• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Shakespeare and Verdi in the Theater

Silvia Lelli
Željko Lučić as Macbeth in Peter Stein’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, Salzburg, Austria, 2011

Verdi adored Shakespeare. Besides the three operas he took from him—Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff—he considered (though briefly) doing a Tempest or Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. He considered for a very long time, and came near to creating, an opera from his favorite play, King Lear.1 He did not take lightly the duty of being true to Shakespeare. When he read the score of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, he said of the librettists, “Poor Shakespeare! How they have mistreated him!” He did not mean to mistreat the great dramatist himself.

Hundreds of operas were derived from Shakespeare’s plays—even more than from the works of Schiller, Goethe, or Walter Scott. Phyllis Hartnoll and her collaborators in Shakespeare in Music counted over 180 Shakespeare operas, but admitted they were missing some.2 The editors of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare claim the number is closer to three hundred.3 Most of the Shakespeare operas in nineteenth-century Italy, France, and Germany were taken from the plays indirectly, from parallel sources, or from poor translations. Rossini’s Otello (1816), for instance, was based on a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s own Italian source, Cinthio’s Hecatommitthi. Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830) came from a play by Luigi Scevola.4 Verdi was the first Italian composer who worked hard to get back to Shakespeare’s authentic text.

Verdi could not read English—though his wife, who helped him, could—but he carefully compared the latest and best recent translations (some made by his friends or acquaintances).5 He had not been to England when he composed Macbeth, but he had acquired, from friends like Andrea Maffei, solid information on the way Macbeth was staged in the country of its origin. For Macbeth, he cut the play down to opera size himself, creating a prose synopsis for his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, to versify. He was dissatisfied with Piave’s work, correcting it, adding suggestions, above all trimming it. He wanted no wasted words. He insisted to Piave, Poche parole! Poche parole! Poche parole! (Few words! Few words! Few words!) Finally, in his exasperation with Piave, he had his scholar friend Andrea Maffei, an expert translator, correct portions of the libretto.

Verdi worked himself so deeply into Shakespeare’s mind that in revising Macbeth for a Paris premiere, he took the gem of this performance—Lady Macbeth’s aria “La luce langue”—directly from Shakespeare, in collaboration with his wife: “Verdi himself actually wrote the text for this aria—not only the detailed prose version he first sent to [his librettist] Piave on December 15, but the verses themselves, to which the librettist made only a few minor changes.”

Most of the many operas made from Shakespeare’s plays are failures. Loose adaptations have been more successful—overtures, fantasias (like Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet), incidental music (like Mendelssohn’s for A Midsummer Night’s Dream), variations (like Berlioz’s Béatrice and Bénédict). The rare success of a complete Shakespearean opera—like Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—is a one-off for its composer. Verdi is the only one who created three solid masterpieces from Shakespeare plays. They not only succeeded at the time of their premieres but have grown in reputation over the years, standing out even from his own extraordinary line of great works. The last two—Otello and Falstaff—are arguably the greatest things he ever wrote. He composed more operas from Schiller’s plays (four) than from Shakespeare, and some of those are very impressive—especially Don Carlos. But none towers up above his Shakespeare operas.

Verdi, across time and language barriers, obviously felt a great affinity with the dramatic ideals of his Elizabethan predecessor—and with good reason. The two men worked in theater conditions with many similarities. Both were supplying performances on a heavy schedule, to audiences with a voracious appetite for what they wrote. In a career of little over twenty years, Shakespeare turned out thirty-eight plays (along with some collaborations). Verdi had a longer career of fifty-four years—but with a sixteen-year inactive period between Aida and Otello—in which he created twenty-seven operas (along with important revisions).

