Skip to content

The Deity’s Masquerade: On the performativity of identity in the works of Lord Byron

By Hannibal de Pencier

In his works, Lord Byron largely anticipates the twentieth-century notion of performativity as expounded by feminist theorist Judith Butler. Byron’s habitual manner of characterization demonstrates a sustained concern with the performative exteriority of  identity. Characters, allusions to historical figures, and even narrators are displayed as affecting their identities through the performance of signs, such as speech, dress, and manner. Figures in Byron’s texts are therefore able to inhabit varying and contradictory  exterior identities by assuming the performative elements that are conventionally associated with those identities. In other words, characters are able to convey an identity by manipulating the conventional ontological assumption that exterior appearance necessarily proceeds, and therefore indexes, an essential identity. Byron recognizes the fallacy of this assumption and exposes its absurdity by calling attention to the trivial materiality of conventional typological identities. This preoccupation with the ontology of self is apparent throughout Byron’s bibliography, but is particularly notable in The Deformed Transformed, Beppo, Lara, and Don Juan—texts in which the affected performativity of race and gender are central concerns. This preoccupation also surfaces across Byron’s corpus in meta-textual suggestions about the performativity of poetic creation and authorhood itself.

We must begin by establishing a definition of performativity as it pertains to the construction of self. Judith Butler writes that performativity is “the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.”(519). For a more general definition, it is worth considering the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who asserts that the conception of the body is contingent upon historical circumstance and therefore constitutes a set of possibilities to be continuously realized. Butler writes that the body’s condition as a set of possibilities “signifies… that its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of interior essence.”(521). In other words, exterior identity is not an inevitable manifestation of an essential identity; rather, an abiding essential identity is a fallacious construct, linguistically substantiated through the ontological paradigm implied by subject-verb formations. In reality, there is no essential subject that proceeds and is detached from the actions of that subject. This notion is anticipated by Friedrich Nietzsche (who was purportedly influenced by Byron), when he wrote in The Genealogy of Morals that “there is no being behind doing.”(20). 

The semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce offer insight into the way in which the specious “being behind doing” is constructed. Peirce asserts that certain signs—called indexical signs —point to a signifier without signifying it directly. An indexical sign is interpreted as a direct result of the signified, and, therefore, a signification of that by which it is caused. For example, smoke indexes fire. In the same way, manners of speech or dress may be interpreted as indexical signs of a social class. Therefore, a specious essential identity is constructed and signified through the performance of indexical signs. In his works, Byron exposes how this phenomenon allows people to assume identities in a seemingly total, comprehensive way simply by performing the appropriate indexical signs. In particular, Byron displays the performativity of gender. Gender performativity is perhaps most central in the epic Don Juan. Richard C. Sha observes, in his book Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832, that Don Juan is an epic about puberty. The concept of puberty in the Romantic era was itself suggestive of the instability of gender identity because the prepubescent child—boy or girl—was figured as being of an effeminate, yet ultimately indeterminate, gender. As such, a boy’s physical development into manhood can be seen as a sort of grotesque imposition, a deformation, or an involuntary metamorphosis into a differently gendered identity. In Don Juan, however, Byron also recognizes the liberating potential of the gender fluidity suggested by the liminal space of the transition between indeterminate effeminacy and manhood. Ultimately, through the serial narrative structure of Don Juan, Byron subverts the notion that puberty is necessarily teleological. Juan’s character resists complete metamorphosis into the model of manhood, the archetypal masculine hero; rather, his “boyishness” (read: effeminacy) persists throughout. 

To illustrate Don Juan‘s deviation from the epic convention of masculine heroism, it is useful to consider the text in juxtaposition with an archetypal epic, Virgil’s Aeneid, which is also about the transition from boyhood to manhood. Both Juan and Aeneas leave their homelands by sea. Aeneas leaves behind his first wife, Creusa; Juan leaves behind his beloved Julia. Both are swept off course, landing on a foreign beach, and are taken in as lovers by beautiful women. Nevertheless, whereas Aeneas renounces his juvenile love for Dido in order to assume his role as the patriarchal progenitor of Rome, Juan is unwillingly wrenched away from his love. Juan does not willingly make the decision to leave Haidée and assume the role of conventional manhood; rather, he is buffeted about in a perpetual reenactment of the Aeneid‘s Book IV—the book of delay in which the epic’s telos is suspended. Byron uses this perpetual liminal state of boyhood to display how a boy becomes a man through performativity, and how he can therefore alternatively perform femininity. Regarding Juan’s perpetual boyishness, in Canto IX Byron writes:  

