Wagner’s Shakespearian Birth

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Richard Wagner’s engagement with his creative predecessor William Shakespeare began around age 13. At this time, Wagner pronounced Shakespeare’s name “Shicksper,” which triggered for him associations of fate (Shicksal = fate/destiny) and battle (Speer = spear). Wagner related this detail from the distant past to his second wife Cosima in 1874, who wrote it in her diary, along with the further details that her husband, as a young teenager, had interpreted Shakespeare’s canon ‘as something daemonic and fantastic and had even sought a mystical meaning in Falstaff.’

Wagner, like many other intelligent people, found in formal education only a series of obstacles and stimuli to unhappiness; he was exceptionally lucky that, as an alienated 14-year-old, he developed a friendship with his uncle Adolf, who was living near him in Leipzig. Adolf provided his nephew with an informal education in literature and philosophy, as well as spiritual solace and a shared ‘contempt for the pedantry of the schools,’ as Wagner put it in his autobiography. The man and the boy took a daily walk together ‘beyond the city gates,’ no doubt – Wagner mused later in life – provoking the smiles of passers-by who heard their ‘earnest discussions.’

Wagner had enrolled in the Nicolaischule in Leipzig on 21 January 1828, but he soon stopped attending classes there entirely. He stayed at home instead, and devoted himself to completing his first artwork, which he later referred to – only half mockingly – as a ‘great tragedy’ and a ‘great poetic enterprise.’ He named the work Leubald, which no doubt is supposed to evoke the name of the pub in which he had been born in 1813: the Red and White Lion.

The drama is a massive (six hours long) and wild synthesis of most of Shakespeare’s canon. Its obvious source-texts are Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Henry IV Part One and Richard III. The plot starts off as Hamlet – the ghost of Leubald’s father swears his son to avenge ‘the race of Roderick’ – but it soon transforms into the Romeo and Juliet narrative: Leubald falls in love with Roderick’s daughter, is married to her by a kindly friar (to violent off-stage protestations from the ghost!), and finally dies a gory love-death with her in a ruined castle. Goethe’s early Shakespearian work Götz von Berlichingen and Kleist’s own version of Romeo and Juliet, The Family Schroffenstein, are the play’s other important sources.

The work is notable for its extreme violence: murder and rape are among its central concerns. Falstaff is transformed into Flamming (which carries an appropriately anarchic resonance of flaming), who enters the Eastcheap tavern in Act I boasting of having robbed a nobleman and raped his wife: ‘The forest floor was soft enough; – there’ll be a round belly to follow that jape, or else I’ve lost my touch.’

Leubald horrified and outraged Wagner’s family, apparently to his surprise, and the teenager had to endure all the usual hand-wringing and lecturing of the bourgeois world. It is no doubt not a coincidence that his next completed artwork, his first opera Die Feen (“The Fairies”, completed on 6 January 1834) sets out to vindicate an ideology of “true love” and marriage, nor is it coincidental that the work contains parodies of both Shakespeare and Leubald – in Act I, for example, Morald dresses up as the ghost of his friend Arindal’s father, in order to trick him into ruling the kingdom: ‘I am no longer your father,/I am only your father’s spirit.’ The opera reads as a clear attempt to placate Wagner’s family, and so the dangerous anarchism of the earlier play is put on-stage to be mocked and publically disavowed.

Once this opera was finished, however, Wagner almost immediately returned to anarchism, except this time it was a structured and theorized political anarchism, and an ideology of sexual liberation and free-love as disseminated around Germany by the followers of Heinrich Heine and the “Young German” (a categorization avant la lettre) writers such as Heinrich Laube. Wagner, now a young man, was seduced by the prospect of unlimited sex, and he excitedly returned to Shakespeare as someone who could provide a source-text for a new opera. His choice of text was Measure for Measure.

Shakespeare’s play is famously dark and complex, so extreme modifications had to be made in order to transform it into the jubilant Das Liebesverbot (“The ban on love”): the theological dimension of Shakespeare’s play is removed, and the drama operates on an entirely social-political level; an oppressed proletariat is put on-stage (which of course makes possible invigorating choral finales to the two acts); and, most astonishingly of all, Isabella is transformed into a revolutionary who brings the opera to an end by inaugurating a revolution and overthrowing the state: ‘Hurry here! For revenge! For revolt!…/Seize your weapons! Let’s have vengeance!/We must overthrow the despicable tyrant!’

