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Opera and Romanticism

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

Jessica K. Quillin, University of Cambridge

While critics and reviewers of the past two hundred years have struggled to find a suitable analogy for 'Prometheus Unbound' in literature, the world of music provides a clear parallel to Shelley's lyrical drama form Italian 'opera buffa' that so delighted poet and his friends during London seasons 1817 1818. This essay argues organization discourse specific dramatic arrangement have strong affinities with operas day, particularly works Mozart Rossini. appears _Opera Romanticism_, volume _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic (, University Maryland.

  1. 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.[1] From manuscript evidence, it is not clear what induced Shelley to add a highly lyrical fourth act as well as several lyric insertions to act II of Prometheus Unbound. Nevertheless, it seems probable that studying the dramas of Calderón with Maria Gisborne combined with the highly musical atmosphere of Livorno encouraged Shelley to include further lyrical elements in his drama. In a letter to his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg on 25 July 1819, Shelley writes:

    Let me recommend you who know Spanish to read some plays of their great dramatic genius Calderón. . . . We have a house very near the Gisbornes, and it is from Mrs. Gisborne that I learnt Spanish enough to read these plays. . . . We see her every evening. . . . I have a little room here like Scythrop’s tower, at the top of the house, commanding a view of the sea and the Apennines, and the plains between them. The vine-dressers are singing all day mi rivedrai, ti revedrò, but by no means in an operatic style. . . (PSL, II, 105).

    Shelley’s reference to peasants singing the refrain of "Di tanti palpiti," arguably the most famous aria from Rossini’s Tancredi, reveals both the extent of the poet’s acquaintance with music at this time as well as the widespread popularity of opera and Rossini in Italy. As the sister-in-law of the composer and pianist Muzio Clementi, Mrs. Gisborne’s own musical talents and connections were also considerable. In this regard, it seems unlikely that Shelley could have read Calderón with her without being made aware of the musical nature of many of the Spanish poet’s works, several of which are classified as semi-operas, including his version of the Prometheus myth, La estatua de Prometeo.[2]

  2. 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 when he was writing what he described to Thomas Love Peacock as "a lyric & classical drama" (PSL, II, 43). 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. Ronald Tetreault remarks that Prometheus Unbound is a "lyrical drama whose form derives ultimately from the union of poetry and music in Greek tragedy, but whose closest contemporary equivalent was the opera, especially the musical comedy of Mozart" (145).  Taking Tetreault’s observation one step further, I would like to argue 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.


  3. In contrast to the more through-composed structure of the later nineteenth-century Romantic operas of Verdi and Wagner, yet more continuous in nature than Baroque opera seria, the opera buffa of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century are composed of numbers (arias, duets, ensembles, etc.), which are linked together by sections of sung dialogue. Loosely based on the configuration of dialogue and chorus in Greek tragedy, the main components of the Italian opera are "Recitative, by which the business of action of the Opera, the principal thing in all dramatic performances, is carried on, and . . . Airs or Songs, by which the sentiments and passions of the Dramatis Personae are expressed" (Brown, Preface). Although in his Letters on the Italian Opera (1789) John Brown lists seven types of aria,[3] most arias of this period possess the same three-part da capo format: first section, second section, first section repeated. While this format is generally non-strophic, the ternary structure of aria makes two or three stanza poems highly suitable for musical adaptation. In Shelley’s day, arias provided the main method through which singers demonstrated their talent, and indeed, were often the only parts of an opera to which most of the audience paid attention. During this time, recitative arguably was of far less performative import than aria; but, as the principle method through which action occurred or was related in the Italian opera, recitative nonetheless formed an essential element. Indeed, Leigh Hunt, like Joseph Addison,[4] finds recitative "more natural, in an Opera, than common speech" because, in accordance with the supposed common origin of speech and song, "it is more natural that [beings in an Opera] should sing always, that that they should burst out into a song occasionally" (Fenner, Leigh Hunt and Opera Criticism, 135). In his Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, A.W. Schlegel writes that the "learned and artificial modulation" of recitative is less "measured" than the declamation of Greek tragedy, to which it is often compared (Schlegel, I, 69-70). Recitative comes in two main forms, semplice or secco, which comprises most of the dialogue, and accompagnato or obbligato, which is reserved for passages requiring particular dramatic emphasis, though fully spoken parts (parlante), were not uncommon, particularly in Mozart.

  4. Similar to the interaction between recitative and aria in Italian opera, the first two acts of Prometheus Unbound alternate between straight, unrhymed blank verse passages and rhymed, or at least rhythmical, lyric insertions that are typographically and metrically set apart from the surrounding blank verse. Although many other plays, including Byron’s Manfred and Goethe’s Faust, similarly separate sung portions from the surrounding dialogue, few dramas outside of opera so fully—and successfully, one might add—integrate lyrical and discursive language together into a comprehensive formula to the effect that Shelley does in his lyrical drama. The editors of the recent Longman edition of Shelley’s poetry note: "[t]his alternation of blank verse with complex lyric passages shadows the dramatic device of an alternation between the relatively static dramatic exchanges, and choric elements, which Shelley adapts from Greek tragic drama" (TPS, II, 470).Yet, as Havergal Brian no doubt realized in his now lost setting of acts I and II,[5] the alternating pattern of discursive and lyrical elements in the first half of Shelley’s drama adapts well into operatic form, and indeed corresponds to it in many ways. Acts III and IV, however, prove more difficult, the latter for the profusion of its lyrical forms, the former for the complete absence of them. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the four acts of Prometheus Unbound are structurally coherent: acts I and II consist of a fairly regular alternation between discursive and lyrical language; act III, which is almost fully discursive, balances out act IV, which is almost entirely lyrical.  Also, the middle two acts are subdivided into five and four scenes, respectively; whereas, no scene divisions interrupt the dramatic flow of acts I and IV. In this four act organization, Asia’s meeting with Demogorgon in the fourth scene of act II stands directly at the structural and ideological center of the work.