Juan, I said, was a most beauteous boy,

And had retain’d his boyish look beyond 

The usual hirsuite seasons which destroy,

With beards and whiskers, and the like, the fond

Parisian aspect which upset old Troy

(9.53) 

In this excerpt, Byron calls attention to the way in which facial hair is read as an index of masculinity and how Juan’s lack of this sign arbitrarily signifies a lack of masculinity. Thus, the resulting “boyish” androgyny—the ambiguous state between manhood and effeminate prepubescence—facilitates Juan’s oscillating gender performance.

This fluctuation of gender performativity can be seen, for example, in Canto II of Don Juan. Byron writes that Juan thought, “While his salt tears dropp’d into the salt sea, / ‘Sweets to the sweet’”(130-131). The narrator then clarifies that he is alluding to a line uttered by Shakespeare’s Gertrude, who says this in Hamlet when she scatters flowers over the grave of Ophelia. Here, Juan is feminized by his tears—a performative action which indexes femininity, as exemplified by Gertrude. Fourteen stanzas later, Juan performs heroic masculinity when he takes up two pistols to guard the liquor cabinet. When the crew beseeches him for “grog,” he replies, “’No! / ‘T is true that death awaits both you and me, / But let us die like men, not sink below / Like brutes.’”(282-285). With these contrasting actions, Byron portrays how the perception of gender is fostered, not by biological sex, but by performative action. To cry is to be a woman; to die stoically sober is to be a man; yet, to do both in succession is to display the absurdity of such significations. 

Perhaps the most notable exemplification of gender performativity in Don Juan is in Canto V, when Juan explicitly performs womanhood. In this performance, “youth and features favour’d the disguise” (5.115), yet it is the performative manner and dress which are the disguise itself. The superficiality of these signs and the way in which they are so easily appropriated indicates the absurdity of taking them as the signification of an essential identity. It’s notable that Byron foregrounds a eunuch, Baba, a so-called “neutral personage / Of the third sex” (5.26), to facilitate Juan’s metamorphosis into a woman. Baba’s androgyny implies that the narrative exists in a world of gender ambiguity, for the existence of a third sex suggests a correlative dissolution of a definitive gender binary. The presence of the eunuch, along with the multiple references to circumcision and castration, also serves to highlight the difference between physical sex and performative gender. When Juan complains that if he puts on the dress he’ll be “unsex’d,” Baba warns that if he refuses he’ll be castrated, or literally “unsex’d.”(598) Thus, Byron expilicitly differentiates between sex and gender: sex as an anatomically determined state which can only be altered through material intervention; gender, in contrast, as a willfully affected performance. Because sex is inherent to the body, castration is necessarily a subtraction; in contrast, gender is supplemental to the body—an accumulation of socially-determined indexical signs, such as the dress. Byron suggests the constructedness of this process of accumulation by having Juan build up the mask of femininity so successfully that he becomes sexually desirable to a supposedly heterosexual man. The Sultan—whose heterosexuality is emphasized by lengthy descriptions of his wives, harem, and preponderance of children—calls Juan “pretty” at the end of the Canto (1240).

To be made “pretty”, Juan has to be systematically feminized. He puts on a silk dress, a “virgin zone,” (611) and lace. Just as a beard is a sign of masculinity, Baba notes that Juan’s hair is not long enough to signify femininity. Nonetheless, Baba easily “found / So many false long tresses all to spare, / That soon his head was most completely crown’d” (5.79). The absurd speciousness of long hair as a  sign of femininity is therefore implied by the ease with which it is imitated. To complete Juan’s feminization, Baba gives the following advice:

‘If you could just contrive,’ he said, ‘to stint 

‘That somewhat manly Majesty of Stride, 

‘T would be as well, and – (though there’s not much in’t) 

‘To swing a little less from side to side, 

‘Which has at times an aspect of the oddest; 

‘And also could you look a little modest…’

(5.91)

This excerpt suggests that the mannerisms which supposedly index gender are easily manipulated and performed and that gender is therefore an amalgamation of external performative elements. Just as Juan performs the “manly majesty of Stride,” he can also perform its implied opposite. 

