The Divine Right of King Ozymandias

Once again, I find myself reminded of Mary Wollstonecraft’s work, this time by Percy Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias.” In Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she discusses “the divine right of husbands” and compares it to the “divine right of kings,” (196). As we discussed in class, this “divine right of kings” is that they were appointed by God and therefore, to question them is to question God. As a result of this right and unchecked power, kings can have an unjust, authoritarian rule. With this in mind, we can consider Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” as a sort of warning of how this “the divine right of husbands” can go wrong. The traveler in this sonnet paints a picture of this crumbled statue, “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” (l. 4-5). The face described in these lines is not one of kindness or compassion, instead the face is stern, cruel, and demanding. The traveler goes on to say, “Tell that the sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive (stamped on these lifeless things) / The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” (l. 6-8). This former King not only acted cold towards his people, but he enjoyed ridiculing them. Being a king and therefore having that divine right, King Ozymandias was able to rule with unchecked power and control. The traveler mentions that on the pedestal lies the message, “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” (l. 10-11). The irony here is that there is nothing around the statue, no kingdom, no army, just sand. In a way this shows that the unchecked power King Ozymandias had because of his divine right to rule has its consequences. Instead of a thriving kingdom that remembers him, all that is left of King Ozymandias and his rule is his own decaying statue.

2 thoughts on “The Divine Right of King Ozymandias”

  1. I found your evaluation of “Ozymandias” in conjunction with the divine right of kings interesting, especially when considering the irony of the failure of the divine right when time and nature has taken over the statue. One could also see nature itself as “divine” since many at the time believed that God created and controlled the natural world. With this idea in mind, Shelley is generating tension between power supposedly coming from the same divinity yet working against itself.

  2. Going further with this idea, do you think Shelley is implying that this divine right of kings, or perhaps even husbands, will soon come to an end? Is he saying that it must? I’m sure there is evidence that Shelley admired Wollstonecraft, and I wonder if you can argue that he is alluding to her work and her ideas here. Is the loss of the kingdom around the statue (aka the failure of kings) suggest that the ‘kingdom of the patriarchy’ with husbands in charge will also fall? Is this perhaps a positive look at a future where these tyrannical husbands are not in charge, or is it lamenting that day? Where to you think Shelley stands?

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