  5. From the very beginning of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley emphasizes the dramatic force—yet radical limitations—of language, particularly discursive language, and its representational powers. Realizing the conceptual inadequacy of language to relate emotions and, to some extent, to present the story he is attempting to tell, Shelley utilizes music to deepen characterization, and to control dramatic time through "contrast, repetition, balance, control of pace, and multiple relations among aural elements" (Corse 15). In this way, music in Prometheus Unbound has three structural functions: as a stage device, as an internal dramatic catalyst, and as simple emotional expression in the form of song itself.

  6. The action of act I revolves around a figuratively de-voiced and thus disempowered Prometheus pitted against his own inability to recall and thereby revoke his curse. Prometheus’s opening speech sets the tone for a series of lyric episodes and dramatic exchanges which reverse the traditional dramatic functions of song and dialogue. Dramatically speaking, very little changes in the course of act I, with Prometheus remaining bound to the precipice at the act’s end. However, instead of being placed on a stage of physical action, everything occurs on the figurative stage of the mind, specifically that of Prometheus. Appropriate to a scene full of dissonance, for the majority of act I, Shelley’s poetic form inverts the operatic functions of recitative and aria: much of the blank verse is static and emotive, whereas most of the lyrical passages narratively and structurally drive the "business of action," which is Prometheus’s mental transformation to a fully free and liberated mind, foretelling the end of Jupiter’s reign of tyranny. Ronald Tetreault compares the structure of Prometheus’s opening speech to "the large-scale ternary design of the traditional aria," observing "sustained monologues are common on the operatic stage, where music encourages and supports the total expression of the inner being" (149). Although critics often cite the sustained monologues of Romantic drama as evidence of its untheatricality, Stuart Curran comments: "the great age of the London theater, from Garrick to Kean, treated such speeches as we do arias in opera" ("Shelleyan Drama" 72). While Prometheus’ opening lines demonstrate a strong declamatory impulse, the emotional outpourings of the Titan’s blank verse nevertheless functions less like its operatic equivalent, recitative, and more like aria. The focus of Prometheus’s discourse is primarily mentalistic and emotional, whereas the dialogue of Ione and Panthea, who speak almost exclusively throughout act I in the lyrical language of rhyme, seems to fulfill the function of recitative.

  7. The climax of this inversion between the discursive and the lyrical occurs during the episode with Mercury and the antiphonal chorus of Furies. Shelley deliberately seems to place this part immediately after the lyrical passage that includes the Phantasm of Jupiter’s repetition of the curse, a speech that, as I will discuss, in a staging would almost necessitate the dramatic emphasis of recitativo obbligato. It is important to note that Prometheus’s renunciation of the curse occurs in lyrical form, not blank verse. Indeed, his response maintains the stanzaic form of the curse itself, as does the Earth’s corresponding lament that his "defence lies fallen and vanquishèd"(I, 311).[6] Without a break in the lyrical passage, though no longer following the ten-line format of the curse, after two Echoes repeat the last phrase of the Earth’s lament, Ione and Panthea speak their last sets of lyrical verse for over three hundred lines when they narrate the arrival of Mercury and the Furies. Panthea’s final rhymed[7] statement that Prometheus "looks as ever, firm, not proud" in the face of these new torments immediately makes way for a jarring switch to blank verse at the voice of the First Fury who proclaims: "Ha! I scent life!"(I, 337).  Throughout the subsequent dialogue between Mercury, Prometheus and the Furies, while Ione and Panthea ostensibly maintain their narrative function, the chaotic Furies preempt the Oceanides of their linguistic vehicle: song. Although the Furies’ torments are ultimately futile, for a short while discord and dissonance rule the scene. The Furies, in their raucousness, subvert the dynamics of normal choric oration through taunting Prometheus with a revisionist history of perverted and horrifying images from the past, present and future (I, 539-77). Whereas the Furies’ verse maintains a regular rhyme scheme and forms a coherent antiphonal structure of response and chorus, the mocking tone of their words moves their chorus away from the emotiveness of aria into the narrative realm of fiction that in the opera buffa is largely the domain of recitative.

