Men of the Theater
Email this review


One genius interprets another: English to Italian, words to lyrics, immortal drama to overpowering opera.

In his latest, Wills (History/Northwestern Univ.; Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer, 2010, etc.) proves once again that he isn’t just a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, full-time public intellectual and Catholic apologist who is fluent in Greek and Latin. In examining how the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) turned three Shakespeare plays into classics of his own, the authors demonstrates how an adaptation can both analyze and interpret its source of inspiration. Wills finds that these two creative dynamos, separated by two centuries, had much in common; both were as productive as they were pragmatic, each tailoring their work to the actors or singers who were available. Although Verdi could not speak English, he perfectly grasped Shakespeare’s complexities. The duets of Macbeth underscore the intent of the devious and deviant Lord and Lady: “[Macbeth] and his wife talk past each other, not to each other, hiding from each other, and each hiding from him- or herself. It is all there in the music.” With Otello, Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito turned a fiercely pessimistic play into a nihilistic one, in which Iago sees himself as the devoted servant of a cruel God. With Falstaff, he created virtually a new play, piecing together the larger-than-life character from the Shakespeare’s history plays and his lesser comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Just as Verdi “gave cosmic reach to Otello’s music,” writes the author, “he turns Falstaff into a force of nature, an earth-daimon.” Wills isn’t afraid to plumb the subterranean depths and the delicate infrastructure of these works.

While the book has an enormous amount to teach devotees of either Shakespeare or Verdi, opera fans in particular will enjoy the author’s close and illuminating attention to backstage history, as well as words, music and phrasing.

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-670-02304-2
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2011


NonfictionWHY PRIESTS? by Garry Wills
by Garry Wills
NonfictionOUTSIDE LOOKING IN by Garry Wills
by Garry Wills


NonfictionMOZART by Paul Johnson
by Paul Johnson
NonfictionWORLDS ELSEWHERE by Andrew Dickson
by Andrew Dickson
NonfictionWILL IN THE WORLD by Stephen Greenblatt
by Stephen Greenblatt