Gladden, Shelley's Agenda Writ Large: Reconsidering Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant

Reading Shelley's Interventionist
Poetry, 1819-1820

Shelley's Agenda Writ Large: Reconsidering Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant

Samuel Gladden, University of Northern Iowa

  1. Love is . . . the sole law which should govern the moral world.
    -Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Laon and Cythna;
    Or, The Revolution of the Golden City

  2. Percy Shelley's satire of the Queen Caroline affair, Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant. A Tragedy, remains largely overlooked in Shelley scholarship, but the play stands as a key moment in the development of Shelley’s thought and work, for it demonstrates the poet's thoroughgoing understanding of the political power of erotic transgression.1 Significantly, Shelley's satire arises out of a historical moment in which the political ramifications of such transgressions were operating quite visibly in the world around him: Swellfoot the Tyrant describes the doomed scheme by which Tyrant Swellfoot attempts to quell public support for the return of Queen Iona to her rightful seat of power—a close parallel to the real-life George IV's desperate attempts to bar his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, from her spousal privilege incumbent upon his own accession to the throne. The deep connections between Shelley's satire and contemporary political events cannot be overlooked, for both Caroline of Brunswick and the play’s heroine, Iona Taurina, function as highly visible emblems of the mother-whore, that revolutionary icon of the woman-in-public whose very presence threatens to feminize the public sphere and thus to hasten the collapse—the detumescence, to borrow an image central to Shelley's play—of masculine, patriarchal order.

    In another letter (II, 207), Shelley again refers to the King and Queen as "Punch and his wife," adding, "Let the nation stand aside, and suffer them to beat till, like most combatants that are left to themselves, they would kiss and be friends." His references to Punch inevitably associate the Affair with the carnivalesque popular culture of slapstick violence, a mileu that his play will deliberately tap into for its own complex satiric puposes.
  3. The Shelleys were certainly not immune to the Queen Caroline controversy. Newman Ivey White notes that Mary was a strong proponent of the Queen but that Shelley himself only "technically" supported her, dismissing her as "'a vulgar cook-maid'" and finding the fact that her enemies were so despicable to be Caroline’s only redeeming quality (225). Indeed, Shelley regarded the Queen Caroline Affair with some antipathy, as his 20 July 1820 letter to Thomas Medwin indicates: "I wonder what in the world the Queen has done [. . .] . What silly stuff is this to employ a great nation about. I wish the King and the Queen, like Punch and his wife, would fight out their disputes in person [. . .] ."(Letters 2:220).2 Eight days earlier, Shelley wrote at some length about the controversial Queen to Thomas Love Peacock, articulating with greater clarity his appreciation for the complexity of the Queen Caroline Affair. Although he finds it ridiculous, Shelley recognizes the tremendous cultural and political significance of the very public power-struggles that beset the royal couple:

