Shelley Characterized Prometheus in Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

The fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound differs significantly from later ideals of classical Greek tragedy. The Prometheus of fifth-century Greek myth was not a noble or great figure. The idea of a tragic flaw or error makes little sense for Prometheus in Prometheus Bound. Its plot includes neither recognition nor reversal. The festival trilogy of Promethean plays almost surely included reconciliation or reunion of Prometheus and Zeus, much like the typical ending of comedy.^ Prometheus Bound includes sections in a low, common style. Moreover, the gift of Prometheus is not merely fire or abstract, world-transforming knowledge. Prometheus’s gifts encompass diverse practical skills and objects that together point to ordinary life in Athens.^ Prometheus Bound in fifth-century Athens fundamentally concerned the everyday reality of punishment, the everyday silence about the execution of punishment, and the everyday suppression of communication with persons being punished.

In competition for attention in the early nineteenth century, Prometheus Bound came to be about a hero who reveals man’s essence and destiny. A leading German Romantic declared Prometheus to be:

an image of human nature itself; endowed with an unblessed foresight and riveted to a narrow existence, without a friend or ally, and with nothing to oppose to the combined and inexorable powers of nature, but an unshaken will and the consciousness of her own lofty aspirations. The other productions of the Greek Tragedians are so many tragedies; but this I might say is Tragedy herself: her purest spirit revealed with all the annihilating and overpowering force of its first, and as yet unmitigated, austerity.^

A highly popular English poet, who in 1833 published an English translation of Prometheus Bound, noted:

I would rest the claims of the Prometheus upon one fulcrum, THE CONCEPTION OF CHARACTER. … Prometheus stands eminent and alone; one of the most original, and grand, and attaching characters ever conceived by the mind of man.^

A leading nineteenth-century American intellectual called Prometheus “the Jesus of the old mythology.”^ The nineteenth-century European intellectual who probably had the greatest total effect on human lives around the world declared, “Prometheus is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophic calendar.”^ By late in the nineteenth century, Prometheus Bound had come to represent deep psychological formlessness that implies crime: the “innermost core of the Prometheus saga” is “the imperative requirement that the individual striving like a Titan has to fall into crime.”^ Prometheus came to represent not pragmatic forms of communication with persons being punished, but the essential character of fully realized human nature.

Shelley’s work illustrates the new Prometheus. In Alastor, a poem finished early in 1816, Shelley tells the story of a poet’s tragic quest for knowledge. The narrator begins with a Promethean address to the elements: “Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood!”^ Unlike Prometheus Bound, the frame of this poem is tranquil. After his initial invocation of the elements, the narrator describes his idyllic relationship with nature and asks the elements not to withdraw their favor. The narrator then addresses “our great Mother … Mother of this unfathomable world!” While the old Prometheus cries out to the elements to see his suffering in punishment, here the narrator’s invocation of the mother points to an inward quest. The narrator’s heart “ever gazes on the depths of thy mysteries;” he seeks to hear “the deep heart of man.” The narrator declares:

… I have made my bed
In charnels and on coffins, where black death
Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,
Hoping to still these obstinate questionings
Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost
Thy messenger, to render up the tale
of what we are.^

Despite “lone and silent hours” spent like an “inspired and desperate alchemist,” the great mother nature never “unveiled thy inmost sanctuary.” But “enough … has shone within me” to create the embedded story of the Promethean poet. The poet, driven in solitude by his high thoughts, travels to Greece, Jerusalem, Babylon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, the vale of Kashmir, the area between the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, and finally, on a boat into a cavern at the base of high cliffs of the Caucasus mountains. In Prometheus Bound, a gadfly drives Io across this expanse, and Prometheus is bound in Scythian mountains, which Cicero describes as the Caucasus. Shelley’s Alastor appropriates particular elements of Prometheus Bound apart from its context of authoritative bodily punishment. Shelley’s concern is the deep truth of human nature.

