned into a heroine, because she is a queen, or, as a collateral reason, because her husband is a king; 10

  • 11 McCalman, Radical Underworld, pp. 169, 162-163, 175.

5The Queen, however, had powerful radical supporters who had taken up her cause in an opportunistic way, including William Cobbett and even Carlile, who had originally intended to use the affair as republican propaganda; he complained in December 1820 that the propaganda had diverted attention from other important issues.11

  • 12 PBSLII, p. 213; Webb, Violet in the Crucible, p. 134; Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, pp. 258, 260, 261, (...)
  • 13 Hall and Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, p. 236.

6Although Shelley thought that the King and his ministers were ’so odious that everything, however disgusting, which is opposed to them, is admirable’, he suggests that, by supporting the Queen, the radicals were creating another monster in place of the one they already had. In Swellfoot, he directs his humour towards a ruling class whose behaviour deserved to be displayed in all its ’vulgarity’ in order to strip away the trappings of ’honourable’ and ’majesty’ to reveal its corruption, callousness and greed. While Webb finds Shelley ’a highly unlikely translator’ for Euripides’ The Cyclops since, although he succeeds in capturing its freshness he does not catch ’a suitable tone of ribaldry’, Reiter remarks that ’it is idle to say that Shelley could not or would not write so, if he did’ and draws attention to coarse sexual jokes such as those that occur in the speeches about the Leech and the Rat from Purganax and Mammon (I. 177-192).12 Hall and Macintosh find resemblances between the Greek satyr-play and Swellfoot such as the themes of discovery and transformation and the centrality of the chorus.13 I would also suggest the cruel, violent and murderous humour and the association of comedy and poetry with cannibalism. Like Swift, Shelley no doubt felt this humour to be appropriate to the situation of the poor in Britain, particularly when contrasted with the extravagant, ostentatious wealth of George IV, and the obscenities justified by the flagrantly adulterous yet hypocritical behaviour of both parties, as well as reflecting the attitudes of his ministers.

Aristophanes

7Mary Shelley’s wellknown Note to Swellfoot makes the parallels with Aristophanes clear:

  • 14 OSA, p. 410.

on the day when a fair was held in the square, beneath our windows; Shelley read to us his Ode to Liberty; and was riotously accompanied by the grunting of a quantity of pigs brought for sale to the fair. He compared it to the ’Chorus of frogs’ in the satiric drama of Aristophanes; and, it being an hour of merriment, and one ludicrous association suggesting another, he imagined a political-satirical drama on the circumstances of the day, to which the pigs would serve as Chorus.14

  • 15 W.B. Stanford, Introduction to The Frogs by Aristophanes (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1958), (...)

8Shelley was subtly implying that his efforts in reading the poem to the background of the pigs was similar to Dionysius’ unaccustomed labour of rowing, which gave him sore hands and blistered bottom, while competing against the Chorus of Frogs. Yet Dionysius not only completes his journey but wins the shouting-match; Shelley, like the god, wins his with the pigs.15

  • 16 Webb, Violet in the Crucible, p. 137.
  • 17 Schlegel, pp. 153-168; MWSJ, pp. 214-217.
  • 18 Michael Erkelenz. ’The Genre and Politics of Shelley’s ”Swellfoot the Tyrant”’, The Review of Engl (...)

9Webb notes that Shelley ’scarcely even mentioned Aristophanes in his letters or critical writings’.16 Yet, between 17 June and 6 July 1818, Shelley read the plays of Aristophanes very thoroughly, taking three days to read The Clouds but only a day each to read Plutus (20 June) and Lysistrata (21 June). He had time to read all Aristophanes’ plays at least twice at the same rate, while also reading Barthélemy’s Anarcharsis, set in ancient Greece, and four comedies by Jonson: Every Man in his Humour, Epicoene, Volpone and The Magnetick Lady. This reading came shortly after his reading of Schlegel, who praised Aristophanes highly, the previous March, and formed the basis of satirical comedy both ancient and modern which enabled Swellfoot to be so swiftly written two years later.17 There are parallels in ’functional structure’ between Aristophanes’ comedies and Swellfoot which Michael Erkelenz has detailed, but, as Webb and Tetreault have remarked, it does not include typical elements such as witty repartee or an elaborate plot to outwit someone else which ends in hilarious failure and there is not much knockabout fun.18 Nevertheless, like Aristophanes, Shelley writes about real political events, using an extremely simple plot, archetypal characters, burlesque and rough, physical, coarse humour.

  • 19 Erkelenz, ’Swellfoot the Tyrant ’, p. 516; Schlegel, p. 154; SPP, p. 520.
  • 20 Schlegel, pp. 155-156; Shelley’s Prose, pp. 216-228.
  • 21 Schlegel, p. 157; Tetreault, ’Shelley and the Opera’, pp. 160-161.

10Aristophanes’ plays were not performed in England during Shelley’s lifetime, but a number of translations had been published. Erkelenz considers that Aristophanes was being associated with Tory politics with the intention of showing that democracy was an ’odious’ form of government and that Shelley was claiming Aristophanes for the opposition. Shelley knew that Aristophanes wrote for a mass audience and he no doubt agreed with Schlegel’s opinion that the Old Comedy, including Aristophanes, and Athenian liberty ’flourished together’ and ’were oppressed under the same circumstances’.19 Schlegel describes Aristophanes as a defender of that liberty and a pacifist, and, in respect of his supposed immorality, argues for a different attitude towards Greek morals, an attitude which Shelley was to take further in his essay On the Manners of the Ancient Greeks.20 Schlegel also praised the ’elegant’ and ’polished’ language used by Aristophanes, ’the richest development of almost every poetical talent’, praise which would hardly go unobserved by Shelley; in fact, Tetreault has noticed an affinity between Aristophanes’ plays and Prometheus Unbound.21 Shelley returns this to comedy by parodying his own Prometheus Unbound choruses in Swellfoot the Tyrant. The structure of the verses of the Gadfly’s song appropriately resembles that of the songs of the Furies in Prometheus (I. 495-520), particularly his invocation, ’Hum! Hum! Hum!’, which rhymes with the ’Come, come, come’ of the Furies (I. 504). Just as Aristophanes gave The Frogs an unusual double Chorus, Swellfoot has the Chorus of the Pigs, the Chorus of Priests (II. ii. 1-19) and the Gadfly, Leech and Rat (I. 220-268).

  • 22 Aristophanes, The Frogs, p. 206; Also noted by Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 77.

11Aristophanes characteristically turned a figure of speech into a literal image. For example, the words of the poets in The Frogs are weighed in scales.22 In Swellfoot, Shelley presents the contents of the ’green bag’, metaphorically the filthy and poisonous defamatory evidence of spies, literally as a harmful potion which can cause a metamorphosis – or, as when Iona pours it over her enemies, a return to the true nature of the beast (stage directions at I. 361-369, II. ii). Similarly Mammon’s disinheritance of his son, Chrysaor, and marriage of his daughter, Banknotina, to the Gallows, producing little gibbets as offspring (I. 195-212) alludes to Cobbett’s theory that paper money replacing gold caused inflation and brought about increased poverty and crime.

  • 23 Aristophanes, The Frogs, p. 212; Aristophanes, The Acharnians in The Acharnians, Lysistrata, trans (...)
  • 24 King-Hele, Shelley and His Work, p. 263.

