Shakespeare in 19th-Century Opera

by Alina Borkowska-Rychlewska (Author)
©2019 Monographs 310 Pages


The author of the book analyses selected 19th-century operas based on Shakespeare’s plays from the perspective of their relations to the literature, aesthetics and philosophy of the Romantic period. The texts discussed here include Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, Rossini’s Otello, Halévy’s The Tempest, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and Thomas’s Hamlet. The study aims to indicate diverse traces of the Romantic interpretation of Shakespeare’s works in the history of the 19th-century opera. Individual chapters present the librettos of the selected operas, analysed in the context of Shakespeare’s plays and their 19th-century reception, reconstructed on the basis of 19th-century historic-literary texts (of, among others, A. W. Schlegel, L. Tieck and V. Hugo), critical studies and press articles. The analyses conducted in the book succeed in presenting the evolution of the phenomenon of Romantic Shakespeareanism in the 19th-century opera theatre.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I Towards Drama: Romantic Shakespeareanism and 19th-Century Opera
  • 1 In the Orbit of Harmonious Dissonance:
  • 2 Ariel Enchanted into a Gesture:
  • 3 Fear of the Unknowable:
  • 4 A Stream of Light in the Infinity:
  • 5 Hamlet Sentenced to Life:
  • 6 Eternal Beauty of a Dark Face:
  • 7 “The whole world is a grotesque”?
  • Part II Towards Theatre: Pages from the History of the Warsaw Opera
  • 8 Fight for the Original Shakespeare, the Romantic Theatre and the National Opera during the pre-November-Uprising Romanticism:
  • 9 The Romantic Aesthetics of Terror and the Cultural Categories of North and South:
  • 10 Shakespearean Passions, Contrasts and Local Colour. The Operatic Theatre in Warsaw during the Post-Uprising Revival of Shakespeare’s Plays:
  • 11 “Lyrical Drama” at the End of the Century. A New Face of a Syncretic Operatic Work:
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Shakespeare has never left his recipients indifferent. Called by Voltaire the creator of “the shining monsters”1 and by Samuel Johnson the builder of “a mine which contains gold and diamonds in inexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals”2, Shakespeare has since the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries continued to astound this plays’ readers and viewers and to provoke discussions among poets and playwrights, philosophers and musicians, among artists of all kinds.

“Who is then not in this crowd?” – asked Władysław Maleszewski in Tygodnik Ilustrowany in 1869. “What does the figure of the giant mean? Where to find a place to be close to him? What thought of his to stare at to be able to start the reprimand with the new ‘I found’? How to strike a sudden spark out of his work to explode with new admiration? Let’s be humble when faced with such a master of thoughts, inspiration, sarcasm”3.

Indeed, Shakespeare has been written about by the most distinguished writers, and anybody who in the 19th century wished to record his or her thoughts on the plays of the master from Stratford needed to confront the legacy of thousands of words already devoted to him by the greatest minds of the previous decades.

Although diversified and frequently stressing various aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, the pre-Romantic and Romantic reception of Shakespeare – with names such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Madame de Staël, Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Samuel Coleridge or Alessandro Manzoni coming to mind, to mention just a few writers, perhaps the most widely recognized and the most influential ones – shared a tendency to expose its universalist features and Shakespeare’s mastery in reflecting the truth about reality. As far as this aspect is concerned, Romantic interpreters of the Shakespearean plays had a rather unanimous stance: according to Schlegel, Hugo or Coleridge, the truth found in the works ←9 | 10→of the master from Stratford was based on the presentation of reality as a play of contrasts and as a heterogeneous and hybrid entity composed of antitheses. It is worth noting that the same constituted the basis for the creation of the world presented in the then evolving form of the Romantic drama. Hence, the Romantics strongly emphasized the coexistence in the Shakespearean plays of opposing aesthetic categories (tragic and comic elements, sophistication and commonness, buffoonery and terror) as well as the interpenetration of the real and the supernatural world and the creation of characters whose predominant feature was the complexity of their various passions.