A central question for authors in early-nineteenth-century competition for attention was “Who am I?” Victor in Frankenstein embarks on a quest like the poet’s in Alastor:

Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? … To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. … Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses.^ ^

Shelley links the quest for self-understanding to horror in a different way in The Cenci. Dazed and traumatized by her father’s violation of her person, Beatrice asks, “What thing am I?”^ In the First Walk of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau asks, “But I, detached from them and from everything, what am I?”^ Shelley read Rousseau’s Reveries in 1815.^ But the focus on character, in particular the self, wasn’t a question of a particular line of influence. Concern for character was pervasive in early-nineteenth-century literature.

Sympathetic relations with others contribute to the tale of what we are. Shelley associated scorn and social rejection with death:

…there are some by nature proud,
Who patient in all else demand but this:
To love and be loved with gentleness;
And being scorned, what wonder if they die
Some living death? this is not destiny
But man’s own wilful ill.^

In Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo, a conversational soliloquy embedded within a represented conversation gives specific emotional weight to this ethical rule. A figure of the homosexual desire of a gay man stranded in a heterosexual marriage addresses the other half of himself:

O, pallid as death’s dedicated bride,
Thou mockery which art sitting by my side,
Am I not wan like thee? at the grave’s call
I haste, invited to thy wedding-ball
To greet the ghastly paramour; for whom
Thou hast deserted me … and made the tomb
Thy bridal bed …^ ^

In Frankenstein, the external effect is gothically heightened:

Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; — let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind – divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.^ ^

Victor Frankenstein discovers his bride murdered on “its bridal bier.”^ That ambiguous pronominal reference, like “its object” in Shelley’s Triumph of Life^, subtly questions Victor’s personal relationship with Elizabeth. Victor’s immediate response to seeing his bride murdered is lyrically inward from a third-personal self-perspective:

Great God! why did I not then expire!

Could I behold this and live? Alas!
life is obstinate, and clings closest
where it is most hated.
For a moment only did I lose recollection;
I fainted.^

Using story to reveal psychology was a central feature of novels’ new formula for popular success. Shelley was an enthusiastic novel reader. He was enthralled with Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761). That novel came upon Shelley in 1816 “somewhat in the manner of a theophany.”^ Shelley’s Promethean poem Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1816) mocks with its title the titles of popular novels. That work also drew significantly on the popular novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759).^ Shelley also wrote two gothic novels as a teenager in 1810 and 1811 and began a novella in 1814.^ Shelley, although much more of a poet than a novelist, developed from a lyric poet into a dramatic poet.^ ^ As a dramatic poet, one of Shelley’s central concerns was the effects of social relations on character.

Unlike most novelists, Shelley as a mature poet strove to abstract the essence of human nature from the circumstances of history. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley declared:

There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond of connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other {a poem} is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds. The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.^

This description of poetry parallels that which Imlac offers in Chapter X of Samuel Johnson’s highly popular novel Rasselas (1759). Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry also alludes to Phillip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesie (1595). Both Shelley’s and Sidney’s defenses are products of playful, male, literary jousting. Both texts make ludicrously exaggerated claims for poetry. In doing so, they enlisted fifth-century Athenian tragedies. Shelley declared that the tragedies of the Athenian poets were not bound to time, place, and circumstance, but rather depict the essence of human nature:

Of no other epoch in the history of our species have we records and fragments stamped so visibly with the image of the divinity in man. … The tragedies of the Athenian poets are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all, but the ideal perfection and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.^

In his unsigned 1818 preface to Frankenstein, Shelley declared:

I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations. The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece, — Shakespeare, in the Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream, — and most especially Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule; and the most humble novelist, who seeks to confer or receive amusement from his labours, may, without presumption, apply to prose fiction a licence, or rather a rule, from the adoption of which so many exquisite combinations of human feeling have resulted in the highest specimens of poetry.^

With its emphasis on human nature and human feelings, Shelley’s understanding of tragedy was far from that of men-of-action in action in fifth-century Athens. Shelley treasured Prometheus Bound. But Shelley’s understanding of Athenian tragedies devalued circumstantial actions like ordinary conversation with persons bound in punishment. For Shelley, the end or soul of tragedy is the human mind.