  8. In contrast to the chorus of the Furies, the remaining lyrical passages of act I, which comprise the sextet of "subtle and fair" Spirits who come to comfort Prometheus, seem to restore the normal dynamics of narrative and song to the drama. After the Furies disappear, Prometheus speaks of the mental anguish of the Furies’ tortures, and warns the Oceanides of the potential misleadingness of language and the visual imagination, observing, "[t]here are two woes:/ To speak, and to behold"(I, 656-7). With the representational powers of language under question, it seems logical that the Earth should choose music as the vehicle to comfort Prometheus. Structurally and symbolically, the combination of the Furies’ songs immediately followed by the sweet but sad sextet of Spirits provides balance and resolution to the end of act I. That is, to take Shelley’s comments on John Taylor Coleridge’s review of The Revolt of Islam out of context, the congregation of voices at the end of act I, as a precursor to the universal symphony of act IV, functions like a smaller version of a concerted finale in an opera buffa "when that tremendous concordant discord sets up from the orchestra, and everybody talks and sings at once" (Letter to Charles Ollier, PSL, II, 128). Although this device was a dying tradition by the early nineteenth century, Shelley was exposed to the concerted finale through Mozart, who made extensive use of it, especially at the end of acts II and IV of Le nozze di Figaro and the end of act I of Don Giovanni.[8] Although in Mozart’s operas, this type of mechanism involves a rapid succession of voices interspersed with choric elements, the segmental structure of the concerted finale makes the distinction between individual voices readily apparent to the audience (Robinson 10-11). Shelley’s structuring of the Furies’ lyrical interlude and the songs of the Spirits seems to reflect this type of organization through the mixture of individually sung verses and alternating chorus. Returning the function of describing emotions to the aria, the combination of harmonious voices in the Spirits’ chorus and their individual verses neatly sum up the main themes of act I while prefiguring the music of act II that draws Asia and Panthea towards the cave of Demogorgon. Reminiscent of the supernatural beings under the control of Manfred in Byron’s play of that name, Shelley’s "sweet but sad" Spirits sing—in turn and then in chorus—of the same evil in the world that the Furies celebrate, yet the Spirits mourn it.[9]   Through this acknowledgment, the Spirits move the drama forward with their hopeful visions of the future. All of act I, then, concerns the cyclicality of time through the acts of recalling, revoicing, and retelling. Thus, while act I superficially seems the most like Greek tragedy with its alternating choruses and dialogue, its emphasis on mental action and its unique lyrical structure more closely resemble the means and composition of late eighteenth century opera buffa.

  9. In act II, Shelley continues—and indeed amplifies—this operatic alternation between dialogue and lyric that dominates act I. Although subdivided into scenes like act III, act II parallels the dramatic format of act I, beginning with Asia’s opening speech through her dialogue with Demogorgon to end with her highly operatic lyrical exchange with Prometheus in the guise of a "Voice (in the air, singing)." Yet, while the process of Asia’s mental transformation mirrors that of Prometheus, there is a relatively significant amount of dramatic action during the course of the second act, a fact which reveals that the process of Prometheus’ liberation has been set into motion, even though his unbinding does not occur until act III. As a result, Shelley turns to actual music in act II in order to not only set the scene, but also to explain the meaning of the text and thus to establish dramatic action. Here, the unique relationship between words and music in opera provides useful dramatic comparison because "[p]erhaps the single most powerful resource of opera as a dramatic form is its capacity to use musical means not only to advance the action in time, but to deepen it" (Williams). For example, in the fifth scene of act II, Shelley utilizes the expressiveness of music to counterbalance and emphasize the narrative weight of Asia’s pivotal encounter with Demogorgon in scene four. Although Asia, like Prometheus, speaks mainly in blank verse, Shelley’s consistent connection of Asia with images of music, and in turn, with love, prepares the reader for her aria-like lyrical discourse with the spirit of Prometheus at the end of the fifth scene. Suspending the action at its highest point of dramatic tension, Asia’s love song becomes a form of music itself as it depicts the sensual immediacy of her love and spiritual blending with Prometheus. In their duet, the songs of Asia and Prometheus in combination symbolize their status as a spiritual whole, a lyrical microcosm of the universal symphony of act IV. Stuart Curran observes: "The entire act is epitomized by Asia’s song about singing, a lyrical contemplation of the nature of lyricism, endlessly creative, spontaneous, timeless, the type of paradise. . ." ("Poetic Form" 201). Through this, Shelley seems to borrow from opera buffa the function of aria to convey emotions, utilizing music as pure emotional effusion but also as a more effective means through which to express his metaphysical ideas of time and the universe.  Perceiving the representational limits of language, Shelley makes use of music as a structural tool to expand the expressive capacity of language in poetry. Joseph Kerman writes: "in spite of all the flexibility and clarity of poetry, even the most passionate of speeches exists on a level of emotional reserve that music automatically passes. Music can be immediate and simple in the presentation of emotional status or shades. In an opera, people can give themselves over to sensibility; in a play nobody ever quite stops thinking. . ." (Kerman 6).

  10. Throughout acts I and II, Shelley’s use of lyrical and discursive elements thus exposes the tenuous balance between dialogue and song within Prometheus Unbound, revealing a fundamental tension between words and music that his drama shares with the Italian opera of his time (Conrad 4). Lyrical parts provide Shelley with a unique, almost modernist, method through which to play with narrative perspective and control dramatic timing. Shelley’s careful organization of lyrical insertions in these first two acts among elements of blank verse emphasizes music’s intimate relation to language and poetry, and, in the realm of his play, music’s potential power to affect and indeed direct the soul towards its destiny.


  11. More explicit operatic elements come into play in the later acts of Prometheus Unbound. By act III of Shelley’s mental drama, music moves out of the realm of the drama, and indeed of the theater itself, into the larger external world. In act III, music shifts from being a mere dramatic catalyst or atmospheric ornament to be the literal mode through which change and action occurs. To call attention to the universal transformation at work, Shelley keeps the language of this act entirely discursive. In keeping with this alteration in the depiction of music, I will move my analysis up a level to consider thematic and stylistic correspondences between the opera buffa and elements of act III and of Shelley’s lyrical drama as a whole. Despite the contention of an entry in a recent edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics that the utilization of music in Romantic poetry has little or nothing in common with the "logical, witty" music being written by the composers of their day, such as Mozart, Haydn and Rossini, I argue that the aesthetics and structure of Romantic drama are more closely related to the works of their musical contemporaries than critics generally allow (Winn 805). Although choice of subject matter and mode of dramatization greatly differs from work to work, dramas like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Byron’s Don Juan and the opera buffa of Mozart, particularly Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, share a similar aesthetic through their methods of characterization, their ironic presentation of the oppressiveness of tyrannical social systems, and their use of multiple genres to add narrative complexity.