12Aristophanes ends his comedies with a celebration: a feast in The Archarnians, a dance in Lysistrata and a triumphant exit in The Frogs.23 Shelley gives Swellfoot an ironic banquet (stage directions, II. ii), and Iona and the Pigs a triumphant and celebratory exit (II. ii. 129-138), particularly apposite as events proved, for when the bill against the Queen was thrown out on November 11, people rejoiced in the streets and bells rang.24

  • 25 Helmut Flashar, ’The Originality of Aristophanes’ Last Plays’ in Oxford Readings in Aristophanes, (...)
  • 26 Steven E. Jones, Satire and Romanticism (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 2000), p. 184; Art Young, S (...)
  • 27 Bush-Bailey, ’Still Working it Out’, p. 15.

13The early Aristophanic comedy included a parabasis in which the leader of the chorus speaks directly to the audience expressing his own point of view. The later plays do not, as political commentary was prohibited after the Peloponnesian wars.25 Shelley does not appeal directly to the audience or make his characters as aware of one as Aristophanes does, perhaps because he wished to create a ’fourth wall’ for the drama. But, the speech of Liberty (II. 84-102) is a modern equivalent of parabasis, completely in accordance with the spirit of Aristophanic satire, as Steven E. Jones notes, and does not ’alone mar[s] the sustained satire of Swellfoot the Tyrant’ as Art Young suggests.26 The need for Aristophanes’ actors to be extremely aware of, and responsive to, an audience is shown, for example, in The Frogs (I. i. 1-40), when Dionysius and Xanthias discuss which joke should be used – a ’warm-up’ technique familiar in modern pantomime. The texts also make it clear that the actors were required to have the skills of acrobatics, stage fighting, dancing, singing and clowning, skills important in commedia dell’arte, pantomime and burlesque and usual among the actors of the minor theatres of Shelley’s period.27

  • 28 White, ’Swellfoot’, pp. 340-341; Cameron, The Golden Years, pp. 357-358; Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, (...)

14If Aristophanes’ plays were straightforwardly bawdy, with jokes about farting, belching, drunkenness and people getting knocked about, they were also boldly political, naming their targets openly as Cleon, Socrates or Euripides. Aristophanes turned the real characters, such as Socrates in The Clouds or Euripides in The Poet and the Women, into fictional characters while retaining the real names. Although Shelley does not name his political targets, the success of his satire lies in his depiction of real people by his use of wellknown mannerisms with their names coded rather than disguised. They are meant to be recognised, and have been identified by several critics, although, as Reiter points out, they can also be seen as archetypal abstractions.28 Dakry (tear) is easily recognisable as Lord Eldon, who wept as he delivered death sentences. As in The Mask of Anarchy (14/15), he weeps fatal millstones:

Morals, and precedents, and purity,
Adultery, destitution, and divorce,
Piety, faith and state necessity,
And how I loved the Queen! – and then I wept
With the pathos of my own eloquence,
And every tear turned to a mill-stone, which
Brained many a gaping Pig (I. 329-336)

  • 29 PBSLII, p. 216.

15The Duke of Wellington was known for his taciturnity, thus the speech of Laoctonos (people-killer) is short and direct. An acquaintance of the Shelleys had seen the Queen in Italy, when she ’had on a black pelisse, tucked up to her knees, and exhibiting a pair of men’s boots. A fur tippet that seemed as if it would cover ten such – a white cap, and a man’s hat set on sideways’.29 Though it appears not to have been previously remarked upon, her appearance on that occasion clearly influenced the depiction of Iona Taurina in Swellfoot the Tyrant, who wears a ’buckishly cocked’ hunting-cap in her final triumphant scene.

  • 30 Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 358.

16Purganax (lord of the tower) is identified as Castlereagh by the wordplay on his name and also by the hypocrisy with which he addressed the Queen. Cameron suggested that the central part of Purganax’ speech (II. i. 59-72) was inspired by Castlereagh’s speech of 7 June 1820, which Shelley read in The Examiner: 30

  • 31 The Times, 8 June 1820.

God forbid that he standing on the present situation should say that to be accused was the same thing as to be guilty! But at the same time he thought it proper to say that a charge of crime necessarily implied a presumption of guilt, and that the present charge rested on grave and serious grounds. It would not be expected that he should disclose to Parliament the substance of those documents, but this he would state – that the charges were grave and serious; and, as far as he was at liberty to describe the information on which these charges were founded, he would say that it came from individuals who were ready to corroborate by their personal testimony, all the statements which they had made.31

17While overtly insisting on the Queen’s innocence, Castlereagh heavily implies her guilt. A comparison with Purganax’ speech will show that he did the same:

Why, it is hinted, that a certain Bull –
Thus much is known: – the milk-white bulls that feed
Beside Clitumnus and the crystal lakes
Of the Cisalpine mountains, in fresh dews
Of lotus-grass and blossoming asphodel
Sleeking her silken hair, and with sweet breath
Loading the morning winds until they faint
With living fragrance, are so beautiful! –
Well, I say nothing; – but Europa rode
On such a one from Asia into Crete,
And the enamoured sea grew calm beneath
His gliding beauty. And Pasiphae,
Iona’s grandmother, – but she is innocent!
And that both you and I, and all assert. (II. i. 59-72)

  • 32 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 260.

18As Reiter says, ’the beauty of the speech subserves the deceit and sharpens the comic climax’ of line 72.32 I would add that Iona’s guilt is made to seem practically inevitable by the sexual metaphors of ’the enamoured sea […] beneath/His gliding beauty’ and the sensuous nature of the languid pastoral surroundings of the bulls in the Cisalpine mountains brought to mind by ’lotus-grass’ and ’crystal lakes’ and phrases such as ’fresh dews’, ’blossoming asphodel’, ’living fragrance’, ’milk-white’ and ’silken’ which appeal to the senses of touch and smell and suggest the irresistible nature of the temptation.

  • 33 Qtd in Jones, Shelley’s Satire, p. 100.

19Shelley suggests by the name of the Chief Wizard, Mammon (wealth), representing the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, that members of Parliament ’actually represent a deception and a shadow, virtually represent none but the powerful and the rich’.33 He satirises its process by making the Cabinet a ’Council of Wizards’. Mammon uses witchcraft to ’coin paper’, referring to the current discussion about the value of paper money, and Purganax ’struck the crust o’ the earth/With this enchanted rod’ (I. 148-149).

  • 34 Bratton, New Readings, p. 110.
  • 35 SCVI, p. 1027.
  • 36 The Times, 7 June 1820.

20By giving his characters the speech mannerisms of the politicians they are representing, Shelley helps the actors playing those parts to give an accurate impersonation, thus using ’on-stage mimicry as a weapon in political and theatrical dispute’.34 Erkelenz believes that Shelley, realising the magnitude of the constitutional crisis and the double standard being used to attack Caroline, had ’commitment to [her] cause’ by the time he wrote Swellfoot and created Iona as its Aristophanic hero. But, on the other hand, the realisation of the popularity of her cause may have been why he felt it necessary to warn the campaigners that it was a diversion and bring their attention back to the more important issues of the day, those he had set out a few months before in A Philosophical View of Reform: the abolition of the national debt, sinecures and tithes, the disbanding of the standing army, making all religions equal legally and ’cheap justice, certain and speedy’.35 Iona’s late appearance in the play does not suggest that she is the hero, and her characterisation suggests that Caroline is not to be trusted. Caroline’s messages, according to the Parliamentary report, were modest and grateful.36 Until her trial, Shelley portrays Iona as a demure, dignified wronged queen, a Hermione or Katherine, but her true nature is not revealed until the final scene when she changes into a loud and coarse huntswoman.