Fracturing stories depreciates their narrative value and points to the constitutive powers of the human mind. Rosalind and Helen, which Shelley began in the summer of 1817, narrates a personal encounter within which the two titular characters tell their stories. These stories in turn include the voice of Rosalind’s husband, delivered through the text of his will, and the voice of Helen’s lover, delivered through a text found on the ground. The events included in these texts are narrated just before the voicing of the texts. The texts thus function like an echo from deeper consciousness. Rosalind’s and Helen’s narrations bridge the emotional rift between them. The effect occurs through an exchange of sorrows, not via the creation of a common story.

Fracturing and circulating stories is an important structure in Julian and Maddalo. Splitting Julian and Maddalo’s peripatetic conversation are “unconnected exclamations” of a maniac. The poem’s preface explains the lengthy account of the maniac:

His story, told at length, might be like many other stories of the same kind: the unconnected exclamations of his agony will perhaps be found a sufficient comment for the text of every heart.^

The story needn’t be told at length because it’s universal – the text of every heart. Like Prometheus Bound, Julian and Maddalo includes story-seeking within conversational exchange. The story-seeking in the latter, however, is solemn and emotionally fraught. Julian seeks from Maddalo’s grown daughter the story of the “lorn maniac.” Her reluctance to tell the story is resolved with quiet conversational jousting that highlights the daughter’s caring, quasi-familial relationship with both Maddalo and Julian:

‘She left him’ … ‘Why, her heart must have been tough:
How did it end?’ ‘And was not this enough?
They met – they parted’ – ‘Child, is there no more?’

Suggesting that the “why” and “how” would wound a soft heart, Maddalo’s daughter states:

Something within that interval which bore
The stamp of why they parted, how they met:
Yet if thine aged eyes disdain to wet
Those wrinkled cheeks with youth’s remembered tears,
Ask me no more, but let the silent years
Be closed and ceared over their memory
As yon mute marble where their corpses lie.

Julian insists. Maddalo’s daughter tells him the story. But to the reader who lacks Julian’s emotional investment, Julian refuses to convey the story:

I urged and questioned still, she told me how
All happened – but the cold world shall not know.^

The story doesn’t serve as an instrument to bring dead figures to life. Refusing the story to the “cold world” suggests that reception of the story depends on warm, living emotion.

Frankenstein features fractured story-telling subordinated to state of mind. In Frankenstein‘s most narratively layered section, readers read Walton’s letter that contains Victor’s account that includes the creature’s story that tells the story of De Lacey and his intimates. These embedded stories are not separate, realistic narratives. Frankenstein unrealistically mixes textual and speech representations, fails to distinguish with different tones and styles nominally distinct narrative voices, and repeatedly disturbs willing suspension of disbelief with diegetically improbable events. Within Frankenstein’s narrative, Victor acknowledges to a magistrate the strangeness of his tale:

It is indeed a tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be mistaken for a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.^

Being “connected” characterizes stories. A motive for falsehood provides a cross-cutting story. In contrast, the epistemological invocation, “something in truth which … forces conviction,” claims an essential, non-narrative effect within the mind. The magistrate ultimately concludes that the tale comes merely from Victor’s delirious mind.

State of mind is central to Walton’s narrative. Walton’s letter of “August 19th, 17– ” breaks off into Victor’s narrative. When Victor’s narrative ends, Walton continues with a letter dated “August 26th, 17–”. The letter begins:

You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you not feel your blood congealed with horror, like that which even now curdles mine?^

Margaret, Walton’s sister, has no first-personal appearance in Frankenstein. The story-world of Walton’s letters suggests that the two dates refer to the same year, hence Margaret would not have had time to receive and read the story. Rather than a sentence actually written to Margaret, Walton’s opening sentence seems like part of an imaginative dialogue within Walton’s mind. Within this same letter, Walton depreciates the significance of Victor’s narrative:

His tale is connected, and told with an appearance of the simplest truth; yet I own to you that the letters of Felix and Safie, which he shewed to me, and the apparition of the monster, seen from our ship, brought to me a greater conviction of the truth of his narrative than his asseverations, however earnest and connected.

