“Verdi’s Shakespeare” by Garry Wills

In this post, I shall be riding not just one of my hobbyhorses, but two.

Regular readers of this blog – and I flatter myself there are a few – will know that Shakespeare and Verdi are both great heroes of mine, and loom large within my cultural horizons. Indeed, these readers may well be wishing that I’d stop banging on about them for a while. But it can’t be helped. The very purpose of this blog, after all, is to bang on about things that are dear to me. So that means I will, I’m afraid, continue to bang on about both Shakespeare and Verdi, and, in particular, on the operas Verdi wrote based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas – the relatively early Macbeth, and Otello and Falstaff, the two masterpieces written in old age – aren’t adaptations, as such, of Shakespeare’s plays, or translations of those plays from one medium into another: they are, rather, entirely new works of art that take Shakespeare’s plays but as a starting point. Shakespeare himself, of course, did precisely the same thing: he took existing works and transformed them into something else. And the end-product is judged on its own terms: we do not, after all, judge Shakespeare’s Othello on how closely or otherwise it follows Giraldo Cinthio’s tale on which it was based; and, by the same token, neither should we judge Verdi’s Otello on how closely or otherwise it represents Shakespeare’s play: we must judge it on its own merits. However, for someone such as myself, a fan both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, it is fascinating to examine what Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito took from the original works, and how they transformed what they took to express their own artistic vision. So when, on a casual book-browsing session in the London bookshops, I came across a book on this very theme – Verdi’s Shakespeare by Garry Wills – I was frankly overjoyed. I couldn’t imagine why, given my interest in this subject, I had not known about this book before.

ShakespeareVerdi

The book is subtitled Men of the Theatre. Nowadays, most dramatists write their plays first, and only later, at the casting stage, are actors found suitable for the roles. But Shakespeare and Verdi both knew the actors or singers they were writing for, and would write with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. Verdi, when his opera was staged elsewhere or with a different cast, would be quite happy to make changes to suit the new singers. Of course, he was less inclined to do this as his artistic vision developed, but even for his late operas he would carefully consider the vocal strengths and weaknesses of the singers who were to sing in the premier. So, with this in mind, Wills considers the singers we know Verdi wrote for, and the actors Shakespeare is likely to have written for: what we can discern of their strengths and weaknesses can, after all, tell us much about how Shakespeare and Verdi conceived their creations.

Wills considers also doubling, and, quite often, tripling and quadrupling: given the size of Shakespeare’s troupe, and the number of characters in his plays, there would inevitably have been many cases of actors playing multiple roles; and, quite frequently, from the internal evidence of the plays, we can, at least, make intelligent guesses on some of this doubling. Quite apart from anything else, Shakespeare, as a Man of the Theatre, would have given his actors plenty of time to change costume before coming on stage as a different character, and the spacings between exits and entrances can give us important clues.

And sometimes, when the audience sees the same actor in different roles, the two roles become associated with each other in the audience’s mind. (Jane Howell made some very imaginative use of this in the superb productions of the three Henry VI plays and of Richard III she directed for BBC back in the early 80s.) On reading or watching Macbeth, we may think that Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown comes upon us too suddenly, but Shakespeare’s own audiences would have seen the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth also playing Lady Macduff only a few scenes earlier; and in that earlier scene, they would have seen Lady Macduff witnessing the slaughter of her own child, before she herself is murdered. All this, Wills argues, would have prepared the audience psychologically for the sleepwalking scene: having seen Lady Macduff in a veritable hell, the audience is now prepared to see Lady Macbeth, played by the same actor, in her own hell – albeit, this time, a hell of her own making.

Similarly with Cordelia and the Fool: the Fool is not present in the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom, and disappears well before Cordelia re-appears: it seems a reasonable conjecture that the same boy actor is playing both parts. This conjecture is strengthened given their dramatic roles: while Cordelia is absent, the Fool is present to remind Lear (and us) of the absent Cordelia; the Fool is, in effect, standing in as a sort of proxy for the missing Cordelia. And when, at the end of the play, Lear howls over Cordelia’s body “And my poor fool is hanged!” we do not need to ask whether he is grieving for the Fool or for Cordelia: he is grieving for them both, because, in the audience’s mind, the two characters have, to a great extent, been fused into one.