    Nothing, I think, shows the generous gullibility of the English nation more than their having adopted her Sacred Majesty as the heroine of the day, in spite of all their prejudices and bigotry. I, for my part, of course wish no harm to happen to her, even if she has, as I firmly believe, amused herself in a manner rather indecorous with any courtier or baron. But I cannot help adverting to it as one of the absurdities of royalty, that a vulgar woman, with all those low tastes which prejudice considers as vices, and a person whose habits and manners every one would shun in private life, without any redeeming virtues, should be turned into a heroine because she is a queen, or, as a collateral reason, because her husband is a king; and he, no less than his ministers, are so odious that everything, however disgusting, which is opposed to them, is admirable. (Letters 2:576)
    Her husband's own two bodies, one royal and the other dandyfied and eroticized--even Rabelaisian--were already part of public discourse, so Queen Caroline's two bodies in this sense serve as a kind of radical chiasmus, a double counter-sign.
    In his letter, Shelley acknowledges that Queen Caroline not only occupies a central role in the English imagination, but, more importantly, that her very public opposition to King George and his "odious" ministers causes her to figure politically. Queen Caroline emerges as an important political force because of her elevation to the iconic status of oppositional leader through the subversive mechanisms of gossip and the tabloid press, two forces that celebrate the Queen as a dissenting monarch who not only opposes the King but who does so publicly and unapologetically; Queen Caroline thus functions as a transgressor both in the political and erotic senses, for she interrupts the sovereign's claims to power even as she violates—transgresses—contemporary social mores. Queen Caroline's two bodies—her real, physical self, and her textual body which is anatomized, pathologized, and pornographized throughout countless arms of the radical press—coalesce in the image of the symbolic revolutionary whose politicized physicality compromises the constitutional power of King George and his court. In its physical and textual manifestations, the Queen's oppositional body functions as oppositional narrative, so that in both person and reputation, Queen Caroline interrupts the processes of monarchial order. Throughout the scandal, it is the feminine voice—the voice of the Queen, and the voice of revolt in general 3 —that disrupts an entire household, thereby charging the Queen's physical and textual bodies as catalysts for the radical instability of her husband's political regime and her nation's established order. In Queen Caroline, Shelley recognizes the political implications of sexual transgression, for in her status as an oppositional icon she demonstrates the power of the perverse erotic body to intrude upon the political process by exposing the problematic nature of an entrenched, oppressive regime.4
    It is fitting that pigs should have inspired Shelley's satire. Pigs were popularly associated with fairs and carnivals in general, English as well as Italian. See Wordsworth's famous lines on Bartholomew Fair (see lines 650 and following).
  4. Mary Shelley's note to her husband’s play points to the elaborate nests of contexts out of which her husband’s satire arises, from the textual interpolation of Aristophanes’s Frogs to the proximate sounds of pigs that accompanied the poet’s performance of his "Ode to Liberty" at San Giuliano. But it is the grunting of those pigs, I argue, that must be regarded far more seriously than Mary Shelley suggests, for two reasons: first, one of the most popular anti-monarchial pamphlets of 1820, A Speech From the Throne, described the cries for reform as arising from a "swinish multitude,"5 a phrase originally coined by Edmund Burke as a description for the masses that had become radical lingua franca by the 1790s (Scrivener 262)6; second, the OED indicates that as late as 1857, the term "pig" functioned as slang for both "a police officer" and "a pressman in a printing office."7 In Shelley's day, these entities were not as incongruous as they may seem to a late twentieth-century reader: police and pressman regularly engaged in contests for authority as the proliferation of publicity regarding the Queen Caroline Affair exceeded the power of the police to control it. Thus, printers effectively usurped authority from the police, so that just as in Shelley's play, one set of "pigs" displaced another as the keepers of hegemonic order. The swinish multitudes of Swellfoot the Tyrant, I believe, are those radical pressman who reconstructed Queen Caroline's transgressions as symbolic acts of revolution, those artists and scriveners who assembled the stories about her Continental improprieties into a metanarrative of the struggle for freedom.8 Along the way, those "pigs" transformed the sexually transgressive monarch into a revolutionary icon by portraying Caroline as both the victim of tyranny and the hope for liberation. In Queen Caroline, we find Revolution hypostatized in an eroticized female body, an ideological and iconographic outgrowth of French Revolution-era propaganda.

  5. In this brief essay, I want to turn my attention to two themes central to the play’s ideological development: first, the function of the body as a political register and as an instrument for social change; second, the role of sexual transgression in Shelley’s metatextual agenda of what I call "liberty-through-love"—that is, the ways in which Shelley situates the erotic body as a model for social and political revolution.