The influence of the Shakespearean drama on the direction and character of transformations in the drama and theatre of the turn of the century and the first decades of the 19th century was especially visible in Germany. Starting with the publication of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s The Habsburg Dramaturgy (1767–1769), which opened a new chapter in the history of European drama based on the premise of the difference between German and French tastes, a lively debate among German poets, playwrights and philosophers on Shakespeare, numerous historical and aesthetic studies devoted to him as well as the first complete translations of his works by August Wilhelm Schlegel – replacing earlier attempts which had heavily altered the original – led not only to the determination of the specificity of Shakespeare’s masterpieces but also to the formulation of opinions concerning contemporary German drama and theatre and to the implementation of concrete theatrical reforms4. The fascination with the originality of the Shakespearean drama initiated in the 1770s and 1780s by the artists of the Sturm und Drang period enabled German theoreticians of drama and the theatre to clearly determine the functions and structure of new dramatic forms and to identify their most important constitutive elements, that is, among others, generic syncretism, aesthetic amorphism, the marvellous, irony, contemporaneity, national character and universalism. In the works of Herder, Goethe, Schiller, the Schlegel brothers, and later also of Tieck, Grillparzer and Heine, Shakespeare became the medium of individual aesthetic views as part of efforts undertaken to define the form of modern drama.

←10 | 11→

The beginnings of the 19th-century French experience of the Shakespearean drama were marked by the works of Madame de Staël, especially her essays De la Littérature (1800) and Germany (1813), in which Shakespeare is presented – like in Herder’s text Shakespeare (1771) – as a representative of the literature of the North, incomparable in his depictions of suffering and “the innumerable varieties of the human heart”5. Later works by Stendhal (Racine and Shakespeare, 1823) and Hugo (“Preface to Cromwell”, 1827), related mainly to guest performances of English theatrical groups in Paris and the first exposure of the French viewing public to Shakespeare’s original plays, became the manifestation of the new drama and a tool in the fight to dethrone classical tragedy on the Parisian stages. Similarly to Coleridge’s lectures in English (Biographia Literaria, 1817) or later statements of Italian, Russian and Polish poets and critics (among them Manzoni, Pushkin and Mochnacki), the French admirers of Shakespeare emphasized the values of originality, freedom, topicality and truth in the modern theatre, treating the Shakespearean method of the creation of reality through contrasts and antinomy as a perfect way of achieving them.

A closer look at the 19th-century operas, whose librettos were based on Shakespeare’s plays, proves that the operas in question were primarily an interesting reflection of the contemporary ways of reading Shakespeare. Clearly, among various approaches to the Shakespearean drama, whose traces can be noticed in the 19th-century opera theatre, the Romantic reading seems most prevalent as an interpretational key for the librettists and composers of many generations. A search within the 19th-century opera for varied Romantic contexts, references and inspirations, a tracking down of diverse oft-recurring Romantic echoes – such as concepts, imaginings, ideas, and most of all the interpretation of Shakespeare’s works informed by the Romantic thought – constitute the central axis of the present book, around which other problems addressed here will oscillate, including the relation of the librettos of the “Shakespearean” operas to their dramatic predecessors, the translation of the musicality of Shakespeare’s works into the final character of the operas based on them, the position of the operas under study here in the history of the 19th-century theatre and music, their relation to the transformations occurring at that time in the European theatre and their 19th-century reception on the basis of contemporary sources, especially press materials. The book aspires to comprehend and convey the mechanism of the functioning – and a long-term permanence – of the Romantic ←11 | 12→Shakespeareanism in the 19th century through the prism of broadly understood opera art.