  12. At the height of its popularity in England in 1817 to 1818, the Italian opera buffa offered audiences a different kind of dramatic experience than anything else found in the London theaters, adding stress to crisis for both legitimate and non-legitimate playhouses. The lack of successful native-born British playwrights, especially after the death of Sheridan in July of 1817, had already forced managers to reintroduce old favorites instead of new plays.  These often included Shakespeare, a straightforward Sheridanian comedy of manners like School for Scandal (1777), which Shelley disliked (Peacock 45), or one of the gothic German tragedies, like Schiller’s Die Räuber (1781), which Coleridge reviled and Wordsworth called "sickly and stupid" (249). In the rare case of a new hit, a theater would stage repeat performances of the same play for many nights running. It was the age of the great actors, like Kean, Garrick and Siddons, and for the operatic stage, of Catalani, Ambrogetti, Naldi and Fodor. Of the few British writers whose plays made it to the stage, the works of Byron, Coleridge and Maturin enjoyed some degree of success, though reviews were mixed concerning their dramatic merits. Calling Coleridge and Maturin "the most ambitious writers of the modern romantic drama," William Hazlitt comments that in Remorse, "Coleridge’s metaphysics are lost in moonshine," while in Maturin’s Bertram and Don Manuel, "the genius of poetry crowned with faded flowers, and seated on the top of some high Gothic battlement, in vain breathes its votive accents amidst the sighing of the forest gale and the vespers of midnight monks" ("The Conquest of Taranto," CWWH). Although he deplores the atmosphere of the opera as fake and elitist and considers it linguistically and musically inaccessible to the average listener, Hazlitt celebrates the beauties of Mozart’s operas, remarking, "[his] music should seem to come from the air, and return to it" ("The Italian Opera," CWWH). However, for Hunt, Peacock and Shelley, like Augustus Schlegel before them, it is the very refinement and artificiality of the Italian opera that makes it such an attractive spectacle. Schlegel writes:

    The fantastic magic of the opera consists altogether in the luxurious competition of the different means, and in the perplexity of an overpowering superfluity. . . . This fairy world is not peopled by real men, but by a singular kind of singing creatures. Neither is it any disadvantage to us that the opera is conveyed in a language which is not generally understood; the text is altogether lost in the music, and the language the most harmonious and musical. . . (I, 69-79).

    The fact that only a select part of the audience held this view of the opera did nothing to destroy its popularity, and indeed, served to bolster its reputation amongst the aristocracy. Theodore Fenner notes that between 1816 and 1818, performances of Mozart made up well over fifty-percent of all performances at the King’s Theatre ("Opera in London," 140). In the early nineteenth century, to watch an Italian opera thus "was to be immersed in a world of artifice, a town pleasure as opposed to a country pursuit. On the operatic stage, painting, music, and poetry came together with architecture, sculpture, and the dance in a sublime interfusion of the abstract and plastic arts" (Tetreault 146).

  13. In this world of artifice, the comic operas of Mozart and Rossini play upon the simple human divisions of class and gender, presenting a highly stylized atmosphere wherein wit and intelligence rule and the good always win. Less straightforward than the comedy of manners in which characters generally can be classified as either good or evil, the opera buffa or dramma giocoso contains three types of characters of varying moral tendencies: parti serie or "serious" characters, usually of the upper class, who display "qualities like earnestness, courage, steadfastness, sensitive and passionate feelings concerning love and honour[;]" parti buffe or "comic" characters, often from the lower class, who demonstrate "inconstancy, cowardice, coarse feelings, deviousness and/or servility[;]" and one or two mezzi caratteri, or "middle" characters, who possess "either no facets of personality that identified them as serious or comic or else facets of both" (Robinson 9). While these divisions of character can be found in literature, in opera the music adds dimension and depth to language, establishing a method of characterization that is more stylistically complex than spoken drama. In opera buffa, perhaps not surprisingly, it is the mezzi caratteri whom audiences and critics find intriguing, the most famous example being il dissoluto, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. A character whom critics have likened to figures ranging from Milton’s Satan to Hamlet, the aristocratic, dissipated Don Giovanni is morally ambiguous and chameleon-like, able to mingle equally with upper and lower classes, altering his attitude depending upon the company he is with. As Leporello tells Elvira in his aria "Madamina, il catalogo e questo," Giovanni is a true democrat, wooing and seducing women of all classes, shapes and sizes. While Byron’s poem Don Juan presents a youthful, merry Juan at the height of his profligacy, Da Ponte’s story to Mozart’s music details the events leading up to Giovanni’s death, as he willingly goes to hell, refusing to repent for his crimes, including his seductions and the murder of the Commendatore. Despite his licentiousness, Don Giovanni is a well-educated man of the Enlightenment, an egotistical hedonist yet a skeptic, who fervently believes things are as he can perceive within the reach of his senses, a trait that fuels his lack of remorse towards any of his evil deeds.