The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth, and Cordelia, and the Fool, was, most likely, the boy actor John Rice, and, given the extraordinarily demanding roles Shakespeare wrote for him – as well as the parts mentioned, he would have played Cleopatra, and possibly Volumnia in Coriolanus – he must have been a remarkable talent. But if Rice indeed played these roles, what part would Robert Armin have played? Armin had replaced Will Kemp as the Clown in Shakespeare’s troupe, and was renowned as a more “intellectual” comic than his predecessor; he was also himself a writer of some distinction. Furthermore, he was a major player in the acting company, and it seems unlikely that he would have been fobbed off merely with minor roles. It seems inconceivable that his part in Othello, say, would have been restricted to the almost inconsequential scene featuring an almost inconsequential clown. Wills argues that Armin was well capable of taking on dramatic roles: if he did not play the Fool in King Lear, he may quite easily have taken on Edgar in King Lear – which, despite being a dramatic role, calls for a lot of clowning; and, intriguingly, he would have been likely to take on Iago in Othello. There seems to be no other role suitable for an actor of his stature.

Of course, there is much conjecture in all this: we can never know for certain who took which role. James Shapiro, in 1616 the Year of Lear, seems certain that Armin would have played the Fool in King Lear. That, too, is conjecture, of course. From my own understanding of the play, the same actor doubling Cordelia and the Fool makes a great deal of dramatic sense, and, for that reason alone, it is towards Wills’ conjecture rather than to Shapiro’s that I find myself leaning. But, fascinating though all this may be (to me, at least!) it may justifiably be argued that all of this is too insubstantial to base critical judgement on. With Verdi, we are on safer ground: here, we are not short of documentation. We know, for instance, precisely how Verdi had imagined his Macbeth and his Lady Macbeth:

He told both principal singers, “I want the performer to serve the poet better than they serve the composer” … He went so far as to say that his singers should not sing.

This, of course, has to be put into context of the times, when fine singing tended to take precedence over the demands of drama, but from the copious documentation we have, what emerges is Verdi trying to break free from the tradition where fine singing was an end in itself, and the drama no more than a convenient vehicle for beautiful singing. On the contrary, he insisted, the singing must serve the drama, and if the drama is best served by singing that actually sounds ugly – at least by the standards of the time – then so be it. The singers he settled on for the two main roles – Felice Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini – were not, by Verdi’s own estimation, the best singers available. But, as Wills explains:

The reason Verdi did not want “fine singers” is that he doubted that he could prod such almost feral sounds from them, as he could from Varesi and Barbieri.

Although there are wonderful things in this opera that still, after multiple hearings, send shivers up my spine, it would be foolish to claim it’s among Verdi’s greatest masterpieces. What can be claimed, I think, is that Verdi was trying here to create a new kind of opera. However, when we come to Verdi’s other Shakespearean operas, Otello and Falstaff, we are in a different world. By this stage, Verdi had already created the kind of opera he had wanted in a string of masterpieces, and he was officially retired; but, for various reasons – most salient of which, one may guess, being that he never found a suitable libretto – he had not, after Macbeth, written an opera that takes his beloved Shakespeare as its source material. But now, in his 70s, the music publisher Ricordi introduced him to the accomplished young poet and composer, Arrigo Boito. It was an unlikely pairing: Verdi was the Grand Old man of Italian Arts, and, by that stage, the epitome of all that was conservative, while Boito came from a Bohemian background, and was openly rebellious, as young artists tend to be, against all that reeked of the establishment. Indeed, Boito had written some extremely indelicate verses condemning the established artistic monuments of his time, and Verdi, the most obvious establishment figure, had taken great personal exception to them. However, Boito, recognising genius even from, as it were, the enemy camp, jumped at the opportunity to work with Verdi, and Verdi himself, though cautious, must have seen something in the young Boito. First of all, Verdi asked Boito to tidy up the messy libretto of his earlier opera Simon Boccanegra. Boito did so brilliantly, prompting Verdi not merely to rewrite some of the music for that work, but to put something of his best into that re-writing. At last, Verdi had found a librettist of sufficient talent, and he knew what he wanted: he wanted to tackle Shakespeare again. This was, after all, a man who could not only read Shakespeare in the original English (as Verdi could not) – he knew Shakespeare well enough, and possessed sufficient poetic gifts himself, to have translated Antony and Cleopatra into Italian. Verdi had, at long last, found his ideal librettist.

