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Teaching Romanticism XXVI: Drama, part 2

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This eight-part issue was edited by Dana Van Kooy.

Diane Piccitto (Mount Saint Vincent University): Teaching Blake’s Illuminated Books Performatively, or How to Do (Dramatic) Things with Blake

Abstract: William Blake’s Illuminated Books appear to stand outside the dramatic genre. However, taking The Book of Urizen as a case study, this article interprets these works as dramatic and performative, providing an alternative way to analyze Blake’s art form in the classroom and beyond.


William Blake may seem a strange choice for the topic of “Teaching Romantic-period Drama,” especially since he did not write much by way of conventional playtexts. Indeed, I will not discuss, as one might assume, what he did write along these lines: neither his early aborted plays King Edward the Third, Prologue to King Edward the Fourth, and King John (collected in Poetical Sketches [1783]) nor the completed, though brief, The Ghost of Abel (1822), which is deliberately structured as a drama and explicitly responds to Byron’s mystery play Cain (1821).[1] Instead, I examine the pedagogic potential for teaching the dramatic nature of the Illuminated Book, a composite art form that Blake employed for much of his poetic output, through the lens of performativity. While J. L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words (1962), forecloses the possibility of including theatre in his study of the linguistic performative—despite the theatricality of the ritualized environment of some of his illustrations, for example, the script of a marriage ceremony—Judith Butler, who helped usher in a more expansive view of the performative, pointedly acknowledges her debt to both linguistic and theatrical performativity in her constructivist work on gender and identity.[2] My approach to teaching Blake’s hybrid medium of the Illuminated Book, then, invokes the performative in the sense of drama, theatre, performance, embodiment, action, and speech, as well as the efficacy of this performativity.

The hybridity of Blake’s Illuminated Books makes them both an attractive object of analysis as well as a challenging one. Jean Hagstrum called the medium a “composite art,” a term popularized by W. J. T. Mitchell, who used it in his 1978 study of Blake’s art form.[3] For scholars and students alike, Blake’s Illuminated Books are notoriously difficult not only to interpret but also to engage—perhaps with the exception of The Songs of Innocence and of Experience.[4] Blake’s use of a multimedia form that combines poetry, painting, and engraving distinguishes him from many other Romantic writers and creates different kinds of complications for his audience. In addition to other obstacles, such as Blake’s invention of his own arcane mythology, this formal complexity represents a pertinent problem for how to teach Blake in the classroom, especially given that the visual images cannot be viewed simply as illustrative.

Like most teachers of Blake today, I always include a discussion of the composite nature of the text we are examining, made convenient by the existence of The William Blake Archive. Over the years, I have found that students—especially in the early stages of their studies—seem more comfortable discussing and/or more forthcoming in discussions of visuality and visual images (from painting to cinema) than textuality and passages from a literary text. I put this cultural proficiency to use when I teach Blake’s works in order to help students acquire more confidence when reading and writing about these challenging texts. In this respect, his composite art form becomes a boon rather than a disadvantage in the classroom. My own fascination with Blake was inspired by his provocative combination of image and text, alongside the boldness and revolutionary force of his works from the “Proverbs of Hell” to figures such as Orc ensconced in flames. The more I immersed myself in Blake’s universe, the more I was drawn to this dynamic energy, which I struggled to label. Identifying this energy became possible as I learned that Romantic drama extended beyond the so-called “mental theatre” of Byron and P. B. Shelley[5] and as I began noticing a trend in Blake scholarship of making passing references to his work as dramatic and performative.[6] Only recently has the first full-length study examining Blake and theatre appeared: Susanne Sklar’s Blake’s Jerusalem as Visionary Theatre: Entering the Divine Body (2011). My research on the subject has been most extensively developed in Blake’s Drama: Theatre, Performance, and Identity in the Illuminated Books (2014).[7]

An important consequence of examining Blake’s composite art in the context of drama and theatrical performance is that it offers a different interpretation of the role of the senses, the body, and action in his works. Conventionally seen as subordinate to the mind and the immaterial, I argue that these elements are, in fact, on par with one another or, put more accurately, intimately tied together. It is important to note that Blake embraced a consistently dramatic (rather than lyrical) vision in the Illuminated Books, including the poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. His works often feature a cast of characters or depict at least one speaking voice, not always aligned with Blake himself. Songs of Innocence includes dramatic monologues in poems such as “The Lamb,” “The Chimney Sweeper,” and “Infant Joy” while the whole collection includes dramatic dialogues in poems such as Innocence’s “The Little Black Boy” and in Experience’s “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Clod and the Pebble.” Additionally, Blake creates more abstract dialogues between poems: for example, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” are paired in opposition to one another whereas the Bard in the “Introduction” to Experience calls on the Earth and receives his reply in the subsequent poem, “Earth’s Answer.” Blake’s more involved prophecies, from The Book of Thel to Jerusalem, further develop this dramatic impulse. For instance, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell emphasizes multi-vocality in its opening poem, its proverbs, the speaker’s dialogues with devils and angels as well as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, and its final poem, which contains a Chorus. Even when Blake includes himself in his poems, he does so in a way that is anything but lyrical. Specifically, he casts himself as a character, rather than, like Wordsworth, appearing to offer insight regarding authorial interiority. In The Marriage, he may very well be the speaker, as is indicated by the reference to thirty-three years prior to the production of the work (referencing the year of Blake’s birth), but he is also just one of many characters in the text, which is also the case in Milton in both the text and the designs (see, for instance, plate 29 labelled “William”).[8] Indeed, the visual component—the graphic space in which Blake embodies characters and action—amplifies the dramatic nature of the Illuminated Book.

