Byron’s Shakespearean Identifications

I’m working on a chapter that examines Byron’s use of Shakespeare in his correspondence. The following attempts a Girardian reading of his relationship to his wife in the last years of his marriage based on his references to Shakespearean intuitions of mimetic desire:

Evidence of Byron’s identification with Shakespeare’s tragic figures, who are stripped of their sense of contained selfhood by the movement of mimetic desire, appears in Byron’s acknowledgement of the mediated nature of his desire for Annabella Milbanke soon after their engagement. In the days after her acceptance of his proposal, Byron wrote to her comparing his affection to that of Othello and confessing his tendency to jealousy: “I had struggled on in the full conviction that your heart was another’s … the … mention of your name by any third person–all and every thing which recalled you to my memory… conspired to tell me in the sensations they produced that I still coveted ‘a pearl–worth all my tribe’” (4.181). Byron’s mimetic propensity is illustrated in the mediated nature of his recollected desire for Milbanke, which appears in his pained, envious belief that she had accepted another proposal. Byron highlights the violent nature of his imitated desire by referring to the self-composed legacy that Othello relates to Lodovico over Desdemona’s strangled, lifeless body immediately before his suicide:

Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well,

Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…. (5.2.352-57)

Attempting to protect himself from the accusation of an irrationally jealous nature, Othello–now recognizing that Iago had mediated his jealousy vis-a-vis Desdemona and Cassio–hazards an explanation of his behaviour as owing to his “being wrought / [and] [p]erplexed in the extreme.” The word “wrought” has a double valence denoting both violently stimulated and artificially constructed; both meanings correspond to the characterization of the suggestion of jealousy communicated to Othello via Iago. Byron, by laying such emphasis on the mimetic social context of his interest in Milbanke before appropriating the remorsefully jealous voice of Othello, illuminates his nascent sense of subjection to the imitative forces of suggestion that have brought about their marriage.

Byron’s dark use of Shakespeare betrays his unarticulated sensitivity to the movement of mimetic desire that incites his envy. His humiliation at Milbanke’s rebuff of his first proposal continued to fester throughout their marriage. Marchand relates that Byron’s “resentments of her prudish and didactic attitudes before their marriage surged up to choke him with rage” (2.515). Some nights he would bring out letters that she had written him prior to and during their engagement, reading passages that he found particularly troubling, while reproaching her for rejecting his first proposal: “[H]is anger was so great [at these times] that she feared he might strike her” (2.515). Byron’s unbalanced behaviour betrays the effects of mimetic desire on the subject’s emotional state. In his reading of historical diagnoses of hysteria as phenomena that are in fact manifestations of the dialectics operative in mimetic desire, Jean-Michel Oughourlian relates Paul Briquet’s 1859 accounts of hysteria: “The hysterical claim expresses itself in two very common clinical phenomena: competitive overreaching and emulation” (184). Citing a case study collected by Briquet, Oughourlian highlights the “suggestibility” of those patients diagnosed as hysterical (184). Byron’s rages against Annabella led her to eventually suspect “that he was subject to insane delusions” (556). In its emulous suggestibility, Byron’s behaviour resonates with Briquet’s characterization of hysteria. For Byron, Annabella had become a model-obstacle; her exacting moral standards, the memory of her past rebuff, and his embarrassment before her due to the financial demands of married life caused him to view her as an idealized model, whom he was unable to fully master. As Byron confided to Lady Blessington, Annabella possessed

a degree of self-control that I never saw equalled….This extraordinary degree of self-command in Lady Byron produced an opposite effect on me. When I have broken out, on slight provocations, into one my ungovernable fits of rage, her calmness piqued and seemed to reproach me. (qtd. in Marchand 2.547)

Unable to live up to Annabella’s standards of exacting self-control and striving to secure the funds to maintain their ostentatious mansion on Piccadilly Terrace, Byron, via his rages, symmetrically opposes Annabella’s passive indictment of his erratic behaviour. The conflictual quality of the couple’s relationship escalated as Annabella took legal steps to formalize her separation from Byron.