The story of how these two very different men, from different generations, outlooks, and artistic backgrounds, overcame the various barriers between them to form what ended up as a close and affectionate friendship I find genuinely touching. The two ended up loving each other. Boito visited Verdi often, both before the passing of Verdi’s wife and after, and, shortly before his own death in 1919, wrote:

The voluntary servitude I consecrated to that just, most noble, and truly great man is the act of my life that gives me most satisfaction.

The transformation of Shakespeare’s play into the opera Otello is remarkable (I had previously written something about it here). Possibly the most striking difference is in Iago’s motivation: in Shakespeare’s play, this remains a matter of some contention (I have written my own thoughts on it here): to summarise, Iago gives us two possible motives – first, that he was passed over for promotion, and second, that he suspects his own wife with Othello; but the two motives seem to negate each other: it’s almost as if Iago can’t decide why he hates Othello so much. It’s not so much that his hatred has sprung from his motives, but, rather, that his hatred itself has been his starting point, and that he has to keep supplying himself with motives to justify that hatred. But in the opera, Boito gives Iago a monologue that has absolutely no equivalent at all in Shakespeare’s play. The opening lines of this monologue is a blasphemous parody of the Credo from the Latin mass:

Credo in un Dio crudel
che m’ha creato simile a sè
e che nell’ira io nomo.

I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.

(Translation by Aaron Green. See here for full text and translation of this monologue.)

Iago – or Jago, in Boito’s libretto – is not really a nihilist, as has often been claimed: he believes in a God all right. But the God he believes in is an evil God, a cruel God, as nothing else could explain why he, Jago, had been created in such a way. Jago, in pursuing evil, is but serving the God he believes in – the only God he can believe in.

It is a frightening picture, and Verdi clothes this monologue in the most terrifying music. For Verdi took Jago very seriously. He insisted repeatedly that Jago must not be a traditional mustachio-twirling villain. Sadly, in just about every performance I have heard, that is precisely what Jago ends up being. In every performance and recording I am acquainted with (bar only one) Jago ends his monologue with a villainous laugh. This laugh is not written in the score, and, as Wills rightly reminded us, Verdi had previously insisted that the tubercular heroine of La Traviata should not cough, and that the jovial Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera should not laugh, even at the point where he says he is laughing: these things are all communicated by the music. So how likely is it that Verdi would have approved of Jago laughing – especially when, with that laugh, he emerges as the pantomime villain that Verdi most certainly had not intended?

Towards the end of this monologue, Verdi inserts a few pauses in the music: this is not, as often appears to be the case in performance, because Jago is teasing the audience, delaying giving them answers that he already knows: quite the contrary – the pauses indicate that Jago is thinking. The conclusion he arrives at – that life is meaningless and heaven an old wives’ tale – is a difficult one, even for him, and it costs him a great effort of will to get there. When Verdi first saw this passage of Boito’s libretto, he was ecstatic, and described it as “Shakespearean”. It is a bit of a mystery why he did so: Verdi must surely have known that there was nothing like this in Shakespeare’s play. I’d hazard a guess that Verdi described this as Shakespearean because, as so often in Shakespeare’s plays, we see here a character in the process of thinking. He is not just expressing things that he has already thought out, and neither is he simply giving vent to his emotions: we see him actually in the process of formulating his thoughts. To diminish this to merely pantomime villainy seems to me frankly inexcusable.

