Polysexualities and romantic generations in Mary Shelley's Mythological Dramasmidasandproserpine

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Many early nineteenth-century dramas expose the limitations of bifurcated categories, including sexuality, for describing and regulating human identity and behavior. Mary Shelley's dramasMidasandProserpine(1820) rely on the conventional constructions of “male and “female” to undermine their ontological authority and suggest possibilities of polysexual forms. The subtext of the dramas points to Shelley's conflicted negotiation of her parental legacy, particularly a maternal legacy that was embodied in Mary Wollstonecraft's concepts and texts as well as the discursive tradition of women's writings, including conduct books and juvenilia. Shelley works out the generational connections in mythological terms of drama, while this analysis is informed by Luce Irigaray's theoretical terms of women's genealogy. Part of Shelley's negotiation involves a reclamation of female subjectivity, agency, and public space which she shared as writer with her mother. This private and psychological struggle was influenced by Shelley's response to public and political events during 1819-20, especially the Queen Caroline affair. Shelley could identify with the body of Queen Caroline as the site where familial politics censored a woman by divorcing her from her matrilinear heritage and forcing her to adopt the patrilinear legacy of the father and husband. With its all-male cast of characters, Midasis a play that satirizes masculine-defined efforts at money, power, and empire. Women's conditions are displaced onto characters whose gendered behaviors challenge binary categories of sexuality. With its all-female cast of characters, Proserpinedramatizes the pervasive nature of masculine authority, and it raises essentialist notions of “woman”. The mother/daughter relationship of Demeter/Proserpine bears conceptual connections with the Romantic generation embodied by Wollstonecraft/Shelley. By reading the plays dialogically, we discover how the reconstructed mother/daughter relationship recuperates the potential for multiple sexualities in its positioning of self in relation to the maternal body.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-411
Number of pages27
JournalWomen's Writing
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1 1999


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