Schiller / Don Carlos (2)

(about the opera here and a bit about the play here.)

One of the moments in this play that I found really interesting occurs in the first scene of Act IV. Eboli has just had what by all indications was a not terrifically fun night with the king, Carlos is (as usual) in trouble and Posa comes to Elizabeth to ask for her help. And Elizabeth cheerfully commits what I can only categorize as treason. And no one appears to notice.

Posa begins by relaying a request from Philip that Elizabeth not receive the French ambassador that day. But Elizabeth is aware that something, clearly, is up – this cannot be all Posa has come to say. “I shall be glad,” she says “to remain in ignorance of what perhaps must be kept secret from me.” Posa replies that “if you were not who you are” he would “warn you against certain persons – but with you that is not necessary,” because Elizabeth is sort of naturally immune to danger. She resists it without even knowing, according to Posa, and explanations are not “worth chasing the golden sleep from the brow of an angel” (IV, 1, no line numbers b/c this edition has decided to leave them out for some reason. This is *ahem* from the translation by Robert David Macdonald.) Elizabeth’s constitutional imperviousness to bad things is significant, and I will get back to that in a minute.

Posa explains what he wants from the queen. Carlos is to go to Flanders and take up arms against his father. Posa hesitates to get into the details “because the name it [this type of plan] bears is somewhat harsh,” but Elizabeth does not hesitate to name it: “rebellion?” And we see an interesting side of Elizabeth here. The plan “appalls me – and attracts me at the same time . . .but such an enterprise needs money.” Posa replies that he’s got that covered, to which Elizabeth responds that “I know ways besides” (IV, 1).

Elizabeth has just agreed to fund and materially assist a rebellion against her husband the king. She has named it rebellion, and Posa agrees, but they seem to see this primarily from the perspective of what Carlos is going to do, not what Elizabeth (and Posa too) have just done. Planning to offer monetary and military assistance to the enemies of the crown is by most lights an act of treason. Posa one can see being fine with this even if he understands it in these terms, because Posa has been on a bit of a ‘my ideals are the great ideals of the universe and the ends justify the means’ trip of late. He has not, from his perspective, betrayed what is ultimately important.

But what about Elizabeth? Her ideals are not Posa’s. And she must be aware that what she has done, or at least agreed to do, is a betrayal of her husband on both a personal and a political level. But no one ever mentions it. Even when one of Philip’s advisers tells him that “sums have been raised by Moorish agents in the Queen’s name, to be redeemed at Brussels” (V, 2) Philip hardly seems to notice. It’s as if this somehow does not matter.

I think what is going on here has something to do with what Posa says earlier in this scene about Elizabeth’s innate imperviousness to evil. Her “golden sleep” as he puts it, from which he does not wish to awake her.

But sleep is a bit of an odd metaphor for virtue, isn’t it? It implies that being good is a natural bodily state from which one might be suddenly awakened. Elisabeth is good because she is naturally unaware of or impervious to the bad. It’s innate in her, somehow. As Posa puts it earlier on, she has “an inborn, quiet radiance . . .all unaware she commands adoration” (II, 5). Elizabeth has never had to think about being good. Eboli, according to Posa just a few lines before in this scene, has. Eboli “seemed to be completely conscious of her virtue” (italics in original). But why is that worse? It might even seem as if it should be better – surely it’s worthwhile to stop to ponder such things, no?

No. Because Eboli’s virtue is a decision – a response to a situation, not something that wells up from within. She and it are separate things. As she says during the course of her decision to submit to Philip, “what I have been, I am still. It is the situation that has changed” (II, 4). She even goes so far as to tell Carlos, when she is expecting a declaration of love, that she is willing to separate his love from being his wife (II, 3). Her purposes are not base – love and virtue are very real things to her. But she values them both too much and not enough. She looks for her ideals in other people — or, even better, demands their presence in other people, and when disappointed she is too quick to conclude that the ideals themselves are shams, rather than in the flaw being where or how she has looked. But there is virtue and then there is virtue. Eboli has scornfully smashed her own ‘virtue’ in the sexual sense – but this does not mean she has lost her sense of right and wrong. When faced with a knife-wielding Posa in Act IV she tells him to go ahead and kill her, because she deserves it and soon after (IV, 9) she tries to tell the king the truth. She is prevented, though. Perhaps her attempt at doing the right thing fails because she lacks that innate not-separate-from-self virtue that Elizabeth has? She can’t be good, and as a result she cannot do good.

But about Posa. Eboli tells him to knife her. But he can’t. As he tells Carlos later, he “set [his] dagger against a woman’s breast” and what drove him to it made him “a beast, a Fury” (V, 1).

And Posa’s horror when he sees this animal capacity in himself gets at one of the big problems in this play, which is the relationship between Nature – it is often capitalized — and virtue. Elizabeth’s virtue seems natural, direct, and cannot be compromised. Eboli lacks this sort of virtue, which in several places is described explicitly as ‘feminine.’ Not only in the sense of it being something that good women have, but in the sense of that it is the limit of what even the best women can aspire to.