In what follows, I present a brief case study of The [First] Book of Urizen, an adaptation of Genesis, to illustrate one approach to discussing the theatrical and performative nature of Blake’s Illuminated Books in the classroom.[9] While Urizen has very little spoken dialogue, it does have a large number of full- and partial-page designs, making it a particularly good example of a theatrical text. In 2012, I taught an undergraduate seminar on the drama of the long nineteenth century, exploring a variety of dramatic forms (tragedy, comedy, gothic, adaptation, melodrama, pantomime, closet drama, dramatic monologue, monodrama, as well as one of Baillie’s Plays on the Passions and one of Shaw’s so-called plays unpleasant).[10] As I was working on Blake’s Drama at the time, I made the most of this opportunity by including Urizen as representative of the rich range of dramatic texts in the period. The inclusion of Blake provided us with the singular chance to explore the way a playwright visualized and staged his work. This course positioned Blake concretely in the context of theatre and performance (rather than more broadly in Romanticism), creating avenues for comparisons that are typically almost inconceivable. What follows are strategies for teaching Urizen, which can be applied to any of the Illuminated Books. This approach has been shaped by my research interests and my teaching of Blake; these strategies include the identification and analysis of dialogue, performative imagery in the text and designs (including theatrical tropes, actions of characters, and Blake’s self-dramatization), and the sequence and arrangement of the plates (within a single copy and from copy to copy, the latter of which speaks to issues of adaptation, inclusion and exclusion, as well as the different effects of colour and composition).

Urizen is a special case in terms of its dialogue. There are only three sections that can be identified as speech: the speaker’s response to “hear[ing]” the “call” of the “Eternals,” Urizen’s “utter[ance of] / Words articulate,” and the Eternals who command the erection of the tent of science.[11] Urizen’s speech on plate 4 is significant in that it is the only example in this text of a character disclosing his internal workings—his “Self-closd, all-repelling” state, demarcated by his several iterations of the pronoun “I”—and his view of the circumstances in which he finds himself with the Eternals, rather than gleaning these simply from the actions described.[12] Moreover, as the Introduction to Urizen in the Blake Archive notes, the plate “appears only in Copies A-C,” creating a substantial distinction between copies that include it and copies that exclude it.[13] The effect of this omission can be understood along the same lines as the omission of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy or Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy from a performance, and it is even more significant in that this is the only time Urizen speaks. His depiction in the graphic space also affects our understanding of Urizen as well as his relationship to other characters. Blake makes specific casting choices for his characters—as a director does for a playtext—embodying Urizen as an old man with long, white, straight hair and beard and Los as a more youthful man with short, dark, curly hair (and no beard). The Eternals seem to consist of figures that echo one of these two characters—see plate 15, which sometimes includes four figures, two that resemble Los and two that resemble Urizen creating a balance between the two forces (as in Copy G), and sometimes three figures, one that resembles Los flanked by two that resemble Urizen, in this instance, placing an emphasis on the Urizenic element of the Eternals.[14] These casting choices prompt a questioning of the symbolism of age and youth and to what extent these markers affect the way we view these characters. What is more, in Copy A, Los is depicted in a Urizenic state on plate 16: his knees are up under his chin and his hands are behind his head as he hovers in front of a backdrop of flames, but his features include a long, white beard along with streaks of white in his hair, as if he is morphing into Urizen or inhabiting both bodies/identities at once.[15] Some copies omit this plate altogether, while Copies B and G do not include the Urizenic features, thereby presenting different interpretations of the conflict between Los and Urizen.