Byron’s troubled marriage to Annabella resembles Girard’s characterization of a relationship of rival doubles, which manifests itself in dramatic swings in mood and demeanour. Of Byron’s and Annabella’s dispositions in the lead up to their separation, Marchand notes the wild oscillations in Byron’s attitude towards Annabella (2.556), and Annabella’s alternation between attempts to conciliate and her sense that Byron was inexorably insane (559-60). Both members of the marriage moved between extremes of excitement and calm. These alternations were such that Byron did not anticipate her discontentment was so great that she intended to leave him on the grounds that he was unstable, and, as he told Hobhouse, he felt that they had “lived on conjugal terms up to the last moment” (qtd. in Marchand 2.561). “Byron apparently thought,” writes Marchand, “that everything had been smoothed over by his apologies” (Marchand 2.561). The reciprocity between Byron’s erratic behaviour and Annabella’s strong reactions to this behaviour corresponds to the dynamics of an exacerbated binary system of mimetic rivalry, as Girard characterizes it in his critique of psychoanalytic theory. “In the world of doubles,” writes Girard, “there can be no neutral relationships. There are only those who dominate and those who are dominated. [...] This relationship puts us in mind of a swing, where one of those playing is always at the highest point when the other is at the lowest, and the reverse” (Things Hidden 305). In 1816 as his marriage was disintegrating, Byron was oblivious to the mimetic rivalry that he had come close to acknowledging in his analogies between himself Othello and Richard III. His resort to Shakespeare retrospectively illuminates the mimetic crisis he was undergoing in his relationship with Annabella and indicates that his knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays might eventually assist him in coming to a more lucid understanding of the mimetic nature of desire.

Two years later, in Canto IV of Childe Harold and in a letter to Lady Byron, Byron would eventually acknowledge the antagonism he felt towards Annabella and those who had assisted her in securing a separation. The 1818 suicide of a lawyer involved in Byron and Annabella’s separation, Sir Samuel Romilly, provides the occasion for an illuminating instance of Byron’s epistolary use of Shakespeare in theorizing his own tendency towards emulous desire. Romilly, whom Annabella’s mother consulted on behalf of her daughter regarding the separation, had accepted a general retainer to act as Byron’s council. Marchand relates that, when, on February 12, 1816, Byron wrote Hanson to ensure that Romilly was available to him, “Hanson was unaware that Lady Noel [Byron’s mother-in-law] had already consulted him. Not until March 16 did Byron learn that Romilly had been counseling Lady Byron” (2.577). Byron’s friend Hobhouse eventually confronted Romilly, who admitted that, having been already retained by Byron, he had erred in counseling Lady Byron: “Sir Samuel then declined to arbitrate the terms of the separation, but Byron never forgave him” (577). When in late October of 1818 Romilly’s wife, who had suffered a long illness died, the lawyer and politician cut his own throat (Melikan para. 14). Upon hearing the news of his suicide, Byron wrote to Annabella expressing his sentiments in the words of Macbeth. The letter expresses his resentment towards Annabella and those involved in securing the couple’s legal separation, while indicating that Byron, like Macbeth, possessed a self-critical awareness of the deleteriousness of his mimetic antagonisms. The tone of Byron’s 1818 letter is dark and, on its surface, cruel. It begins: “Sir Samuel Romilly has cut his throat for the loss of his wife,” and it goes on to recall how the lawyer was the “[a]pprover of the proceedings which deprived [Byron] of” his own wife (BLJ 6.80). Referring to his favorite novel, Tom Jones, Byron confesses that he does not feel at ease passing judgment on Romilly, “but,” he writes, “This even-handed Justice / Commends the ingredients of our poisoned Chalice / To our own lips” (80). Byron’s words are taken from Macbeth’s reflective and equivocating soliloquy prior to his murder of Duncan and his sons. As king, Duncan is the model of and obstacle to Macbeth’s desire for kingship, but, in contemplating his planned murder, Macbeth acknowledges that it is the nature of mimetic reciprocity for the act undertaken against one subject to be mirrored by that subject (or his supporters), which thereby returns to beset the first actor:

But in these cases

We still have judgement here, that we but teach

Bloody instructions which, being taught, return

To plague th’inventor. (1.7.7-10)

This reflection immediately precedes Byron’s quotation from the soliloquy, which reiterates the recognition of the reciprocal nature of grossly violent acts, or “even-handed justice,” by figuring Macbeth as a suicide, ensuring his own murder via his assassination of Duncan. It is to avoid the mimetic contagion of violence that Macbeth, earlier in the soliloquy, wishes: “that this [Macbeth’s murderous] blow / Might be the be-all and end-all, here” (1.7.4-5). For Byron, Romilly–having been retained to protect his interests, but violating his trust by acting as an obstacle between himself and Annabella–is a rival for the object of his domestic happiness. Byron’s choice of Macbeth’s reflections on the justice of mimetic reciprocity indicates his sense of responsibility for Romilly’s suicide and his apprehension that he too may, for his role in Romilly’s death, suffer a violent end.