  • 37 PBSLII, p. 220.
  • 38 H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 183.
  • 39 Edmund Burke, ’Reflections on the Revolution in France’ in Robert B. Dishman, Burke and Paine on R (...)
  • 40 Kelly, Reminiscences, p. 247.

21In June 1820, Shelley connected Queen Caroline with Greek legend, writing, ’I expect, at least, that the accusation is as terrible as that made against Pasiphae and that a Bill will be passed in Parliament to declare that no Minotaur shall be considered as legal heir to the Crown of these realms.37 Pasiphae fell in love with the beautiful bull Poseidon had sent her husband King Minos for sacrifice. Minos imprisoned it in the Labyrinth created by Daedalus, who helped Pasiphae to gain access. The offspring of the bull and Pasiphae was the Minotaur, half bull, half man.38 Purganax refers to this story in his speech (II. i. 70-71). The John Bull Minotaur of the play is Iona’s offspring for she helps create the situation in which he takes action. This reinforces the connection between the Queen and her supporters among the common English people. Radical groups such as the Spenceans adopted Burke’s insult ’the Swinish multitude’ as a badge of honour.39 Shelley makes it clear that the Swinish multitude is one and the same as John Bull, the sturdy Englishman, ’the salt of the earth’, since the Chorus are pigs but those which eat the loaves turn into bulls. Iona’s association through the Gadfly with Io and her cow’s tail (II. i. 104) suggest she is at least partly cow, though one which wears petticoats (II. i. 96). As the young Boars have cowtails (I. 300-301), however, Iona may have been similarly granted one as a regal honour. The two Goddesses appear human, as Liberty has a ’graceful figure’ (II. ii) suggesting a Greek statue, while Famine resembles the skeleton in Bluebeard and disappears with the same mechanism.40

22The MPs are Boars, some of which have been elevated to the Upper Sty:

[…] fattening some few in two separate sties,
And giving them clean straw, tying some bits
Of ribbon round their legs – giving their Sows
Some tawdry lace, and bits of lustre glass,
And their young Boars white and red rags, and tails
Of cows, and jay feathers, and sticking cauliflowers
Between the ears of the old ones; (I. 296-302)

  • 41 Robert Kee, The Green Flag, 3 vols (London: Quartet, 1976), I, p. 158.

23The imagery of the ludicrous dressing of animals for display at a show highlights the ridiculous and anachronistic dress of the House of Lords. Purganax here alludes to Castlereagh’s implication in the bribery of ennoblement which enabled the Act of Union to be passed,41 and identifies himself with those in the Common Sty when he says:

WE believe
(I mean those more substantial Pigs, who swill
Rich hog-wash (II. i. 37-39)

  • 42 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 81.

24Wallace believes that ’even [Shelley’s] heroes are pigs’,42 but, although Swellfoot’s greed suggest that he is one, he and his ministers are, from a farmer’s point of view, vermin, as finally revealed (II. ii. 116-118), and although they may be the heroes in the sense of their being leading characters, they are not heroic. Iona’s calling them ’anything but men’, emphasised by the name ’Porkman’ which refers to both species, suggests that they have been masquerading as human. The pigs themselves, who have been made to believe themselves pigs though they are truly bulls, are the real heroes of the piece, despite being the chorus. This reading is consistent with Shelley’s position in The Mask of Anarchy, written the previous autumn.

  • 43 Fo, Tricks of the Trade, p. 22.

25The non-human characteristics allow the starvation theme to be dealt with ironically rather than tragically by the constant reminder, through terms such as ’dug’, ’bristle’ and ’brawn’, that pigs invariably end up on the table. This leads to the question of how this animal nature would be portrayed in performance. It cannot be established by the ’big head’ masks of pantomime, since these do not allow actors to move easily and restrict the voice to too great an extent. If it is shown through costume, the time needed to change renders it impossible to make the sudden transformations required by the play. Shelley is known to have had the opportunity to see a commedia dell’arte performance and there is the tradition in commedia of associating the characters with particular animals portrayed through ’movement and gait’: ’the Doctor […] is pure pig’.43 This suggests that Swellfoot may have a close connection to this genre through a characteristic not to be found in any other. None of Aristophanes’ comedies have such characters; even Tereus in The Birds is more of a man than a bird. This style of performance would enable the audience to see human and animal characteristics simultaneously.

Commedia dell’arte

  • 44 Kimbell, Italian Opera, pp. 282-283.
  • 45 Ibid., pp. 286.
  • 46 Pierre Louis Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (New York: Dover, 1966), pp. 24-29.

26Commedia dell’arte is acknowledged by those working in the theatre as being one of the great genres of acting which deeply influenced European theatre. It is, as Kimbell says, ’next to opera, probably Italy’s most brilliant and distinctive contribution to world theatre’.44 He finds it ’best defined […] as comedy performed by professional players […] it depended upon a measure of virtuosity – virtuoso clowning, virtuoso miming, virtuoso facility with the tongue’ adding that, ’a good commedia performer needed imagination and an inventiveness that was never at rest’.45 It was dependent upon a professional troupe because it was improvised. It is believed, and was by Shelley’s contemporaries, to derive from ancient Roman comedy.46 Their use of masks was so wellknown that the players were referred to simply as maschere. Like actors in Athenian theatre, they danced and performed acrobatics and had a range of sounds and voices they were able to make with the help of the mask, using it as a megaphone or whistle.

  • 47 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 79.
  • 48 Fo, Tricks of the Trade, pp. 25, 22, 47, 28, 43; Schlegel, p. 228n.

27The companies started as guilds of professional actors in medieval Italy when scripts were written even by churchmen and ’the obscene always played a liberating role’, that role ascribed by Wallace to both Aristophanes and Shelley.47 During the Counter-Reformation the commedia companies were expelled from Italy and in 1675 were expelled from France, where they had shared a theatre for fourteen years with Molière, because of ’their satire on the customs, hypocrisy and the politicking of the age’. Between 1580 and 1780, the commedia travelled abroad to France, Spain, Holland and even Russia, and returned to Italy at various times, bringing crossfertilisation from other cultures. They developed their mimicry and used a language, grammelot, based on sounds, real words and seemingly senseless noises so that it was not necessary for their audience to understand Italian, though, like Schlegel, they might not have followed the meaning of every joke. The commedia characters had not only human names but also those of an animal whose movements the actor accorded with: ’Capitan Spaventa is also known as Dragonhead or Crocodile while the Pantaloon is also cockerel, turkey or hen, while Harlequin is cat or monkey’.48

  • 49 Schlegel, pp. 226, 202-203, 228, 228n.

