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Shelley's Agenda Writ Large: Reconsidering Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant

Throughout Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, Shelley employs the same devices he poses as the instruments of revolution in his so-called visionary works—specifically, the body and sexual transgression; but in this satire, he demonstrates how these devices may be appropriated by tyrants just as potently as by revolutionaries. In Swellfoot, Shelley poses these instruments in a manner inconsistent with his own broader agenda of liberty-through-love in order to demonstrate their innate political power; that is, by exposing the tyrannical uses to which these devices may be put, Shelley departicularizes them from what might otherwise be dismissed as naïve idealism. Instead, Shelley demonstrates how the body and its transgressions affect change at the level of politics and, consequently, in individual lives—whether for good or bad, whether in the interest of liberation or oppression. In Swellfoot the Tyrant, Shelley begins to justify his belief that love is the law that governs the universe; that is, his satire remarks on the ways in which both Iona Taurina's transgressive engagements and her relationship with her husband function to affect the tenor of Swellfoot's regime and, in a broader context, how these engagements (fail to) reconfigure the political landscape of the play. In short, Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant spectacularizes the processes through which intimate relationships inform political realities, and thus the satire privileges the realm of the erotic as the experiential space from which the moral law of the universe might be re-written.
May 2001

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