Verdi’s conception of Otello is also remarkable. Looking around the net, I often find individual performances praised for communicating an animalist ferocity in Otello, or, conversely, criticized for not communicating an animalist ferocity, but from Verdi’s own recorded correspondence, animalistic ferocity was precisely what he didn’t want: not consistently, at least. He had grave doubts about engaging Francesco Tamagno for the role, worried that Tamagno always sang “with a full voice”, whereas the role, in Verdi’s opinion, required far greater subtlety and shading. This is not to rule out ferocity at certain points, but it does mean there is far more to this role than blasting off the roof beams with sheer volume and power. Victor Maurel, who sang Jago in the premier (and later also sang Falstaff) had similar reservations about the can belto approach to the role of Otello; he later wrote:

The ideal of vocal power necessary for Otello was provided with astonishing intensity by the creator of the role, Francesco Tamagno. But we think it dangerous to instil in the minds of Italian interpreters of Otello the idea that this kind of extraordinary vocal power is a condition sine qua non of a great interpretation.

Verdi, as usual, personally coached the singers himself very thoroughly, but sadly, the premier was too early for recordings, and what recordings we have of Tamagno singing passages from the opera were made many years afterwards, and, though spellbinding, they don’t necessarily reflect Verdi’s instructions. Those we can only conjecture from the documentary evidence we have.

Verdi had intended Otello to be his swan song: he had already officially retired once, was now well into his 70s, and had composed what was self-evidently a masterpiece. But presumably, working with Boito on another Shakespearean project proved too great a temptation. And this time, the opera was to be a comedy – his first comic opera since his very first work Un Giorno di Regno, which had flopped disastrously some fifty years earlier and had never since been revived. The source this time was The Merry Wives of Windsor, by common consent among Shakespeare’s lesser works, but which, if somewhat lacking in depth and in artistic vision, remains nonetheless, it seems to me, a charming and delightful work, full of laughs and good humour. Boito took this somewhat unwieldy comedy, thinned out the plot and the number of characters, enriched the concoction by adding some passages taken from the magnificent Henry IV plays, and created a witty and enchanting libretto that a composer of operas could only dream about.

If we leave out his first opera, Verdi had no experience of writing a comic work. But you wouldn’t think so from listening to this. The music conjured up by the aged Verdi, now approaching his 80s, is full of youthful zest, warm-heartedness, and a love of that life he knew he must leave sooner rather than later. It’s almost as if he had too many melodic ideas to fit into just one work, so he crammed in as many as he could: the result is that we hear not so much fully developed melodies, but, rather, scraps of melodies: almost before we have had the opportunity to take in any of the melodies fully, Verdi’s inexhaustible imagination has rushed off somewhere else, and is presenting us with some new scrap of tune. The orchestration, as witty as the libretto, is also constantly changing from moment to moment; the harmonies, too, are never allowed to settle. The headlong rush is irresistible. The counterpoint is extraordinarily intricate, and it is exhilarating – never more so than in the finale, a fugue which never seems fusty or academic, but is, instead, full of vigour and of the sheer joy of being alive. In Verdi’s long life, he had been no stranger to personal tragedy, but he left us at the end with the most joyous of love letters to life: there is no other work I can think of that is so full of the sheer unadulterated joy of just being alive. It is indeed a miracle. And once again, I don’t think there is anything quite like this in Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s joy was, all too often, soaked in the deepest melancholy. But here, although the note of autumnal melancholy does occasionally creep in, that is by no means the principal tonality. Once again, Boito and Verdi had taken Shakespeare as a starting point, and had transformed it into something entirely new.

Throughout the book, Gary Wills is a knowledgeable and reliable guide to these astonishing acts of artistic transformation. He is steeped in the worlds both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, and writes knowledgeably and with great insight on their respective creative imaginations. And he communicates, without gushing, his enthusiasm for these works. After reading this book, I found myself reaching once again for Shakespeare’s plays and – given that I can’t read the scores – recordings of the operas. And both the plays and the operas are self-renewing works: with each revisit, they appear as something new.

