Richard Wagner: The 200th birthday of a Shakespearian composer

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Richard Wagner's grave in the rear of Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth

Richard Wagner’s grave in the rear of Villa Wahnfried, the house he built for himself in Bayreuth. © José A. Pérez Díez

Today, 22 May 2013, we celebrate the 200th birthday of one of the most iconic, controversial, and astonishingly original artists of all times: Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The eminent British musicologist Deryck Cooke declared that Wagner’s epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is the most ambitious work of art ever produced by a single artist in our civilisation, and that the poet-composer forms, with Aeschylus and Shakespeare, the great dramatic trilogy that supports its artistic tradition.[1] Even if I do not entirely agree with this vindication of Wagner’s status as a purely literary dramatist, I think that the comparison with Shakespeare’s accomplishment is fundamentally valid in aesthetic terms. Both artists excelled in their own art forms—spoken theatre and opera—and are towering pillars of Western art.

Wagner’s librettos are in themselves splendid literary works whose aesthetic quality surpasses that of the vast majority of operas in the repertory. Where Shakespeare pushed the boundaries of English blank verse, largely unrhymed, beyond the rigidness of previous writers, Wagner adapted the ancient Germanic Stabreim (alliterative verse) using varied rhythmic patterns and adding rhyme in a variety of metrical schemes. In this spirit of formal experimentation, it is not surprising that Shakespeare was an inescapable influence on Wagner’s work as a dramatist. Countless references to him in his autobiographical and theoretical works attest that he had a deep understanding of the plays, their structure, technical resources, and cultural significance. In Opera and Drama he constantly refers to Shakespeare as a pivotal basis of his new dramatic manifesto. In the book he stated that, if the chorus constituted the key element of Greek tragedy, commenting and interpreting the action, ‘with Shakespeare, [it] is resolved into divers individuals directly interested in the Action, and whose doings are governed by precisely the same promptings of individual Necessity as are those of the chief Hero himself.’[2] In this way Shakespeare, according to Wagner, managed to morph the collective chorus into individual characters of startling originality, motivated by deep, primal ‘necessities’.

But Wagner’s aesthetic proposal went a step further. The libretto—or, rather, the ‘poem’, as he termed it—is only the textual element of the new form that would emerge with his manifesto, and that would change opera as a genre in a revolutionary way: the ‘music drama’. The poem’s ideal realisation must come with the sublimation and unification of all the arts into a coherent and meaningful whole—the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art’. The literary text is, thus, incomplete without the cooperation of the other arts: architecture, sculpture, painting—and music. The orchestra, then, assumes the choric function of ancient Greek drama in presenting a fluid, multifaceted interpretation of the story through the use of ever-changing leading musical motives, or Leitmotiven.

We would be much mistaken if we denied that Wagner is, first and foremost, a great composer. Much greater than Wagner the poet, or Wagner the philosopher, or Wagner the political activist, Wagner the composer is a fundamental pillar of modern Western music. Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli-Argentinian-Spanish pianist and conductor, who has actively championed to lift the ban on the performance of Wagner’s music in the state of Israel for many years, once stated that without Brahms the history of Western music would be more or less where it is; but without Wagner there is no knowing where it would be.

But Shakespeare’s influence on Wagner goes beyond the mere aesthetic innovation, the status of their respective accomplishments, and the power of their creative imagination. Wagner only adapted one play by Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, into his early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban of Love), about which Dave Paxton has written about at length (see his essays here); but his technique of characterisation, his creation of powerful individuals in the fiction of his works, and even his use of leading motives (musical rather than the use of recurrent textual imagery) are also, arguably, part of his Shakespearian legacy.

Wagner’s personal library, still preserved in Wahnfried, the house that he built for himself in Bayreuth, contains a full set of Shakespeare’s complete works in English and in German translation. I have always wondered whether those books contain any annotations or marginalia that would help us understand to what extent Shakespeare’s works influenced his own dramatic—and musical—writing. Maybe a new generation of researchers, in the confluence of Wagner’s and Shakespeare’s centenary celebrations—2013, 2014, and 2016—will help to disentangle this intriguing connection.