In providing truth, Walton values evocations of love (the letters of Felix and Safie) and horror (the apparition of the monster) over the connectedness that characterizes a story. Playing counterpoint to this claim, Walton attempts to learn from Victor “the particulars of his creature’s formation.” Victor responds, “Are you mad, my friend?”^ Hinting of madness, Walton, in turn, remarks of Victor:

he enjoys one comfort, the offspring of solitude and delirium: he believes, that, when in dreams he holds converse with his friends, and derives from that communion consolation for his miseries, or excitements to his vengeance, that they are not the creations of his fancy, but the real beings who visit him from the regions of the remote world. This faith gives a solemnity to his reveries that render them to me almost as imposing and interesting as truth.^

Victor’s understanding of truth, like Shelley’s, is closely related to imagination. For example, Victor describes himself at William’s “true murderer.”^ Earlier, Victor declared, “He {the creature} was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.”^ Victor at that time had no other evidence.

Victor’s reveries seem to parallel Walton’s letters to his sister. Walton, on a ship in the remote northern seas, might plausibly experience solitude and delirium. The repeated theme of delirium, madness, and extreme emotional turmoil, along with the common or doubled characteristics of Walton, Victor, and the creature, undermines the significance of the narratives and points inward to the workings of the mind.

Frankenstein‘s formal epistolary structure is illusionary. Walton’s first letter has an address, place, and date. Clear markers of genre and narrative subsequently dissipate. Frankenstein concludes with dream-like language and imagery: “He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.” Shelley’s unsigned review gives primacy to elementary feelings of the human mind:

The elementary feelings of the human mind are exposed to view; and those who are accustomed to reason deeply on their origins and tendency will, perhaps, be the only persons who can sympathize, to the full extent, in the interest of the actions which are their result.^

According to Shelley, in Frankenstein “interest gradually accumulates and advances toward the conclusion with the accelerated rapidity of a rock rolled down a mountain.” But the total effect pushes the reader out of particular circumstances and earthly action: “the head turns giddy, and the ground seems to fail under our feet.”^ Shelley subordinated action in Frankenstein to character of mind.

Frankenstein includes an episode explicitly pitting character against narrative. Based on circumstantial evidence, the magistrate charges Justine, the Frankensteins’ servant-girl, with murdering the Frankensteins’ young child. The creature has circumstantially framed Justine as the perpetrator of the murder. Justine earlier was characterized as a gentle, loyal, honest, and loving person. The Frankensteins are naturally astonished that their loving and beloved Justine could be the murderer. Nonetheless, they and others feel the great force of the circumstantial narrative. Justine’s character is thus pitted against the circumstantial narrative of her guilt.

Justine’s character is established for the reader apart from narrative consistency. Victor, like Elizabeth, had known Justine for nearly five years before he left for Ingoldstadt. Nonetheless, in a letter to Victor, Elizabeth reminds him, “Justine was a great favourite of your’s.” Elizabeth then recounts Justine’s personal history to Victor.^ That Victor didn’t already know Justine’s personal history is highly implausible. Justine’s characterization defies Frankenstein’s narrative.

Justine’s trial authoritatively values narrative over character. Justine centers her legal defense on her character:

I hope the character that I have always borne will incline my judges to a favourable interpretation, where any circumstance appears doubtful or suspicious. …

I beg permission to have a few witnesses examined concerning my character; and if their testimony shall not overweigh my supposed guilt, I must be condemned, although I would pledge my salvation on my innocence.^

The “popular voice” condemns Justine. “Fear and hatred of the crime of which they supposed her guilty” makes witnesses “timorous and unwilling to come forward” even with their many years’ knowledge of Justine’s well-regarded character. “Public indignation” charges Justine with “the blackest ingratitude.”^ In addition, Justine’s confessor forces a confession from her:

Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments, if I continued obdurate.^

The confessor’s forceful religious narrative produces a false criminal narrative: Justine confesses the lie that she committed the murder. While this confession was clearly a product of particular circumstances, a court official later explains to Victor:

That evidence {the confession} was hardly required in so glaring a case, but I am glad of it; and, indeed, none of our judges like to condemn a criminal upon circumstantial evidence, be it ever so decisive.^

Reversing the position of Beatrice in The Cenci, narrative here prevails even to the extent of rewriting Justine’s own understanding of her innocence.