  14. Many critics have compared the character of Don Giovanni to Prometheus, who also suffers because he refuses to give into a higher power. As Stuart Curran has argued, the Titan Prometheus, depicted in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Vinctus, is a particularly pervasive political icon for the Romantic period, representing the ultimate triumph of liberty through steadfastness and courage against the evils of a tyrannical regime (Curran, "The Political Prometheus," 260-284). Goethe, Byron, Shelley, and other artists such as Salvatore Víganò and Beethoven all wrote or composed significant works on the subject. In a letter to Murray in 1816, Byron notes the significant impact of the Titan upon Manfred and his other works: "The Prometheus if not exactly in my plan has always been so much in my head, that I can easily conceive its influence over all or anything that I have written" (Letter to John Murray, BLJ, IV, 174, n.1). While seemingly a large conceptual jump, Coleridge points out in chapter 23 of Biographia Literaria that the figure of Prometheus in chains and the unrueful Don Giovanni are similarly unyielding and noble in the face of torment. Commenting on the final scene of Shadwell’s Jacobean drama The Libertine (1676), Coleridge writes: "[w]ho also can deny a portion of sublimity to the tremendous consistency with which he stands out the last fearful trial, like a second Prometheus?" (II, 219) Although Coleridge is speaking of Aeschylus’s drama, it is nearly impossible to read excerpts from Shadwell’s play of Don John (Giovanni), which is based upon the same sources in Tirso and Molière as Da Ponte’s libretto, and not think of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Like other dramas of the seventeenth century, Shadwell’s drama bears much resemblance to the masques of Ben Jonson, and in this capacity contains many musical elements, including a dancing chorus of devils who sing in a verse structure similar to that of Shelley’s Furies: "Let 'em come, let 'em come,/ To an eternal dreadful doom,/ Let 'em come, let 'em come."

  15. Yet, it is Mozart’s operatic treatment of the character of Don Giovanni which more closely registers with Shelley’s Prometheus and, also, his mirror opposite, Jupiter, especially in the latter’s descent into Hell at the beginning of act III. Like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound includes characters of differing depth and moral inclination that fit well into the comic formula of the opera buffa. Asia, Panthea, Ione, and the unearthly Spirits and Hours strewn throughout the drama clearly are "serious" characters representing the affirmative forces of love and hope, whereas the Furies, as the representatives of evil and tyranny, are "comic" figures. However, the characters of Prometheus, Jupiter, and Demogorgon are more dramatically complex and ambiguous: in their doubling of each other, they qualify more definitively as mezzi caratteri like Don Giovanni than any of the more serious or comic characters that surround them. For instance, Jupiter’s final speech in act III, scene i, which relates his descent into the abyss with Demogorgon, mimics the progression of Prometheus’ dialogue throughout act I. With his cries "Ai! Ai!/ . . . I sink . . . /Dizzily down—ever, forever, down," a disempowered Jupiter is cast down from his throne, the subject rather than the tyrant of fate embodied in the figure of Demogorgon or "Eternity" (III, i, 79-83;52). Throughout Jupiter’s dialogue, Shelley continues to make use of the volcanic imagery associated throughout act II with Demogorgon and revolutionary change. Although the scene is serious, Shelley’s presentation of Jupiter’s descent is ironic, further revealing Prometheus and Jupiter as essentially opposite versions of the same character. Stuart Curran calls Jupiter’s dialogue "the stuff of grand heroic drama, full of pomp and posture, whose false style betrays the true nature of the despot. . . . It is the fall of tragedy itself" (Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism, 201). Indeed, in the face of his punishment, Jupiter, the tyrant, suddenly becomes a slave, appealing for mercy from Prometheus, who, at this point, still remains enchained in the Caucasus. Once he realizes that mercy is impossible, Jupiter, like Prometheus, is ultimately noble, resolving himself to his fate, even as he is slowly swallowed up by flame and smoke.

  16. Both the tone and the imagery of Shelley’s depiction of Jupiter’s fall from power are reminiscent of Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell in the penultimate scene of Mozart’s opera. In this scene, Don Giovanni, refusing to repent for his crimes, willingly accompanies the Ghost-Statue of the Commendatore to Hell:

    (Scene 17. Don Giovanni, Leporello and the statue of the Commendatore; then off-stage chorus. Don Giovanni returns followed by the Commendatore.)
    . . . So answer me—will you dine
    With me, in your turn?
    . . . Rispondimi: verrai.
    Tu a cenar meco?

    (from a distance, trembling, to the Commendatore)

    Oh no!
    Too busy – please excuse him.
    Tempo no ha. . . scusate.
    Don Giovanni
    And why should I refuse him?
    For fear I do not know.
    A torto di viltate
    Tacciato mai saró!
    . . .
    No man shall call me coward,
    I have resolved: I’ll go!
    Ho fermo il core in petto,
    No[n] ho timor: verró!
    . . .
    ...I despise repentance.
    Off with you! Leave my sight!
    No, no, ch'io non mi pento:
    Vanne lontan da me!
    . . .
    Now dawns your endless night!
    Ah, tempo più non v'è!
    (Fire and earthquake all around. The Commendatore disappears.)
    . . .
    Don Giovanni
    Who rends my soul with suffering?
    Who turns my blood to bitterness?
    Must madness, pain, and terror
    Possess me evermore?
    Chi l'anima mi lacera! . . .
    Chi m'agita le viscere! . . .
    Che strazio! ohimé! che smania!
    Che inferno! . . . che terror! . . .
    . . .
    Invisible Chorus
    Take the reward of evil.
    Worse yet remains in store!
    Tutto a tue colpe è poco.
    Vieni: c'è un mal peggior!
    (The flames increase. Don Giovanni sinks into them.)(102-4).