The book is divided into two parts. The first of them titled “Towards Drama: Romantic Shakespeareanism and 19th-Century Opera” concentrates on eight operas: Gioachino Rossini’s Otello (1816), Carl Maria Weber’s Oberon (1826), Jacques Fromental Halévy’s The Tempest (1850), Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet (1867), Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868) and Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth (1847; 1865), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), chosen from among several dozen 19th-century opera versions of Shakespeare’s plays. The choice – which was neither easy nor obvious – was influenced by a number of factors. The first of these is a significant place of the Shakespearean plays the librettos of the operas under analysis here were based on in the Romantic reflection on drama. Another one is the representative character of the selected operas for the issues addressed in the book, such as the aesthetic syncretism of the 19th-century opera or the mixture of features characteristic of various contemporary dramatic genres and theatrical forms that can be noticed in the operas’ dramatic and musical structure (for instance, Romantic drama, magical drama [the genre known as das Zauberdrama], melodrama, pièce bien faite, feria, pantomime, and so on). An important factor informing the selection of individual operas was also their popularity on the 19th-century European theatre stages and the possibility of showing the changing character of Shakespeare’s Romantic reading thanks to the time span of individual premieres (from Rossini’s Otello in 1816 to Verdi’s Falstaff, which was staged for the first time in 1893, already at the threshold of the new century). Each chapter, concentrating on one Shakespearean play, will offer an extended commentary on the operas selected according to the criteria mentioned above, but will also include information on other 19th-century opera adaptations based on the play in question. The operas that had a bearing on the development of the opera theatre of the 19th century and that held a significant position in its history, such as, for instance, Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830) or Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849), are worthy of a detailed consideration. Many other operas composed on the basis of other Shakespearean plays, not mentioned in this book due to their relative insignificance for or downright absence in the Romantic reflection on Shakespeare’s drama, for example Richard Wagner’s The Ban on Love, based on Measure for Measure (1834), needed to be overlooked out of necessity.

An important part of all the chapters in the first part of the book is the musicality of Shakespeare’s plays. This very broad aspect, comprehensively analysed by scholars of various generations, among others, Richmond Noble, Edward Naylor, John S. Manifold, Frederick William Sternfeld, Peter J. Seng, John Henderson ←12 | 13→Long, Winston Hugh Auden or David Lindley6, does not constitute the central part of the book but rather a starting point for other reflections on the librettos of the operas under study here and their relations to their dramatic predecessors. In this context, the following aspects will be addressed: the ways of deployment of musical inspirations present in Shakespeare’s plays by the 19th-century librettists and composers (for example, Desdemona’s willow songs in Rossini’s and Verdi’s operas, Ophelia’s songs in Thomas’s Hamlet or the elves’ lullaby for Titania in Weber’s Oberon); the reasons and consequences of the modifications introduced; as well as the validity and reasons for the rejection of musical components present in Shakespeare’s plays by some opera writers (for instance the absence of Ariel’s songs in Halévy’s The Tempest). It is only through a good familiarity with the dramatic and aesthetic functions played by musical elements in Shakespeare’s plays that these questions may be answered, enabling at the same time an inclusion of the Romantic reflection on music. It should be added at this point that there is no direct correspondence between the level of musicality in a given Shakespearean play and the number of operatic works based on it. Even though there are some examples that could seemingly corroborate such a relation (The Tempest, allegedly the most musical of all Shakespearean plays, and the high number of its operatic adaptations should be mentioned here), there are also counterexamples in the history of the opera, whereby a work virtually devoid of musical aspects became a literary basis for dozens of operatic works (the case of Romeo and Juliet)7.