The trial of Justine points to a higher truth. Before the trial, Victor urges his niece to “rely on the justice of our judges.”^ After the trial, Victor with bitter irony declares to his niece:

it is decided as you may have expected; all judges had rather that ten innocent should suffer, than one guilty should escape.

Victor describes the trial as a “wretched mockery of justice.” Frankenstein makes clear to the reader that Justine is innocent. Most readers are likely to respond to her conviction with outrage and horror. In Justine’s trial, narrative literally prevails. But the literary effect as a whole identifies narrative as less truthful and a worse guide to justice than character.^ The reader of Frankenstein shares with Shelley “a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of events can yield.”^

Conflict between character and narrative less starkly informs Frankenstein as a whole. Shelley represents the creature with “prodigious mixtures and confusions strange.” Victor’s account of the creature’s animation emphasizes human-creatural details: the weather, the time of day, the color of the creature’s eyes, its breathing, the quality of its limbs’ movement. The creature’s physical ugliness causes Victor “breathless horror and disgust.” He immediately flees from the object of his great toil.^ ^ Later, brooding and melancholy, Victor climbs to a mountain’s summit. On the way, he observes:

Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word might convey to us.^

In the phrase “that that word might convey to us,” “word” replaced “wind” in an early Frankenstein draft.^ Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” written in October, 1819, centrally concerns words in relation to wind. Immediately after the above, Frankenstein quotes, without attribution, Shelley’s poem “On Mutability” (1816). Victor thus laments that external narrative forces, whether nature or texts, shape being, rather than allowing mental life to be more nearly free. William Godwin’s Doctrine of Necessity similarly describes external narrative forces.^ The effects of his own conventional senses and responses explains Victor’s despair in his reaction to his creature’s bodily reality.

The creature displays essential character struggling against narrative circumstances. The creature’s physical body comes not just from body parts decaying in vaults and charnel houses, but also from the “dissecting room and the slaughter house,” meaning the remains of executed criminals and the by-products of industrialized meat-eating. Emphasizing the low circumstances of its creation, the creature describes itself eating wild berries, drinking from brooks, sleeping in the forest, and feeling the bodily sensations of cold, darkness, and dampness. The creature lives for months in a “low hovel,” a “kennel” surrounded on three sides by a pigsty. The creature is enmeshed in the lowest of human-creatural concerns. Nonetheless, the creature learns language, listens to a reading of Volney’s Ruins of Empire, and reads with extreme delight Plutarch’s Lives, Paradise Lost, and Sorrows of Werter. The creature feels and discusses elevated human emotions, reasons about the essence of social relations, and speaks with “powers of eloquence and persuasion.”^ The creature displays the lofty humanity that the tragic hero came to represent. But the creature-being cannot escape from the circumstances of its creation. Its repulsive appearance drives the narrative of rejection, loneliness, and vengeance. The creature-being is a monstrously mixed representation in which noble character cannot separate itself from a base narrative.

Relative to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Frankenstein shifts significance from actions to psychological states. Frankenstein’s title-page epigraph is Adam’s protest to God from Paradise Lost:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?^

In Paradise Lost, these questions begin Adam’s contractual reasoning about his own creation. That reasoning continues with consideration of terms, performance, and penalty. Adam also considers the hypothetical case of his son questioning him as he questions God. Adam’s reasoning reconciles him to God’s actions.

