Tuesday, September 17, 2013
OGCMA0762Oedipus_Shelley: recommendation for a paper topic
That Oedipus the King should have been banned from the English stage for practically a century seems stunning in our modern sensibility. Sophocles plunges his heroic investigator into revelations of incest and patricide. Sure. But, censored? For nearly a hundred years?
In 1905 Gilbert Murray, the great classical scholar, wrote to William Butler Yeats: “I am really distressed that the Censor objected to [Oedipus the King]. It ought to be played not perhaps at His Majesty’s [theatre] by Tree, but by Irving at the Lyceum, with a lecture before … and after. And a public dinner. With speeches. By Cabinet Ministers.” That would really rub their noses in the mistake perpetuated over decades that had relegated the Sophoclean to silence.
Percy Bysshe Shelley had perpetrated the offense in 1818 with his burlesque satire of King George IV which he called Oedipus Tyrannus; or Swellfoot the Tyrant. This “highly altered version”, as McDonald characterizes it, bothered the Lord Chamberlain, and a period of censorship ensued. Highet sees the Swellfoot more as the brilliant Shelley’s “greatest failure … an attempt at an Aristophanic farce-comedy based on the scandalous affair of Queen Caroline.” Intriguing is the fact that Shelley’s play was published in London, but not until 1820. Shelley’s reception of classical literature ought to invite hearty scholarship in our day.
This looks like an interesting usage, one that will likely reward further research. I think that, because the author is a major figure in English literary history. Further, Shelley’s Swellfoot the Tyrant offers
a) an overt usage of a classical myth — so, I won’t have to work hard to prove THAT Shelley was using the myth consciously — and
b) an apparent purpose, or narrative gain, for Shelley’s working with the myth — i.e. a gifted thinker’s likening a moment in contemporary cultural politics to one of classical antiquity’s most salient myths. Shelley’s usage effected plenty of scandalous discomfort.
How does the poet’s commentary on George IV and his queen gain by its being likened to the Oedipus story?
My plan for research, if I choose to investigate further involves first checking to see whether Reid’s OGCMA already references the work. Then I will look to see whether Reid offers any leads for further reading. After that, I will start reading around and hope soon to form a compelling thesis statement. Then I will read around further and try to muster evidence to prove the point articulated in my thesis.
Reid offers these references for further reading:
· An edition of Shelley’s poetry, where I might find a footnote or something of interest in an introductory essay: T. Hutchinson, ed. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1932.
· The promise of some analysis and explication awaits in this monograph (apparently) on the author and his work: T. Webb. Shelley: a voice not understood. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976. — p. 201
· Analytical treatment of the work’s place in the broader classical tradition: G. Highet. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman influences on western literature. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. — p. 421 and 678 (fn. 44)
I would not limit my research to those items, but I would certainly start with them.
 Murray to Yeats, 27 January 1905 in Finneran et al. (1977), cited here from F. Macintosh, “Tragedy in Performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions,” in Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. by P.E. Easterling (Cambridge UP 1997), p. 297.