Critical Essays The Literary Background


The character of Don Juan was contributed to world literature by the Spanish writer Gabriel Tellez (1584-1648), whose pen name was Tirso de Molina, in his play El Burlador & Sevilla (The Rogue of Seville), which appeared in the early 1630s. The character of the unscrupulous seducer became a favorite with later writers, and of all literary characters Don Juan is the one who is most used, in plays, in pantomimes, and in narrative verse. Mozart's Don Giovanni is an example of the use of the Don Juan character in opera. Few other literary characters approach Don Juan in popularity. Readers and lovers of the theater seem to be fascinated by the theme of the "lady-killer." The bibliography of the Don Juan theme fills a whole volume.

How Byron became acquainted with the Don Juan legend is not known, but it would have been impossible for a well-read poet like Byron not to have become acquainted with it. In the first stanza of Canto I he writes:

I want a hero.
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan —
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the Devil somewhat ere his time.

In Byron's day a pantomime based on the Restoration dramatist Thomas Shadwell's Don Juan play, The Libertine, was frequently presented on the London stage. He could also have become acquainted with the legend through Shadwell's play or through Molière's Don Juan play, The Banquet of Stone, or through Carlo Goldoni's play, Don Juan Tenono, or through Mozart. Don Juan was a familiar public figure in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of using Don Juan as a centralizing character in an episodic poem may have been suggested to Byron by his immensely successful Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a discursive, descriptive and reflective poem that is held together by the character of Childe Harold. Byron himself was a Don Juan character and so was his spendthrift father, John Byron.

How Byron became acquainted with the Don Juan manner and form we know from his letters. A minor contemporary poet, John Hookham Frere, using the pseudonym Whistlecraft had written a poem which appeared in 1817 with the title "Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket, in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers, Intended to Comprise the Most Interesting Particulars Relating to King Arthur and His Round Table." The poem was expanded and appeared in 1818 with the title "The Monks and the Giants;" Byron was delighted with the mixture of the serious and the comic in the poem and resolved to write a digressive poem in a similar manner. The result was "Beppo." The public and Byron's friends were pleased with "Beppo," and as a result Byron decided to write a long poem using the style and the stanza he had used in "Beppo." The poem was Don Juan.