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Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater Hardcover – October 13, 2011

4.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


       A Booklist Editors Choice Pick for 2011       

“Wonderfully illuminating. This book is the product of a lifetime of listening and watching….No lover of Verdi—or Shakespeare, for that matter—will want to miss it.”—Opera News “Riveting…a double-barreled salvo that hits two bull’s-eyes. Shakespeare scholarship is one of the world’s thriving industries, with no factories but worldwide workshops. While you are reading this, there must be hundreds (thousands?) of worthies turning out articles and books from pole to pole. But ­Garry Wills has upped the ante. There is a fair, but not daunting, amount of musical analysis, as well as much acknowledged borrowing and quoting from other relevant writers. This only makes the book more useful, what with burrowings (rather than borrowings) a worm would be proud of, and a panorama worthy of a fly’s multifaceted eye. “Nomen est omen” goes a Latin adage: the name is a signifier. So the noun “Wills” suggests manifold motivation, multiple resolve. Whatever Garry undertakes, trust Wills to get done.”
—John Simon, The New York Times “Wills’s joyously engaged, scholarly yet personable essay is not just a treat but also a banquet succulent enough to make Shakespeareans and Verdians of all who partake of it.”
Booklist, starred review “Opera aficionados will delight in Wills’s thoughtful, deeply rehearsed essays. . . . [His] detailed depictions of the operas’ subtleties, sublimely rendered for opera fans, endlessly elucidate the work of these ‘creative volcanoes.’”
Publishers Weekly “Wills brilliantly explores the evolution, development, and performance histories of the three plays (actually, four, counting both Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor as inspirations for Falstaff), the three operas, and the connections among them. As essential purchase. ”
Library Journal, starred review “Wills’s insights into both Verdi’s acute understanding of Shakespeare and his ingenious methods of conveying it are thrilling—particularly his account of how, when composing “Otello,” Verdi encapsulated the six hundred and eighty-six lines of the play’s first act within a few minutes of music.”
The New Yorker “Fascinating.”
Commonweal Magazine “One genius interprets another: English to Italian, words to lyrics, immortal drama to overpowering opera. . . . 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.”
Kirkus “A labor of love.”
HistoryWire.com “Despite the novelty of the subject in VERDI'S SHAKESPEARE, Wills’s writing is characteristically clear and marked with literate ping. . . . Throughout, he demonstrates an innate understanding of drama and music and how they can work together. His analysis of melody, harmony and orchestration are as solid as his examination of theatrical practice and technique. And his research is thorough. He draws on the considerable store of data unearthed by others, citing in his more than one hundred footnotes a veritable Who’s Who of opera and theater scholars.”
The Washington Independent Review of Books  

About the Author

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine’s Childhood, Saint Augustine’s Memory, and Saint Augustine’s Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1St Edition edition (October 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670023043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670023042
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,164,982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Walter P. Sheppard VINE VOICE on November 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lovers of Verdi or Shakespeare or -- one hopes -- both should revel in Wills's discussion of these men who were creatures of the theaters of their time. He describes the conditions under which playwrights worked in Elizabethan times and opera composers worked in 19th century Italy, and then he concentrates on the three plays made into operas by Verdi: "Macbeth," "Othello," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." He offers original insights into the plays themselves and then into the operas, with particular attention to the subtle ways in which emphasis and even meaning changed when Verdi and his librettists adapted them. Wills's style is lucid and uncluttered, and the reader needs no technical knowledge of poetry or music to follow his arguments. This is a book to be savored by anyone who loves these works.

Incidentally, the description Willis gives of Elizabethan theater practice puts one more spike into the arguments of those who tell us Shakespeare didn't write his plays. Wills shows that no one not up to his elbows in the workings of a theater on a daily basis could have written them, and men who also had full time positions in society couldn't have managed it.
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Format: Hardcover
My wife has pulled me to the opera over the last decade. The Met Opera broadcasts in the local theater are wonderful events that show off the voices, acting and sets. True artists along with interviews and behind the scenes shots to see all the work that goes into the sets.

I read Shakespeare in high school over 50 years ago and occasionally go to a play.

This book is fascinating. It is extremely well written and can be read quickly. I didn't read it to understand all the details, but came away with a new level of appreciation of both the theater and opera.

Both Shakespeare and Verdi were directors, along with other aspects of their creative work. In Shakespeare's time, the actors were in control and plays were written to fit them, especially to fit the male only actors which limited those who could play female roles. There was also heavy censorship for their works.

Verdi was so creative in how he adapted the plays (along with a devoted lyricist) and how he made sure the right voices and right emphasis was put into the productions as described in the notes.

From my experience, the book is more important for those who know less but are lurking around the edges of culture, but still will be of interest for the knowledgeable because there are probably new insights along with a well written treatment.
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Format: Hardcover
I entirely agree with the previous two reviewers. I would only add that Wills draws an inside-out picture of both how Shakespeare's plays must have been constructed to fit the available players and how Verdi's operas were adapted to the available singers. We don't have Shakespeare's notes of course (though the previous reviewer's remarks about how the plays had to be written by a full-time professional are dead on the mark), but we do have Verdi's numerous notes to singers and producers. It's more than a bit of a shock, for example, that he would consult a singer in advance of composing or orchestrating a number. He wrote to the lady who was scheduled for Lady Macbeth to ask her about her trill; when she wrote back that her trill was just fine, he added trills to her big aria! He would transcribe scenes down if it helped a singer. And he would reject singers who had beautiful voices but not subtle acting abilities.

Wills' book makes you yearn to go back in time to see a Shakespeare play performed under his direction, or an opera sung under Verdi's. It's to Wills' great credit that he makes us feel we have come closer than ever to that experience.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Well, I'm kind of surprised in retrospect that it took me this long to get to this. I love Verdi. I love Shakespeare. I love the other Wills books I've read. I'm not surprised that I love this, too.

This is pretty much what it says it is: a look at Verdi's Shakespeare operas in the context of the plays themselves and the theater at the time each man was working. It is particularly edifying when discussing the framework and limitations of times, conventions and physical realities they had to deal with. We, and by "we" I mean "I", tend to forget that what we / I think of as timeless works of art were created in very specific times and the men who created them wrote them with very specific audiences and casts in mind. We / I forget that Shakespeare wrote his plays for a specific theatre troop and that he wrote to their strengths and away from their weaknesses. He wasn't writing for a dream cast - he wrote for the cast at hand. And so did Verdi, who at least had more sway and say in who would sing his work, but still had to tailor parts to the available voices and acting talents.

Among other things.

In short, this is a terrific little volume, more for the Verdi fan, of course, than the Shakespeare. It is a great companion to the operas themselves, Wills' previous book on MacbethWitches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth (Oxford Paperbacks), and my favorite Verdi biographyVerdi: A Biography. It also mentions and cites some recordings / performances of the three operas that I'd like hear.

My only real complaint, if that's what it is, is that I wish there were more the book. I could've read on and on.
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