Schiller / Don Carlos

I read Schiller’s play Don Carlos last night. This is the source material for Verdi’s opera of the same name. It is the same story and the same characters, of course, but there are parts of the play that are quite distinct. In general, I would say that Schiller’s play is more morally complex than Verdi’s opera. Posa is a far more ambiguous character – he is not sinister, precisely, but he has gotten lost in the beauty of his own idealism to the point that he’s willing to manipulate others in fairly awful ways in order to serve what he believes is the great cause of mankind. (Yes, it’s anachronistic. No sixteenth-century person would talk like Schiller’s Posa. Schiller has also lifted the Spanish Armada out of the 1580s and dropped it into what appear to be the late 1560s, but never mind that either.)

Eboli is also rather different. In the opera she’s often presented as a sexually dangerous sort of person from the beginning. The big reveal about how she has been Philip’s mistress is assumed to refer to an event that took place before the opera, or at least began before the point at which the opera begins. In the play, Eboli’s fall happens between Acts III and IV. She begins the story as a virtuous if passionate young person, although as Posa points out she’s perhaps not as inherently virtuous as our heroine Elisabeth: “She [Eboli] wears her virtue like a coat of arms / Rather, her self-restraint is like a sword” (II, 5, 1274-5). Eboli’s virtue, magnificent though it is, is something she puts on to use for a specific purpose rather than something that comes from within, and the masculine imagery associated with it probably tells us something as well. Then again, this is Posa speaking, and Posa is not always to be trusted.

Why does Eboli succumb to Philip’s demands? She begins as a virtuous girl who has resisted both Philip’s propositions and his efforts to force her into marriage with a man she doesn’t love. She holds love and herself in high esteem. When Carlos thinks for a moment that she is already “fallen” she retorts, in grand style, “With whom would I have fallen? . . . [Love] is the one thing in the bounds of the earth / That cannot be exchanged for anything / But its own self. Love is the price of love / It is the only diamond I possess . . . Much like the merchant, who to spite a king / And since the whole of Venice could not pay / Returned his pearl to the enriching sea / Rather than fix a price beneath its worth.” Young Eboli here is reminiscent of Verdi’s character in terms of intensity and general style: “He who has me will be made immortal / His happiness will make him God” (II, 8, 711-740).

Eboli’s weakness, though, is that she has these grand images of virtue and thus is vulnerable when they appear to be shattered. She reveals later that she idolized Elisabeth’s purity and self control, and when she believes Elisabeth has become Carlos’s mistress, her own virtue is at an end because she has decided the whole enterprise is essentially worthless (II, 9, 871-88). She feels betrayed by Carlos (the narrative of the play here parallels the opera, with the bit about the letter and the secret meeting, although there are no veils in the text) but she also believes she has been betrayed in a greater sense, in that what she thought was real turned out to be an illusion. Or so she thinks.

I said just now that there are no veils in the text. Verdi’s opera is positively swimming in them. In the opera they stand in for everything from female chastity to (self)deception, and that those two things are combined in one object is no accident. The play also is rather heavily focused on these same themes, to the point where one begins to wonder whether this is a play about politics or a play about Elisabeth of Valois’s ladyparts that is merely masquerading as a play about politics. But that may be another subject for another day.

2 thoughts on “Schiller / Don Carlos

  1. We submit that if it IS a play about E of V’s ladyparts, it is still a play about politics.

    Also if you’re reading Oswald’s translation and not just quoting from it, toss out that gnarly monstrosity — seriously, I don’t think anyone even proofed the thing, the mistakes are so egregious — and go with MacDonald’s.

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    1. Thanks for the heads up about the translation – I’ll go find the MacDonald one.

      Re: ladyparts and politics: yes indeed. I am still thinking through this play, but when I go my next round with it I think I will have to start with what virtue is in this text (and who has it and what sorts there are and what it’s for, etc.) and what it says about the relationship between sex and politics.

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