←13 | 14→

One of the major reference points for the picture of Romantic Shakespeareanism in the 19th-century opera created in the first part of this book are numerous studies of the specificity, features and significance of the Shakespearean drama for the contemporary European literature and culture, published in the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century. The group is comprised primarily – though not exclusively – of German- and French-language texts due to their role in shaping Romantic ideas concerning dramatic art and their huge impact on European intellectual life. Undoubtedly, the following can be mentioned within this group: Herder’s essay (Shakespeare, 1771), numerous texts by Goethe, especially Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1796) and Shakespeare and No End (Shakespeare und kein Ende, 1813–1816), August Wilhelm Schlegel’s Viennese lectures on dramatic art and literature (Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur, 1809–1811), Tieck’s works, especially Shakespeare’s Treatment of the Marvellous (Über Shakespeare’s Behandlung des Wunderbaren, 1793) and Remarks on Some Characters in Hamlet (Bemerkungen über einige Charaktere im “Hamlet”, 1826), Madame de Staël’s texts: De la Littérature (1800) and Germany (De l’Allemagne, 1813), Stendhal’s study Racine and Shakespeare (1823) and Victor Hugo’s manifesto “Preface to Cromwell” (La Préface de Cromwell, 1827). Even though a direct impact of theoretical statements by thinkers of late German Enlightenment, Weimar Classicism and German and French Romanticism on the formation processes of the 19th-century “Shakespearean” operas is in the majority of cases impossible to prove (the exceptions are Verdi’s operas, for his correspondence corroborates his familiarity with the contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays), one can see the reflection of these ideas in the operatic works, thus confirming the vitality of the pre-Romantic and Romantic discussion on Shakespeare in the 19th-century European culture.

The second part of the book titled “Towards Theatre: Pages from the History of the Warsaw Opera” comprises four chapters devoted to, respectively, Rossini’s Otello, Verdi’s Macbeth, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, and Verdi’s Otello and Thomas’s Hamlet, analysed within one chapter on account of the proximity of their premieres. The imbalance between the first and the second part of the book stems from a simple reason: not all of the operas discussed in the first part were ←14 | 15→staged in the Warsaw theatres in the 19th century. Weber’s Oberon, Halévy’s The Tempest and Verdi’s Falstaff were staged neither by the Polish operatic troupes nor by foreign artists visiting Warsaw with their guest performances. This notwithstanding, due to the regularity of the breaks between one and another and a significant time span, the Polish premieres of the operas discussed in the second part of the book – in 1828 (Rossini’s Otello), 1849 (Verdi’s Macbeth), 1869 (Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet), 1893 (Verdi’s Otello) and 1895 (Thomas’s Hamlet) – enable a comprehensive overview of the 19th-century reception of the “Shakespearean” operas in the Warsaw theatre, an analysis of their stage history and a reconstruction of the debates on Shakespeare’s drama among the 19th-century Warsaw theatrical and musical critics, the influence of the Shakespearean plays on the evolution of drama in the 19th century and the ways and methods of their adaptation for the opera theatre. A search for the traces and echoes of the Romantic Shakespeareanism within this debate, which changed its course and discourse over the decades, turns out to be intriguing – to say the least – on account of the specificity of the 19th-century Polish theatrical stages and criticism, fraught with numerous difficulties, for examples those of censorship.

It needs to be added at this point that the phenomenon of the operatic Shakespeareanism and its multi-dimensional evolution in the 19th-century Polish theatre could only be analysed with reference to the Warsaw stage. It was only in Warsaw that various adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays were staged regularly throughout the century, from before the November Uprising of 1830-31 to the end of the century. In other cities – in Lviv, Cracow or Poznan – the “Shakespearean” operas were typically not staged at all, sometimes only their fragments were played during musical concerts, while the premieres of the whole operas took place in the final years of the 19th century or already in the 20th century. For example in Lviv, the place on whose theatrical map the Shakespearean plays held a major position in the 19th century (which will be repeatedly stressed within the present book), operatic adaptations of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were very rare and always surfaced later than in Warsaw. Gounod’s opera on Romeo and Juliet, with the libretto translated by Leopold Matuszyński, premiered in Lviv on 10 March 1891, Verdi’s Otello was staged at the turn of the century (with its premiere on 17 March 1900), while Thomas’s Hamlet was presented for the first time already in the 20th century, on 22 March 19048. Before that, ←15 | 16→fragments of the “Shakespearean” operas sometimes appeared on the program of the Lviv theatre alongside other plays, for example one scene from Romeo and Juliet was played on New Year’s Eve in 1878 together with the first act of Jacques Offenbach’s The Beautiful Helen and individual scenes of several famous operas (among others A Masked Ball and The Haunted Manor)9. To give a different example, individual arias of Verdi’s Macbeth accompanied a single-act play of Roderich Benedix titled Broń niewieścia [Doctor Wespe] on 25 April 188710. On account of the scarcity of the exemplifying material, scattered comments in the second part of the book on some stage productions of “Shakespearean” operas outside Warsaw will serve as a necessary addition, an element of the background crucial for the creation of a complete picture of the evolution of the operatic Shakespeareanism in the Polish theatre of the 19th century, and not as a central and pronounced component of this picture.