In stanza 99, when the narrator refers to a choir of girls, “ten or a dozen,” who “were all clad alike; like Juan, too, / Who wore their uniform, by Baba chosen” (5.99). Here, Byron suggests that it is not merely Juan who is performing femininity as if it is a “uniform,” but also the rest of the maids. Their gendered appearance is not “chosen” by them, nor is it a manifestation of an inherent essence. Rather, the Sultana’s servant, Baba—an agent of sociopolitical power—imposes gender upon those subjects. Baba, as an appendage of cultural ideology, is shown to be the true catalyst of gender convention. Thus, throughout Don Juan, Byron subverts the archetypal coming of age journey established by Virgil, rejecting the teleology of boyhood to manhood in favour of a cyclical journey of oscillating gender performance. Byron epic world is one in which gender is fluid and therefore not determinant of identity.

Another text in which performative identity is shown to be a specious indication of an essential identity is the incomplete drama, The Deformed Transformed. The play’s narrative and thematic concerns are centered around the possibility of an individual being able to change bodies. This scenario calls attention to the meagre extent to which the nature of the self is legible in the body. In Manfred, Byron writes that man is but “half dust half deity” (301). In other words, “man” is a creative agent housed in an ephemeral body which in no way signifies his true identity. For if divinity may materially manifest as a body, as dust, it follows that the physical self is a gross misrepresentation of identity. Byron is similarly concerned with this notion in The Deformed Transformed. In the drama, the body is referred to as “clay” eight times—perhaps most notably when Satan/Caesar says to Arnold, “Clay thou art; and unto spirit / All clay is of equal merit” (456). Thus, the body, or the man, is clay: a set of possibilities to be continuously molded by the spirit. The “deity,” or the spirit, is the will, the being which is ontologically inseparable from doing.

The potential for the body to mislead through performance is suggested from the onset of Satan/Caesar’s entrance. Consider the following exchange:

Arnold: What would you? Speak! 

Spirit or man? 

Stranger: As man is both, why not 

Say both in one? 

Arnold: Your form is man’s, and yet 

You may be devil.

(1.1)

Thus, Satan is shown to be able to effectively perform manhood, despite his veritable inhumanity. As he says later in act III.I, the body is simply a “form [he] wear[s]” (89). Furthermore, Arnold is shown to be ignorant of the fact that he himself is both spirit and man, that he too wears his form just as the “Stranger” wears his, just as the maids in Don Juan wear their “uniform” of femininity. This misconception is what leads Arnold to believe that by taking on the form of Achilles—one of the archetypal manly-men offered for his spirit’s inhabitation—he may become truly heroic. All the same, the body is only the clay to be molded by the spirit. So, while certain bodies may facilitate certain performative actions, this performance does not necessarily index the signified which we are conditioned to read. Satan’s power is not manifest in his assumed form, just as Arnold’s weakness is not manifest in his. 

Beyond the realm of characterization, Byron calls attention to the performativity of the poetic voice, suggesting that the poetic voice is a performative (and therefore specious) sign of the poet’s identity. This is largely achieved in works such as Beppo and Don Juan through conspicuously interjectional digressions by the narrator. This digressional tendency calls attention to Byron’s view of semantic epistemology. Paul M. Curtis writes, “That a sentence describes a fact may be true, but it is still a sentence first and exists apart from an inherent truth. Digression holds up (and delights in) this discontinuity between world, where we perform, and words, where that performance is verbalized.”(20). In other words, text is a material entity—like a dress, a beard, or manner of walking—which is necessarily performative. Through digression, Byron calls attention to this performativity of the poetic voice by emphasizing the labour of the creative act. These digressions disallow the reader’s immersion in narrative, creating a bathetic disrupting in the illusion of reality generally posited by fiction. Thus, the poet’s performance is foregrounded and his labourious creative action is shown to be inseparable from his creation. Furthermore, the nature of this poetic performance is shown to be dictated by the conventions of poetry in much the same way that the performance of gender is shown to be dictated by its conventions. For example, the narrator says: 

To turn – and to return, the Devil take it! 