José A. Pérez Díez

[1] I Saw the World End (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)

[2] Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, trans. by William Ashton Ellis (London, 1893), pp. 61-62. Full text available here.


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Author:José A. Pérez Díez

José A. Pérez Díez is undertaking his doctoral studies at The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, working on the first fully annotated, modern-spelling critical edition of John Fletcher's 'Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid' (visit He teaches at the University of Birmingham and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and reviews Renaissance drama in performance for 'Shakespeare Bulletin' and 'Cahiers Élisabethains'.
  • ronald bergan

    I’m surprised that, as far as I know, nobody has made the connection between Das Rheingold, in particular, and The Tempest. After watching The Ring for the umpteenth time yesterday, an analogy struck me. Wotan-Prospero; Ariel-Loge; Albericht-Calaban. I’m including this aspect of Wagner-Shakespeare in a book I’m writing on composers. Perhaps it’s not an original comment, but I’ve not seen the link before. If either Dave Paxton or Jose Diez find this analogy interesting and worth exploring, I hope my perception will be acknowledged.

  • Dave Paxton

    I am grateful, José, that you have written this piece; I wish that I hadn’t been too busy myself. I feel compelled, however, to pick up, in a spirit of comradeship, on your concluding paragraph.

    There were, as far as I can see, three moments of intense Shakespeare-engagement in Wagner’s life. First, his adolescence, specifically ages 14-15, when he read what seems to have been most of the canon, and subsequently produced his first artwork “Leubald”, a synthesis of “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, “Macbeth”, “1 Henry IV” and other plays by Goethe and Kleist. Second, ages 21-22, when he studied “Measure for Measure”, an act which issued immediately in “Das Liebesverbot”, but which also got Wagner thinking about desire in a very specific way, strongly influencing his fourth and fifth operas, as well as the short stories that he wrote in Paris. Third, his mid-20s, beginning at age 24, when, on the basis of attending a series of rehearsals and performances of “King Lear”, he mentally regressed back to his Shakespearian adolescence and used that regression as stimulus to his creative development and utopian politics; hence, “Hamlet” is cited as one genesis of the “Fliegende Hollander”; “Tannhauser” evolved out of ‘a return to my old boyish ways,’ specifically to Shakespeare and Hoffmann; and so forth. Wagner cites age 33 as the time when he finally ‘succeeded in shutting out the past,’ and it seems to me that this is the point where the influence proper drops off, though of course, as you say, Shakespeare continues to play an important role in the ensuing dramas and prose works, not to mention in Wagner’s day-to-day life as related in Cosima’s diaries, which not only contains readings of Shakespeare, but is also mythologized on Shakespearian terms.

    The archive in Bayreuth contains Wagner’s Dresden Library and his Wahnfried Library. The only version of the plays (Schlegel/Tieck) contained in the former was published in 1851-2, when Wagner was 38. In the Wahnfried library, the earliest version of any of the plays was published in 1864, when Wagner was 51. The two Schlegel-Tiecks are from 1863 and 1867. The only texts from earlier (for example 1823, 1831) are critical books and volumes of non-Shakespearian plays.

    In other words, as far as I can see, all of the editions of Shakespeare that remain in the archives are editions that Wagner bought long *after* his intense periods of Shakespeare-engagement and re-writing. Indeed, Wagner relinquished his Dresden Library in 1849, when he fled Dresden with the death-penalty on his head, so I assume that the 1851 Schlegel/Tieck therein was a later addition, perhaps by Heinrich Brockhaus, with whom the library was lodged.

    These sources would still, no doubt, be interesting to consult, but it doesn’t seem to me that they could help us ‘disentangle’ the connection between Shakespeare and Wagner in the way that is suggested here. Much more important, I think, are the autobiographical texts, and the artworks.

    With regard to Wagner the great composer, as opposed to Wagner the poet, philosopher or political activist, Wagner took it that his most important achievement was to integrate, into drama: music, poetry, philosophy and politics. The attempt to purify that drama of poetry, philosophy and politics, until only music is left, seems to me a refusal to take Wagner seriously.

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