Shakespeare’s genius is such that people not only frequently wish to reproduce his work, they are often moved to reinterpret it; the Bard’s canon has inspired more opera and ballet than any other writer whom I know (for instance, no one has seen Tchaikovsky trying to set Anna Karenina to music recently). Two men particularly enamored of Mr. Shakespeare are the nineteenth-century opera maestro Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), and the modern intellectual, history professor, and prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills. Working closely from Shakespeare’s scripts, Verdi created operas out of Macbeth, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor- fascinating for our point-of-view, as Macbeth represents the most famous dramatic presentation of Witches in the Western world, with Merry Wives (like A Midsummer Night’s Dream) being one of the best-known treatments of English Faerie-mythology, as well as the singular play to feature the Celtic Forest-Deity Hern the Hunter. (Othello, while a brilliant tragedy, contains no significant Pagan aspects, so neither it, nor Mr. Verdi’s Otello, shall concern us over much at this time.) Being an ardent Shakespeare fan himself, as well as a learned and experienced opera-buff, Mr. Wills brings the subjects of Verdi, Shakespeare, and opera to a glorious full-circle in Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater (Viking, 2011). Mr. Wills discusses translating Shakespeare’s language into music, telling the stories through harmonic composition rather than through spoken language. As one accustomed to studying 16th century Witchcraft and Paganism through the prism of Shakespeare’s accomplishments, this opens a wonderful new door to understanding these works, transforming their action and drama into heightened musical expression.
For instance, in Verdi’s reworking of Merry Wives (called Falstaff)- well, first, it is necessary to observe that several other musical versions of Shakespeare’s comedy were constructed from the late 1700s-early 1900s, including Otto Nicolai’s 1849 Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Determining that, while of “pleasant and lighthearted” mood, the work lacks the heft of Shakespeare or Verdi, Wills nonetheless finds the last act “almost Mendelssohnian in its dreamy address to the moon, its songs by [young lovers] Anna and Fenton as [the Faerey Queen and King] Titania and Oberon, and its dances by the elves.” (p. 169) Obviously borrowing from Midsummer Night’s Dream (famously set to music by Mendelssohn), Nicolai’s work probably sounds very intriguing and agreeable to Pagans, apt to admire musical theater whose final act is set in nighttime woods, with dreamy addresses in song to La Luna, characters disguised as Feerie-Royalty, and dancing Elves (see, you kind of want to see this show already, right?)
In like manner, in Verdi’s Falstaff, the “Marx Brothers shenanigans” of the first part of the show give way to the note of the Supernatural that is struck by the introduction of the Legend of Hern “the Black Hunter,” said to haunt a famous oak-tree of Windsor Forest. In a test of courage, Falstaff will have to rendezvous with the Merry Wives at the haunted oak at midnight. The scene grows frightening as the music turns spooky: “bassoons, horns and second violins have launched a chromatic marche funebre with rapidly oscillating clarinet and low strings, and punctuated by timpany and bass and low, held brass chords”- the sound never rising above a pianissimo. Thus, the eerie quality of the music sets the stage for the “astonishing last act, where Falstaff will in effect be buried and raised again to life.” (p. 205) Again, the change in the opera’s mood is signaled by a variation in the music, as the comedy of the show’s start shifts to the almost-Witches’ Sabbat-like portion of its conclusion, with its malicious Faeries and the intimidating, over-looming presence of the ghostly Dark Hunter, Hern. (And again, you want to see this show, right, just to experience the musical spookiness of its finale.)
Speaking of the magnificently macabre and spooky- can anything equal the greatest Witch-Play ever written, or the opera created from it by Verdi (as shown in this 2011 Salzburg production, prompting the question- how cool do these Witches look?) Macbeth, both the play and opera, is a favorite of Mr. Wills (he’s written about the play before); one thing that annoys me about Mr. Wills’ take on the show is his habit of talking about the Witches in terms of diabolism and trafficking with the forces of Hell (Mr. Wills is a Catholic). I don’t believe that English culture really accepted the Devil (who does not figure in English Witch-trials until quite late in the 17th century), nor do the Forces of Hell figure in any way regarding the Witches in Macbeth. Mr. Wills is otherwise so insightful on the play that I overlook his interpretation of the Witches in diabolical terms. His understanding of the show’s historical context is impressive: as he observes, “Shakespeare could count on his audience’s absolute belief in witches [indeed, Shakespeare probably shares this belief]. His government was still hanging them, and King James had personally interrogated witches, passed laws against them, and had written a treatise on them (Daemonologie). As Dr. Johnson wrote, Shakespeare ‘was far from overburdening the credulity of his audience…The goblins of witchcraft still continued to hover in the twilight.’ ” (p. 39)
Mr. Wills feels that modern directors of either the play or the opera “clearly feel uncomfortable with the witches, and rack their brains for ways to make them convincing.” (p. 51) He goes on to enumerate the astounding number of ways the Witches have been presented: as naked “cave-women,” scampering on all fours; as Voodoo Priestesses or as Druids; as Sibyls; as insane inmates of an asylum; as rock star-groupies; a gangster’s molls; as murderous field-nurses; as paparazze; and as homeless bag-ladies. (p. 52) The Romantic Era of the 19th century, however, tended towards an appreciation of the Edgar Allan Poe-like Gothic, with “madness, curses, ruins, hermits, cloisters, magic potions, suicide, and ghosts often at hand.” (p. 46) In this atmosphere, Macbeth made superb operatic material, and Verdi played up the creepiness of the Witches, with “unrelieved minor tonality, hallow harmonies, shrill orchestration, grace-notes, [and] irregularity of bar structure.” (p. 49)
One thing that captures my attention is Wills’ description of Le sorrele vagabonde, the “giddily swirling dance just before Macbeth first enters.” I guess this piece has acquired objections from those who feel that the Witches seem to having too much fun at this point (well, yeah, I guess they’re really gleefully anticipating messing with that cold-hearted murderer Macbeth). From the first line of this song, “The roaming sisters flit across the waves, skilled to weave a circle enclosing land and sea” (p. 53), it is apparently an Italian translation of the “Weird Sisters Charm” recited by the Witches upon their meeting Macbeth in Act I, scene iii: “The Weird Sisters, hand in hand, posters of the sea and land.” Not only do I think it counts as an Energy-Raising Charm (it’s final line: “Peace- the Charm’s wound up”); its purpose is to describe the effects of the Magickal Circle-Space created by dancing Witches, so powerful in their Witchcraft that they have command of both land and sea.