The University of Toronto at Scarborough
ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)
Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane
Manfred is a "closet drama"--a poetic drama meant to be read rather than acted. It is also a drama that focuses solely on the dominant central character; all the other characters are subsidiary to him, serving only to play up and highlight aspects of his temperament. The dramatic exchange between Manfred and the other characters is minimal; all the real drama here is internal, within Manfred's own mind. The only thing that matters within Manfred's universe is in fact his own mind. As the "totally autonomous man," Manfred is the supreme representation of the Byronic hero" (514).
Manfred's dialogues are basically of two kinds: with figures from the spirit world and with decent, kindly representatives from the human world. The repeated pattern is that Manfred is shown to be beyond their help, beyond their resources. They can't give him what he wants; what they can give, he doesn't want. We see his growing isolation, but also his disdain of any kind of assistance. Being alone with his torment, he is supreme.
Manfred never explicitly explains what torments him, but there are hints of an incestuous relation with a sister (Astarte), and of her taking her own life as a result. And it is this sense of an all-consuming but lost love that forms the ground of Manfred's passionate intensity. Not able t o have the love that is everything to him, he wants nothing. The crack in his isolation (and perhaps the cause for his isolation) exists in his being haunted by an unattainable, impossible love.
To trace this plot, to the point where her spirit appears before him, read:
Act 1; sc. 1; lines 136-91
Act 2; sc. 1
Act 2; sc. 2; lines 105-120
Act 2; sc. 4; lines 82-167
At one point, Manfred contemplates suicide by jumping from a cliff, but is prevented from his spring by a "peasant of the Alps," a Chamois Hunter. [This scene has overtones of Gloucester's intended suicide in King Lear and the intervention of his son in disguise.] The Chamois Hunter seems to be a simple Wordsworthian character, expressing ordinary acts of human kindness. But Manfred draws away from the Chamois Hunter's urging of "heavenly patience," asserting "I am not of thine order."
For Manfred's interaction with the Chamois Hunter, read: Act 1; sc. 2 and Act 2; sc. 1.
The Abbot approaches Manfred to offer religious counsel, to urge penitence and salvation through the Church. Manfred rejects these offers of help too, saying that he is prepared to face God on his own: "I shall not choose a mortal to be my mediator." (3; 1; 54-5.) Manfred indeed holds himself above all humanity, explaining that even to be a leader of nations is beneath him, since even leaders have to bend to public opinion in order to rule (3. 1. 105-23).
Throughout, Manfred insists he is his own torment, his own judge, his "own destroyer."
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts--
Is its own origin of ill and end--
And its own place and time-- (3. 4. 129-32)
Like Satan, in Paradise Lost, he sets up his own (mental) universe, in which Heaven and Hell are his own creation (see note, Norton, 571).
Despite his appalling pride and disdain for everyone but himself and Astarte, Manfred still receives tributes from those he encounters. Like King Lear, he is elevated by the power of his own suffering.
When Manfred reveals that he doesn't want to infect others with his own torment, the Chamois Hunter asks,
This cautious feeling for another's pain,
Canst thou be black with evil? (2. 1. 80-2)
One of the spirits says:
Had he been one of us, he would have made
An awful spirit (2. 4. 161-2) [Note: here "awful means that which fills you with awe.]
And the Abbot states:
This should have been a noble creature: he
Hath all the energy which would have made
A goodly frame of glorious elements, (3. 1. 160-2)
Perhaps Manfred's greatness is most achieved in his dying words to the Abbot:
Old man! 'tis not so difficult to die. (3. 4. 151)
The last figure over whom Manfred is supreme is the figure of Death.
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