When Things Get Wyrd, Shake(speare) It Off

Giuseppe Verdi’s version of “more cowbell” looks something like an entire chorus of witches in Macbeth versus the Bard’s three.

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“Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath” by Théodore Chassériau, 1855.

In 1597, King James of Scotland wrote a work of what he considered to be definitive scholarship: Daemonologie, a paper on witchcraft. James, widely regarded by self and others to be an expert on the subject, knew, without a shred of empirical proof, that witches were real women, usually old and greedy, determined to exact a reckless vengeance on a hapless person. Thus, when he ascended to the British throne as King James I—personally overseeing the English translation of the Bible as well as the torture of women accused of witchcraft—the mighty poet of the day saw a golden opportunity.

William Shakespeare took James’s witch fancy to the page, crafting his typical low-brow, high lyricism into a play about a Scottish king bandied about by the prophecy of three witches plotting upon a heath. The play is full of insider homages to the king as well as a cautionary tale about the need for power and more power. The witches, then, play to the King’s favor; Shakespeare termed them the “Wyrd Sisters,” using the Old English word for “fate” (“wyrd”) that, over time, morphed into the word “weird” and eventually came to a very different meaning.

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The title page of Shakespeare’s play, printed in the Second Folio of 1632 (left) and the poster for the premiere of Verdi’s opera (right).

However, the meaning of the witches in Macbeth, for both Shakespeare and Verdi, remains the same. They are the characters who set the calamity in motion, provide the discordant notes that set the mere mortal mind morally adrift, and they prey upon an audience’s imagination for the supernatural.

Verdi adored Shakespeare’s plays. Even though he read the Bard’s works translated into Italian, he knew he’d eventually turn some of the plays into operas. Macbeth was the first, written when Verdi was 34, later followed by Otello and Falstaff after a ten-year absence from composing. Verdi viewed the witches as the third central character with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth noting, “the witches dominate the drama; everything stems from them … they make up a real character, and one of the greatest importance.”

Veering courageously from convention, Verdi chose to make his witches’ and Lady’s voices rough, dark and devilish—a far cry from the bel canto bravura common for the day. In fact, Macbeth marks the first instance of an opera composer subjecting the voice to the vision of the drama instead of vice versa. As he instructed his librettist: “adopt a sublime diction except for the witches’ choruses, which must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original.”

In an interesting exegesis of the opera, scholar Daniel Albright notes in the Cambridge Opera Journal (2005) that, musically, Lady Macbeth herself takes on the witches’ tonal patterns and singing qualities, essentially inducting her as the final witch of the coven, her fate sealed to a phantom splash of blood on her hand that eventually drives her to her death. This scene, the famous “sleepwalking” scene of the opera, symbolically folds Lady into the witches’ master plan to undo the lives of humans for their own greedy, elderly thrills. Lady, as a witch in her own right, gets sent back to hell, metaphorically speaking, where all witches belong—at least according to King James, whose antics, in retrospect, earned him the nickname, “the wisest fool in Christendom.”

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“The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth” by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1781-1784.

But, as fate would have it, opera lovers for the past 870 years have thrilled at Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s wyrd little drama to please the predilections of a new king. Expect the same delight at Opera Tampa’s trip from Birnam Wood and Dunsinane.

 

Want to see Opera Tampa’s production of Macbeth? Get your tickets here.