Shakespeare and The Flying Dutchman

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 23 February 2013 | 3:12:00 am

Another excellent article from Dave Paxton in his ongoing investigation that the works of Shakespeare had upon Wagner and his drama. He turns his attention this tome on the Dutchman.

Highly recommended as are Dave's other articles in this series.


Shakespeare and The Flying Dutchman
Dave Paxton

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a strongly political play, a work embedded in the complexities of social reality, but its hero/villain Angelo, whose admiration for Isabella’s ascetic purity morphs into sexual desire and a rape-attempt, is in part intensely spiritual. This is not, however, a spirituality that is allowed to unfold fully. István Géher brings this out superbly when he describes how Angelo commands Isabella ‘to participate with him in a forbidden and denied bliss, in other words to embody for him the eroticism of damnation’. He adds:

Now, if there were a single spark of romanticism in the play, the demonic Angelo, this fallen angel, would burn with a black flame and his searing appeal would be the irrevocable command of sweet red-letter Hell. But in Vienna there are no angels, fallen or otherwise. There is only positioned lust tyrannizing gray defenselessness by right of office, and that is just distasteful. In its effect it is not a revelation but a trauma. (‘Morality and Madness: A Hungarian Reading of Measure for Measure’, 140)

If Shakespeare’s Angelo is balanced precariously between society and spirituality, then Wagner’s version of him — Friedrich in Das Liebesverbot — is (at least, this is the idea) absolutely de-spiritualized. Wagner’s ideology in this, his second opera, is so dogmatically materialistic that even Isabella is robbed of her religion and turned into a spokeswoman for sexual liberation (‘Has love’s magic never flowed through your veins,’ she asks Friedrich, ‘With its pain and pleasure?’).

As I showed in my last blog, Friedrich momentarily gets out of Wagner’s control in Act II of the opera, and Angelo’s intense negative spirituality breaks into the work at the moment when Friedrich fantasizes dying a love-death with Isabella, consecrating her ‘to both God and hell.’

And once this motif had been struck in Wagner’s consciousness, and in his operatic oeuvre, it refused to go away. If the sex-positive Das Liebesverbot could not tolerate the idea of a character enjoying the ‘eroticism of damnation,’ then that would simply have to be returned to in another opera, where it could be worked out properly on its own terms.

In the early 1840s, when he composed Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), Wagner took the disavowed spirituality of Measure for Measure and put it centre-stage: the Dutchman is a rebirth of Friedrich and Angelo both. Dressed in black, he stands aboard his ship of ‘blood-red sails and black mast’; he is cursed by Satan, and he threatens eternal damnation on those who come near him; his only yearning is for an angel who will redeem him; he himself is ‘a fallen angel,’ as Wagner wrote in his “Remarks on performing Der fliegende Holländer”. His musical sound-world is exactly that of Friedrich in the earlier opera; the two characters’ monologues, in Acts II and I respectively, open almost identically, with the hushed baritone voice set against sinister but lugubrious lines on the low strings.

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