Shakespeare and The Flying Dutchman

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The Flying Dutchman

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a strongly political play, a work embedded in the complexities of social reality, but its hero/villain Angelo, whose admiration for Isabella’s ascetic purity morphs into sexual desire and a rape-attempt, is in part intensely spiritual. This is not, however, a spirituality that is allowed to unfold fully. István Géher brings this out superbly when he describes how Angelo commands Isabella ‘to participate with him in a forbidden and denied bliss, in other words to embody for him the eroticism of damnation’. He adds:

Now, if there were a single spark of romanticism in the play, the demonic Angelo, this fallen angel, would burn with a black flame and his searing appeal would be the irrevocable command of sweet red-letter Hell. But in Vienna there are no angels, fallen or otherwise. There is only positioned lust tyrannizing gray defenselessness by right of office, and that is just distasteful. In its effect it is not a revelation but a trauma. (‘Morality and Madness: A Hungarian Reading of Measure for Measure’, 140)

If Shakespeare’s Angelo is balanced precariously between society and spirituality, then Wagner’s version of him — Friedrich in Das Liebesverbot — is (at least, this is the idea) absolutely de-spiritualized. Wagner’s ideology in this, his second opera, is so dogmatically materialistic that even Isabella is robbed of her religion and turned into a spokeswoman for sexual liberation (‘Has love’s magic never flowed through your veins,’ she asks Friedrich, ‘With its pain and pleasure?’).

As I showed in my last blog, Friedrich momentarily gets out of Wagner’s control in Act II of the opera, and Angelo’s intense negative spirituality breaks into the work at the moment when Friedrich fantasizes dying a love-death with Isabella, consecrating her ‘to both God and hell.’

And once this motif had been struck in Wagner’s consciousness, and in his operatic oeuvre, it refused to go away. If the sex-positive Das Liebesverbot could not tolerate the idea of a character enjoying the ‘eroticism of damnation,’ then that would simply have to be returned to in another opera, where it could be worked out properly on its own terms.

In the early 1840s, when he composed Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), Wagner took the disavowed spirituality of Measure for Measure and put it centre-stage: the Dutchman is a rebirth of Friedrich and Angelo both. Dressed in black, he stands aboard his ship of ‘blood-red sails and black mast’; he is cursed by Satan, and he threatens eternal damnation on those who come near him; his only yearning is for an angel who will redeem him; he himself is ‘a fallen angel,’ as Wagner wrote in his “Remarks on performing Der fliegende Holländer”. His musical sound-world is exactly that of Friedrich in the earlier opera; the two characters’ monologues, in Acts II and I respectively, open almost identically, with the hushed baritone voice set against sinister but lugubrious lines on the low strings.

Isabella, meanwhile, transforms into Senta, indeed in some sense is ‘corrected’ into Senta — perhaps offensively so, because where Isabella refuses Angelo’s advances, Senta actively fantasizes giving herself to the demonic Dutchman and redeeming him. In Shakespeare’s play, it is in large part Isabella’s ‘speechless dialect’ (1.2.171) which arouses Angelo, and so the Dutchman, gazing dumbstruck at Senta, breathes: ‘As from the mist of times long gone/this girl’s image speaks to me.’

Because Wagner was thinking in terms of Measure for Measure when he composed Der fliegende Holländer, an entire context of Shakespeare-resonances feeds into the opera. Its first act, for example, vividly recalls the opening of Hamlet. A close variant of the first two lines of that play, as rendered into German by Schlegel and Tieck, are shouted out to the Dutchman’s silent ship by Wagner’s Steersman: ‘Wer da? Gebt Antwort!’ Hamlet worries that the ghost brings with it ‘blasts from Hell’ (1.4.22), and so Daland’s crew have been blasted into the Dutchman’s path by a devilish storm (‘da bläst es aus dem Teufelsloch heraus!’). When, finally, the Dutchman steps on-stage, muttering ‘The time is up‘ and detailing the horrors that he has experienced in the metaphysical realm, he is a clear descendent of Old Hamlet, who intones at his entrance ‘My hour is almost come’ (1.5.2) and proceeds to evoke his sufferings in Purgatory.

There is, further, an incredibly strong suggestion of Othello in Act I. The Dutchman is evoked not just as an intrusion from the metaphysical into the empirical, but also as a foreigner arriving in Heimat-land – thus he wears Spanish clothing, and explains that he comes ‘from afar.’ Senta pities him for this reason (‘Poor man!’), just as Desdemona pities Othello, but the anxiety over “the Other” remains ever-present, hence the Dutchman’s optimistic ‘May she always love her father: / True to him, she’ll be true to her husband, too,’ which draws on the logic of Brabanzio’s warning to Othello: ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./She has deceived her father, and may thee’ (1.3.292-3). Finally, the fact that Wagner initially set his opera in Scotland, then changed his mind and decided on Norway, suggests that he was thinking within the geographical parameters set out by Macbeth.

If, returning to the main point, we were retrospectively to mythologize Wagner’s creative engagement with Measure for Measure, we could say that he saw the tension between society and spirituality that runs through the play, and put the former into Das Liebesverbot and the latter into Der fliegende Holländer. Matters are much more complicated than that, but it’s not entirely off-the-mark. The important point is that, despite the fact that the most important source-text for the Holländer is by Heinrich Heine, the work is as Shakespearian as anything that Wagner had created to that point in his career. It is just that in a sense, Shakespeare is now disguised… and, in particular, Angelo is disguised as the Dutchman himself who, like his predecessor, yearns for sensual-spiritual union with the beloved but inaccessible woman.

Erich Heller writes:

 It is salvation around which most of [Wagner’s] works revolve, redemption, the struggle of a soul for the peace that passes understanding. From Der fliegende Holländer to Parsifal it is almost always the crux of his dramas. And… his desire for salvation is usually intertwined, in tension or even alliance, with the craving for erotic fulfilment. (‘Introduction’ to Mann, Pro and Contra Wagner, 20)

 If my argument up to this point is accepted, Angelo’s complicated, demonic desire for Isabella — a desire for the transcendental Good which is also a desire to enter, possess and destroy it — can be seen to be the spark that ignites this entire metaphysics, and so lays the foundations for Wagner’s later creative career.

If this is the case, then the structure, ideas and imagery of Measure for Measure must be clearly traceable in Wagner’s later works… so, in my next blog, I will fast-forward to Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, and see whether or not it fits into the picture that I have painted.

Dave Paxton

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

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