Why the Reader Identifies with Manfred
(And Why It's Perfectly Okay)
Lord Byron's Manfred is a character at the same time powerful and helpless, possessing both the ability to control the mortal and spirit realms and shame over the paths he has chosen to take with that power. It is this duality, this juxtaposition of darkness and morality that makes him so attractive to the reader. Manfred's duality gives him dimension, and it is this dimension that gives him reality and proximity to the reader despite the mystical nuances of the play. Within each of his two sides, he embodies several important human states. In darkness, Manfred holds power, rebellion, and strength, and in goodness, he holds humility, and tenderness, and the ability to admit guilt. Each of these characteristics speaks to the reader like echoes of his own voice, and it is in this recognition of himself that the reader is most attracted to the character.
The character of Manfred appears at first glance to be purely an entity of darkness. He consorts with spirits and demons, conjuring ungodly powers, spurning the mortal world that bore him. He admits that "(his) spirit walk'd not with the souls of men, nor look'd upon the earth with human eyes…(his) joys, (his) griefs, (his) passion, and (his) powers, made (him) a stranger; though (he) wore the form, (he) had no sympathy with breathing flesh…with men, and with the thoughts of men, (he) held but slight communion." (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 51-61) He has caused the death of the only person for whom he ever felt communion, and even in his tormented grief he refuses the helping hand of commoner, witch, and priest. He seems a cold, stark, misanthropic brooder, the sort one might expect to find pacing in front of a blazing yet somehow warmthless fire in a long, empty stone hall.
Yet it is Manfred's very brooding darkness that makes him attractive. As a child is drawn to touch a flame even when he discovers that it is too hot to approach, the reader is drawn to Manfred because he is dangerous. This danger belongs to a world unknown to the typical reader, and, safe in his big cushy chair, he is curious to read on, to find out more about this unknown world. He witnesses, transfixed, as Manfred raises up the seven spirits, as they demonstrate their power, and as Manfred, uncowed, confronts them. He reads on as Manfred faces cliff, witch, and even the "prince of Earth and Air…in his hand the sceptre of the elements, which tear themselves to chaos…from his glance the sunbeams flee…his shadow is the Pestilence….and planets turn to ashes at his wrath…to him War offers daily sacrifice; to him Death pays his tribute; Life is his, with all its infinite of agonies…" (Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 1-15) In only reading this description, the reader is frightened; Manfred handles all of this terror with hardly a tremble, or, if he "is convulsed--This is to be a mortal and seek the things beyond mortality. Yet, see, he mastereth himself, and makes his torture tributary to his will." (Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 158-161) It is a way of life the reader doesn't know and wouldn't want to know, a rebellion against those stronger than he, a dangerous life. Still, he cannot help but admire it.
Manfred is worthy of admiration, if nothing more than in deference to his personal power. He is truly the image of a noble lord as the best must once have been; strong, dignified, knowledgeable, and, somehow, mysterious and different from the common people. It is this isolation and entitlement that has allowed him to pursue his own passions, to feel himself above other mortals. He has spent many years in his studies, yet what he learned from studying is nothing compared to what he has learned from his experiences. Through the tragedy of his experience, he has learned that "sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth, the Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life." He adds that "philosophy and science, and the springs of wonder, and the wisdom of the world, (he has) essayed, and in (his) mind there is a power to make these subject to itself--but they avail not." (Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 10-17) He is without a doubt powerful, yet this power to dominate over spirit and mortal is useless to him.
Ultimately, it is not the academic knowledge nor the magical power he has practiced that holds the most meaning for him. It is love, a most human failing, and guilt over this love that ruins and defines him, not his isolated, lonely pursuits. Although one may say that his love for his sister is only an expression of his love for himself, it is more accurate to say that his sister is the only one he knows how to love. He feels so little empathy for other human beings for "nor midst the creatures of clay that girded me was there but one" who could understand him. He describes her: "she was like me in lineaments…but soften'd all, and temper'd into beauty; she had the same lone thoughts and wanderings, the quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind to comprehend the universe: nor these alone, but with them gentler powers than mine…her faults were mine--her virtues were her own--I loved her…" (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 54-55, 105-117) It is a passion he cannot resist, even after she is dead. When one of the Seven Spirits appear to him in her form, he is transformed and cries out to her, "Oh God! If it be thus, and thou art not a madness and a mockery, I yet might be most happy." (Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 188-190)
Through Manfred's love for Astarte, the reader is lead to notice other redeeming qualities about him. Although he tells the witch that he does not have tenderness, except for for Astarte, he is also careful of the well-being of others. He warns the Abbot away when he knows he may come to harm at seeing a great spirit, for "his sight may shock thine old limbs into palsy." (Act 3, Scene 3, Line 68), and he assures the Chamois Hunter that he would not trade places with him because he does not wish his own suffering on anyone else. As the Chamois Hunter replies, "and with this--this cautious feeling for another's pain, canst thou be black with evil?" (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 79-80) Manfred is respectful of the Abbot's status--"I do respect thine order, and revere thine years; I deem thy purpose pious…" (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 153-156)--and appreciative of the Chamois Hunter's simple life. He knows, however, that these things are not for him.
In this way he is humble; while striving for those higher positions within his own field of expertise, he acknowledges that he can never achieve the blissful condition, the shine of goodness of these common people.
He cannot have goodness, not in its pure and innocent sense. He knows his own shame, and it is this guilt over what he has done, over the death of his sister and the terror of the powers he has contacted that torments him. This "remorse without the fear of hell, but all in all sufficient to itself would make a hell of heaven…there is no future pang can deal that justice on the self-condemn'd he deals on his own soul." (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 70-78) Although the Abbot tries to absolve him, Manfred knows that only his own forgiveness can save him, and it is a forgiveness he is not ready to grant. He is so tormented by his grief that his only recourse lies in death. Manfred is not afraid to die. Indeed, it is a relief after all his sorrow. He is able to die independent and with a sense that his life has not been wasted because in his last hours, he realizes that he has reached a sort of transcendence, a state he has been reaching for all his life. This feeling is more than enough to give him satisfaction, although "it will not last, but it is well to have known it, though but once: it hath enlarged (his) thoughts with a new sense…" (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 14-16)
Manfred dies with the satisfaction of achievement allaying some of his guilt and torment. In pushing himself to those limits at which he can do nothing more but die, he at last grasps the understanding he seeks, a cathartic and climatic knowledge that justifies all his endeavor. The reader, at last released from the thought that he identifies with someone who seems to have only negative and immoral goals, finally allows himself to be truly attracted to him. Manfred is not so bad; he's only seeking what we all seek, a validation and a sense of exceptionality. He embodies all the strongest of passions and pursuits, as the witch addresses him, "I know thee for a man of many thoughts, and deeds of good and ill, extreme in both, fatal and fated in thy sufferings." (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 34-36) The attraction of this tragic character lies in his extremity, in his willingness to push boundaries, and in his uniqueness and individuality.