The last lines of his letter to Annabella indicate why Byron draws on Macbeth’s reference to mimetic reciprocity by referring to–what Jerome McGann terms–the “forgiveness-curse” (Fiery Dust 43), which Byron levels against his enemies in the fourth canto of Childe Harold. This reference indicates that his interpretation of his part in Romilly’s suicide and his apprehension of the inevitable recoil of his actions upon himself are not merely superstitious ravings, but a metaphorical rendering of the influence of desire between subjects who encounter one another in a mimetic duel. To conclude his letter, Byron writes:

Perhaps previous to his Annihilation [Romilly] felt a portion of what he contributed his legal mite to make me feel,–but I have lived–lived to see him a Sexagenary Suicide.–It was not in vain that I invoked Nemesis in the midnight of Rome from the awfullest of her Ruins.–Fare you well” (BLJ 6.81).

Measuring his pain at the loss of Annabella against Romilly’s pain at the death of his wife, Byron indicates that he has long regarded Romilly as one of his most bitter rivals in law and life. Because of this apprehension of his rivalry with those who had prosecuted his separation from Annabella and, thus, calumniated his name in England, Byron, in 1817, made a versified appeal to Nemesis from the ruins of Rome’s colosseum and cursed his malefactors in this stanza of Childe Harold’s Canto IV:

And thou, who never yet of human wrong

Left’st the unbalanced scale, great Nemesis!

Here, where the ancient paid the homage long–

Thou, who didst call the Furies from the abyss,

And round Orestes bade them howl and hiss

For that unnatural retribution–just,

Had it but been from hands less near–in this

Thy Former realm, I call thee from the dust!

Dost thou not hear my heart?–Awake! thou shalt, and must. (4.1180-88)

In one of the stanzas which McGann designates as the most explicitly autobiographical in the canto (Byron 185), Byron’s invocation of Nemesis–the goddess responsible for enacting justice and vengeance through retribution–publically represents his resentment, which mirrors Annabella’s resentment manifest in the legal separation she undertook with the help of Romilly, while making reference to the mimetic rivalry inherent to Rome’s gladiatorial duels; the vengeance of the gods visited upon Orestes for killing his mother; and the barbarians’ vengeance against Rome, as manifest in the ruins of the colosseum. However, as McGann explains in his reading of stanzas 128-51 (Fiery Dust 42-43), Byron does not intend to uncritically accept the mimetic rule of visiting wrong-for-wrong, but inverts the deity’s traditional role by calling Nemesis to curse his enemies with forgiveness: “thou shalt take / The vengeance, which shall yet be sought and found” and “pile on human heads the mountain of my curse! / That curse shall be Forgiveness” (4.1193-94, 1206-07). In these lines, the poet self-consciously resists the impetus to mimetic rivalry by forcing “Nemesis to balance the scales of Justice not with vengeance but with forgiveness” (Fiery Dust 44).

Once again, Byron exhibits his tendency to read Shakespeare as a preceptor on the nature of mimetic desire, which is catalyst for both destruction and ameliorative, poetic creativity.  Girard contends that Hamlet’s crucial theme of deferred vengeance constitutes Shakespeare’s critique of the logic of violent reciprocity. Considering the expectations Shakespeare faced as a playwright in providing audiences with the “just,” violent recompense the genre of revenge tragedy demands, Girard writes: “In a world where every ghost, dead or alive, can only perform the same action, revenge…all voices are interchangeable. [...] To seek singularity in revenge is a vain enterprise, but to shrink from revenge in a world that looks upon it as a ‘sacred duty’ is to…become a nonentity” (Theatre of Envy 273). The fascination of Hamlet’s equivocation and delay, Girard goes on to argue, is evidence of Shakespeare’s attempt to extract his hero from the necessity of the genre’s violent reciprocity (283). By embedding within the play an implicit critique of revenge, Shakespeare both highlights the inimical nature of mimetic rivalry and demonstrates how representations of rivalry’s course are enriched with reflection on the ethical import of such real and represented actions. Girard does not undertake a reading of Macbeth, but Macbeth’s soliloquy, which Byron quotes from, closely resembles the violence-deferring equivocations that characterize Hamlet’s speeches. By quoting Macbeth in his letter to Annabella, Byron provides an exposition of his growing knowledge of Shakespeare’s understanding of mimetic rivalry and links his personal desire for revenge, as represented and creatively deferred in Childe Harold, to Shakespeare’s insights regarding the imitative nature of vengeance and violence.

Leave a Reply