This Story slips forever through my fingers, 

Because, just as the Stanza likes to make it, 

It needs must be, and so it rather lingers; 

This form of verse began, I can’t well break it, 

But must keep time and tune like public singers;

(Beppo 497-502)

here, the narrator elucidates the way in which his performance is contingent upon his choice of meter. Just as the substance of “public singers’” performances are externally dictated, so too is Byron confined by various externally imposed expectations. This contradicts the heroic notion of the spontaneity of poetic creation promoted by so many Romantic poets. Coleridge, for example, compares the poet to an Aeolian Harp, from whom the poetic voice flows as naturally as the wind. In Coleridge’s model, the poetic voice is a sort of ejaculation of an essential poetic identity. Nevertheless, by calling attention to the contingency of the poetic voice, Byron reveals how the essential poetic identity is merely a phantasm indexed by poetic performance. An essential poetic identity does not generate the poetic voice by virtue of an inherent artistic fecundity; rather, the poetic identity is constructed through the performance of the poetic voice.

The action of Beppo is particularly conducive to the exposition of this poetic performativity. The setting of the masked ball suggests a world of affected identities because the masks—such as Beppo’s performative mask of Turkishness—spill beyond the setting of condoned masquerade. The poetic voice explicitly claims affinity with the world of the masquerade. Regarding the Ridotto, the narrator says:

… I mean to go myself to-morrow,

Just to divert my thoughts a little space,

Because I’m rather hippish, and may borrow 

Some spirits, guessing at what kind of face 

May lurk beneath each mask…

(506-510)

Here, the poetic voice, the masked Byron, is figured as another character, materially present within the space of the narrative. Given the extent to which each character is wearing a performative mask throughout the poem, the reader is encouraged to wonder “what kind of face may lurk beneath” the narrator’s mask. Or, rather, who is Byron the man, behind the “Byron” whose identity is performed as the poetic voice?

This Byron-as-poetic-voice is perhaps even more prevalent in Don Juan. Once again, consider the opening line of the Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano….” (translation: “I sing of arms and the man.”). The poet is immediately foregrounded by the use of the first person “cano.” Byron similarly begins his epic in the first person: “I want a hero.”(1). Nonetheless, as opposed to the Aeneid, in which the hero is figured as a predetermined subject, Byron emphasizes the fact that the creation of a hero is a labourious and performative act which must be undertaken by the epic poet. Virgil’s voice, though embodied, is vivified by the muses to sing a song supposedly predetermined by history. Virgil hides the labour, thereby hiding the performativity; Byron emphasizes the labour and exposes the performativity. Byron writes, for example, in the third stanza that certain heroes were “Exceedingly remarkable at times, / But not at all adapted to my rhymes.” (23-24). He goes on to write: 

Most epic poets plunge in ‘media res’,

(Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road)

That is the usual method, but not mine – 

My way is to begin with the beginning; 

The Regularity of my design 

Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning, 

And therefore I shall open with a line 

(Although it cost me half an hour in Spinning)

(41-54)

The reader is therefore made aware of the performativity of poetic creation — how the epic poet (or the satirical poet, for that matter) is a typological identity which is not inherent, but may nonetheless be performed by the emission of signs established by archetypes like Horace and Virgil. Byron’s poetry is perennially laced with this sort of metafictional interjection, always disallowing the reader from being immersed in narrative as something independent of its narration.

In summary, Byron elucidates the performativity of identity formation on all levels of text—in authorship, narration, and character. Race, gender, authorhood, and various other categories of identity are shown to be constructed by individuals through their emission of culturally determined indexical signs. Thus, in his works, Byron reveals the fallaciousness of the ontological assumptions that inform our inclination to read bodies and texts as symptomatic of an abiding essential self. His world is one in which an individual must constantly navigate their social interactions (including the intercourse between author and reader) as if they were a game or an act of theatre replete with costumes, makeup, and masks, both literal and figurative. Yet for all the horror and uncertainty inherent to such deceptive reality, Byron shows us that it can also be one of remarkable playfulness and revolutionary liberality.  

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon Lord Byron, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan, and Willis Winslow Pratt. Don Juan. Penguin, 1977.

Byron, George Gordon Lord Byron. “The Deformed Transformed.” Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works 6, 1977, 517-77.

Byron, George Gordon Lord Byron. Beppo: A Venetian Story. John Murray, 1818.

Judith Butler. “Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory.” Theatre journal, Vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, 519-531.

Cochran, Peter. Byron’s European Impact. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.

Paul M Curtis. “Byron’s Beppo: Digression and Contingency.” The Dalhousie Review, Vol 73. no. 1, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Penguin Random House, 2010.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “Logic as Semiotic: The theory of signs.” Philosophical writings of Peirce, Dover, 1902.

Comments are closed.