In addition, Blake includes a full-page design of a weeping Urizen seated with knees up and eyes closed (plate 22).[16] In Copy A, this plate appears early, right after the Preludium, which presents us with the pathos of Urizen’s circumstances before we are presented with the narrative proper (compared with other copies in which the plate appears much later in the sequence). Many of the other copies conclude with plate 28, which includes the final lines of the work on the top half and Urizen caught in a net on the bottom half.[17] However, Copy A includes a tailpiece depicting Urizen turned away from us with his hands held up by his head, sometimes touching what appears to be a sun or vortex (this plate appears earlier in the sequence in other copies),[18] suggesting he continues his work of “launching his new world” despite the exodus of his children in the final lines of the text.[19] This plate also signals the increased isolation of Urizen and the audience. We can no longer see his face, reflecting a failure of (in-)sight; Urizen turns away, and we cannot reposition ourselves to see him again. Significantly, the text imposes this alienated positionality on the characters as well as the audience to point to a deficiency of vision indicative of the fallen state. In copies where this image is not the tailpiece, Urizen seems to be wholly responsible for his predicament; he is depicted as facing forward and caught in his own net, with no immediate reference to the audience’s culpability. Copy A, then, presents us with a significantly different representation of the eponymous character, Los, and our relation to the work than other copies present. The number of copies and differences among them (which can be viewed easily thanks to the Blake Archive and its compare function) provide multiple performances of works such as Urizen, similar to the various performances that might make up a run of a theatrical production or similar to various adaptations of a certain text.

The Book of Urizen includes implicit theatrical tropes and performative imagery that further address the role characters occupy in the work and our engagement with it. When I taught it in 2012, one student offered a particularly inspired reading of the title page, seeing Urizen as a failed dramatist, as he blindly writes on tablets beside him, with the text as a whole functioning as a critique of embodied performance and Aristotelian theatre (pointing to the examples of the negative depiction of Los’s creation of Urizen’s body and of the role of pity).[20] The student read the stone tablets behind Urizen as theatre curtains, covering up a recess in the same vein as Plato’s cave, suggesting that the drama he creates is not real and does not depict truth. In this interpretation, theatrical performance is merely an imitation of life. However, I would argue that Urizen does not offer this particular hard-lined critique of theatre. It is significant that Urizen writes with his eyes closed and his ears covered (as his hair falls overtop them). This shutting out of vision and sound is arguably what makes him the wrong person for the role of dramatist, with sight and sound being key for theatrical performance and for Blake’s vision of redemption. In fact, the title page depicts the tree branches bent over to frame the title of the book and Urizen himself. So, rather than sitting in front of the theatre curtains, he is actually on stage under the proscenium arch within the dramatic space and not outside or beyond it. And Blake, as he portrays himself in the work, is the ideal dramatist, whose sense of sight and sense of sound are flagged in his role as speaker when in the Preludium he says:

Eternals I hear your call gladly,
Dictate swift winged words, & fear not
To unfold your dark visions of torment.[21]

In this self-dramatization, Blake or his authorial character “hear[s]” and sees the “dark visions” that “unfold” before him, as if he were a member of a theatre audience. The self-reflexive move goes further: we adopt Blake’s role in the Preludium when we take up The Book of Urizen and are performatively positioned before the proscenium arch of the title page, watching the spectacle of Urizen “unfold”—here, Blake has “call[ed]” us—and later hearing the sounds of the work such as Urizen’s monologue or the various “noises ruinous loud.”[22] Thus, the critique is not that theatre provides us with a mere imitation of reality; rather, the critique is of a Urizenic mode derived from faulty perception, which operates under the assumption that the performance space is divided from spectators, leading us to believe we are separate from the events on stage. In Blake’s Urizen, everyone is irrevocably implicated.

The Eternals make the mistake of believing that they can separate themselves from the drama they witness. They command:

‘Spread a Tent, with strong curtains around them
Let cords & stakes bind in the Void
That the Eternals may no more behold them’.[23]

Their performative utterance is felicitous with respect to the actual construction of this building, which resembles a theatre in the references to the “curtains” and later “large pillars,” but infelicitous in that it does not actually separate them from Urizen, Los, Enitharmon, and the others.[24] They are not independent of the fall that they witness but immersed in it. To shut out the sights and sounds of the spectacle is foolish and futile. Blake offers us the correct perspective that is full of redemptive possibility right from the beginning: he casts us as audience members and shows by example in the Preludium’s invocation scene just how we are to engage the text actively, specifically by opening our senses fully to the spectacle. The Book of Urizen, then, suggests the inexorable power of the theatre—of the activities of seeing and hearing that define theatrical spectatorship—to impact its audience and tie it to the drama on stage or, in this case, to the drama staged in the Illuminated Book.

Engaging Blake’s Illuminated Books as drama provides an alternative way to teach this Romantic poet and his complex art form, and it also provides a new way to consider Romantic performativity and drama in the classroom. The Illuminated Books make a provocative addition to the already rich and diverse kinds of theatrical performances and dramatic modes in the Romantic era, and acknowledging their performativity is yet another example of how far we now are from the limited view of Romantic drama that is bound to mental theatre and the reading closet.



Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. 2nd edn. 1962. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Rev. edn. New York: Anchor, 1988.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Byron, Lord. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Ed. Leslie A. Marchand. 13 vols. London: John Murray, 1973-94.

Erdman, David V. The Illuminated Blake: William Blake’s Complete Illuminated Works with a Plate-by-Plate Commentary. New York: Dover, 1974.

Friedman, Geraldine. “Rethinking Teachability through the Esoteric Blake.” The Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons. Special Issue: “William Blake and Pedagogy,” edited by Andrew Burkett and Roger Whitson (July 2016): n.pag. https://www.rc.umd.edu/pedagogies/commons/pedagogical_blake/pedagogies.pedagogical_blake.2016.friedman.html.

Hagstrum, Jean H. William Blake: Poet and Painter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Howard, W. Scott. “Milton and Blake—The Poetics and Praxis of Adaptation.” Teaching Blog. Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780-1840. “Teaching Romanticism XVIII: Miltonic Legacies,” edited by Brian Robert Bates, Daniel Cook, and Tess Somervell (30 January 2017): n.pag. http://www.romtext.org.uk/teaching-romanticism-xviii-miltonic-legacies/.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Piccitto, Diane. “Blake and the European (Pre)History of Melodrama: Beyond the Borders of Time and Stage.” In British Romanticism in European Perspective: Into the Eurozone, edited by Steve Clark and Tristanne Connolly, 193-209. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

—. Blake’s Drama: Theatre, Performance, and Identity in the Illuminated Books. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Sklar, Susanne. Blake’s Jerusalem as Visionary Theatre: Entering the Divine Body. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. http://www.blakearchive.org/.



[1] While the two-plate Ghost of Abel is an Illuminated Book, it is not a representative example of Blake’s composite art form, which is what I would like to address here.

[2] Austin, p. 22, and Butler pp. xxvi-xxvii.

[3] Hagstrum, p. 10.

[4] In “William Blake and Pedagogy,” a special issue of The Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons, Geraldine Friedman begins by explaining the difficulties she as a scholar shares with her students, arguably speaking to a common experience for teachers of Blake: “As a result of having long struggled with Blake myself, I am in a good position to empathize with students’ distress at not understanding his work” (par. 4).

[5] Byron, vol. 8, pp. 186-87.

[6] For examples, see my Blake’s Drama (pp. 5-6). More recently, Geraldine Friedman takes up this language when discussing the way she encourages her “students to rethink their acts of reading precisely as acts in the strong sense of the word, or, even better, experience their reading activity as dramas on the order of Blake’s poems and/or of Blake’s visionary dramas as unrolling within them. Thus, they become, as it were, dramatic characters, the ‘Visionary forms dramatic’, in the poems” (par. 9; original emphasis).

[7] In Blake’s Drama, I provide a more thorough reading of Blake’s works in the context of drama, theatre, and performance than I am able to provide here. It is gratifying to see that this approach to Blake is finding its way to the classroom. In the January 2017 blog “Teaching Romanticism XVIII: Miltonic Legacies” of Romantic Textualities, W. Scott Howard explains how he planned to include Blake’s Drama in his graduate course on adaptation by putting it in dialogue with the class’s “investigation of Blake’s cosmology and Milton: A Poem” (par. 6).

[8] Blake, Milton, plate 29, copy C. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission. I use Bentley’s numbering system when referring to visual images on specific plates.

[9] Elsewhere, I have examined the text’s relationship specifically to melodrama. See “Staging Urizen: The Melodrama of Identity Formation,” Chapter 3 of Blake’s Drama (pp. 101-42), and “Blake and the European (Pre)History of Melodrama: Beyond the Borders of Time and Stage.”

[10] A special thank you to the students in this course, held in the English Department at the University of Zurich, for embracing the opportunity to examine Blake in this framework and for the fruitful discussion that followed as a result.

[11] Blake, plate 2, line 5, page 70; 4.3-4, p. 71; 19.2-9, p. 78.

[12] Blake, 3.3, p. 70.

[13] Blake Archive, introductory material to The [First] Book of Urizen, n.pag.

[14] Blake, The Book of Urizen, plate 15, copy G. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

[15] Blake, The First Book of Urizen, plate 16, copy A. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

[16] Blake, The First Book of Urizen, plate 22, copy A. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

[17] Blake, The Book of Urizen, plate 28, copy G. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

[18] Blake, The First Book of Urizen, plate 27, copy A. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

[19] Erdman, p. 209.

[20] Blake, The First Book of Urizen, title page, plate 1, copy A. Copyright © 2017 William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

[21] Blake, 2.5-7, p. 70.

[22] Blake, 13.24, p. 77.

[23] Blake, 19.2-4, p. 78.

[24] Blake, 19.6, p. 78.

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