The reason for Wagner’s choice of this play as his source-text, as opposed to another one, no doubt has to do with the fact that Angelo – the central figure of power in Shakespeare’s drama, who famously experiences a desire to ‘raze the sanctuary’ – took him back to the wildness of his teenage years in general, and to Leubald in particular. Wagner, by synthesizing Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in his early play, had actually ended up with something almost identical to the Angelo-narrative: with the tale of a man upon whom a strong demand is put by a ghostly father-figure, but who finds himself unable to fulfil it because he experiences desire for a woman… and, in Leubald, the psychical split that results for the hero leads inexorably to his death.

Shakespeare’s Angelo (upon whom ‘the old fantastical Duke of dark corners’ puts his demand, only for Isabella to arouse desire in him and turn him into a criminal) took Wagner back to Leubald; even more broadly, it cut through the structures of disavowal that had built up in Wagner’s mind since his teenage years, and took him directly back to the ‘daemonic and fantastic’ Shakespeare who had been his first love. This is why, when Wagner’s Friedrich experiences his desire for Isabella in Act II of Das Liebesverbot, he sings: ‘Oh, how I savour the thoughts/Which race through my mind like demons’ (‘wie Dämonen’). That last word signals that something dangerous has broken, not just through Friedrich, but also through Wagner’s ideological design in this, his second opera.

The problem is that Friedrich’s desire, as it emerges dramatically in the Act II scena (‘I can hardly bear the pain and rapture/With death and bliss both awaiting me…/I shall consecrate [Isabella] to both God and hell!’), begins to clash with the dogmatic sex-positive ideology that Wagner is trying to vindicate in the work as a whole. What re-emerges here – at this specific point – into Wagner’s creative oeuvre is a sort of desire which is on the one hand criminal, and on the other hand linked to the death-drive and to deeper metaphysical structures of Being, and none of this can be easily integrated into Das Liebesverbot‘s carnival-ethos, which is already violently antagonistic towards what doesn’t join it (Luzio sings ‘There are no wives or husbands here,’ evoking the carnival as a place of utopian queer potentiality; but then he adds, as an afterthought: ‘He who does not enjoy the carnival,/Should have a knife shoved in his breast!’).

Wagner’s way of dealing with this ideological split – between two different positive conceptions of desire, between two different sorts of anarchism, and between two different versions of Shakespeare – is to fake a happy ending: the law is overthrown, Isabella – to one’s incredulity – proposes marriage to Luzio (‘I’m yours, you hot-blooded man!’), the chorus celebrates the triumph of cheerfully superficial hedonism (‘We’ll have a three-fold carnival,/And never let its pleasures end!’) and the curtain falls to the sound of cannon volleys and artillery salvos. But Friedrich has to remain silent, and the intense, complicated sort of desire that he experienced earlier in the opera is airbrushed out of the work. Wagner, in other words, forces his opera to its conclusion by betraying his Angelo-character, and this means that Das Liebesverbot ends on a note of severe ideological breakdown, which becomes increasingly embarrassing the more one gets to know the work.

This breakdown, perhaps not coincidentally, signals the end of Wagner’s early creative engagement with William Shakespeare. Now, after a brief foray into French “grand opera”, Wagner moved onto the territory of Germanic mythology and legend, and wrote Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and everything else. Shakespeare was now ostensibly a remnant of Wagner’s past. Matters are, however, much more complicated than this allows… and, in a short series of blogs on here, I will explore the ways in which Das Liebesverbot, far from signalling the end of Wagner’s Shakespeare-engagement, actually signals the start of a new sort of engagement, one which is deeper and more creatively productive than what had preceded it.

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

    Dave, did you create the other posts on Wagner and Shakespeare that you mentioned? I would be interested in more discussion on the Shakespearean overtones of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Some say that the humour is very unShakespearean but it seems to me that the whole scenario of delusion and confusion (Wahn) followed by reconciliation is very reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night, with particular resemblances between the characters of Malvolio and Beckmesser, and Hans Sachs is also a Prospero figure. Any thoughts?

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