Shared Ideals

Shakespeare, Verdi and the European stage

by Federica TROISI

Who says that I did not know Shakespeare when I wrote Macbeth. Oh, in this they are wrong! He is one of my favorite poets. I have had him in my hands from my earliest youth, and I read and reread him continually.

– Giuseppe Verdi

The celebration of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi provides the opportunity for a careful philological reading of his productions and a study of how European literary sources influenced the great composer’s artistic path. If the first task can be performed by a musician, the latter also involves the literary scholar.

As is known, the young composer initially drew on great histories such as myths and the Bible (Oberto, Attila, Nebuchadnezzar, the Lombards at the first crusade), and later turned to the classics of European Romanticism (think Dumas, Hugo, Byron) or authors of universal greatness such as Schiller and Shakespeare. The latter, in particular, was favored by Verdi, and it was not by chance that he was the source of most of his best known works. Certainly this preference was favored by the culture of the time: the worlds of ethical idealism and passion, one represented by Schiller, the other by Shakespeare, were recurrent topics in Romantic critiques. However, Verdi was not the type of artist who let prevailing fashion and popular taste impose on the subject matter of his dramas. If he was so frequently attracted to the two dramatists (for a total of seven works, four from the German and three from the English author), it would not be unreasonable to imagine their characters were particulary congenial to his nature. However, the frequency with which the two authors are written about is, in a strange way, inversely proportional to the number of operatic works inspired by them. In fact, the connection with Schiller, although founded on the inspiration of well-known operas (Joan of Arc, Luisa Miller, The Robbers, Don Carlo) but linked to ethical values – such as reasons of state, the sense of honor and duty – is less explicit than the elective affinity with Shakespeare, established in his youth and cultivated throughout his life.

Charles-Antoine Cambon. Design for act 2, scene 5 of Verdi’s Macbeth, Théâtre Ly rique in Paris, April 1865. Bibliothèque nationale de France
Charles-Antoine Cambon. Design for act 2, scene 5 of Verdi’s Macbeth, Théâtre Ly rique in Paris, April 1865.
Bibliothèque nationale de France

A mirror of all human passions and contradictions, the playwright from Stratford becomes, in reality, the symbol of the Romantic era and, as such, the dominant dialectic of Verdi’s music.

Not surprisingly, the melodrama, born between the 16th and 17th centuries with Monteverdi and Metastasio, reached its heyday in the 19th century, precisely coinciding with the discovery, evaluation and dissemination of Shakespearean theater. In the unorganized culture of the young Verdi, entrusted first to the care of the Busseto parish priest and then to the most experienced Milanese masters, music held a prominent place beside European literature. His passion for all things foreign, the outside world, was a constant source of inspiration since his debut with Oberto, but was deemed unsuitable for a patriot, according to Giusti’s opinion of the young composer. As if it were possible to enclose great art within national borders or ideological schemes!

Fortunately, Verdi did not listen to these short-sighted judgments, as shown by his rich library of not only musical scores (from Palestrina to contemporary Berlioz, Wagner, Brahms), but also both Italian and foreign classical and modern works: from 14th-century mysticism to Memoirs of Casanova, Philothea of St. Francis of Sales and the Joy of D’Annunzio, from Plato to Pascal and Schopenhauer, and from Balzac to Byron, Schlegel, Schiller and Zola; alongwith the great Greek tragedies along with many editions of Shakespeare in both their original language and in translation. Clearly, Verdi was anything but rude and uneducated, or worse, popular and crazy!

The truth of Verdi’s dramatic fiction was not “art imitating reality”, as it was for Puccini, nor did it correspond to an abstract “the truth behind the myth”, as it was for Wagner. In him “truth” was embodied in the tangle of human passions translated in the universal language of music onto the stage. In this challenging typically theatrical game, between reality and fiction, is clearly found not only the uniqueness of the master of Busseto, but also the reason for the deep connection with Shakespeare. The “Invention of Truth” is, in fact, the fundamental principle of Verdi’s search and bears the mark of the Stratford playwright, his lifelong point of reference. We read in his letters how he constantly turns to the Bard to give credibility to his own aesthetic principles with the confidence and affection of a son to his father (“To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better. It seems there is a contradiction in these three words: invent the truth; but ask Papa [Shakespeare] about it. Maybe he, Papa, encountered some Falstaff, but he would have had a hard time finding a villain as villainous as Iago, and never, absolutely never, angels such as Cordelia, Imogen, Desdemona, and yet they are so true!”), the reverence of a disciple to his master: “Ah, Shakespeare! […] The great master of the human heart! But I will never learn!”; the sensitivity of a critic ahead of his time: “Ah, progress; science, realism! Be a realist as much as you please, but Shakespeare was a realist, only he did not know it. He was a realist by inspiration; we are realists by design, by calculation.”