Unlike Paradise Lost, Frankenstein focuses on socially constructed feelings. The creature considers himself from the narrative position of both Adam and Satan. He insistently complains about others’ unaffectionate feelings toward him, rather than their specific actions. The creature’s ultimate demand to Victor concerns feelings: “Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”^ Speaking to Adam in Paradise Lost, the archangel Michael describes the opposite relationship between virtue and happiness:

… only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable; add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance; add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.^

Victor sympathizes with the creature’s concern about feelings:

For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator toward his creature were, and I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.^

Victor’s feelings induce him to acquiesce to the creature first demand: listen to my story. After recounting that lengthy story, the creature demands that Victor create for him a female “with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.” Interchange of sympathy doesn’t require another of a particular sex. At the same time, the creature’s desire for a female seems far removed from desire to engage in sexual acts. Regarding his demand for a female, the creature explains: “the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me.”^ Adam in Paradise Lost, in contrast, is enthralled with Eve’s beauty. He would rather die than live without her. After eating the fruit of knowledge, Adam and Eve become inflamed with carnal desire for each other. They immediately act upon their mutual desire. Emotions at a higher level of cognition excite the creature in Frankenstein:

Oh! my creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!^

The creature’s primary concern for action is his own emotional state: “make me happy.”

The unbinding of Prometheus in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound dramatizes the triumph of character over narrative. Surviving fragments of the ancient Greek Prometheus Unbound indicate that it brought about the reconciliation of Prometheus and Zeus.^ Shelley rejected that story line:

Had I framed my story on this model, I should have done no more than have attempted to restore the lost drama of Aeschylus…. But, in truth I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.

Shelley sought to uphold what he conceived to be Prometheus’s true character:

Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.^

To Shelley, Prometheus represents “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence.” The meager plot of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound realizes Prometheus’s character as Shelley imagined it.

Shelley’s new Prometheus transcends circumstances that demand bodily responses of hate, horror, and disgust. The new Prometheus exists from the start of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Prometheus, still bound to the rock in suffering and solitude, declares in his long, majestic, opening speech: “The curse / Once breathed on thee I would recall. … I am changed so that aught evil wish / Is dead within.” Later in the first scene, an Oceanide sees a fiend, and her sister cries, “close thy plumes over thine eyes / Lest thou behold and die.” The creature in Frankenstein covered Victor’s eyes in a bid for sympathy.^ Here, the sister covers her own eyes to avoid the sight of one of the Furies — “horrible forms,” “ministers of pain, and fear, / and disappointment, and mistrust, and hate, / and clinging crimes.” The Furies test Prometheus by threatening to transform him into a double of them:

Methinks I grow like what I contemplate,
And laugh and stare in loathsome sympathy.

Prometheus, however, refuses to allow sympathy to ensnare him in a narrative like that of the creature in Frankenstein:

Yet am I king over myself, and rule
The torturing and conflicting throngs within^

In a sonnet probably written in late 1820, Shelley expressed a similar idea:

Man, who man would be,
Must rule the empire of himself; in it
Must be supreme, establishing his throne
On vanquished will; quelling the anarchy
Of hopes and fears; being himself alone.^

The creature in Frankenstein allowed others antipathy toward him to determine his being. The “lyrical drama” of Prometheus Unbound is the conflict between the narrative force of circumstances and Prometheus’s strength of mind.

Prometheus Unbound‘s narrative climaxes with a highly stylized archetype of forcefully realistic representation. A Fury declares to Prometheus, “Behold, an emblem.”^ In the Christian gospels, the Christ whom John the Baptist recognizes with “Behold, the Lamb of God” becomes in the Passion narrative the man whom Pontius Pilate presents to the crowd with “Behold, the man.”^ In a reversal of this narrative, Prometheus describes the “emblem” with powerful, creatural-realistic style:

Remit the anguish of that lighted stare;
Close those wan lips; let that thorn-wounded brow
Stream not with blood; it mingles with thy tears!
Fix, fix those tortured orbs in peace and death,
So thy sick throes shake not that crucifix,
So those pale fingers play not with thy gore.
O horrible! Thy name I will not speak,
It hath become a curse. I see, I see
The wise the mild, the lofty, and the just^

This passage features deictic immediacy, bodily detail, and brief, paratactically arranged imperatives.^ Only the last line surprisingly turns back to Prometheus’s usual, elevated, abstract speech. Following this turn away from horrible bodily reality in the Passion narrative, Prometheus expresses pity for those not tortured by the words of an abstract description of human frustration, confusion, and insensitivity. This non-narrative, non-circumstantial, essentialized pity vanquishes the Furies in Prometheus Unbound.