28There were several different plots and speeches which were so well memorised by the actors that they could combine them with others and slip into a completely different and new scenario; as Schlegel, who praised the ’great fund of drollery and fantastic wit’ and the diversity of the plots, says, ’an endless number of combinations is possible.’. Schlegel remarks that the Italians were gifted ’from earliest times’ in ’a merry, amusing though very rude buffoonery, in extemporary speeches and songs, with accompanying appropriate gestures’, noting that Roman mimes had ’the first germ of the Commedia dell’arte’ and comparing the masks and costumes to those on Greek vases ’never used except on the stage’. He had discovered ’among the frescoes of Pompeji’ a figure of Pulcinello and a buffoon with particoloured dress like Arlecchino’s. His opinion was that performances during carnivals ensured that the continuity was unbroken and that ’the Commedia dell’Arte is the only one in Italy where we can meet with original and truly theatrical entertainment’ which should not be ’held in contempt by all who pretend to any degree of refinement, as if they were too wise for it’.49

20. ’Arlecchino’, 17th century print from Pierre Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), p. 131.

  • 50 CCJ, p. 91; Wolfe, I, p. 27.
  • 51 SPP, p. 519.
  • 52 Professor Irene Meloni, Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell’Università di Cagliari, pri (...)

29In Milan, Shelley, fresh from reading Schlegel, attended the puppet theatre. It may be assumed that, just as he wished to see improvvisatori, he was also curious to see commedia dell’arte. The commedia shared the spontaneity in improvisation, while the speed and acrobatics of the performers would not have failed to interest someone who at Field Place had been taken with ’a tumbler, who came to the back door to display her wonderful feats’.50 Mary Shelley’s reference to Shelley’s dislike of unevenness in performance, and the fact that he was to write in A Defence of Poetry of the ’partial and inharmonious effect’ of a company of actors without masks, suggest that he would have admired the unity which is characteristic of commedia dell’arte companies as well as their wearing of masks.51 Their unusual ability to portray animal and human characteristics simultaneously and the speed, agility and timing present to a high level in commedia dell’arte are necessary elements for a performance of Swellfoot. Their ability to communicate in grammelot translates easily into the dialogue between Swellfoot and the grunting pigs. These qualities were not, to my knowledge, found in London companies at the time but an Italian scholar, familiar with nineteenthcentury British humour and pantomime, immediately connected Swellfoot with commedia.52

Pantomime

  • 53 Hughes,Afterpieces or That’s Entertainment’, p. 61; Wyndham, Covent Garden, I, p. 4.
  • 54 Mayer, Harlequin in his Element, pp. 28-30, 44-47.
  • 55 Jones, Satire and Romanticism, pp. 170-172; The Letters of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. by Nicholas A. (...)
  • 56 Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 56.

30The pantomime was only initially inspired by commedia dell’arte, having been developed in the eighteenth century by John Rich, himself an excellent acrobat, mime and Harlequin.53 The names of Pantalone (Pantaloon), Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Colombina (Columbine) were used, but not their characters or the commedia scenarios. By 1800, pantomime followed a wellknown formula based on a tale such as Aladdin. In the first scene, lovers were separated by the young woman’s father, or another authority figure, and a magical being such as a good fairy transformed these three into Harlequin, Columbine, who sometimes sang but did not speak, and Pantaloon.54 The rest of the show consisted of a chase (harlequinade) with multiple spectacular scene changes, brought about by Harlequin’s magic wand or ’slapstick’, acrobatic feats, songs, dancing and clowning. The Clown became a major feature during the career of Grimaldi, whose humour was visually witty, satirical and vulgar. Unlike commedia, however, the inclusion of humour in pantomime was the responsibility of the Clown alone and not of the whole company. Pantomime had neither the verbal wit and repartee of commedia, nor its variety of plots. Just as Byron enjoyed pantomime and carnival, Shelley’s interest in pantomime can be assumed from Peacock’s writing to him of ’a very splendid’ pantomime ’founded on the adventures of Baron Munchausen’.55 Its mass appeal would have attracted him had he wanted to reach a popular audience; it was the pantomime which balanced the books.56 In Swellfoot, the supernatural figure of Liberty is similar to the good fairy of pantomime. Mammon and Purganax are the bad fairies and the green bag is the magic slapstick which transforms the characters, releasing the pigs from the wizard’s spells.

Punch

  • 57 La commedia dell’arte e il teatro erudito, a cura di Franco Mancini e Franco- Carmelo Greco (Napol (...)

31Polcinello [Pulcinella], a commedia dell’arte character from Naples, where he featured in plates, figurines, crockery and frescoes, 57 also became a glove puppet in a floppy white tunic, mask and conical hat with a falsetto voice. He travelled from Italy to France and England and developed into the English Punch, appearing in puppet theatre at eighteenth-century fairs and festivals with his wife Joan (later Judy). They knocked each other about with gusto, Joan giving Punch as good as she got, until the Devil came to her assistance and took both away. Joseph Baretti, the friend of Samuel Johnson, wrote in 1786 that Punch was one who, like Falstaff, always got the worst of a fight but boasted of victory after his attackers had departed. A print of 1785 shows Joan attacking Punch with a stick and it appears that she struck the first blow. Contemporary woodcuts show the pair with similar hooked nose and chin, but only Punch has the massive belly. These shows at the London fairs were ’frequented […] by children’ when Shelley was a child in the 1790s, and in 1804 there was a show in Brighton, not far from Horsham.

21. ’Punch and Joan’, 18th century woodcuts (artist unknown). From George Speaight Punch and Judy, A History (London: Studio Vista, 1970), p. 67. Woodcuts now in the possession of the Department of Theatre & Performance, Victoria & Albert Museum.

  • 58 Speaight, Punch and Judy, pp. 78, 85, 79, 76; Leach, Punch and Judy Show, pp. 15, 40.
  • 59 PBSLII, pp. 220, 207.
  • 60 Fo, Tricks of the Trade, p. 51.
  • 61 Morgan, Italy, II, pp. 291n., 447.

32Punch was also a familiar sight and introducing new characters and action when Shelley was living in or frequenting London, about which time Joan’s name changed to Judy.58 Shelley appears uncertain as to her present name, referring to the royal couple as ’Punch and his wife’. His wishes that they ’would fight out their disputes in person’, and that they should ’beat till […] they would kiss and be friends’ suggests that the version of the show which he had in mind was the earlier one, where Joan was more Punch’s equal than Judy later became.59 Dario Fo describes the English Punch as ’pitiless and hard as Pulcinella, a lineal descendant’.60 Swellfoot shares these characteristics, together with Punch’s huge belly and Iona’s rumbustious exit suggests ’his wife’. Punch’s relationship to Polcinello was well enough known for Lady Morgan, when describing a performance in 1820, to find it ’scarcely necessary to observe that the Pulchinello of Italy is not, like the Polichinel of Paris, or the Punch of England a puppet; but a particular character in low comedy, peculiar to Naples’. In Rome she saw a well-attended satirical outdoor puppet show, and the Shelleys also spent several months in both cities where they had the opportunity to come across Polcinello.61

Burlesque

  • 62 Rehearsal and Chrononhotonthologos in that edition and from Fiske, Theatre Music, pp. 148-149; MWS (...)