    When staged, the effect of Don Giovanni being engulfed by the flames of Hell is dramatically formidable, as the D-minor chords of the orchestra reinforce the happenings on the stage with a powerful crescendo of blaring brass. It is worth noting that in the scene of Mozart’s opera previous to Don Giovanni’s fall, a similar ominous clamor of D-minor chords accompanies the voice of the Ghost-Statue of the Commendatore, whose entrance and dramatic recitative are analogous to the arrival and speech of the Phantasm of Jupiter in act I of Shelley’s lyrical drama. Although Peacock lists Figaro as Shelley’s favorite opera, Shelley saw Don Giovanni at least six times between 1817 and 1818. Seated in a box at the King’s Theatre in 1817, it would have been difficult for Shelley to ignore this impressive ending. The parallels between Giovanni’s descent and Jupiter’s fall are striking. While no scene directions accompany Jupiter’s descent in act III, Shelley’s imagery suggests the eruption of earthquake and fire. Also, while Prometheus Unbound contains few, if any, sexual overtones, the dissolute Don Giovanni, like Jupiter, represents a kind of tyranny—in his case, an excess of the appetites of the senses over reason. Through the moral of Mozart’s opera— "Questo è il fin di chi fa mal" ("Sinners end as they  begin") (106) found in the final chorus of act II, "[t]he enlightenment is making its point that seduction leads inevitably to more violently anti-social consequences. . ." (Brophy 84). Although Prometheus is the hero of suffering and strength for the Romantics, Shelley’s addition of the anti-hero Jupiter to the equation of the drama makes a sharply skeptical warning of its own. As many critics have noted, through the doubling of the human qualities of Prometheus and Jupiter, Shelley subtly emphasizes the lack of distance between the tyrant and the slave, and also the cyclical nature of time through periods of liberty and tyranny.

  17. When he first saw Don Giovanni at the King’s Theatre with Peacock in 1817, Shelley, like many opera-goers of the past two centuries, found the opera’s designation as a "dramma giocoso" slightly misleading, though Peacock informed him that the opera "was composite, more comedy than tragedy" (Peacock 45-6). Reporting on what was probably Shelley’s first attendance at one of Mozart’s operas, Peacock writes: "[a]fter the killing of the Commendatore, [Shelley] said, ‘Do you call this comedy?’ By degrees, he became absorbed in the music and action. . ." (45-6). Although critics, like Peacock, tend to discuss Don Giovanni as a "tragi-comic" opera, Michael Robinson observes that the opera possesses all the elements of a comic opera, "according to the 18th-century understanding of the term, and Mozart and da Ponte might have been puzzled had they had any premonition of the future debates that were to take place over whether they thought their opera was comic or tragic" (Robinson 9). Nevertheless, as Robinson points out, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, relies on a blending of genres, making use of tragedy, comedy, pastoral and romance to tell a story through words, music and drama. In the hands of Mozart, this blending of genres creates a powerful aesthetic effect through the means of music that makes an often ironic commentary on the tyrannies and inequalities of human society. For instance, the mocking tone of Figaro’s rebellious aria "Se vuol ballare, signor Contino" ("If you want to dance, sir Count") in act I of Le nozze di Figaro immediately sets the barber Figaro apart as a sympathetic character against the adulterous, authoritarian Count Almaviva even before the latter enters the stage:

    [Figaro’s aria] is a direct expression of the will to revolt. Even so, it is not the substance of what he says but the form in which he says it that is of prime importance. In the course of the opera, it is not the revolt of servants against master that brings about the comic resolution, but the very convention of comedy itself that love conquers all. . . . Mozart’s aesthetic form has this advantage over that of Beaumarchais: Mozart makes social change appear not only desirable but harmonious by disarming his audience with music that penetrates their very being. (Tetreault 157)

    In this way, music, contributing "pacing, control, point of view, and ironic commentary," allows Mozart to create new dimension and "mold new meanings for the opera" from the original play by Beaumarchais (Corse 18).

  18. Similarly, Shelley’s manipulation of genres throughout Prometheus Unbound creates a controlled sense of expectation and contrast that permits him to expand the area of his drama progressively towards his vision of universal harmony in act IV. Shelley’s lyrical drama "begins on the stage of high tragedy" in act I, then moves on, in and out of the pastoral and the epic in acts II and III, before erupting into the lyrical profusion of act IV. Yet, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro, Prometheus Unbound poises between the tragic and the comic, making use of tragic elements at different moments for serious or ironic effect. With the fall of Jupiter and Prometheus’ official reunification with Asia, by the end of act III Shelley’s lyric drama moves towards the comic as it embraces the resolution of a happy ending. After the music of the "curvèd shell" generates the reformation of the human world, Shelley turns to the tropes of pastoral drama to illustrate the idyllic bower-like cave to which Prometheus, Asia, Ione and Panthea retire. Proclaiming the end of the masque that marked Jupiter’s reign and the beginning of a new pastoral age of liberty for humanity, the Spirit of the Hour declares: "The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains/ Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless. . . "(III, iv, 193-5). Yet, like his ultimate vision of harmony in act IV, a register of skepticism marks the otherwise positive ending of act III. Despite identifying humanity’s potential to "oversoar/ The loftiest star of unascended Heaven" if it were not for "chance, and death, and mutability," the Spirit of the Hour also warns that human beings, though "yet free from guilt or pain," are not "[p]assionless[,]" suggesting that they still can succumb to the will for power and deceit that leads to tyranny (III, iv, 198-204).   


