Inspecting the Tragedy of Empire: Shelley's 'Hellas' and Aeschylus' 'Persians.' (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

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By the time Shelley began writing Hellas in August of 1821, he had twice already sought to intervene in unresolved political crises by publishing highly learned poems based on Greek literary forms. In the "Ode to Naples," he imitated Pindar's odes, particularly the first Pythian, in a rhetorically subtle attempt to garner British support for the advent of a "glorious revolution" in the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.(1) And in Oedipus Tyrannus; or Swellfoot the Tyrant, he drew on the example of Aristophanes, particularly his Lysistrata, to write a defense of British constitutionalism threatened, as he and others thought, by a king ready to reign absolutely over his queen and the whole nation.(2) In Hellas, Shelley turned to Greek tragedy, principally Aeschylus' Persians, to address the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence. How, precisely, did Shelley adapt Persians and to what end? Why did he respond to the war by writing a classical Greek tragedy?

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Hellas resembles Persians most obviously in the dialogue scenes. In the first, the Turkish sultan Mahmud and his advisor Hassan take the place, respectively, of the Persian queen, Atossa, and her advisors, the chorus of guardian elders. As Atossa enters to report her recurring nightmare and the troubling omen sent her by the gods, Mahmud wakes to inform Hassan of his own recurring dream, one as disturbing as Atossa's. Atossa has been "always haunted [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] by many nocturnal dreams"' appearing to foreshadow the defeat of her son, Xerxes, who has recklessly led a military expedition into Greece. Mahmud, similarly, is thrice ... hunted ... / from sleep into the troubled day" by a "gloomy vision" that "shakes [him] as the tempest shakes the sea."(4) Although Mahmud's dream, unlike Atossa's, leaves "no figure upon memory's glass" (131), his semi-conscious reactions while awakening suggest to the reader (somewhat misleadingly it turns out) that like Atossa he dreams of defeat at the hands of the Greeks. Of course, Mahmud's fully conscious mind retains only a faint inkling of this defeat. So where Atossa looks to the chorus for advice on how to avert the prophesied evil, Mahmud looks to Hassan for advice on how to discover what that evil is. Nevertheless Hassan's counsel resembles the chorus's. The elders tell Atossa to pour libations to the Earth and the dead, asking the ghost of Dareios "to send up to the light ... good things for you and your child" (222). Hassan advises Mahmud to consult the Pythagorean sage Ahasuerus whose "Deep contemplation, and unwearied study, / In years outstretched beyond the date of man" (157-58) have awarded him "sovereignty and science / Over those strong and secret things and thoughts / Which others fear and know not" (159-61). Like Dareios, Ahasuerus is something of an underworldly, chthonic power: Mahmud must summon him by ritual means from "where he dwells in a sea-cavern /`Mid the Demonesi, less accessible / Than thou or God!" (163-65).

In the second episode, Hassan and then a series of messengers bring Mahmud reports describing the state of military and political affairs throughout the empire. Hassan's report, the most substantial and important, closely resembles the news brought to Atossa and the chorus in the second episode of Persians. Hassan first tells of the massacre of the choicest troops among the Greek at the "battle / Of Bucharest" (362-63). "The light Wallachians, / The Arnaut, Servian, and Albanian allies" (368-69) abandoned a battalion composed of "enthusiastic Greek students" known as "The Sacred Band,"' much as the fleeing Persian navy at Salamis left to their fate the noblest of the Persians ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 442) on the island of Psyttalea. "Islanded / By victor myriads," "The band" (373-74, 384) fought particularly bravely.(6) But as the Persians succumbed to the "rocks" ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 460) and "arrows" ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 460-1) of their enemies, the Greeks were kneaded down by the "fire and iron rain" (381) of the Turkish batteries. …