    The Body

  6. The bodies of Tyrant Swellfoot and his subjects schematize the play's oppositions between empowerment and disempowerment, or possession and lack, and the play's registration of political relationships at the site of the body—a recurring trope throughout Shelley's works—finds form in the oppositional pair of erection/emaciation. Time and again, Shelley draws on the symbology of erection as a means for representing the tyrant's swollenness of power; similarly, emaciation emerges as a corporeal signifier for the disempowerment or oppression of the pigs. The condition of oppression is written upon the very bodies of Swellfoot's subjects, bodies so drained of potential that they tend toward anti-productivity and cannibalism, exemplified most dramatically in the Second Sow's marked anti-maternalism which invokes the diametric opposite to maternal nurturing—cannibalism: the mother eats her children rather than nourishing them with milk from her breasts. The Semichorus of Swine locate the evil of tyranny at a particular site on the King's body—his bosom (1.1.61)—and, significantly, they describe that evil as an alien force from which the body may be purified. Swellfoot, too, demonstrates his understanding of the body as a site for the mediation of politics when he recalls the attempts he has made to maintain political order:

    Moral restraint I see has no effect,
    Nor prostitution, nor our own example,
    Starvation, typhus-fever, nor prison—
    Here and throughout the play, we see a constant turn to the body and its physical and psychological needs—for food, for sex, for freedom—as a site where politics may be mediated in the purchasing of allegiance through the satisfaction of basic corporeal cravings.
    The obscene jokes of Swellfoot are more characteristically Shelleyan than many realize, once we take into account the young, satiric, "vulgar" Shelley, which we might rename for this occasion, and with a nod to Burke, the "swinish" Shelley.
  7. The denial of bodily needs, however, contributes to a much more complicated model of political control, for it participates not in the purchasing of allegiance but in the generation of a state of chaos from which allegiance vanishes completely as starved individuals turn against others who share in their miserable condition: put simply, hunger, as the Second Sow’s anti-maternalism demonstrates, starves compassion, exiling one from any sense of loyalty to a larger community. Hunger—the denial of a physical need, the bodily manifestation of oppression—overtakes the spirit of generosity, which Shelley situates as pivotal to his ongoing campaign of liberty-through-love; and selfishness, the psychic manifestation of hunger, leads only to a redoubling of oppression, to a multiplication of the effects of tyrannical gorging. On the other hand, extreme hunger can be pressed into the service of liberty, as those held in real or imaginary prisons ultimately starve to such extremes that their emaciated bodies slip between the bars that hold them, thus freeing them from their places of containment. Such is the case of Purganax's rat, who is "So thin with want, . . . [that it] can crawl in and out / Of any narrow chink and filthy hole" (1.1.181-182). The denial of bodily need serves primarily in the maintenance of tyranny, but when it reaches a sort of vanishing point in the completely emaciated body, the trajectory of hunger is reversed as that body is thrust into oppositional engagements which enable it to "break out" of (the symbolic prison of) oppression. Throughout Shelley's play, oppression and freedom are thus consistently linked to the denial of bodily needs and to the physical condition of the oppressed, most clearly with regard to nourishment: tyrants gorge, and subjects starve.

  8. Finally, the body functions throughout Swellfoot the Tyrant as a register of political instability. When Swellfoot realizes his rule is in danger of being usurped, he laments his sudden loss of appetite, saying,

    . . . After the trial,
    And these fastidious pigs are gone, perhaps
    I may recover my lost appetite.
    Swellfoot's loss of appetite is his loss of power, so that just as his empowerment has been metonymized in swollenness, in the "erections" of his corpulent body, his impending disempowerment now finds form in hunger's antithesis, the complete evacuation of his appetite. As the inevitability of Swellfoot's fall becomes clear, Mammon turns to another symbolic body, that of the Goddess Famine, and reads her corporeal instability as metonymic for the state of Swellfoot's regime:
    I hear a crackling of the giant bones
    Of the dread image, and in the black pits
    Which once were eyes, I see two livid flames.
    These prodigies are oracular, and show
    The presence of the unseen Deity.
    Mighty events are hastening to their doom!
    Mammon recognizes in this collapse of the Goddess of Famine the new narrative of the play, the reversals of power that will be figured on the very bodies of Shelley's Dramatis Personæ. Throughout the play, Shelley thus poses the body as a register for politics according to a binary model of excess and lack: the swollen (or erect) body metonymizes power; the collapsed (or emaciated) body, oppression.

