This contribution intends to assess the web of intertextual references in Mary Shelley’s drama Proserpine (1820), an early example of Romantic interest in revisionist mythology. Shelley’s adaptation primarily concerns characterization, structure and intended audience. In light of Ostriker’s (1984) suggestion that revisionist myth-making in women’s literary production constitutes a significant reshaping of shared culture and personal identity, Proserpine generally reads as a tale of defiance against patriarchal violence. The thoroughness of the existing scholarship on its portrayal of gender performance calls for an evidence-based study of the text as a literary adaptation. With reference specifically to Ovid’s episode of Proserpine’s rape in the Metamorphoses 5.346 ff, I intend to assess Shelley’s analogue in light of its performative component.
At the turn of the century, Ovid’s version of the myth became extremely dear to Romantic poets across Europe. The tale deploys the quintessential Romantic plot: “An act of oppression by a formidable tyrant (Hades) severs the child from maternal nature, but the relationship is restored by nature’s power” (Louis, 2009: 34). Romantic myth-making necessarily involved re-reading of canonical precursors, which were often (as in Pope, Dryden or Swift) adapted, sometimes distorted, to fit in a narrative where mythical references function as rhetorical devices, used to achieve variety in style and to flaunt erudition. Later English Romanticism slowly took parts with the catalogic rewritings of its antecedents, claiming universal validity for its archetypes by dramatising classical narratives. Mary Shelley belongs to that second generation of English Romantics whose poetic imagination was reawakened by antiquity, which was revised in order to restore it.
Percy Shelley intended his Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love (1818) to be Mary’s instruction on the Athenian way of life. Together with slavery, the greatest cultural failure of the Greek civilization was its valuing man over women by custom and law. Percy observes how Athenians granted the male sex the highest cultural refinement, while the intellectual education of women was, to very little extent superior, to that of slaves and savages. Mary endorsed her husband’s criticism and extended it to Ovid’s, to whom she explicitly refers as an interpreter of heathen mythology (Richardson,1993: 127-128). Such critical relation to classical representation of gender performance in the antiquity explains Shelley’s engendering of the myth. In this perspective, her chief deviations from Ovid’s narrative concern the characters: the act of voicing silent characters in the original, specifically Proserpine; the identification of otherwise unnamed female characters; the absence of male characters of power on the page/stage. Shelley crafts a script with only female characters, eliminating Jove and Pluto from the scene and substituting Hermes with Iris, his female counterpart. The plot unfolds as in its source, from which Shelley specifically draws the cluster of words apt to characterize Proserpine, belonging to the semantic field of childhood and childish behaviour.
As in Virgil’s bucolic poetry, Proserpine makes a character of its space, where a specific combination of references to flora and fauna draws a landscape beyond which everything is remote, dangerous. Virgilian echoes emerge in in Shelley’s depiction of the characters’ activities on the plain: flower plucking, singing and resting in the shade. Shelley’s mimicry of the bucolic patterns in depicting of the plain of Enna is distinctive: a fair, blossoming plane, surrounded by golden fields, where nature offers a place to rest under the shadow for a singing contest.
With the aim of proving Shelley’s originality in revising the Metamorphoses and the Eclogue, this study primarily bears evidence of a wise rearrangement of canonical echoes which are only visible to a selected audience, to those well-versed in literary history. If literary adaptations serve the purpose to revitalize the “original”, to give access to the content to new audiences, Shelley enlightens those details the Ovidian sensitivity had left in the shadow, while resorting to Bucolic atmospheres as they were interiorized in the Romantic imagination. In further revising Dante’s and Milton' representation of Proserpine, Shelley crafts a cultural product prone to voice her concerns on engendered power structures and to advocate for inclusion in what was until then considered exclusive dominion of male writers, mythical revisionism.
The paper I am presenting has been accepted in the academic journal “Lingue Antiche e Moderne” and will be published this fall.
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