Felicia Hemans's tragedy The Vespers of Palermo (1823) dramatizes the Sicilians' struggle to free their island from the foreign domination of Charles of Anjou, culminating in their successful popular uprising of 1282. The play's narrative of events in medieval Sicily, however, also constitutes a commentary on the situation of post-Napoleonic Europe. In effect the play reßects on more general notions of liberty and tyranny, revolution, patriotism, political representation, and the roots of the national compact. More speciÞcally, it complicates issues such as the democratic process, patriotic allegiance, and an idea of community which is in many ways related to what Jrgen Habermas would term the "public sphere." The tragedy is particularly relevant because its revision of these principles took place at a time when liberal ideas were starting to take shape in the Spanish and Italian constitutional revolts of 1820-21 and in British politics. In this essay I approach Hemans's verse-drama as yet another instance of a Romantic-period displaced representation of topical political issues; but I also propose this work as a critical reßection on its own ideological materials and on the obstacles besetting any practical realization of liberal principles. Moreover, in The Vespers of Palermo this ideological elaboration is rooted in speciÞc structural and formal strategies, the most conspicuous of which is an insistence on the semantic and metaphoric Þelds of voice and sound. Through its interweaving of ideological and formal features, Hemans's tragedy throws light on the difÞculties in separating an imperializing police state from a community based on tolerance and the respect and protection of individual freedom. Hemans thus teaches her public to read the liberal project as a developing and unÞnished process.
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