    Sexual Transgression

  9. As the putative hero of Swellfoot the Tyrant, Iona Taurina figures significantly throughout the text from the epigraph right through to the end, where she is the last major character to exit the stage. Iona's power to reconfigure the political landscape of the play draws directly from the phallic privilege she enjoys as an effect of her royal station. Thus, we see that even before she "castrates" her husband in the play's final moments, that act is prefigured in the rumors about her that succeed in embarrassing the throne. Upon hearing of his wife's return to Thebes, Swellfoot exclaims that "Swellfoot is wived! . . . ", and he commands his guards to be "Off with her head!" (1.1.291). Clearly, Swellfoot recognizes the reversals of power that his wife's return to public visibility forebode, and he articulates those reversals in terms of gendered maneuvers: the OED defines the verb "wive" as "to act as a wife"; thus, the King's exclamation that "Swellfoot is wived!" codes Iona's return as his own symbolic castration. Fearing this reversal of power, he calls for the only action he believes able to trump that reversal—the displaced castration of the Queen by way of her beheading. Swellfoot's desire for Iona to be taken into custody and brought to him, dismembered, underscores his anxious need to reassert his phallic authority over her, to take comfort in the sight of his own phallic power as it is manifested at the site of her "castrated" body.

  10. Throughout the play, each time the swine laud Iona as their hero, they adopt the very strategies of corporeal opposition that Iona has modeled: in posing her transgressive body against the authority of her husband, Iona has taught the swine how to negotiate power at the site, or location (as well as through the sight, or spectacle) of the body itself. The pigs thus appropriate Swellfoot's regard for them as commodities and turn that position of powerlessness around, so that they become "commodities among themselves,"9 dispossessed beings whose refusal of the system that exploits them improvises a new market in which they are empowered as brokers—a complete reversal of their positions as mere commodities. Pawning their safety for the Queen's, the pigs graft their political convictions onto their own persons, reminding us again of the play's consistent imbrications of politics and the body. Where traditional monarchy conceives a King's two bodies as earthly and spiritual, in the liberated market, the Queen's two bodies are both decidedly fleshy—her own body and the collective body of her (egalitarian) subjects.

  11. The swine's cries for victory over Swellfoot's tyrannical regime give voice to the political function they accord Iona's presence: "Hail! Iona the divine," they shout, "We will be no longer swine, / But bulls with horns and dewlaps" (1.1.277-279). Just as Iona's potential to disrupt Swellfoot's regime arms her with phallic power, so, too, do the swine anticipate the specifically gendered transformations their "divine" hero will bring them: freed from Swellfoot's tyranny by Iona, the swine will be transformed into bulls, their newly grown horns the outgrowth of the phallic transaction Iona has brokered. When Iona seizes Swellfoot's phallus to claim it as her own, she promises to distribute the power of that phallus equally among the commodities-among-themselves, the freed pigs-cum-bulls.

  12. As the play suggests time and again, it is Iona's transgressive status that threatens the stability of Swellfoot's reign: through the figure of Iona, Shelley poses sexual transgression as a means for political subversion. In the logic of the play, Iona is cast as a politically dangerous figure because of her perverse erotic engagements, although Shelley wisely never particularizes the full range of Iona's so-called perversity; and the ultimate crime that all of Iona's transgressions metaphorize—Swellfoot's "castration"—is punished even before it is committed, since Swellfoot calls for the beheading of the Queen before she confronts him directly with her own demands for political power.

  13. The political significance of sexual transgression is suggested in the maneuvers of the Gadfly who, sent out to torment the returning Queen, accomplishes his overtly political mission in the particularly symbolic space of the Queen's boudoir. In a speech that reinforces the connections Shelley draws between politics and the erotic body, the Gadfly reminds us of Iona's reputed lasciviousness by locating her activities in a bedroom and characterizing them as sinful—they should, he remarks, embarrass even the bedlamps. Next, he appropriates the more general space of pleasure, the inn, as a metaphor for Iona's lusty body itself, so that its "inn-doors and windows / . . . open to me" suggest the ready availability of her body to any who would purchase "entrance" into it (1.1.233-234). Finally, the Gadfly eroticizes his political mission by describing his attack in terms that sound undeniably coital: he trumps her with his lips and stings her at his hips. The coital pleasure of the Gadfly's political mission is also suggested in the only pair of internally rhymed lines we find in his speech—"Dinging and singing, / From slumber I rung her"—lines whose language apes the rhythm of the bawdy limerick, an aural double entendre I am certain Shelley expected his audience to appreciate (1.1.239-240).