These men were producing two major theatrical works a year during their most intense times, and were engaged in other poetic or musical compositions, as well as managerial and directorial work along the way. Shakespeare was composing narrative poems and sonnets. Verdi was composing religious and ceremonial and chamber music. Some of their contemporaries were even more prolific, especially Rossini in Verdi’s youth.6 The Elizabethan theaters were continually buzzing with new work, from dozens of aspiring playwrights, making the playhouses “pestiferous with plays” (as Bernard Shaw put it).7 The pace of professional life was unlike anything we see today, when a single play is kept in performance for long runs:

In the month of January, 1596…the Admirals’ Men played on every day except Sundays and presented fourteen plays. Six were given only one performance in the month, and no play was presented more than four times. The shortest interval between the repetition of any single play was three days, and the next shortest five. Although all except one were old plays, this record represents an achievement that would almost certainly be beyond the capacities of actors in the modern theatre.8

We can only be stunned at the memory powers of the actors on such a schedule. The opera houses of Verdi’s time were just as bustling with new works and crowded seasons.

Shakespeare and Verdi were creative volcanoes. But mainly they were men of the theater, engaged in the companies they worked with, active at each stage of the production of the plays and operas that filled their lives—Shakespeare as an actor in his own and other men’s plays, Verdi as a vocal coach and director of his works. Theirs was a hands-on life of the stage, not a remote life of the study.


Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are working, usually, from a false and modern premise. They are thinking of the modern playwright, a full-time literary fellow who writes a drama and then tries to find people who will put it on—an agent to shop it around, a producer to put up the money, a theater as its venue, a director, actors, designers of sets and costumes, musicians and dancers if the play calls for them, and so on. Sometimes a successful playwright sets up an arrangement with a particular company (Eugene O’Neill and the Province- town Players) or director (Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan), but the process still begins with the writer creating his script, before elements are fitted around it, depending on things like which directors or actors are available for and desirous of doing the play. Producers complain that it is almost impossible to assemble the ideal cast for all the roles as the author envisioned them in his isolated act of creation. The modern writer owns the play by copyright and can publish it on his or her own, whether produced or not. None of these things was true of dramatic production in Shakespeare’s time.

Then, the process began with the actors. They chose the playwright, not vice versa. They owned the play, and could publish it or withhold it from publication. Each troupe had limited resources—often, nine to twelve adult actors (all male), and far fewer boy actors (sometimes as few as two). A Swiss traveler in 1599 saw “about fifteen” players handle the forty-five speaking parts in Julius Caesar.9 An aspiring playwright had to bring his idea to these actors (or their representatives) with a plot accommodated to the number and talents of the particular troupe. The parts he was describing had to be so arranged as to allow for multiple doublings. A man playing two roles could not meet himself on stage, or even come back in as someone else too soon to allow for costume and other changes (a beard, wig, spectacles, padding, and so on). “For some thirty-five years from 1547–8 plays advertise, usually on the title-page, the number of actors required and how the parts may be doubled, trebled, and even septupled.”10 In a 1576 morality play, The Tide Tarrieth No Man, the Vice character is told to prolong his duel “while Wantonness maketh her ready” in the tiring-house to come back out as Greediness.11 The plot had to be tailored for the company from the very outset.

If the actors liked the concept of a play, they would normally recommend it to a theatrical entrepreneur (Philip Henslowe was the most famous of the half-dozen or so working at a time) for an advance to the playwright while he finished the work. This advance was a loan, which the actors would pay back later, preferably from the proceeds of the play when performed. When the author finished writing his work, he read it to the company, which either accepted or rejected it at this point. If accepted, the script had to be presented to the Master of the Revels for state censorship, with payment for his reading it. He would often demand certain changes—or in some cases turn it down entirely. Only then, if cleared, could the play be put on. If, despite such screening, the play seemed seditious or libelous in the actual presentation, the actors were responsible along with the author and could be fined, suspended, jailed, even mutilated (by branding or ear cropping or nose cropping), or their theater could be closed.12

Thus, in the modern theater, performers are fitted to the play, but in Shakespeare’s time, the play was fitted to the performers. If the playwright had an ongoing relationship with the troupe—like Shakespeare’s with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men)—he could create his text for the known strengths of particular actors, as Shakespeare did for the talents of the great Richard Burbage. Shakespeare wrote comic scenes in different ways for the famous clown Will Kemp and for the intellectual jester Robert Armin. He even took advantage of animal performers available to the cast. When the troupe had a trained dog, he wrote the part of Crab into Two Gentlemen of Verona. When it had a young polar bear at hand, he wrote a scene-stopper for The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”13 When he had two sets of players who looked alike, he wrote The Comedy of Errors. In modern productions, with an established text, producers can shop around in a large pool of unattached actors to find two couples who are plausibly similar, but Shakespeare began with the four men already in his company and wrote the play to use them.

