Verdi and Shakespeare

Rafael de Acha © 2008

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago, the arch-enemy of his professed friend Othello, hyphenated low-life, evil-incarnate, bottom-feeder, low-grade officer and greatest anti-hero of all time – obliquely hints at what makes him tick. This happens at the onset of the play, in the Venetian scene with which Verdi dispensed in his opera.

Shakespeare provides Iago with five long speeches in Act I, Scene 1. This fifth one, with a daunting 26 lines of verse gives us at the end of the scene a hint of things to come as Iago speaks to the cynical Roderigo…

O, sir, content you!
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor can all masters be truly followed…
(and later…)
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

Here is Verdi’s Iago on the same subject. It takes only eleven multi-syllabic lines by Arrigo Boito and we have the complete picture. Iago has no Roderigo here, just the audience, to which he says quite late in the play:

Credo in un Dio crudel che m’ha creato simile a se e che nell’ira Io nomo.
Dalla viltà d’un germe o d’un atomo vile so nato.
Son scellerato perche son uomo e sento il fango originario in me.
Si, questa e la mia fe:
Credo con fermo cuor, siccome crede la vedovella al tempio
Che il mal ch’Io penso e che da me procede, per mio destino adempio
Credo che il giusto e un istrion beffardo e nel viso e nel cuor,
Che tutto in lui e buggiardo: lacrima, bacio, sguardo, sacrificio ed onor
E credo l’uom, gioco d’iniqua sorte dal germe della culla al verme dell’ avel.
Vien dopo tanta irision la morte. E poi? E poi? La morte e il nulla.
E vecchia fiaba è il ciel.

Opera must make room for the music, and music takes twice as long to say essentially the same thing. When a great librettist – Arrigo Boito, in this case – manages to concisely distill the essence of a great Shakespearean character, such as Iago, the results can be nothing short of brilliant. These are Iago’s views, English:

I believe in a cruel god who made me in his image and whose name I only utter when I curse. I come from the vilest germ or atom that ever was. I am wretched because I am a man and I am made from primal mud. My faith is this: I believe with all my heart, as the little widow believes in her church, that the evil that I conceive and that comes from me I can use to serve my purposes, and that the just man is but a clown both inside and out, and that he is all lies: all his tears, all his kisses, all his looks, all his sacrifices, all his honor nothing but lies. And I believe that man is but the plaything of an unjust fate from the very germ of the cradle to the final worm in the grave. And, after all this irritation comes death. And after…? Nothing! Heaven is an old lie.

Let us look at another example of what we could call Operatic Transplantation.

Also a Shakespeare character and, unlike Iago, not a consummate genius of evil, Macbeth is an essentially simple, down to earth, unimaginative military man who is turned into a killing machine by fate, by elements of the supernatural, by an ambitious wife, and, above all, by the seeds of moral doubt and ambiguity that life can implant in the human mind.

In Shakespearean drama, character is drawn from and born out of the action. Macbeth has three witches appear to him to make three predictions about his future. As each prediction is fulfilled, the character of Macbeth is revealed, even as it is formed, quite as if it were an onion whose layers slowly peel away. This process takes time. In drama there is often plenty of time.

A Shakespeare play – and Macbeth is the shortest of all the dramas in the Canon – can run 3 to 5 hours. Only the longest of Wagner’s operas approximate or surpass that sort of running time. In the opera Macbeth by Verdi we have signpost moments along the way in which the character of Macbeth says to his audience: “This is what I think is happening to me. This is how I am reacting to it. This is what I think I need to do.” The element of surprise in opera is diminished just as the element of anticipation and tension increases in an interesting sort of trade off.

But, most important to know: the operatic character is set, partly due, no doubt, to the fact that the music is set, it has been written and that being the case that music determines the rate of speed at which the action will spin and the character will change and evolve with that action.