  19. While in aim a closet drama, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound does not signify the poet’s retreat either from the theater or the theatrical. Mixing genres and blending the lyrical with the discursive, Shelley creates a narrative structure that is at once internalized and theatrical as it paradoxically performs itself inside the mind of the reader. Jeffrey Cox argues that Shelley’s lyrical drama, like Hunt’s masque, The Descent of Liberty, "draws upon a strong theatrical tradition to imagine a stage beyond the theater. . . where [there can be] a proper balance between word and stage effect" (127). For Shelley, the Italian opera offered a decisive method through which to visualize a new way in which poetry could come together with music, drama and stagecraft to form a more mentalistic, imaginative kind of dramatic experience. In Prometheus Unbound, the most fervent realization of this type of internalized staging occurs in the final act, a jubilatory anti-masque that illustrates the literal de-masking of an ancien régime and the introduction of a new world order. Although Peter Conrad notes that act IV "defies the stage and abstracts itself into music . . . render[ing] the drama lyrical" through a "symphon[y] of science[,]" the fourth act of Shelley’s lyrical drama nonetheless derives many of its elements and devices from musical and gestural drama, particularly the ballet d’action, oratorio and masque, and thus is fundamentally performative (Conrad 72). Indeed, as Stuart Curran and Ronald Tetreault have explored at length,[10] both the thematic conception and dramaturgical arrangement of act IV of Prometheus Unbound have strong affinities with the tradition of ballet d’action found in the works of Jean-Georges Noverre and also its Italian cousin in the coreodramme of Salvatore Viganò, whose choreography the Shelleys and Claire admired in Otello, ossia Il Moro di Venezia in Milan at La Scala in 1818.[11]

  20. In act IV, the profusion of lyric forms gives the impression that time itself has been suspended while the Spirits and Hours sing. Yet, the "dark Forms and Shadows" who dance "by confusedly, singing" do not symbolize the ending of time itself, but rather the end of Jupiter’s reign, and the commencement of a new time in "Shelley’s post-revolutionary vision [in which] humanity can bring time under a measure of control."[12] A larger-scale version of the sextet of spirits which closes act I, act IV moves with the quickness and confusedness of a full Mozartian concerted finale. The variety of lyrical forms contained with the act reveals its function as an immense bridal song to Asia and Prometheus, beginning with the complex choreography of Hours and Spirits to the love duet between the Earth and Moon to Demogorgon’s final epilogic blessing. The lyrical harmonization of the universe pervades all levels of the drama, uniting the mental drama of Prometheus with the external drama of a transformed world, signaling the affirmative revolutionary edict of a new age for humanity. Evocative of Beethoven’s majestic choral setting of Schiller’s "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne" in the final movement (Presto) of his ninth symphony, the assemblage of voices in act IV of Prometheus Unbound achieves a vivid effect through the combination of music, poetry and dance, enticing the reader to imagine a cosmological stage upon which Shelley places his drama of universal harmony.

  21. Ultimately, the poetic form of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound demonstrates the poet’s ability to combine music and poetry to create a mental drama that is nonetheless radically performative. Utilizing music as a dramatic tool, Shelley’s operatic employment of discursive and lyrical language and his opera-like methods of characterization all coalesce in a project that strains the limits of poetic form into the realm of musical drama. Yet, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound thrives upon the same "unremitting, invigorating tension" that Peter Conrad identifies as the driving force of opera between the "basic incompatibilities of nonverbal imagery of music and the tendency of words to try to pin down meaning" (Qtd. in Corse 13). That is, in his lyrical drama, Shelley turns to music and musical themes when language is no longer an effective mode of aesthetic mediation to communicate the desired dramatic spectacle and revolutionary ideals to the reader’s imagination. The lyrical drama in its various forms, whether the opera, ballet or oratorio, provides Shelley with a design through which to establish the revolutionary ethos of a transformed world. Despite its seeming anti-theatricality, Jeffrey Cox points out that Prometheus Unbound and the other "mythological plays of the Hunt circle are not a rejection of the stage but an attempt to remake it" through imagining a different kind of dramatic experience in which music, poetry, and the other sister arts can be combined (Cox 127).  In this way, the expressive capacity of music and its links to both language and thought provides Shelley with a unique method through which to imagine poetry’s power to effect change. As a result, through Shelley’s use of a characterization and mode akin to opera and other forms of musical drama, the poetic form of Prometheus Unbound defines and determines the dramatic action, making the reader complicit in a closet drama that is nonetheless theatrical in origin, treading the borders between the tragic and the comic.


Works Cited

Brophy, Brigid. Mozart the Dramatist: the value of his operas to him, to his age, and to us, Rev. ed. London: Libris, 1988.

Brown, John. Letters Upon the Poetry and Music of the Italian Opera. Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute; and C. Elliot and T. Kay, No 332, Strand, London, 1789.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Eds. James Engell & W. Jackson Bate. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Conrad, Peter. Romantic Opera and Literary Form. London: University of California Press, Ltd, 1977.

Corse, Sandra. Opera and the Uses of Language: Mozart, Verdi and Britten. London: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1987.

Curran, Stuart. Poetic Form and British Romanticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

---. "The Political Prometheus." Studies in Romanticism 70 (1986): 260-284.

---. "Shelleyan Drama." The Romantic Theatre: An International Symposium. Ed. Richard Allen Cave. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1986. 61-78.

Fenner, Theodore. Leigh Hunt and Opera Criticism. Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1972.

---. Opera in London: Views of the Press, 1785-1830. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

Gordon, George, Lord Byron. Letters and Journals (BLJ). Ed. R.E. Prothero. 6 vols. London: 1898-1901.

