Richard Wagner discovered Shakespeare when he was a young adolescent, immediately made him his ‘exemplar,’ and wrote his own gory Gothic Shakespeare-play.
He tried more than once to shut out this adolescent passion and break into the future, but he was always drawn back, each time more intensely. He wrote an opera of Measure for Measure, and used Shakespearian dramatic models in all of his later music-dramas, even demanding that music itself ‘take the… shape of a Shakespearian drama.’
Cosima Wagner sensed that her husband could not be understood ‘except with Shakespeare’s genius,’ and their mutual friend Malwida von Meysenbug joked that Wagner ‘had mistaken his profession – that he ought to have become an actor, in order to enact Shakespeare and make people realize to the full the imposing grandeur of his genius.'
Wagner scornfully dismissed those academics who ‘suck [Shakespeare] dry with their critical sponges,’ and he demanded a response to his predecessor that was at once personal, passionate and productive, so that Shakespeare would live on, an ‘ever new-creating poet,’ in the ideas and works of other people.
Shakespeare is startlingly under-represented in the Wagner literature – and, although a few writers are exploring the connection at this moment, I hope to make my own personal and polemical contribution.