800 Words: The ABC's of the Marriage of Figaro - B1-3
(Aktu and Melota: Surely the greatest of all Operatic Tragedies)
B1. The Birth of Tragedy
Imagine signing up for an autumn college course in the Golden Age of Literary Tragedy. The professor gives you some Marlowe and Fletcher plays, and then assigns you Paradise Lost, and by the time you finish with Milton’s epic poem it’s already Thanksgiving. The professor has time to cram in one play by Cornielle and one by Racine, and then you have to take the final. At the Professor’s last office hours, you gather up the courage to ask him, ’is this really the best which literary tragedy has to offer?’ And the wizened gray professor, ever the monologist after thirty-five years with tenure, immediately replies: ‘Yes. And to perfectly frank, I’ve studied literary tragedy for half a century and I’m still not sure whether I care if it disappears tomorrow. It’s completely over the top and the problems of its characters are completely unrelateable for people of our era. I like it the way I like a B-movie double feature’ (for the 1950’s are still this professor’s frame of reference) ‘if you don’t take pleasure in the kind of bombast and absurdities you can find in any B-movie, you’ll never find John Milton worth your time. Not even the most the beautiful passages of his writing can redeem the silliness of it all.”
“But aren’t there a lot of people who take his writing seriously?”
“There most certainly are. And when you meet them, run away. Very quickly. They would invade Poland if they had the chance.
“I’d actually like to get back to the test questions.”
“Y’know I’ve always had a theory. I don’t think it’s implausible to believe that had Shakespeare not died a few weeks before his thirty-sixth birthday, he might have completely revolutionized tragedy. You’ve probably heard the apocryphal l story about a Shakespeare dictating his unfinished revenge tragedy, “Hamlet”, to Ben Jonson while lying on his deathbed.
“Well surely you’ve heard the rumors that Ben Jonson poisoned Shakespeare...’
“I saw the movie about it.”
“Well, the fragment we have of Hamlet is tantalizing, but everybody agrees that the John Webster completion is a ridiculous mess: a band of players gets the king to melt down in front of the court, Ophelia goes insane just as Hamlet did an hour earlier, a fencing match with poisoned swords and everybody dying before a Norwegian invasion that barely registers because the play ends just as it happens.”
“It does sound pretty ridiculous.”
“Had Shakespeare lived to complete it, he’d have come up with a far more coherent ending.”
“I always kind of liked the ending of Hamlet.”
“Well the language is good enough that lots of scholars wonder if Shakespeare completed more of it than we have verified in his hand. Certainly, there are passages in the Webster completion that are better than anything in The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil. It’s difficult to believe that Webster could write “To be, or not to be” or “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquies.”
“That reminds me, are we going to have to remember the dates of composition for the final?”
“If only Shakespeare had another ten years to write, he might have revised everything we ever knew about the possibilities of literary tragedy. Maybe all those later writers would write better in his wake.”
BII. Shakespeare or Mozart?
(not the music of a lightweight)
Obviously, Shakespeare did not die before his thirty-sixth birthday, Mozart did. But had Shakespeare died at that age, we’d be deprived of the string of great tragedies that immediately followed: of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macb*th, Anton and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Pericles Prince of Tyre, and Timon of Athens. The mature Shakespearean tragedies (and the Romances that followed) would have never materialized, and the single most important bedrock of our literary tradition would never exist.
It’s impossible to create an exact Shakespearean chronology, but some scholars allege that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in 1599 - which perhaps means that it would have been the last work he completed had he died in early 1600. We would have all the Histories, but more importantly for this comparison, we’d The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, and it’s quite possible that we’d have As You Like It and Twelfth Night. We’d have many examples of what Shakespeare could do with tragedy, but the backbone of Shakespeare’s achievement would be overwhelmingly comic.