Elizabeth alludes to this at the end, when Carlos has transcended (I suppose) love for purer and higher motives. “Nature is extinct in me!” he tells her, to which Elizabeth replies that she “dare[s] not rise to such a height of manly greatness; but I can understand you and admire you” (V, 3). Female virtue at its best has the perfection and the simplicity and lack of self-consciousness of ‘Nature’ (hi, eighteenth-century romanticism!) – but like Nature it has limits. What makes Elizabeth good has nothing to do with politics or rescuing people from subjection, so it is not surprising that the political betrayal of Philip in Act IV slides right off her. Posa (in the course of another epicycle of manipulation) actually tells Philip about this soon after, with the added suggestion that “she has been hurt to see her proud hopes disappointed and herself excluded from participation in the state.” Philip dismisses it: “her politics will not cost me too much sleep” (IV, 3). I have a sneaking suspicion that Posa’s lie here, as his lies often do, contains a little flash of truth – but this is only a sneaking suspicion.

What then does this imply for the men?

Philip’s problem in this play is that he cannot work out the boundary between the man and the king – between relationships of nature and relationships of power. He is tortured with suspicion about Elizabeth, even suspecting that Carlos is the father of their daughter (IV, 3). This comes about because he persistently conflates his role as husband with his role as king – which is not an insane thing for an early modern monarch to do. But this play is at least in some sense a critique of early modern monarchy. Hence Philip’s problems. He deals with his marriage via the same political creatures he uses to deal with his court and his kingdom, and the result is misery all around. What should be a union of nature (marriage) has gotten dragged into the problem of ruling over people to whom you are related not by ties of blood or sex but by ties of religion and abstract allegiance. It is telling that Philip’s marriage is a little unnatural to begin with – Elizabeth is a young woman in her early twenties at most, while Philip is nearly sixty and everyone in the story is keenly aware of this. Carlos goes so far as to suggest directly to Elizabeth that any affection between them must be forced (I, 2).

And with Carlos, too, Philip cannot deal with him as a son – he deals with him as an heir, a conspirator, and a rival, but he cannot bring himself to love him. Philip almost thinks he has a friend in Posa, but Posa’s elaborate machinations to save Carlos end up destroying this, causing Philip to do the most ‘natural’ thing he does in the entire play, which is to cry (IV, 9).

So we’ve got the ladies, who are naturally virtuous (sometimes); we have Philip, who fears Nature as a trick, as when he doubts the replication of his own features in his little daughter’s face, and suspects manipulation when his son pleads for affection (IV, 3 and II, 1); we have Posa who criticizes Philip’s iron-fisted rule as a “perversion of Nature” (III, 3) but fears the beast within; we’ve got Carlos who is a very ‘natural’ person in the sense of being unguarded and too free with his feelings — and unlike everyone else, probably even including the inscrutable Posa, a virgin — but who claims to have transcended nature at the end; and we have that on-going rebellion in the Netherlands. And the Spanish Inquisition.

Is politics ‘unnatural’? Does it have to be – is there a way of ruling that does not violate ‘Nature’? Or, what does that even mean? Because this is a good play it does not pretend to answer any of those questions with any degree of certainty. Philip is sort of unnatural, and the grim brutality of Alba and the Inquisition are certainly offered as violations of nature — but Philip’s motives are utterly rooted in personal relationships or ties of nature. Carlos and Posa want ‘natural’ politics, but Carlos also claims that he and Posa are “tied together by a far nobler bond than Nature forges” (V, 1). At the play’s end, Elizabeth is in a dead faint (pesky nature!), Posa is dead, and Philip coldly turns Carlos over to the Inquisition for execution. All this drama has cut a great swath of destruction and brutality and loss – but for what?

And this makes me think, musically, of the last moment of Verdi’s opera. Carlos has been drawn into the tomb of his grandfather (a bit different than in the play) and you get those big final brassy chords that resolve on a very bright dry hard major. It’s huge and magnificent and crushing – it’s the Escorial written into notes.

4 thoughts on “Schiller / Don Carlos (2)

  1. Excellent points all around, and that last line ftw!

    Vis a vis the Nature/nature issue, it might be interesting to do a survey of capitalization of this word in English translations of this play (now that there are so damn many of them!), since this is a matter of translator’s interpretation. Sort of makes me wish I could be laid off for about six months 🙂


    1. I know what you mean – I’ve got an eighteenth-century English translation (hooray ECCO database!) that I keep meaning to take another look at too. And in addition to Nature/nature there are a few other passages that get rendered rather startlingly differently in different translations. I need to figure out some version of being an early Americanist that involves eighteenth-century German plays . . .


      1. Ah, then for Schiller you want Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue & Love/Passion & Politics/Luisa Miller, depending on the translator), which has some discussion about German “mercenaries” (read press-ganged farm boys) being sent to fight for the British in America. For reasons mostly to do with a guy named Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg, this leads right down the rabbit hole into Schiller’s more general critiques of absolutism. The American Revolution is very much in the background, especially of the early plays.

        Also, I’ve read somewhere (back in the aughts when I was writing a paper on all this) that there were some 50 translations of Don Carlos for the English stage between 1787 and 1800. But once Napoleon enters the scene, zip nada. I bet there’s some traction on that this side of the pond, if one were to dig deep enough.


        1. I should look into what inhabitants of eighteenth-century America did with Don Carlos – or Schiller in general. Literature and drama are not my areas of professional expertise, but as a historian of political culture I bet there’s a ‘how were people thinking about politics’ paper in there somewhere. (And it would mean that various translations of various things by Schiller could be charged to the research account, which is always a plus.)


Comments are closed.