33There was yet another influence on Swellfoot: the eighteenth-century burlesque. Burlesques were very popular, in particular Fielding’s Tom Thumb and Henry Carey’s The Dragon of Wantley and Chrononhotonthologos, and had their beginnings in Buckingham’s The Rehearsal. This parodied the high-flown language, inconsistency of plot and inappropriate timing of music and dance of Dryden’s heroic drama by making the characters speak in whispers (II. i. 35-50) or in French ’to show their breeding’ (II. ii. 16). Such lines as ’All these dead men you shall see rise up presently, at a certain Note that I have made in Effaut flat, and fall a Dancing’ (II. v) led to the burlesque convention of the dead coming to life again. Burlesque went on to parody Italian opera, both in respect of plots and music. Shelley, at the very least, knew The Rehearsal and Chrononhotonthologos. Chrononhotonthologos has impossibly long names ’Singing, after the Italian Manner’, a silly story with music, dancing and fights. The elegant court dancing is undermined when ’the Queen and ladies dance The [plebeian] Black Joak while the kettle boils’ (II. 18). The highflown style is mocked when one of the characters plainly does not understand a word the other is saying, (Chrononhotonthologos, I. 53) and a stage direction calls for ’a tragedy groan’ (II. 18). The King is woken ’in a burlesque of the traditional scene de sommeil’ by ’Rough Musick, viz. saltboxes and Rolling-pins, Grid-irons and Tongs; Sow-gelders Horns; Marrow-bones and Cleavers etc. etc.62 ’Marrow-bones and Cleavers’, and the Sow-gelder himself, also appear in Swellfoot the Tyrant (stage directions, I. 70-95, II. ii).

  • 63 MWSJ, p. 165; Crabb Robinson, p. 49; Harcourt, Theatre Royal, Norwich, p. 39.

34Although the vogue for writing burlesque had really passed when Shelley attended the London theatre, they were still performed. Tom Thumb had been performed at Covent Garden in March 1810. Shelley saw Bombastes Furioso by W.B. Rhodes (22 January 1817). Crabb Robinson did not regard it highly, but it was described as late as 1848 as ’a very favourite farce’.63 Like the earlier burlesques, Bombastes has an uncomplicated plot, the incidents illogical or impossible. King Artaximonous fights General Bombastes over his mistress Distaffina and both are killed, but come back to life. Battles take place to the sound of a jig, there are eight songs and a dance at the end. The dialogue is in silly rhymes:

Who dares this pair of boots displace
Must meet Bombastes face to face. (48-59)
Good night my mighty soul’s inclin’d to roam,
So make my compliments to all at home. (117-120)

35Artaximonous, whose refrain is, ’Get out of my sight or I’ll knock you down’ shared the characteristic of over-indulgence with the Prince Regent, and the violent knockabout nature of the comedy allows a vicarious disrespect for the monarchy. No criticism of the real monarch could have been made overt at a patent theatre.

  • 64 Crabb Robinson, p. 50; Bratton, New Readings, pp. 109-110; PBSLII, pp. 102-103.

36Bombastes Furioso was performed by Mathews and Liston, both great comedians. Crabb Robinson, intending to disparage Mathews, said he was ’only excellent as a Mimic or in the rapidity of his transitions in bustle and comic volubility’ but these are qualities required by a comedian and, particularly, a commedia dell’arte player. Mathews was described as ’the very best actor on the […] stage’ and ’more plastic’ than Kean or Dowton’. He had impersonated Lord Ellenborough, another adversary of Shelley, ’in the character of Flexible, the judge in Kenney’s comedy Love Law and Physic’. Shelley had long appreciated Mathews’s talent and been familiar with his work, having sent him an early play. It is highly probable that he would have recalled him when writing Swellfoot, which requires the actors to have high skills of impersonation and, in the last scene, the ability to change rapidly. This is not to say that Shelley expected Mathews to perform in Swellfoot, but he may have written the play as he did with Kean and Cenci, thinking of what Mathews could do with the part and knowing that others had the required skills, if to a lesser degree.64 Shelley had the talent of imitation in writing which Mathews had in acting. Just as Aristophanes parodied the style of other writers in a number of comedies, so Shelley was able to write successfully in the same verse forms as Milton, Dante or Spenser and to mock Wordsworth in Peter Bell the Third.

  • 65 OSA, pp. 389-390.

37Burlesques had a two-act structure with two scenes in each act. Swellfoot’s first act has only one scene but the exit at I. 95 clears the stage and divides the act into two parts differing in style: the first short with plenty of physical action, and the second with the drama in the speeches. Burlesques were primarily written for performance and were very popular and successful on the stage; it was this which led to their publication. When published, Fielding’s introduction and notes to Tom Thumb in mockacademic style became a tradition of the eighteenth-century burlesque, one which Shelley followed.65 The tradition of burlesque showed Shelley that silly jokes and situations could be successful on stage, that a complicated plot was not necessary for comedy, and that an actor’s mimicry could be used to supply the political and social comment that the burlesque lacks.

Act I

  • 66 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 76; Erkelenz, p. 500.
  • 67 SCX, p. 805.

38As Wallace and Erkelenz have noted, the action of the first scene is a parody of the first scene of Oedipus Tyrannus in which Oedipus comes out to greet his supplicants.66 The comic difference is that, unlike Oedipus, who agrees to help his subjects, Shelley’s king first does not even notice the pigs and then behaves towards them with total callousness. Shelley suggests the parody of the magnificence of an exotic temple in his requirements for the scenic presentation – ’tiled with scalps, thigh bones and death’s heads’. This may be based on the Church of the Capuchins, Via Veneto, Rome. 67 Swellfoot’s comparison of his belly to an Egyptian pyramid emphasises the temple imagery and reminds the audience of the cost of those structures. The visual imagery of the thistle, shamrock and oak makes it clear that the boars, sows and sucking pigs are the people of Scotland, Ireland and England, not of Thebes.

  • 68 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 256.

39Swellfoot’s ’royal robes’ of ’gold and purple’ are, like Jupiter’s in Prometheus Unbound, in the colours Shelley associates with power, extravagance and oppression. Swellfoot has what Reiter describes as ’a dictator’s contempt for life’.68 When the pigs plead for a small amount of food, despite the legal and practical benefits of their reasons, his response is ’Kill them out of the way’. The figure of Swellfoot represents both the system, the corruption which offers the dropsical pig to ’serve instead of riot money’, and the individual, a satirical portrait of George IV. Like Swellfoot, George was obese. Swellfoot requires the sows to be speyed mentioning their lack of ’moral restraint’ and his ’own example’ (74-75) just as George cited his wife’s adultery as if he were innocent, despite his own numerous affairs.

40Just as the Frogs’ song ’Brekakek koax koax’ represents their croaking, Shelley’s Pigs’ chorus,’Aigh! Aigh!’, ’Eigh! Eigh!’ and ’Ugh! Ugh!’ represents their squealing and grunting, a combination of the pathetic and comic.

  • 69 Scrivener remarks on Malthus’s influence, Radical Shelley, p. 268.

41Their dialogue with Swellfoot is at first without words, although Swellfoot’s response indicates the meaning of what they say, allowing the actors to express themselves through sounds and body language as the commedia players communicate in grammelot. This indicates their identity as pigs before line 32 when they confirm it. What should be the graceful dance of the Semi-Chorus is comically parodied and when Moses attempts to spey the sows, the chaos is comic but the situation, a visual portrayal of Malthusianism, has pathos.69 ’The pigs run about in consternation’ while Swellfoot prates about ’moral restraint’ and Moses pleads for him to ’Keep the Boars quiet, else –’ (I. 79). Swellfoot’s order to drive them out to slaughter is a sudden shock climax which effectively divides the act.