The Cenci similarly dramatizes the essential self’s relation to the circumstantial self. In its preface, Shelley describes the tragedy as “a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart”; its purpose is “teaching the human heart … knowledge of itself.”^ This is not a purpose the ancient Greeks would likely have associated with the tragedies that they created. “Know thyself” as an ancient Greek aphorism seems to have meant avoid hubris, know your limits, recognize that you are human and nothing more, and do nothing to excess.^ Providing deep, secret knowledge of the human heart wasn’t actually the purpose of tragic plays in fifth-century Athens. Shelley’s embrace of this purpose is part of the historical shift in tragedy’s center from plot to character.

The Cenci depreciates the connected circumstances that make up narrative. Using his poetic power to discern essential character from a well-painted portrait, Shelley describes Beatrice as “a most gentle and amiable being … thwarted from her nature by the necessity of circumstance and opinion.” Character is essential, while events are superficial:

The crimes and miseries in which she was an actor and a sufferer are as the mask and the mantle in which circumstances clothed her for her impersonation on the scene of the world.^

The Cenci’s plot generates a surprising and apparently uncharacteristic action from Beatrice: her murder of her father. A historically different understanding of ethos, or the primacy of plot, or just bad writing might explain what critics label inconsistent characterization in post-Restoration drama.^ None of these explanations account well for Beatrice’s inconsistent representation in The Cenci. For Shelley, Beatrice’s actions are merely the mask of circumstances that cloth her essentially noble and good character.

Beatrice maintains a consistent character by means of stylistic differentiation. Shelley believed that a high style of poetry expressed essential human nature. Is Beatrice ultimately to be condemned for parricide? Stylistic analysis cuts through “restless and anatomizing casuistry”:

Insofar as the elevated style expresses the essential self, the permanent actor who exists before and beyond its existentially determined “impersonations” – and in Shelley’s dramatic mimesis this is just what the sustained elevated style invariable signifies – then the correct, indeed forcefully compelled answer is no. This {the Beatrice of act 5} is decidedly not the Beatrice of acts 2 through 4, but, as if untouched by her intervening corruption and vulgarity, the Beatrice of act 1.^

The shift in the style of Beatrice’s representation seems more precisely located in the last scene of Act 4. There it is associated with a shift to high abstraction in Beatrice’s self-conception:

The deed is done,
And what may follow now regards not me.
I am as universal as the light;
Free as the earth-surrounding air; as firm
As the world’s centre. Consequence, to me,
Is as the wind which strikes the solid rock
But shakes it not.^

Beatrice shortly thereafter refuses to recognize an elevated, formally sincere letter from Orsino, a devious prelate who had long courted her:

Savella {the Pope’s Legate}. Knowest thou this writing, Lady?
Beatrice. No.^

Beatrice undoubtedly knows that the writing is Orsino’s. Beatrice’s rejection of Orsino’s writing implicitly indicates the affirmative response she expects from others in her return to an elevated style. In The Cenci as a whole, Beatrice’s inconsistency in action and expression artfully asserts that essential human nature ultimately prevails even within the most sensational plot.^

A shift from plot to character increases the relative weight of mental chains. Julian, whom Shelley clearly modeled on himself, declares to Maddalo:

… it its our will
That thus enchains us to permitted ill –
We might be otherwise – we might be all
We dream of happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty and truth we seek
But in our mind? and if we were not weak
Should we be less in deed than in desire?

For Shelley as for Plato, mental chains are not merely a metaphor but a concern more important than physical imprisonment. Strength of mind is sufficient for mighty deeds. Maddalo responds, “You talk Utopia.” Utopia is an ancient Greek word with the double meaning “no place” and “ideal place.” A typical contrast to utopia is the reality that one sees. Shelley, in Julian’s response, insists on the importance, not of seeing, but of knowing:

‘You talk Utopia.’ ‘It remains to know,’
I then rejoined, ‘and those who try may find
How strong the chains are which our spirits bind –
Brittle perchance as straw … We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer – what, we know not till we try;
But something nobler than to live and die –
So taught those kings of old philosophy
Who reigned, before Religion made men blind^

As a student at Oxford, Shelley enthusiastically read Plato’s Phaedo. About 1820, Shelley translated a section of the Phaedo from the original Greek.^ ^ In Phaedo, the imprisoned Socrates insists that life of the mind is to live free. Privileging mental states over worldly activities depreciates the circumstances of persons, chained or in prison, suffering in punishment.