It is not until the second half of the Shakespeare play that Macbeth that its title character gets to speak his famous speech “To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow…” with its deeply sad reflections on the meaningless of life. In its entirety, the speech has a terrifying finality to it, as if the character were for all practical purposes divesting itself of any further pretense to humanity or compassion. And this confessional speech – typical of Shakespeare’s historical dramas – occurs moments before the final prophecy is fulfilled: Macbeth will perish at the hand of someone not of woman born.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Meanwhile, in the opera and barely into his first scene, Verdi’s Macbeth gets to comment to us in his arioso “Due vaticini compiuti or sono…” and he elaborates about his impending quandary and his amazement over the fulfillment of the first two prophecies. Verdi’s great operatic characters are great communicators- especially those of Shakespearean provenance. Verdi, fully in command of things, does not allow them to dilly-dally with reflective self-examinations.

The Verdi arioso and the Shakespearean soliloquy are not that dissimilar. There are basically four kinds of utterances a Shakespearean character can make when speaking to or by himself for an extended passage any longer than a couple of lines of verse: He or she can speak to him/her self: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

The Shakespearean character can speak to God or to the gods, to the elements, to fate, or to the cosmos, in either a generalized manner as in Lear’s “Blow winds and crack your cheeks.” or in a specific way – a prayer, for instance – such as “If this too, too solid flesh…” which Hamlet interrupts with a cry of God, God!

And, of course, a character can speak at length to a group of characters in a group or in a multitude: “Friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

And, lastly, there is the Shakespearean tirade, such as Mercutio’s “Then I see Queen Mab has been with you…” which overwhelms the characters of Romeo and Benvolio to whom it is addressed by the sheer volume of words it boasts.

In the scenes with Lady Macbeth and in his grand aria “Piettà, rispetto, onore” Macbeth questions and comments reflectively on what changes he has undergone, whereas Shakespeare’s King of Scotland delays any such intimacies with the audience until his last few moments, when Lady Macbeth and Banquo and Duncan and so many others lie dead. And then, there is a bleak sense of Beckettian inexplicability to his utterance: “Life is a tale told by a fool, Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Verdi’s Macbeth is articulate, eloquent and contradictorily noble in his acceptance of the causal relationship of deed and consequence. More a Romantic anti-hero than a nihilistic villain, he is elevated to the level of dramatic icon through the grand nobility of Verdi’s writing and Piave’s verse:

Piettà, rispetto, amore
Comforto ai di cadenti
Non spargeran d’un fiore
La tua canuta ettà!
Ne suo tuo reggio sasso
Sperar soavi accenti
Sol la bestemmia, ahi lasso!
La nenia tua sarà!

Pity, respect, love, all the comforts to one’s waning days, will not bloom a flower upon your final age, nor will your royal tomb hear soft accents spoken by it, but, instead, only curses, alas, shall be sung as your dirge!

Neither Iago, nor Macbeth, nor any of Shakespeare’s other great and infamously cruel males: Edmund, Claudius, to name but two more, manage to articulate their logic of evil the way a Sparafucile or a Grand Inquisitor or a Count di Luna do in Verdi’s great musical dramas. Not to us anyway. Claudius pours out his torment in his prayer (often cut from performances) in which he navigates the ins and outs of Catholic guilt and the possibility of redemption. But he never lets us in on why he did the dastardly deeds that precipitate the action of the play.

The Bastard son Edmund gets as close to explicability as any Verdi character ever does, with his straight-ahead opening speech – one that would make quite a baritone aria in the King Lear Verdi thought about writing:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

It is in the grand comedy of all operatic comedy that Verdi gets to take the time he needs to give the larger than life Sir John Falstaff the breathing room that both his girth and his verbosity require. In the formidably verbal L’onore…Ladri! soliloquy, Boito and Verdi make the text that in Shakespeare is merely a few lines long sing and ring in one of the all-time great baritone arias. Here the pattern is reversed, with Verdi re-composing Shakespeare with one line from Henry, two from Merry Wives, and a nip and a tuck.

Verdi’s Falstaff, a conflation of the same main characters and plot twists in both Henry IV parts and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, pilfers some gold from each one of these plays.