  14. Because Iona's erotic body functions as the site of her political power, it seems only logical that her political triumph at the play's end would be manifested in that very body; and in fact, this is exactly the case. Iona's mounting of the Minotaur—John Bull, or England—not only suggests her political power but also spectacularizes that power in terms of a gendered transaction. Rumored throughout the play to have been sexually engaged, Pasiphæ-like, with a bull, here we see Iona's sexual transgression celebrated even as its political valences are reversed, so that her once-criminalized transgression metaphorizes her defeat of Swellfoot and her ascension to his seat of power. In the play’s final moments, Iona emerges as Shelley's revolutionary hero, albeit only temporarily. Seizing power from the hands of a tyrant, she redistributes it among those whom tyranny had oppressed, and she demonstrates her god-like transformative powers by calling for the beautification of the swine, so that their grunts—throughout the play symbolic of oppression—now burst forth as beautiful music. Finally, Iona displaces religion with liberty as the instructive device of the world: she encourages the pigs' newly beautiful voices to replace the bells in village (church-) towers, lilting through the landscape and thus acting as agents for re-establishing the harmonious connections between the liberated kingdom and the natural world itself.

  15. The play closes with Iona joining the chorus of swine in a call for war as all "Exeunt, in full cry; IONA driving the SWINE, with the empty GREEN BAG" (349).10 The play’s finale thus resuscitates the tyranny of Swellfoot's reign, since the Queen calls on the pigs to pursue her enemies in precisely the same way Swellfoot employed the Gadfly to sting Iona. Finally, the Green Bag re-emerges as an agent in the play, now drained of its contents but no less symbolic of evil as it was in the hands of the play's first Tyrant. Yoked to jealousy, envy, and selfishness—suggested both by the bag's very color and by its historical function as a mechanism for solicitors’ puffed-up self-display11—that instrument of containment and deception closes the play as a representative for the phallus Iona has assumed, as well as for the one she has not: symbolic of Swellfoot's selfish excesses, the Green Bag remarks the transfer of Swellfoot's tyranny into Iona's hands; and visually remarking tyranny's defeat—its emptying or evacuation—the bag reminds us of the potential Iona holds even as its limpness underscores her failure to erect a new order in place of the old. At the close of the play, the Green Bag returns us to the satire's first image of tyranny, Swellfoot's kingly paunch, for both sites call our attention to the selfish pleasures that metonymize tyranny: the paunch, overeating; the bag, revenge.

  16. Throughout Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, Shelley employs the same devices he poses as the instruments of revolution in his so-called visionary works—specifically, the body and sexual transgression; but in this satire, he demonstrates how these devices may be appropriated by tyrants just as potently as by revolutionaries. In Swellfoot, Shelley poses these instruments in a manner inconsistent with his own broader agenda of liberty-through-love in order to demonstrate their innate political power; that is, by exposing the tyrannical uses to which these devices may be put, Shelley departicularizes them from what might otherwise be dismissed as naïve idealism. Instead, Shelley demonstrates how the body and its transgressions affect change at the level of politics and, consequently, in individual lives—whether for good or bad, whether in the interest of oppression or liberation. In Swellfoot the Tyrant, Shelley begins to justify his belief that love is, to paraphrase this paper’s epigraph, the law that governs the universe; that is, his satire remarks on the ways in which both Iona Taurina's transgressive engagements and her relationship with her husband function to affect the tenor of Swellfoot's regime and, in a broader context, how these engagements (fail to) reconfigure the political landscape of the play. In short, Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant spectacularizes the processes through which intimate relationships inform political realities, and thus the satire privileges the realm of the erotic as the experiential space from which the moral law of the universe might be re-written.