42The dialogue of Mammon and Purganax unfolds the plot against Iona and also their lying, duplicity, scheming, spying and fear of the people. Shelley shows his command of a dramatic device he used in the first scene of The Cenci in which the characters shift position to take up the attitude exhibited at first by the other character. Purganax begins by being despondent and uncertain, saying, ’The future looks as black as death’ (I. 96). He is worried about the oracle, an appropriate metaphor for the volatile economic situation in England, (I. 108) and afraid of the Swine (I. 146). But when he begins to report his dealings with his team of spies, he becomes confident. Shelley shows a grasp of technique by allowing the actor playing Mammon time to build his panic while Purganax tells the mock-epic story of the Gadfly. It is now Mammon who begins to panic (’My dear friend, where are your wits?’ (I. 181).

43Shelley builds the whole scene with dramatic skill to bring Mammon to the level at which he reveals his financial dealings and his fear of ’the Swinish multitude’. He is then interrupted by the entry of the Gadfly and the realisation of all his fears. The great comic potential in a performance of this scene can be appreciated by imagining a masked actor wearing wizard’s robes, using the voice of the prime minister, panicking and making sexual puns about leeches and rats.

44The style of dialogue also reveals dramatic ability. Mammon and Purganax interrupt each other, breaking up the verse, and use short lines to give a natural feel and create an impression of fear and secrecy appropriate to the subject discussed: ’Now there were danger in the precedent/If queen Iona […]’ (I. 146-7) or:

Mammon: In that fear I have ––
Purganax: Done what?
Mammon: Disinherited
My eldest son. (I. 195-196)

  • 70 Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 355.
  • 71 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (London: Collins, [n.d.]), p. 112.

45The Gadfly’s entry, preceded by humming, would on stage be both funny and spectacular. Shelley has described The Gadfly as being ’fed on dung’ (I. 163 ) ’trailing a blistering slime’ (I. 165) with ’convex eyes’ which see ’fair things in many hideous shapes’ (I. 160-161) and, like the Leech and Rat, he is comically sinister and disgusting to look at. This emphasises the nature of the spying Milan Commission (a Sir John Leach was the chair) 70 while belittling it through the comedy. The songs, which break up the scene and vary the action, use such comic invented words and phrases as ’deader’ and ’dumbed her’. Shelley uses the word ’uglification’ before Lewis Carroll and, like Carroll’s Queen, Swellfoot cries, ’Off with her head!’ (I. 294).71

  • 72 Wickwar, The Freedom of the Press, p. 161.

46When the Rat emphasises Mammon’s fear that the pigs may turn out to be John Bull after all (I. 276), Purganax realises his spies have failed. His fuming ’This is a pretty business’ (I. 279-280) prompts Mammon’s exit line in keeping with his character as Chief Wizard, ’I will go/And spell some scheme to make it ugly then’ (281). The final part of the scene becomes even more hectic with Swellfoot’s entry, the swine’s potential rebellion, and the introduction of the characters of Laoctonos and Dakry with their news from the battlefront. The failure of Laoctonos’s battalions of ’royal apes’ to defeat the united and determined Swine reflects Shelley’s own hope that English soldiers would not fire on the people, while their succumbing to ’apples, nuts and gin’ shows that he did not think it would be difficult to bribe them. This was the case, since the soldiers were openly showing their support of the Queen.72 The Swine themselves follow good military practice:

in a hollow square
Enclosed her, and received the first attack
Like so many rhinoceroses, and then
Retreating in good order, with bare tusks
And wrinkled snouts presented to the foe
Bore her in triumph to the public sty. (I. 314-319)

  • 73 White, ’Swellfoot’, p. 335.

47Corruption is again revealed in Swellfoot’s line ’Pack them then’, an immediate retort to Purganax’s desire to have a show of legality by assembling a jury (I. 295). Mammon’s entry with his new magic spell, the Green Bag, and the repetition of the very words ’Green Bag’ would have caused certain and repeated laughter in an audience since green bags incurred such notoriety during this trial that lawyers gave up using them.73 The references to Hamlet (I. 199) and Cymbeline (I. 205) would also have been recognised and so would the end of the Act with its echo of the witches in Macbeth, (I. 414) an appropriate play to parody with its royal murder, oppression of the people and supernatural interventions.

Act II, Scene i

48As already mentioned, Purganax’s speech, which opens the act, parodies Castlereagh’s. The original speech dealt only with the Caroline question, but Shelley had raised questions about why the Council of Wizards behaves as it does which it was dramatically necessary to answer to show the audience the reasons for the oppression of the Pigs:

Who, by frequent squeaks, have dared impugn
The settled Swellfoot system, or to make
Irreverent mockery of the genuflexions
Inculcated by the arch-priest, have been whipped
Into a loyal and an orthodox whine (II. i. 26-30)

  • 74 Wickwar, The Freedom of the Press, p. 40.

49He refers to the dissemination of information through pamphlets or papers, which was punished severely even if the distributor knew nothing of the contents.74 Shelley satirises the hypocrisy of Castlereagh’s morality and patriotic virtue with:

that true source of Piggishness
(How can I find a more appropriate term
To include religion, morals, peace, and plenty,
And all that fit Boeotia as a nation
To teach the other nations how to live?) (II. i. 6-10)

  • 75 Wolfe, I, p. 130.

50The setting is ’The Public Sty’ – the House of Commons where the Boars, ’in full Assembly’, follow mock Parliamentary procedure. Shelley made use of his early experience of visiting the House of Commons with his father.75 The scene ridicules the ease with which an orator such as Purganax can win over those like the First Boar, who begins as an aggressive supporter of Iona, saying ’What/Does any one accuse her of?’ (II. i. 44-45), and ends by calling Purganax ’Excellent, just and noble’ (II. i. 94). Shelley does not describe the scenery but allows the scene painter the comic possibilities of combining elements of both a pigsty and the House of Commons. The Boars are better off than ’the Swinish multitude’ (II. i. 37-39) and Shelley shows their interests are opposed on class grounds since:

the Lean-pig faction
Seeks to obtain that hog-wash, which has been
Your immemorial right, and which I will
Maintain you in to the last drop of –’ (II. i. 40-44)

  • 76 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 260.

51The dialogue which follows (II. i. 95-105) mocks the MPs’ conservatism and conformity. Even though the Boars’ lines are a feed for Purganax, Shelley has made sure that these small parts are differentiated with comic potential and characterises them in very few lines. While attempting to appear loyal, innocent and intelligent, the Boars reveal their prurience and obtuseness when referring to the ’cow’s tail’ or ’Her Majesty’s petticoats’ (II. i. 95, 104), which embarrasses the Second Boar when he realises he will be able to see under them.76 He is annoyed, snapping ’Or anything, as the learned Boar observed’ (II. i. 105), when he is outdone by Purganax’s description of the glory of her Majesty flying through the sky like an angel.