---. Manfred (1816). The Complete Poetical Works. 7 vols. Ed. Jerome McGann et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1993.

Grove Online Dictionary of Music and Musicians. <>.

Havergal Brian Society. <>.

Hazlitt, William. "The Conquest of Taranto." The Examiner. 27 April 1817. In "A View of the English Stage." Vol. 3 of Selected Writings of William Hazlitt (SWWH). Ed. Duncan Wu. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998.201

---. "The Italian Opera." The Examiner. 4 August 1816. In "A View of the English Stage." Vol. 3 of Selected Writings of William Hazlitt (SWWH). Ed. Duncan Wu. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998. 157-8.

Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. London: Faber, 1989.

Molière, Jean-Baptiste. Don Juan ou le festin de pierre. 1665.

Molina, Tirso de. El burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de piedra. 1630.

Mozart, W.A. Don Giovanni. Libretto by L. da Ponte. English National Opera Guide, no.18. Ed. Nicholas John. Trans. Norman Platt & Laura Sarti. London: Calder Publications, 1995.

Peacock, T.L. "Memoirs of Shelley." Memoirs of Shelley and other Essays and Reviews. Ed. Howard Mills. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970.

Ritorni, Carlo. Commentarii della vita e delle opere coreodrammatiche di Salvatore Viganò e della coregrafia e de'corepei. Milan, 1838.

Robinson, Michael. "The ‘Comic’ Element in ‘Don Giovanni.’" Don Giovanni. English National Opera Guide Series, no. 18. Ed. Nicholas John. London: Calder Publications, 1983.

Robinson, Paul. Opera and Ideas, From Mozart to Strauss. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985.

Schlegel, A.W. A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. 2nd edition. 2 vols. Trans. John Black. London: J. Templeman, 248, Regent Street; J.R. Smith, 4, Old Compton Street, Soho, 1815.

Shadwell, Thomas. The Libertine: a tragedy. Acted by His Royal Highness's Servants. London: printed by T. N. for Henry Herringman, 1676. In The English Prose Drama Database. London: Chadwyck-Healey, Ltd., 2003.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley [PSL]. 2 vols. Ed. Frederick Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

---. The Poems of Shelley [TPS]. Eds. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2000.

Tetreault, Ron. "Shelley at the Opera." ELH 48 (1981): 144-171.

Williams, Bernard. "Opera." Grove Online Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 14 Nov 2004, 18.00. <>.

Winn, James. "Music and Poetry." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Wordsworth, William. "Preface" (1800) to Lyrical Ballads. Eds. R.L. Brett & A.R. Jones, second edition. London: Routledge, 1998.


1 Shelley writes to Peacock on 6 April 1819, "This is the holy week, & Rome is quite full. . . . Great feasts & funzioni here, for which we can get no tickets; there are 5000 strangers & only room for 500 at the celebration of the famous Miserere [by Allegri] in the Sixtine Chapel" (PSL II, 93).

2 "The elaborate dramatic mythological plays [Calderón] wrote for the court, including La fiera, el rayo y la piedra (1652), Fortunas de Andrómeda y Perseo (1653), La estatua de Prometeo (c1670) and Fieras afemina amor (1670 or 1672), can be classified as semi-operas, in that they include fully-sung scenes with sung dialogue (and recitative) for the gods and goddesses of antiquity." See "Calderón de la Barca, Pedro." The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Ed. Stanley Sadie. Vol. I. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1992. 687.

3 The seven types of aria are: Aria Cantabile; Aria di portamento; Aria di mezzo carattere; Aria parlante; Aria di bravura; Aria di agilita; Rondo; and Cavatina. See Brown, 35-40.

4 Despite his general suspicion of Italian opera, Addison approved of the innovation of sung dialogue in recitative, remarking that "[t]he Transition from an Air to Recitative Musick being more natural than the passing from a Song to plain and ordinary Speaking." (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, Tuesday, April 3, 1711).

5 Havergal Brian wrote his opera based on acts I and II of P.U. from 1937-1944. Brian also wrote operas for PBS’s The Cenci and Goethe’s Faust. For more, see the Havergal Brian Society <<>>. Similarly, Sir Hubert Parry probably quickly realized the intrinsic challenges of Shelley’s language in composing his oratorio "Scenes from Prometheus Unbound" (1880).

6 All references to Prometheus Unbound are from the 2000 Longman edition previously cited, TPS, II, 471-649.

7 As Ione and Panthea are mirrors of each other, line 336 corresponds to Ione’s rhyme of "cloud" in line 333.

8 Shelley also was exposed to this tradition through Rossini, who perfected this technique, as is demonstrated in the finale to act I of Il barbiere di Siviglia (1810).

9 See George Gordon, Lord Byron, Manfred (1816) in Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, 7 vols, edd. Jerome McGann et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1993) IV.

10 See Tetreault, 161-6; and Stuart Curran, "The Political Prometheus," SIR 70 (1986): 273-281. See also Carlo Ritorni, Commentarii della vita e delle opere coreodrammatiche di Salvatore Viganò e della coregrafia e de'corepei (Milan, 1838).

11 Shelley called Otello "the most splendid spectacle I ever saw[;]" while Claire Clairmont pronounced it a "most magnificient Ballet Pantomime" [Shelley, Letter to Peacock, 6 April 1818, PSL, II, 4; Claire Clairmont, 8 April 1818, The Journals of Claire Clairmont, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1968) 87].

12 See Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews, footnote to Prometheus Unbound, IV (TPS, II, 612-3).

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May 2005