Unlike Socrates and others represented in Socratic dialogues, absorbingly represented characters tend not to evoke an imperative for personal communication. From the madhouse Julian and Maddalo hear:

Fierce yells and howlings and lamentings keen,
And laughter where complaint had merrier been,
Moans, shrieks and curses and blaspheming prayers

Yet “fragments of most touching melody” create a quiet, receptive audience out of the mad crowd. The madmen suddenly are “beguiled / into strange silence, and looked forth and smiled / Hearing sweet sounds.” This effect is the maniac’s artistic work:

… those are his sweet strains which charm the weight
From madmen’s chains, and made this Hell appear
A heaven of sacred silence, hushed to hear.^

Maddalo had fitted the maniac with artistic accoutrements — rooms beside the sea, busts, books, urns for flowers, and musical instruments. However, in this encounter neither Maddalo nor Julian speaks personally with the maniac. They “stood behind / Stealing his accents from the envious wind / Unseen.” The maniac in turn laments wearing “this mask of falsehood even to those / Who are most dear.” Personal separation conditions both the creation and reception of the maniac’s art.

When the maniac finishes the “unconnected exclamations of his agony,” Julian and Maddalo weep at what they overheard. Julian then declares:

I think I never was impressed so much;
The man who were not must have lacked a touch
Of human nature … then we lingered not,
Although our argument was quite forgot,
But calling the attendants, went to dine^

The ellipsis in the middle of the third line marks the abrupt surfacing from deep sympathetic attention to much lighter narration. The forgotten argument was actually the motivation for observing the maniac. But it doesn’t matter; they call the attendants for dinner. At dinner and afterwards, Julian and Maddalo talk at length about the maniac. Julian imagines himself to be like a criminologist: he would watch and study the maniac at length in order to reclaim him. Julian also imagines that the maniac would be his best friend. Yet for all this imaginative interest in the maniac, the next morning, “urged by my affairs,” Julian leaves town.

Across world cultures and throughout human history, competition for attention produces popular narratives that primarily concern character. Most popular narratives typically include “an agent, a goal, and a causal sequence connecting the agent’s various actions with the achievement or nonachievement of the goal.”^ Reports, speculations, and supplications concerning weather and the Gods are ancient, common features of human communication. They fit only with considerable difficulty into an agent-goal narrative. Moreover, “narratives generally drift toward individualistic characterization of heroes,” and “prototypical narrative tends to maximize explanation in terms of {a character’s} intent.”^ Plots are typically simple and conventional. More than two-thirds of popular narratives seem to be based on three prototypes for personal happiness: romantic union, social domination, and plenty of food.^ These common features of popular narratives indicate that, both in their creation and reception, popular narratives represent and evoke investment less in plot than in character. Popular narratives feature heroes and anti-heroes.

A shift in investment from plot to character lessens the capacity of imaginative works to prompt accountability for persons suffering in punishment. Prometheus Bound once was a work that dramatized communication with Prometheus suffering in punishment. Competition for attention in early-nineteenth-century England transformed Prometheus into a famous, heroic character. The new Prometheus prompts thinking about human nature, tyranny, and heroic sacrifice. A literary critic declared that The Cenci could function on stage as:

a reminder that out of a modern vision of blackest despair a great poet can create the stuff of tragedy, the redemption, the exaltation, the transcendent grace in which the human spirit triumphs.^

This literary critic also declared, “Guilt, like reality, is an internal condition, an attitude of mind.”^ In ordinary conversation with a prisoner, such a statement would surely seem hollow and absurd. Changes in communicative circumstances have fundamentally changed the fifth-century Athenian Prometheus Bound. The new Prometheus doesn’t prompt unease about what sort of conversation you would have with a friend held in your local jail.

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