Tasso Influenced Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo

face of a prisoner

The experiences of the Italian poet Torquato Tasso apparently influenced Shelley’s conception of Julian and Maddalo. Tasso was imprisoned in the St. Anna madhouse in Ferrara from 1579 to 1586. In a letter to Thomas Peacock, dated Apr. 20, 1818, Shelley stated, “I have devoted the summer & indeed the next year to the composition of a tragedy on the subject of Tasso’s madness.”^ Later that year, Shelley visited the rooms in which Tasso was imprisoned. Shelley apparently wrote Julian and Maddalo sometime from September, 1818 to early August, 1819.^ Shelley never completed a tragedy on Tasso. However, the setting of Julian and Maddalo and the actions of the maniac allude to Tasso’s imprisonment in a madhouse.

Shelley’s close friend Lord Byron was also interested in Tasso. Byron in 1816 wrote The Prisoner of Chillon in response to a visit he made with Shelley to the Château de Chillon. Byron in 1817 wrote his poem The Lament of Tasso.

In thinking of imprisonment, Shelley’s interests seem to have shifted from Tasso to Prometheus. Shelley’s interest in Prometheus was subsequently expressed in Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, and Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. The Cenci was explicitly styled as a tragedy.

Shelley was keenly interested in imprisonment. He interpreted imprisonment as a problem of mind, not as narratively determined circumstances of the body. Shelley’s understanding of imprisonment is consistent with his privileging character over plot in representing and refiguring Prometheus.

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