Works Cited

Grose, Francis. Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 1785. Ed. Eric Partridge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

Irigaray, Luce."Commodities Among Themselves." This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 192-197.

Jones, Steven E. Shelley's Satire: Violence, Exhortation, and Authority. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 1994.

The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. New York: Clarendon, 1964.

Scrivener, Michael Henry. Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Laon and Cythna; Or, The Revolution of the Golden City, A Vision of the Nineteenth Century in the Stanza of Spenser.The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 10 vols. Ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck. The Julian Editions. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927. 1.99-265.

---. Oedipus Tyrannus; Or, Swellfoot the Tyrant. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928. 2:317-350.

White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. Vol. 2. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.

---. "Shelley's Swell-Foot the Tyrant in Relation to Contemporary Political Satires." PMLA 36 (1921): 332-346.


* 12.40. 

1  Steven E. Jones appreciates the importance of Swellfoot to Shelley's oeuvre, and he regards the satire "as a transitional work in Shelley's career, as he moves away from the confident, exhortative energies of The Mask of Anarchy and toward the darker, more deeply ironic vision of The Triumph of Life" (148).

2  One speech by the Semichorus of Swine in Swellfoot echoes Shelley's sentiments rather closely:

I vote Swellfoot and Iona
Try the magic test together;
Whenever royal spouses bicker,
Both should try the magic liquor.

3   Here, I follow traditional binary distinctions in coding revolution as feminine since it is deployed in opposition to hegemonic, or masculine, authority: in patriarchal societies, authority is always masculine, and alternatives to authority must, by their very oppositional status, be feminine.

4   Jones points to Shelley's letter of 30 June 1820 to the Gisbornes as "the germ of Swellfoot the Tyrant, including all the salient topics—the perceived financial crisis, the carnivalesque violence, the display of the royal domestic dispute, [. . .] and the seriousness of the people's plight [. . .] incongruously mixed in with the ridiculous events" (128).

5  White reports that A Speech From the Throne went through an astonishing 50 editions in 1820 ("Shelley's Swell-Foot" 339). The sheer popularity of the pamphlet suggests that Shelley probably knew it. In addition to its use of the phrase "swinish multitude," the following lines from the pamphlet seem to resonate throughout Shelley's satire:

Reform, reform the swinish rabble cry,
Meaning of course, rebellion, blood and riot.
Audacious rascals! you, my Lords, and I
Know 'tis their duty to be starved in quiet.
(qtd. in White, "Shelley's Swell-Foot" 339)

6  White points to an article in the 30 June 1820 Examiner in which a chorus of pigs "was used as an instrument of satire against George IV by Professor Porson" (225).

7  The use of the pig as a symbol for the abuse of power is, of course, not specific to the nineteenth century; indeed, George Orwell's novel Animal Farm (1945) employs pigs to the same end.

8  The sedition trials involving a number of radical pressmen—among them William Hone, Thomas Jonathan Wooler, and Richard Carlile—were topics of much discussion in early nineteenth-century radical circles, and Shelley would certainly have been aware of these well-publicized contests between the government and the radical press. His decision to pit pressmen against the government in Swellfoot the Tyrant may thus have arisen from contemporary contests for authority.

9  See Irigaray (192-197).

10  Jones argues that Iona's exit "suggests that any deeper and more extensive [political] change is yet far in the future" (143). His reading of the satire's end aligns Swellfoot the Tyrant with what I will characterize in my (book-length) readings of Epipsychidion, Laon and Cythna, and Prometheus Unbound as the political pessimism that pervades Shelley's so-called "visionary" works.

11  In his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose defines the phrase "green bag" as follows: "An attorney; those gentlemen carry their clients’ deeds in a green bag, and, it is said, when they have no deeds to carry frequently fill them up with an old pair of breeches, or any other trumpery, to give themselves the appearance of business."