In such a scenario, Shakespeare would probably be remembered as an incomparable talent. Many people would still contend that he was the very greatest writer of all time, but there would still be some mistrust of him. Surely the greatest of all writers should have written a more serious output. Whether one believed Shakespeare the greatest or third-greatest writer of all time, there would be a giant, gaping question mark whenever his name is mentioned as to what the Bard could have done with more time. People would regard Shakespeare as the greatest pleasure giver among writers, but his name could never invoke the gravitas of Dante or Dostoevsky. He would be regarded exactly as music lovers today regard Mozart.
Like the young Shakespeare, there are plenty of premonitions of a Mozartian tragic style to come. All one has to do is listen to the fortieth symphony, the twentieth and twenty-fourth piano concertos, the Requiem, the g-minor piano quartet and string quintet, the Masonic funeral music, the A-minor piano sonata, and the beginning of the Great Mass - to say nothing of more than a dozen famous operatic passages - to see that Mozart was more than up to the demands of tragedy.
But Mozart was simply more talented a composer than Shakespeare was a writer. Lest that comment seem like comparing apples and oranges, let’s look at the sheer diversity of achievement. Shakespeare wrote roughly 38 plays (of which we know), and depending on the person you ask: somewhere between a dozen and two dozen are considered indisputable masterpieces. He began writing the plays around the age of twenty-four, and wrote roughly two plays a year for a bit more than twenty years. That is an astonishing level of productivity. Mozart, on the other hand, wrote twenty-two operas, and ‘only’ somewhere between four and seven of them are considered masterpieces. Mozart, however, began writing operas at the age of eleven. From the time he was eleven onward, he also found the time to produce an opera nearly every year of his life until its end, he also wrote well more than forty symphonies (if one includes the unnumbered), twenty-two piano concertos (11 of which he produced over two years, each of which is considered a masterpiece), at least five violin concertos (six if you count the sinfonia concertante for violin and viola), four horn concertos, six other concertos for wind instruments, eighteen piano sonatas, roughly a dozen books of piano variations, seven sonatas for for two pianists to play together, sixteen violin sonatas (those are just the mature, completed ones), twenty-three string quartets \, six string quintets, more than a dozen masses etc. etc. etc.
Not all of this music is worth getting to know well, but let’s say that a mere third of this output was written at Mozart’s highest level. That is a stunning range of masterpieces. Against Shakespeare’s best dozen and a half plays (to pick an arbitary number) and the best of his 154 sonnets, Mozart produced roughly two hundred masterful works in every musical genre of his time in addition to inventing a few of his own. To find an equivalent, Shakespeare would have to produce masterpieces in every literary genre of his time, and then invent a few to produce more in. Had Mozart died like Shakespeare on his fifty-second birthday, he would have had sixteen more years to produce at this level. He might not only have created the definitive masterpieces of music, he might have also created the definitive masterpieces of theater.
To fancy a scenario in which Shakespeare ended his career with Twelfth Night draws an especially interesting parallel. There are enormous similarities between Twelfth Night and The Magic Flute. Not just between the characters (Monostatos and Malvolio could easily switch plays - unfortunately Monostatos seems racist but Malvolio displays just as much bigotry against Puritans). Both works are pitched almost perfectly between farce and elegy - mourning the stupidity of human beings while laughing at them all the same.
The similarities between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Marriage of Figaro, which are both complexly plotted farces in which people pursue their love for one another with intentions that are not entirely good, are also stunning. One could perhaps also draw parallels between Cosi fan Tutte and Much Ado About Nothing, or the character of Don Giovanni with Sir John Falstaff (give or take a few hundred pounds).
Granted, I can hear the thinking of anyone who’s read this far that Mozart only provided the music, and the genius of music has nothing to do with the plots of his operas. Well, if that’s what you were thinking, you’re both right and wrong: the plots of Mozart’s operas have no more to do with the quality of Mozart’s music than the plots of Shakespeare plays have to do with the quality of Shakespeare’s language. The point is that both provided a framework for stunning achievements. With the exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s plots were little more his own invention than Mozart’s. But both of them seemed inspired by the same tragicomic themes - themes that, to my thinking, make them more perfectly placed to capture life’s essence than nearly any other dramatists before or since.