"An assiduous frequenter of the Italian opera": Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa

By the time he came to add act IV to the original three acts of "Prometheus Unbound" in late 1819, Percy Bysshe Shelley had amassed a diverse set of musical experiences, ranging from the first London performance of Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" in March of 1818 to the grand festivities or "funzioni" in Rome during Easter week in 1819. While critics and reviewers of the past two hundred years have struggled to find a suitable analogy for "Prometheus Unbound" in literature, it seems possible that Shelley had non-literary models in mind. Indeed, the world of music provides a clear parallel to Shelley's lyrical drama in the form of the Italian "opera buffa" that so delighted the poet and his friends during the London seasons in 1817 and 1818. This essay argues that the organization of discourse and the specific dramatic arrangement of Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" have strong affinities with the Italian operas of his day, particularly the works of Mozart and Rossini.