Both the Mondo Ladro soliloquy and the arietta Quando ero paggio make the most out of a few isolated lines of Shakespeare and expand their dramatic and musical moments lyrically and textually into brilliant moments of music theatre, instances in which time stands still and in which text and music become one.

Shakespeare does not waste time with the aftermath of Falstaff”s soggy dunking in the Thames and the Sir’s ensuing reflections, nor does he elaborate much in the few lines that make up the Honor monologue in ‘Merry Wives.’ Here they are, both of them, first Shakespeare, then Verdi:

“Honor? Thieves! You speak of honor, you cesspools of infamy, while we who deserve to, can not always do so…Yes, I, me, myself! Should I not put aside my fear of God and, out of necessity, bend the rules of honor? Should I not use stratagems and misunderstandings, deviate and circumnavigate? And you, with your duplicity and your sly looks and your rotten deceitfulness speak of honor? What honor? What honor? What honor? What nonsense! What a lie! Can honor fill up your stomachs? No. Can it remove a thorn? No! Not a foot? No! Not a finger? No! Not a hair? No! Honor is not a doctor. What is it then? A word. And what is in that word? Just air. That was nice: ‘just air! Can a dead man feel his honor? No! Does it then live with the living? Neither, nor! Because by mistake honor is fattened by flattery, corrupted by pride and dulled by slander. So I’ll have none of it!”

L’Onore! Ladri! Voi state ligi all’onor vostro, voi!
Cloache d’ignominia, quando, non sempre, noi
Possiam star ligi al nostro. Io stesso, sì, io, io,
Devo talor da un lato porre il timor di Dio
E, per necessità, sviar l’onore, usare
Stratagemmi ed equivoci, destreggiar, bordeggiare.
E voi, coi vostri cenci e coll’occhiata torta
Da gatto-pardo e i fetidi sghignazzi avete a scorta
Il vostro Onor! Che onore?! che onor? che onor! che ciancia!
Che baia! – Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia?
No. Può l’onor rimettervi uno stinco? Non può.
Né un piede? No. Né un dito? Né un capello? No.
L’onor non è chirurgo. Che è dunque? Una parola.
Che c’è in questa parola? C’è dell’aria che vola.
Bel costrutto! L’onore lo può sentire chi è morto?
No. Vive sol coi vivi?… Neppure: perché a torto
Lo gonfian le lusinghe, lo corrompe l’orgoglio,
L’ammorban le calunnie; e per me non ne voglio!

Verdi accommodates the enormous self-pity of Falstaff allowing it to take center stage dramatically, and permitting the only moment of true poignancy to make its point until the final fugue at the end of the play:

Io, dunque, avrò vissuto tant’ anni, audace e destro
Cavaliere, per essere portato in un canestro
E gittato al canale co’pannilini biechi,
Come si fa coi gatti e i catellini ciechi.
Ché se non galleggiava per me
Quest’epa tronfia,
Certo affogavo. Brutta morte.
L’acqua mi gonfia.
Mondo reo. Non c’è più virtù.
Tutto declina.
Va, vecchio John, va,
va per la tua via; cammina
Finché tu muoia.
Allor scomparirà la vera
Virilità del mondo.
Che giornataccia nera!
M’aiuti il ciel! Impinguo troppo.
Ho dei peli grigi.

Verdi is sparse and neither glosses over nor indulge any sentimentality:

“And here I have lived all this years, a right honorable gentleman to then end up inside a laundry basket and being dumped into the water with the underwear, as they do to blind kittens…Why, I could have drowned were it not for my ability to float…What a mean world, a world devoid of all virtue…Everything decays these days…So, on your way, old John, walk on ’til you drop dead and until you reveal to the undeserving world what a real man is…What a black day! Heaven help me! I am fading…Look at these white hairs…

Shakespeare is more perfunctory and reserved in both cases:

“You stand upon your honour? I, I, I myself sometimes, leaving the fear of God on the left hand and hiding mine honour in my necessity, am fain to shuffle, to hedge and to lurch; and yet you, rogue, will ensconce your rags, your cat-a-mountain looks, your red-lattice phrases, and your bold-beating oaths, under the shelter of your honour!”

“Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown in the Thames…? The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as
they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies… The bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned…”

Here both giants are in the same ballpark, textually and emotionally, but it is Verdi the one who allows the gigantic wrath of Falstaff to mount to its climactic “Ma per me non ne voglio, no, non ne voglio, no…No, no!” that then rises up to the baritone’s high g and to a splendid curtain for the first scene of act I.

In other moments in Verdi’s ‘capolavori’ masterpieces there are examples of the reduction and distillation to the essence of the moment that the Master made his trademark. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is one such moment: “Una macchia e qui tuttora…” serving all too well in its repetitiousness the obsessive behavior of a character on the brink of suicide.

Nanetta’s Sul fil d’un soffio etesio in Falstaff is entirely the product of Verdi’s creative genius:

“Sul fil d’un soffio etesio scorrete agili larve Fra I rami un baglior cesio d’alba lunar apparve. Danzate! E il passo blando misuri un blando suo
La magiche accopiando carole alla canzon.”

In English: “Scurry along on the mere breath of a still breeze you nimble little worms! See how through the branches the moon glows and appears. Dance away, letting your soft steps measure the soft sounds of music!”

In Merry Wives it is Mistress Quickly who leads the action and sings:

Fie on sinful fantasy!
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,
Fed in heart, whose flames aspire
As thoughts do blow them, higher and higher.
Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
Pinch him for his villany;
Pinch him, and burn him, and turn him about,
Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out.

Otello’s Esultate, Dio mi potevi scagliar and Niun mi tema are all three moments of perfect union of text and music in which the conciseness dictated by the constraints of sung text works as well as well as the more extended passages of Shakespeare’s original do in their rightful place.

Here’s Shakespeare’s Othello’s final farewell:

Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d;
Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt,
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.
Do you go back dismay’d? ’tis a lost fear;
Man but a rush against Othello’s breast,
And he retires. Where should Othello go?
Now, how dost thou look now? O ill-starr’d wench!
Pale as thy smock! when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl!
Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!

Verdi/Boito trim that to:

Niun mi tema s’anco armato mi vede.Ecco la fine del mio camin…
Oh! Gloria! Otello fu.
E tu. . .come sei pallida! e stanca, e muta, e bella,
pia creatura nata sotto maligna stella.

Fredda come la casta tua vita e in cielo assorta.

Desdemona! Desdemona!…
Ah. . .morta! morta! morta!…
Ho un’arma ancor!Pria d’ucciderti…sposa…ti baciai.

Or morendo. . .nell’ombra…

in cui mi giacio…

Un bacio…un bacio ancora…ah!…un altro bacio…

When all is said and done, Shakespeare is unequaled in his mastery of text, in his many-faceted and brilliant gifts of language, in his scene painting, in his character delineation. One can not imagine an adequate musical setting of “To be or not to be” or the “Solid Flesh” or the “How do all occasions” speeches of the Prince of Denmark except in their original state.

The Frenchman Ambroise Thomas tried Shakespeare and failed. Hamlet has to take his time to examine the Big Questions of existence, life, and death. Opera moves along.

“All the world’s stage” in the lips of the minor character of Jacques in As You Like It has an innate musicality that any other music would only contradict. Cleopatra’s extended death scene with its multiple speeches confounded even the gifted Samuel Barber and should have been left alone to sing its own music of death, transfiguration and immortality in Antony and Cleopatra.

But then it was Verdi and Verdi alone the only one who could attempt and most often succeeded in setting the Bard to music. His profound love of the plays of Shakespeare surely served him in good stead. And we can only imagine what a King Lear Verdi could have written, had he lived another couple of years. Sadly, we have to wait for King Lear – the opera – to be written. Along with King Lear, would it not be great to have a powerful Merchant of Venice, a comic Twelfth Night (that most musical of plays) and an epic Henry V for a house with a great chorus and three great singing actors for Henry, Hotspur, and Falstaff? So many plays, so little time!


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