The place held by the operatic versions of Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in the history of the Warsaw theatre and their critical reception were to a large extent conditioned by their relations to the stage history of their dramatic predecessors. For this reason, an important reference point and backdrop for the reconstruction of the premieres of the operas and the press debates surrounding them would be a briefly-sketched history of the stage productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Warsaw (and in some justified cases also outside the capital), mentioning the diversity of individual versions and the transformations of various provenance. It turns out that Shakespeare’s masterpieces in their operatic garb played an important role as weapons in the pre-November Uprising fight of the critics for Romantic drama and theatre (Rossini’s Otello), in the mid-century they brought back to life the Romantic reflection on the specificity of the literature of the North and the South (Verdi’s Macbeth), while at the end of the century they imbued the concepts of originality and local colour with new meanings (Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet) and constituted an attempt at redefining musical lyricism (Verdi’s Otello). Without a doubt, the history of the “operatic Shakespeare” in the 19th-century Warsaw theatre and its constitutive element in the form of theatrical and musical critical reflection on the plays of the master from Stratford and their musical incarnations are part of the fascinating history of the Warsaw stage.

←16 | 17→

On a separate page added to the completed musical score of Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi wrote his paraphrase of a fragment of the opera’s libretto, expressing his wish for his work to embark on its own stage existence:

Le ultime note del Falstaff. Tutto e finito. Va, va, vecchio John, cammina per la tua via finche tu puoi. Divertente tipo di briccone; eternamente fiero, sotto maschera diversa, in ogni tempo, in ogni luogo! Va… Va… Cammina, cammina… Addio!

[The last notes of Falstaff. All is finished. Go, go, old John, follow your way as long as you can. A funny type of clown; always proud under the changing mask, at every time, in every place! Go, go… Walk away… Goodbye!]

Not wishing to compare this book to Verdi’s masterpiece and only willing to endow it with meaning and vitality, it feels appropriate to repeat after the master: “Andate, andate, tutte le parole, camminate per la vostra via!” [“Go, go, all the words, follow your own way!”]. A justification of this desire for repetition is a strong conviction that Shakespeare, including the operatic Shakespeare, can be thought about, spoken about and written about – to boldly paraphrase Goethe – without end (“und kein Ende”).

←17 |
 18→←18 | 19→

1 Voltaire, Letters on the English: Letter XVIII – On tragedy, The Harvard Classics, v. 34, part 2, New York 1909–14, p. 53.

2 S. Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare”, in The Works of Samuel Johnson, v. II containing philological tracts, London 1820, p. 106.

3 W. Maleszewski, “Kilka myśli o Szekspirze”, Tygodnik Ilustrowany 29 March 1869, n. 65, p. 151.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
Romantic theatre Romantic opera Shakespearean drama 19th-century drama theater criticism libretto
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 307 pp

Biographical notes

Alina Borkowska-Rychlewska (Author)

Alina Borkowska-Rychlewska is an Associate Professor at the Department of Romanticism of the Institute of Polish Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research focuses on the 19th-century opera, Romantic theatre and music criticism, and the history of Polish literature of Romanticism.


Title: Shakespeare in 19th-Century Opera
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312 pages