52The Chorus bursts into the Sty at the point when Purganax is to move the resolution that Iona is tried. While they break down the doors, they sing the ’first Strophe’, which has only eight words and begins ’No! Yes! Yes! No!’ (II. i. 111-114), a potentially very funny scene on stage. Then, excited by their power, they and the alarmed MPs realise that rebellion means they must ’share their wash with the Lean-Pigs’. They confront each other in a dramatically effective comic and musical scene while the First Boar, as Speaker, calls for Order. At the climax, Shelley gives Iona a grand entrance and a fine speech on her innocence and gratitude to her loyal pigs, ending the scene with triumph for Iona and the pigs.

Act II, Scene ii

  • 77 Kelly, Reminiscences, p. 247.

53The scenery for Scene II simply consists of a statue of a skeleton ’clothed in parti-coloured rags, seated upon a heap of skulls and loaves intermingled’ (the statue of Famine). Shelley’s stage directions and scenery requirements are, as elsewhere, sufficient in their entirety to furnish hints to the scene painter and to make sure that there is what is needed for the coup de théâtre at the end of the scene. It is clear from the stage direction and cue that a trapdoor is required through which Famine will vanish and the Minotaur will rise, the mechanical technique similar to that Kelly describes for the sinking of Blue Beard and raising of the skeleton, though it is to be hoped with more success than Kelly had on Bluebeard’s first night.77

54The stage picture of ’exceedingly fat Priests in black garments’, ’arrayed’ on either side of a skeleton, skulls and loaves shows Shelley’s great clarity of conception and regard for grouping, even placing in their hands the marrow bones and cleavers on which they are to perform. He both indulges and makes fun of the audience’s pleasure in processions. Mammon, Swellfoot and the other government ministers, together with Iona Taurina and her guards enter to the ’flourish of trumpets’ while the swine enter from the other side. There are immense comic possibilities when these two opposing parties see each other and still more when they meet mid-stage, particularly as the expectation is that the King’s procession are pompous and stately and the Swine’s rough and disorderly. The Chorus of priests satirises the conservative point of view, again making the reasons for opposing reform quite clear:

The earth pours forth its plenteous fruits,
Corn, wool, linen, flesh, and roots –
Those who consume these fruits through thee grow fat,
Those who produce these fruits through thee grow lean,
Whatever change takes place, oh, stick to that!
And let things be as they have ever been;
At least while we remain thy priests (II. ii. 8-13)

55The ’magnificently covered’ table depicts the division of wealth in the country and the ’exceedingly lean’ Pigs licking up the wash from what is spilt from the attendants’ pails (stage directions following II. ii. 19) contrasts the desperation of starvation and the waste of a banquet for the jaded appetite in a striking visual image placed centrally, since the table is ’at the upper end of the Temple’.

56Swellfoot’s request to have the Pigs silenced is not granted because their grunting is a tribute to Famine. Their chorus, however, is a clear invitation to rebellion. It refers to ’dividing possessions,’ ’uprooting oppressions’ and making all ’level’ (II. ii. 42-60) instead of ’new churches, and cant’, the government’s hypocritical programme of churchbuilding in support of a religion one of whose tenets is to feed the hungry. The Chorus alarms the ministers sufficiently to bring forward Iona’s trial. At this point, Shelley allows two actions to run concurrently. Liberty, ’a graceful figure in a semitransparent veil’, passes through the Temple and delivers the parabasis, kneeling in genuine prayer. While ’the Veiled Figure has been chanting this strophe’, the government ministers have surrounded Iona, whose stance is similar to that required of the hero at the end of Lovers’ Vows: hands folded on her breast and eyes lifted to heaven’ (stage directions following II. ii. 102), but her saintly attitude is only assumed. As movement attracts the eye of the audience and Liberty contrasts so much with Iona in appearance and attitude, Shelley can be sufficiently confident to allow her words to be ’almost drowned’ at first. But, being chanted, they are more audible and there is no conflicting dialogue. They become ’louder and louder’.

  • 78 Kenneth Neill Cameron, ’Shelley and the ”Conciones ad Populum”’, Modern Language Notes, 57.8 (Dece (...)

57In The Mask of Anarchy, Shelley identifies Freedom with ’clothes, and fire, and food’ and in Swellfoot Freedom is Famine’s ’eternal foe’, but in this case Shelley, as Cameron showed, is referring to Coleridge’s Letter from Liberty to her Dear Friend Famine.78 Liberty asks Famine to ’wake the multitude’ but to ’lead them not upon the paths of blood’ (II. ii. 90-91), thus making it clear that it is want which drives people to ’fanatic rage and meaningless revenge’ (II. ii. 94). Shelley did not believe in revenge, but that is not to say that he did not want to see Liverpool and Castlereagh brought to justice.

  • 79 SCX, p. 813.

58In performance, Liberty’s prayer to Famine to ’Rise now!’ (II. ii. 102) would be the cue for the stagehands to raise the image of Famine ’with a tremendous sound’. There would be a startling double coup de théâtre, since at the same time Iona snatches the green bag with the agility and dexterity of a commedia dell’arte player and pours the contents on ’Swellfoot and the whole Court’ (stage directions, p. 408). This requires quick nimble playing by the ensemble who are all ’instantly’ changed into ’ugly badgers […] stinking foxes […] devouring otters […] hares [and] wolves’, while ’all those [pigs] who eat the loaves’ are turned into bulls (II. ii. 117-119, stage directions, p. 409). As the ’filthy and ugly animals’ rush out, the pigs scramble for the loaves which now can be reached as Famine is no longer seated on them. Famine descends through the trapdoor as the Minotaur rises. The Minotaur, ’in plain Theban, that is to say, John Bull’ (II. ii. 107-109), is the revolutionary or reformist spirit in the country, which is why he can ’leap any gate’. He offers aid to Iona who ’leaps nimbly on to his back’, but it is clear that he can throw her and that this concession is only ’till you have hunted down your game’ (II. ii. 114). The alliance between Iona and Minotaur, like that between Liberty and Famine, is therefore, as Shelley would have wished that between the people and Queen: temporary. Shelley, although this may have been a second thought, shows his awareness of the requirements of the stage by writing a speech for the Minotaur sufficiently long to allow Iona to put on her hunting costume.79 She and the Minotaur leave the stage with hounds baying, bells ringing and cries of ’Tallyho!’, but the pigs who become bulls ’arrange themselves quietly behind the altar’ and take no part in the hunt, suggesting that they are the ’radiant spirits’ referred to by Liberty. In performance, this tableau would be the stage picture which the audience would be left with, not the exuberant exit of the hunt.

59Swellfoot the Tyrant has been under-rated, since, more than any other of Shelley’s dramas, performance is critical to the perception of its quality. The essence of comedy is timing, which cannot exist on a page. The humour added by costumes, scenery, choruses, acting and spectacular stage effects is also easily missed in the reading. There is a great difference between reading dialogue and watching a competent company impersonate the royal family, the cabinet ministers and parliament, mimic the mannerisms of unpopular figures of authority and make the most of Shelley’s sexual jokes. Shelley has well-structured scenes and an extremely good grasp of the mechanisms needed at the time for creating an impact with stage effects, skill in writing parts which would have displayed the talents of professional actors and, as I have shown, he exhibits techniques drawn from the comic traditions of Aristophanes, commedia, burlesque, pantomime and Punch.

  • 80 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 253.

