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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