Shakespeare and Wagner or Turning the Bard Inward

What is it links Shakespeare and Wagner?

shakespeare image wagner

Almost a hundred years ago Edgar Istel  examined how Wagner borrowed from Measure for Measure to create his early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)and set out how Wagner read Shakespeare and returned to him throughout his life. [1]  But the real Wagner/Shakespeare story it seems to me is much more interesting than a conventional historical approach can reveal. Essentially it takes us through two ages of philosophy. We need to compare a certain overlap between Descartes and Shakespeare, and another, three hundred years later, between Husserl and Wagner. It will help us see exactly what Wagner was doing with his Shakespeare.

Descartes (1596-1650) would have been six when Hamlet was first performed in London, and he never referred to Shakespeare. The Bard is much more often compared with the sceptical Montaigne (1533-1592) But when the philosopher Bernard Williams called Descartes ‘the soliloquizer of The Meditations’ he was not wrong, for Hamlet was full of  cognitive doubt. [2] In that 1641 text Descartes dared challenge God and the moral order by asking a set of forensic questions. Like the character Hamlet Descartes opened up a new universe of subjectivity which risked being godless.

With Hamlet Shakespeare was interested in how a world including England was poised to change with Luther’s Protestantism.  In Wittenberg Martin Luther, professor of theology from 1508, had nailed his decrees of protest against Rome to the church door in 1517. At The Diet of Worms in 1521 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V outlawed him as a heretic. Both of these signifiers became key functions in the 1610 play: Wittenberg played a role right from the first two scenes of Act I and the Diet of Worms was a joke in Act IV scene iii, closely followed by ‘The present death of Hamlet. Do it England…’

Luther and Descartes agreed, more or less, that only the individual can say whether the experience in our heads corresponds to what is actually real and true of whatever world we are part of. Luther’s Christianity eschewed the authority of the Church in favour of  personal faith alone: fide sola.

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was shown to be the instrument of the new Wittenberg inwardness.  It had turned him into an acute agent of moral conscience/consciousness, with his ‘globe’ ‘distracted’ (I:v). He spoke ‘I’ in a new way.  Moreover, because of his emotional character, and what had happened in his life, he was about to show how the new faith, with its insufficient guarantees of certainty, could drive a susceptible man to madness.

Now we can follow Hamlet’s torment from outside, as a study in subjectivity, and as a dramatic reflection of the Cartesian doubt, which the Romantics did.

But as a twentieth-century critic suggested around fifty years ago now, under a different kind of philosophical guidance we can also immerse ourselves in Hamlet’s consciousness, and perhaps have a rather different philosophical-artistic experience. ‘It is no longer a question of pretending that Hamlet is real so that we may become interested in his adventures. Instead we make ourselves present to Hamlet’s world so that it may touch us and flow into us. Feeling has depth…and does not proceed without fervour…There is even love…the expectation of a conversion by the attention we pay to the other…in the aesthetic attitude.’ [3]



It is the phenomenological approach to Hamlet, I want to suggest, is what helps us see the Shakespeare-Wagner relationship in a new light.

With his phenomenology Husserl took the Cartesian cogito – the I think, I am – in a new direction by asking not what it was to know, but what it was to be conscious. When  the mind is awake, even semi-awake, it has thoughts, and fantasies, references to past, future and nowhere and never, which all get drawn into the experience of now. Intentionality is what Husserl calls everything filling our consciousness at one moment; and what he wants to pin down is all the wishing and hoping and fearing and promising and speculating and fantasizing and regretting that engulf us. Husserl’s phenomenology is about what grammar calls the subjunctive mood.  Wagner set that to music.

In fact Husserl thought that his work was like that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an extraordinary lyric poet and one of Wagner’s immediate operatic successors, but the parallel with Wagner works much more powerfully.  Wagner himself once brilliantly defined his approach: ‘As the drama does not describe human personages but lets them present themselves directly, music in its motifs immediately brings before us the character of world-phenomena in their most intimate seity. The movement, configuration and variation of these motifs are…not simply related to the drama, but the drama presenting the idea can in reality only fully be comprehended through the movements, shapes and changes of these motifs of the music…Hence if we gather together the complex of the cosmos of Shakespeare’s shapes…and compare it with the cosmos of Beethoven’s motifs…one must become aware that the one microcosm is fully the equivalent of the other…’[4]

Wagner admired Shakespeare’s grandeur and range. He paid him the ultimate compliment of calling him ‘The Second Creator’.


But where the composer’s originality began he became Shakespeare’s rival. He made two crucial autobiographical statements which show the path he took. The first was that  he actually became a composer  to equal Shakespeare. The second, intricately related to the first, was that Shakespeare originated the music-drama.

In truth Wagner wanted to be Shakespeare. He summed up why late in his life: ‘Shakespeare, the great mimetic talent, could not fulfil all the roles he created. The composer, however, may realise all aspects of music and may be at one with the executant musician.’[5]

And so he drew Shakespeare’s world of epic grandeur and Hamletian interiority into his own religion of art, where he transformed it. Consider only the leitmotiv by which he approached his Shakespearean-style  heroes and heroines, warriors and lovers, from inside their emotions, and represented those interiorities of longing, loving, hating, promising with a new musico-dramatic device. The leitmotiv has been described as ‘an all-embracing amalgam of sound, feeling and experience, the little phrase is a single unified thing, in ordinary terms “a moment in time”.’ [6]


One of his biographers has suggested the ‘Total Work of Art’, Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, was simply a formula to use all of Wagner’s talents.[7] But I suggest rather it was a homage to Shakespeare, stoked by Wagner’s desire for his audience to submit to a rival total experience.

Meanwhile the philosophers we have referred to make it clear that Wagner was striving to convey consciousness, not subjectivity, and that was what made him post-Romantic and Early Modernist, if we want to stick even more labels on his achievement.


[1] Margaret Inwood The Influence of Shakespeare on Richard Wagner (1999).

[2] Bernard Williams Descartes The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978,1990) 68.

[3] Mikel Dufrenne The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1953) tr. Edward S. Casey (1973) 405-406.

[4] Edgar Istel Wagner and Shakespeare (1922)

[5] Roger Paulin The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany 1682-1914 (2003), 429.

[6] Malcolm Bowie Proust Among the Stars (1988) 109

[7] Brian Magee Aspects of Wagner (1968) 84

(The above a shortened version of a talk given to Kingston University Shakespeare Seminar on Jan 8, 2015.)


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