60Swellfoot has been described as the ’only great lashing Aristophanic comedy, fantastic and grotesque, in our language’,80 and it is a play for which it is difficult to find parallels either in Shelley’s other work or in other plays of the period. Shelley may not have known of a company which could perform it but, had it been staged in 1820, it would have made its points effectively to the audience. The very topicality which would have made it entertaining then has made it unsuitable for performance subsequently, as a knowledge of the contemporary background is required for the audience to understand all the jokes, although there are certainly some perennial issues and recently the issue of royalty and divorce re-awakened interest in this piece of history. It is clear that such a play requires a company with a high level of professionalism, but is, nevertheless, a very performable play.

Notes

1 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 810.

2 McCalman, Radical Underworld, p. 163; William W. Wickwar, The Struggle for the Freedom of the Press 1819-1832 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928), pp. 58, 70, 163.

3 White, ”Swellfoot”, pp. 333-335; e.g. McCalman, Radical Underworld, p. 169.

4 SPP, pp. 520-521.

5 Webb, Violet in the Crucible, p. 137; Tetreault, The Poetry of Life, p. 159; Wolfe, I, p. 337.

6 ’On the Manners of the Ancient Greeks’ in Shelley’s Prose, p. 223.

7 ’An Athlete’ in Shelley’s Prose, p. 346; PBSLII, p. 207.

8 PBSLII, pp. 239-240.

9 SPI, pp. 230-237; PBSLII, p. 220.

10 PBSLII, p. 213.

11 McCalman, Radical Underworld, pp. 169, 162-163, 175.

12 PBSLII, p. 213; Webb, Violet in the Crucible, p. 134; Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, pp. 258, 260, 261, 264.

13 Hall and Macintosh, Greek Tragedy, p. 236.

14 OSA, p. 410.

15 W.B. Stanford, Introduction to The Frogs by Aristophanes (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1958), p. xxi.

16 Webb, Violet in the Crucible, p. 137.

17 Schlegel, pp. 153-168; MWSJ, pp. 214-217.

18 Michael Erkelenz. ’The Genre and Politics of Shelley’s ”Swellfoot the Tyrant”’, The Review of English Studies, n.s. 47, 188 (November 1996), 500-520 (pp. 502-508).

19 Erkelenz, ’Swellfoot the Tyrant ’, p. 516; Schlegel, p. 154; SPP, p. 520.

20 Schlegel, pp. 155-156; Shelley’s Prose, pp. 216-228.

21 Schlegel, p. 157; Tetreault, ’Shelley and the Opera’, pp. 160-161.

22 Aristophanes, The Frogs, p. 206; Also noted by Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 77.

23 Aristophanes, The Frogs, p. 212; Aristophanes, The Acharnians in The Acharnians, Lysistrata, trans. by Alan H. Sommerstein (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 103, 235.

24 King-Hele, Shelley and His Work, p. 263.

25 Helmut Flashar, ’The Originality of Aristophanes’ Last Plays’ in Oxford Readings in Aristophanes, ed. by Erich Segal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 314.

26 Steven E. Jones, Satire and Romanticism (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 2000), p. 184; Art Young, Shelley and Non-Violence (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), p. 130.

27 Bush-Bailey, ’Still Working it Out’, p. 15.

28 White, ’Swellfoot’, pp. 340-341; Cameron, The Golden Years, pp. 357-358; Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 255.

29 PBSLII, p. 216.

30 Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 358.

31 The Times, 8 June 1820.

32 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 260.

33 Qtd in Jones, Shelley’s Satire, p. 100.

34 Bratton, New Readings, p. 110.

35 SCVI, p. 1027.

36 The Times, 7 June 1820.

37 PBSLII, p. 220.

38 H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 183.

39 Edmund Burke, ’Reflections on the Revolution in France’ in Robert B. Dishman, Burke and Paine on Revolution and the Rights of Man (New York: Scribner, 1971), p. 114.

40 Kelly, Reminiscences, p. 247.

41 Robert Kee, The Green Flag, 3 vols (London: Quartet, 1976), I, p. 158.

42 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 81.

43 Fo, Tricks of the Trade, p. 22.

44 Kimbell, Italian Opera, pp. 282-283.

45 Ibid., pp. 286.

46 Pierre Louis Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (New York: Dover, 1966), pp. 24-29.

47 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 79.

48 Fo, Tricks of the Trade, pp. 25, 22, 47, 28, 43; Schlegel, p. 228n.

49 Schlegel, pp. 226, 202-203, 228, 228n.

50 CCJ, p. 91; Wolfe, I, p. 27.

51 SPP, p. 519.

52 Professor Irene Meloni, Facoltà di Lingue e Letterature Straniere dell’Università di Cagliari, private conversation, October 2007.

53 Hughes,Afterpieces or That’s Entertainment’, p. 61; Wyndham, Covent Garden, I, p. 4.

54 Mayer, Harlequin in his Element, pp. 28-30, 44-47.

55 Jones, Satire and Romanticism, pp. 170-172; The Letters of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. by Nicholas A. Joukovsky (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001), p. 164.

56 Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 56.

57 La commedia dell’arte e il teatro erudito, a cura di Franco Mancini e Franco- Carmelo Greco (Napoli: Guida, c. 1982); Robert Leach, The Punch and Judy Show: History, Tradition and Meaning (London: Batsford, 1985), p. 18.

58 Speaight, Punch and Judy, pp. 78, 85, 79, 76; Leach, Punch and Judy Show, pp. 15, 40.

59 PBSLII, pp. 220, 207.

60 Fo, Tricks of the Trade, p. 51.

61 Morgan, Italy, II, pp. 291n., 447.

62 Rehearsal and Chrononhotonthologos in that edition and from Fiske, Theatre Music, pp. 148-149; MWSJ, pp. 135, 157.

63 MWSJ, p. 165; Crabb Robinson, p. 49; Harcourt, Theatre Royal, Norwich, p. 39.

64 Crabb Robinson, p. 50; Bratton, New Readings, pp. 109-110; PBSLII, pp. 102-103.

65 OSA, pp. 389-390.

66 Wallace, Shelley and Greece, p. 76; Erkelenz, p. 500.

67 SCX, p. 805.

68 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 256.

69 Scrivener remarks on Malthus’s influence, Radical Shelley, p. 268.

70 Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 355.

71 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (London: Collins, [n.d.]), p. 112.

72 Wickwar, The Freedom of the Press, p. 161.

73 White, ’Swellfoot’, p. 335.

74 Wickwar, The Freedom of the Press, p. 40.

75 Wolfe, I, p. 130.

76 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 260.

77 Kelly, Reminiscences, p. 247.

78 Kenneth Neill Cameron, ’Shelley and the ”Conciones ad Populum”’, Modern Language Notes, 57.8 (December 1942), 673-674.

79 SCX, p. 813.

80 Reiter, Shelley’s Poetry, p. 253.

Table des illustrations

Légende 20. ’Arlecchino’, 17th century print from Pierre Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), p. 131.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/768/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
Légende 21. ’Punch and Joan’, 18th century woodcuts (artist unknown). From George Speaight Punch and Judy, A History (London: Studio Vista, 1970), p. 67. Woodcuts now in the possession of the Department of Theatre & Performance, Victoria & Albert Museum.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/768/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 90k