Tragedy and the Younger Romantics
This thesis explores how tragedy was conceptualised in the Romantic period by focusing on the work of Byron, Keats, Mary Shelley, and P. B. Shelley, and their contemporaries. It argues for the centrality of tragedy to the work of these writers, and to British Romantic literary culture. I contend that tragedy gains special cultural importance at the start of the nineteenth century, following the experience and failure of the French Revolution (1789-99), and during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). But the idea of tragedy changes in the period: the tragic separates from drama, emerging as a mode applicable to other textual, and non-textual, experiences. I argue that the tragic in non-dramatic texts of the period emerges precisely through its interaction with other modes, and divide my attention equally between dramatic and non-dramatic texts, all of which I read as tragic. The introduction situates the thesis in these historical and critical contexts. The first chapter then explores how Romantic critical discussions tend to present idealised visions of tragedy, its emotional effects and purposes. I argue that these ideas are often in discord, and productively challenged, by contemporary tragic texts, which are tragic precisely in falling short of the expected notions of tragedy. These ideas form the basis of the ensuing chapters. The second chapter explores visions of tragedy’s social purpose in P. B. Shelley’s The Cenci (1819) and Mary Shelley’s Matilda (1819-20, pub. 1959). The third chapter analyses how notions of tragic effect are shaped by solitary reading in Byron’s Manfred (1817) and The Giaour (1813). The fourth chapter considers ideas of human nature emerging from Romantic accounts of tragedy by focusing on Keats’s Otho the Great (1819, pub. 1848; written with Charles Armitage Brown), and allusions to tragic plays in his letters (especially from 1819-20). Throughout, the focus of my thesis is tragedy’s relationship to theatre, drama, and non-dramatic texts in the British Romantic context; I conclude with a coda reflecting on the changes to these relationships in the period by thinking about Keats’s ‘This living hand’ (1819, pub. 1898). The thesis also includes appendices detailing the central authors’ engagement with tragic drama, to assist with my tracing of the conception of tragedy as it is read, performed, written, and thought about in the Romantic period.