“I have the idea to set The Tempest to music – he wrote in a letter – as is my idea to do the same to some of the major great dramatic tragedies.”

It is well-known that Shakespeare signified to Verdi the discovery of a new concept focused on the dramatic representation of the human condition and its problems; the knowledge of a theatrical language free from all academic rules, the mixing of genres, the value of “word stage,” the opening of the “closed” mind. In other words, the tragic English drama was an opportunity, the correlative objective of the entire artistic life of the Italian master well beyond his three rewrites – Macbeth, Othello, Falstaff – and plans for a Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear. The latter – the most “Verdi” of Shakespeare’s plays – would have been set to music, we read in his letters, “in a whole new way, vast, regardless of any conveniences”. The Italian composer, in truth, did not shrink back from the fashion of the time (think of Rossini, Mercadante, Vanwesteraut) but, unlike others, he tried to be himself by creating entirely new texts. It is no coincidence that among the almost endless list of rewrites of Shakespeare, those of Verdi are the only ones that have withstood the test of time.

Protesting vehemently after Macbeth in Paris (1865) against those who accused him of not knowing the English playwright, he defended himself: “It may be that I have not done justice to Macbeth, but to say that I do not know, understand and feel Shakespeare – no, by God, no! He is one of my favorite poets. I have had him in my hands from my earliest youth, and I read and reread him continually.”

At this point it is clear that the influence of the English author goes well beyond the works actually put to music or left unfinished. We are able to see, for example, the teachings of Roman tragedies behind Aida. The aching, tender paternal love of Lear to Cordelia lives in Rigoletto, which Verdi himself defined “the greatest drama of modern times, a creation worthy of Shakespeare”. The absence of a unique central dramatic action in La Forza del Destino was inspired by the polycentric Troilus and Cressida, while Omar – an ambiguous character of the aforesaid Italian opera – is part Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Ariel (The Tempest). Additionally, there is also all the drama of the “Swan of Avon,” focused on the study of antiheroic man, and recognizable in the various Rigoletti, Violette, Azucene, i.e., his “lost” mythical characters.

Verdi knows how to tell us about worlds we recognize, that belong to us, without taking inspiration from Norse sagas as Wagner did, but by drawing from European literature – in particular from the Stratford playwright – and maintaining his “Italianism”. It’s a prerogative of true art to be able to express the universal passions and leverage a wealth of collective human feelings and emotions. Verdi is like Shakespeare, who remained the most English of writers while looking far beyond national borders to put the previously unknown wider world onto the stage. The Italian musician drew his characters from Europe, but in turn gave so much to the European culture, not only musically. If it were not so, writes Principe, we would not listen to the premonitions of Saint-Saens and Schumann in Simon Boccanegra, references to Tchaikovsky in Un Ballo in Maschera, unambiguous references to Mahler in Othello, La Traviata and Aida, respectively, in the Third Symphony, the Fifth, in Das Klagende Lied; Verdi also aroused the sympathies of Nietzsche, who believed that Othello was superior to the work of Wagner, and the veneration of Joyce, who enjoyed singing and playing the most famous arias by Verdi with his son George. EM Forster took inspiration from Othello for Billy Budd, written for Britten’s opera of the same name. Verdi’s aesthetics inspired the title of Harold Bloom’s essay “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1999).

So, the relationship between Verdi and Shakespeare was neither subjection nor slavish imitation, but a sort of elective affinity which allowed the composer to challenge the musical world of his time to bring Italian opera to European levels, to the extent of becoming contemporary (Stravinsky, Nono, Berio). In the history of culture, if nothing is truly original then nothing can be considered as identical, as the art form of any time is the result of its relationship with the past: so said Nietzsche (“The judgment of the past is always an oracular judgment: only as an architect of the future, as one who knows the present, you will understand it”) and, later, TS Eliot: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”. A connection that is not intended to be understood as a refusal or free passing of tradition, but as an indirect means of knowledge and creativity to create new and autonomous forms. Such is the essence of Verdi’s operas.

This article is an excerpt of the author’s essay entitled: Verdi e Shakespeare. La forza di un comune destino europeo, available in Italian at

About the Author

Federica  TROISI

Immagine-1Federica Troisi, formerly a professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Bari, has spent years in various areas of research. Looking beyond the narrow scope of English authors (Metateatro, Troilus and Cressida, comedies of J.R. Planchè, Verdi and Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Shakespeare, Pinter and Magritte), she also focuses on the English-Italian connection (G. Zanella and English literature, E.M. Forster and Italy). She has also been busy conducting the first-known research into the English-Pugliese connection (Shakespeare and Puglia, Shakespeare in the history of Bari, English culture in Puglia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notes from nineteenth century Puglian travelers to Victorian England).