The trickiest job was to write for that rare commodity, the boy actors who played women. These were hard to come by and train in the brief time before their voices broke. That is why women’s parts make up only thirteen percent of the lines in the plays. The playwright had to know what stage of development each apprentice had reached. There were usually just two or three boys in the public plays (though more were available from choristers when a play was given at court or in a great family mansion). The boys’ memories were such that Shakespeare wrote shorter parts for them than for adult actors—an average of three hundred or so lines to the adults’ 650 or so lines per play. But when he had a spectacular boy like John Rice, he was able to write as big a role for him as that of Cleopatra (693 lines). Nothing could be more absurd than the idea of the Earl of Oxford writing a long woman’s part without knowing whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it.14 Only Shakespeare, who knew and wrote for and acted with and coached John Rice, knew what he could do and how to pace him from play to play.

  1. 1

    On Verdi’s long engagement with King Lear, see Philip Gossett, “The Hot and the Cold: Verdi Writes to Antonio Somma About Re Lear,” in Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez in Honor of Charles Rosen on his Eightieth Birthday, edited by Robert Curry et al. (University of Rochester Press, 2008). 

  2. 2

    Shakespeare in Music, edited by Phyllis Hartnoll (Macmillan, 1964) pp. 26–82. She lists thirty-two operas from The Tempest, twenty-four from Romeo and Juliet, fourteen from Hamlet

  3. 3

    The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, corrected edition (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 325–328. Though they find some full operas not listed by Hartnoll, they also include English Restoration versions of the plays with musical additions. 

  4. 4

    The Romeo and Juliet theme was set to music by Mariscalchi (1785), Zingarelli (1796), Guglielmi (1810), Vaccai (1825), and Torriani (1828). But no opera was based directly on Shakespeare’s play until Marchetti’s in 1865. 

  5. 5

    William Weaver argues that Verdi used and compared six translations of Macbeth in collaborating on the libretto of his opera; see Verdi: A Documentary Study (Thames and Hudson, 1978). 

  6. 6

    Rossini in twenty years wrote forty operas. For the Elizabethan theater, Thomas Heywood wrote, alone or in various collaborations, 220 plays, Thomas Dekker wrote sixty-four, Philip Massinger fifty-five. See Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642 (Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 27–28. 

  7. 7

    George Bernard Shaw, review of Macbeth in The Saturday Review, May 25, 1883. 

  8. 8

    David Bradley , From Text to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 33. 

  9. 9

    Thomas Platter quoted in E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford University Press, 2009), Vol. 2, p. 365. 

  10. 10

    F.P. Wilson, The English Drama, 1485–1585 (Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 49. 

  11. 11

    Wilson, The English Drama, p. 65. 

  12. 12

    For the mode of putting on plays in Shakespeare’s time, see the detailed and amply documented accounts in Bentley, The Profession of Dramatist, and Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642 (Princeton University Press, 1984). Also Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 1, pp. 71–105, 348–388, and Neil Carson, A Companion to Henslowe’s ‘Diary’ (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 67–79. 

  13. 13

    It used to be thought that the “bear” was a man in a costume. But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe Theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610–1611 theatrical season—the old play Mucedorus, revived in 1610 with added scenes for the bear, Ben Johnson’s 1611 masque Oberon, with a bear-drawn chariot, and The Winter’s Tale (1611). Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and are relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their young state. Since polar bears are such good swimmers, the King even turned them loose in the Thames to have aquatic bear baitings. See Barbara Ravelhofer, “‘Beasts of Recreacion’: Henslowe’s White Bears,” English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 32 (2002), pp. 287–323, and Teresa Grant, “Polar Performances: The King’s Bear Cubs on the Jacobean Stage,” Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 2002. 

  14. 14

    The numbers of lines per character I take from T.J. King, Casting Shakespeare’s Plays; London Actors and Their Roles, 1590–1642 (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Different counts are arrived at according to the way lines are assigned to prose speeches. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print