I don’t know how many readers have stayed with me to the end of what has turned out to be a very long post on matters that are, I know, only of minority interest, but in case one or two have, I would recommend this book without reservation. And then I would then recommend immersion in Shakespeare’s plays, and in those extraordinary operas Verdi and Boito fashioned from them. Even if you end up being an obsessive like me, there are, I’d contend, worse things to be obsessed with.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Although there are wonderful things in this opera that still, after multiple hearings, send shivers up my spine, it would be foolish to claim it’s among Verdi’s greatest masterpieces.

    Well, call me a fool, but I’ve felt since the first time I heard it (what, forty years ago now?) that it was among his masterpieces, certainly the earliest of them. Verdi himself had what Francis Toye called “an especial fondness” for it. I have sometimes felt when listening to it that it, or its best parts at any rate, can hold their own with Shakespeare. I doubt anyone will follow me that far, but I think it gets far too little respect, simply because it’s an “early work.” Fie on chronology, say I! Look at Mendelssohn! At any rate, thanks for a typically thoughtful and insightful post, and I’ll have to look out for the book.

    Reply

    • I should have phrased that bit better, shouldn’t I? 🙂

      I remember once in a record shop in Edinburgh getting into a conversation many years ago with a Verdi fan who told me “There’s Early Verdi, Middle Verdi, Late Verdi – but no such thing as Bad Verdi”. Once again I don’t know I’d go that far: indeed, I’m pretty damn sure I wouldn’t! But I did enjoy his enthusiasm.
      I hope I can get away with saying that Verdi himself is not consistently at his best in this work! But yes, Verdi’s Macbeth is indeed a masterpiece. And at its best, it’s on a par with anything Verdi has done. Ijust have to think back on Maria Callas’ recording of “la luce langue”, and I’m convinced!

      Reply

  2. Wills doesn’t recommend a translation of the libretti, by any chance?

    Reply

    • Sadly, no. I have always relied on the booklets you get with the recordings (at least, the booklets you used to get with recordings before the record companies started penny-pinching) that printed the original libretto and translations side by side. However, the Opera Guides published by the English National Opera are reputed to have good translations (here, too, the original text and the translated text are printed side by side). These guides also come with a few essays on the various aspect of each work. There’s a guide for Otello (https://www.librarything.com/work/164246 ) and one for Falstaff (https://www.librarything.com/work/388436 ).

      Even as a non-Italian speaker, it’s worthwhile looking over at the original. Fenton’s aria at the start of the last scene, for instance, is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet (in iambic pentameters, with an abba abba cde cde rhyming scheme): you can’t really get that in a translation!

      Reply

  3. Your wonderful posting convinces me that I need to add this one to my upcoming reading list; moreover, everything I’ve read by Garry Wills has been a great experience. Now, before I dash off to buy the book, I thank you for your great posting/review/commentary. I just now stumbled upon your blog, and I look forward to stopping by again in the future. All the best from a life-long reader (and former performer) of Shakespeare.

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome! May I be a bit nosey and ask a bit about where, and what, you performed? I have absolutely nothing to do with the theatre, other than as a spectator, and I find anything of a theatrical nature fascinating. I’m afraid my Shakespeare obsession is all too apparent on this blog!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Himadri: Once upon a time in a distant galaxy, I was involved for more than a decade in academic, community, and regional theater, mostly as a designer and occasionally as a director but sometimes as a performer (e.g., A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970; Twelfth Night in 1971; Pericles in 1972); but all of that is ancient history because I had to do something more sensible in the mid-70s: stop being hungry and begin earning a living.

      • Ah .. that “earning a living” bit always gets in the way, doesn’t it? To be able to afford to do all the things you want to do you, have to ensure you don’t have time to do them…
        😉

  4. I would like to pursue something with Verdi like I did with Wagner. But the Wagner project depended on having the right book. Thanks for the links to the Opera Guides – maybe several of those together would be the equivalent of the book I am imagining.

    Reply

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