Hamlet in His Modern Guises

By Alexander Welsh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
History, as between Goethe's
Hamlet and Scott's

REVENGE AS THE REAL or imagined recourse of mourning has its human appeal, and the popularity of Shakespeare's Hamlet both attests to this appeal and very likely enhanced it. The conventions of revenge tragedy were not put to an end by the closing of the English theaters; some were reinvented for the Restoration stage, and Hamlet made its own way with, or was taken over by, European enterprises of widely different sorts. No composite work of the Enlightenment, for example, could be more imposing than Mozart and da Ponte's Don Giovanni, which owed its existence to another legendary hero altogether.1 Yet the slaying of the commendatore in the first scene, which provides an impetus and gives a shape to the plot, produces a situation resembling that of the young Hamlet. The principal dramatic source, Tirso de Molina's Burlador de Seville of 1630, stages the murder halfway through the action, with little regard to mourning; the opera, however, has Dona Anna grieving for her father's death from the start, and throughout her determination on revenge is the means of fighting back her grief. The statue or ghost of the commendatore, armed capa-pie, then fuels Senecan expectations, the conflagration of which is supplied by Christian eschatology when Don Giovanni refuses to repent. The Hamlet role strictly falls to Dona Anna's betrothed, Don Ottavio, the avenging tenor who sings beautifully but awaits the intervention of Providence; while for her part, in this serio-comic development, Dona Anna continues to put off marriage out of respectful remembrance of her father.

In a novel of the same era, no better known than Don Giovanni but far more famously connected with Hamlet, the deceased father is scarcely given the time of day. Instead, when the characters in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre come to perform Shakespeare's play, the part of the ghost is left to a mysterious person who is unknown to the hero and not a member of the cast, after Wilhelm's own father passes away, and out of the novel, with little

____________________
1
According to Flaubert, “The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart's Don Giovanni”: to Louise Colet, 3 Oct. 1846, in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830–1857, ed. and trans. Francis Steegmuller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 83.

-71-

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