Witches, Spirits, Ghosts and the Patriarchy

Byron’s Manfred is a fascinating mental drama that primarily addresses emotions and the psychology of grief. It also utilizes an array of supernatural characters to ultimately address Manfred’s ambiguous position of being neither mortal, nor immortal. Aside from these aspects, Byron’s play also affirms the dominance of patriarchal values through its dialogue and interplay of characters, which is significant in because it counteracts the 19th century rhetoric of women’s rights and freedoms.

The male superiority alluded to above is clearly shown with the elemental spirits in the first act, and later in Act 2, scene 4. Patriarchal emphasis can be seen in the negotiations between Manfred at the spirits. The first spirit, unable to fulfill his request for forgetfulness, suggests that he “ask us of subjects, sovereignty, and power” (Manfred, p. 253, 140). Through this offer, we can see a clear summary of the values that dictated Western Europe in the 1800s. Within the context of the spirits, we can also see the emphasis on patriarchy in their hierarchy. In act 2, scene 4, Manfred meets with the Destinies. Later, the Prince Arimanes arrives on his throne, “a globe of fire” and the first destiny establishes inferiority to him thusly:

“Glory to Arimanes! On the earth
His power increaseth-both my sisters did
His bidding, nor did I neglect my duty!” (Manfred, p.268, 17-19)

Through this quotation, and the other examples above, it is clear to see that Bryon emphasizes male domination even in his dealings with supernatural spirits.

The character of the witch is another instance where patriarchal values are reiterated. Notably, there is Manfred’s rejection of her assistance that seems to reiterate male supremacy. Specifically, we can turn to the following quote: “I will not swear – Obey! And whom? The spirits whose presence I command, and be the slave of those who served me – Never!” (Manfred, p. 265, 158-160). This quote stands out not only because Manfred balks at the possibility to submitting to another, but also because he staunchly refuses the possibility of being under the dominion of a woman. In a larger context this can be viewed as the patriarchy’s abhorrence regarding the notion of gender equity.

manfred-and-witch-by-vail
Manfred and the Witch of the Alps by Jeffrey W. Vail

The last group of examples pertaining to male dominance is evident in the interaction with Astarte’s spirit. Firstly, Manfred addresses her not as a guilt-laden lover in mourning, but rather in a series of commands. What is more, Astarte’s response is extremely limited, and reiterates the limited autonomy of women. Her only proclamations revolve exclusively around Manfred: she states his name, describes his fate, and wishes him farewell. Her response shows that despite Manfred’s responsibility for her death, she is unable to express anger, and only serves to be of assistance in explaining his fate, and hoping that he fares well.

Through Manfred’s interactions with the spirits, the witch, and his departed Astarte, it is clear that Byron was not only exploring the realm of the mind, but also reaffirming patriarchal supremacy. Because of Byron’s wide readership, and specifically for these exchanges, Manfred can be seen as a retraction of feminist progress, in an era when feminist writers were becoming prolific.

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