Shakespeare and Revolutionary Sex!

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Photo by Moldy 1972

It might seem odd to think about Shakespeare in relation to Richard Wagner, but the nineteenth-century German dramatist read Shakespeare during his formative years, pointing to him as one of his three big influences (the other two being the Greek tragedians and Beethoven). He also made an opera of Measure for Measure, Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”), of which three recordings are available – two of them barbarically cut.

What becomes immediately bemusing, when one surveys and studies this critical field, is how little valuable writing exists on the two dramatists together. There are two books published in English, both of which are unhelpful in different ways (there remains one book published in German, frustratingly not translated), and a smattering of journal articles on Wagner’s literary background, on specific causal links between the two men, on Das Liebesverbot, and so forth – but that’s about it. Given the sheer volume of existent writing on Shakespeare and Wagner individually, this is all very strange.

I am currently writing on Das Liebesverbot, looking at what Wagner does with the Shakespeare play. Measure for Measure has notoriously provoked negative responses from some of the greatest critics. Coleridge thought it ‘hateful’; Hazlitt felt that, faced with the play, ‘our sympathies are repulsed and defeated in all directions.’ L.C. Knights hazards that the ‘strain and conflict’ in the play is ‘in fact embedded in the themes of which the characters are made the mouthpiece’ – which is to say that it is because Shakespeare is dealing with such problematic issues as the link between law and transgression, and with such extreme honesty, that he produces so tortuous and raw a drama.

If people dislike Das Liebesverbot, it is for very different reasons. The consensus here is that Wagner gleefully gets rid of any pretence to intellectual seriousness and honesty, and produces what is little more than a very superficial piece of propaganda for free-sex, disguised as a drama. Wagner himself wrote, of his creation: ‘my only object was to expose the sin of hypocrisy and the unnaturalness of a ruthless code of morals.’ And so the Duke is cut from the work, and Isabella becomes a sexual revolutionary, joyfully leading the ‘Volk’ towards liberation and self-determination.

The case that is usually made is that Wagner’s is a terrible act of betrayal to his muse, who is too responsible a creator to fall back on easy answers, or resort to utopian propagandizing. One gets a flavour of what sort of work Das Liebesverbot is, and of how it differs from Measure for Measure,at the very start of Act I, when the curtain rises to show the Sicilian police brutally beating the people of Palermo with batons, to the sound of the latter’s outraged cries: ‘Leave honest folk in peace!’

And yet, matters are not as simple as this. Wagner intends to paint with primary colours, but his artistic instinct – even at the age of 21– intriguingly muddies the waters. The sexually liberated ‘Volk’ begin to seem superficial and irritating (as sexually liberated people often do); the law becomes a positive and dynamic force in the drama; Isabella’s character keeps disintegrating and re-crystallising in unexpected ways; and Friedrich (Angelo) comes to gain a life of his own outside the contours of the drama, as his sexual arousal pushes him to brave, and yearn for, death. Here we see the genesis of Tristan, and much else in mature Wagner.

If Shakespeare’s play confronts us, as Knights puts it, with ‘genuine ambiguity’, Wagner’s opera stands before us as a bemusing ideological mess. It is part of my task, in my Ph.D., to sort out this mess, and I hope to return to these pages, in the future, to chart my struggle and my progress…

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Dave Paxton is a doctoral researcher at the Stratford Shakespeare Institute, writing on Shakespeare and Richard Wagner.
  • Christian Smith

    No retrospective condemnation was meant, only exploration in the same fashion that Adorno finds the seeds of the barbarism of the Enlightenment in Homer’s Odyssey and “the shadows that totalitarian methods cast in advance upon the writings of Marx and Engels, whose intention was the opposite” in “the abundant use of ironic quotations marks in their writings.”
    The strong tension between sex and limitation is historically constructed – and this is where Freud’s entire oeuvre falls flat on its face.

  • Adam Seddon

    BTW I think Wagner’s many coffe-and-cake sessions with Hitler and Pol-pot demonstrate his connection to fascism 

  • Adam Seddon

    Dave this article made me miss long conversations in Nero. Do you think Wagner has a good (sensitive? thoughtful?) reading of Measure for Measure in mind with his opera? Is he responding to Measure for Measure in an unusual way, and thus producing something that people widely read as fundamentally unlike the play? Or is it more a case of his turning Shakespeare’s work entirely to his own ends? Does Wagner’s opera seem so different because he isn’t interested in paying faithful homage to Shakespeare’s vision – perhaps even reflecting his own theme of free love by dissolving the usual coordinates of interpretation? Is he talking about the older work or just with it? I haven’t seen the opera but I’d love to know what you think. 

    I know I read much of the power in Measure for Measure as stemming from Angelo’s bad case of ‘to sin in loving virtue’ and I always took him at his word on this. This is what I read as making his sin so crippling and contorting. You have to really love purity to want to enter it and corrupt it so much with your own presence. How does that fit in to Wagner’s opera? You were saying the sexual ‘liberation’ of the characters produces a kind of tedium, has Wagner sensed that at the heart of a convincing depiction of sinfulness is a real love of virtue and removed it as a kind of dramatic experiment? Is he giving us a picture of sexuality devoid of all the taboo as a way of showing how dull it would be? 

  • Dave Paxton

    Thanks for the sensible reply. Hitler loved some Wagner, yes, along with the music and drama of innumerable other people; I don’t know if any of the other Nazi leaders or followers did. Isn’t there always “a strong tension between sex and limitation”? The opera certainly stands somewhere on the continuum that you have helpfully drawn up, though I obviously don’t like the retrospective condemnation of Wagner that is implicit in it.

  • Christian Smith

    Dave, I think that underneath all of this lurks a very important inverted connection between sexual freedom and fascism. I don’t know much about Wagner, so my comments might be off the mark about him, but wasn’t his earlier work more Romantic and then wasn’t his later work the stuff that the Nazis came to like? I have noticed that German Romanticism, which already held in it a strong tension between sex and limitation, underwent a split. Some of it fueled radicalism and ended up in Marx; some of it fueled fascism and ended up in the the Nazis. And if we believe Wilhelm Reich (Mass Psychology of Fascism), fascism arises partly from supressed sexuality. Its energy comes from desire that has been funnelled into a powerful leader. If we believe Friedrich Engels (The Origin of the Family, State and Private Property) supressed sexuality also sits at the genesis of commodification – during the switch from matriarchy to patriachy the first commodity to arise was woman and her commodification was constructed by repressing her free sexuality. Reich details this quite clearly in The Imposition of Sexual Morality. It seems to me that both the pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang (Drang means ‘desire’ not ‘stress’) and the Romantics themselves (including early Wagner) depicted some of that wellspring of sexuality, albeit in a tragic manner – Young Werther kills himself over desire, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is briming with sexuality. Coleridge was also quite sexual, but he drowned it in opium. When the Romantics couldn’t free up that sexuality, they (and those after them) turned its energy into the powerful raging that eventually led to National Socialism (add the economics of world wars to this as well, obviously). Might Wagner’s treatment of Measure for Measure land somewhere on the continuum of sexual liberation and containment that I have described above?

  • Humphrey

    This article is no way sexy enough! I hope Sh’ BT didn’t censor… make like The Daily Star and get shocking for p2

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