And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 6. oktober 2015

One kiss more - Shakespeare, Verdi and Italian intertextuality

 As readers of this blog will know, I am a big literature enthusiast. My enthusiasm extends quite widely and I'm not very picky in my choice of reading. I generally tend to shy away from ideas about lesser and greater literature, because although I do think some literary expressions deserve a greater longevity than others, few things are as destructive to reading than to construct artificial divisions which exclude books because of some increasingly ancient canon. For that reason, I think great literature lies in execution rather than in form, and I maintain that some of my greatest literary experiences have been with comic books.

When I was little I grew up with Norwegian translations and editions of Italian stories of Donald Duck. These stories were compiled in pocket books and became a part of the Norwegian literary landscape in 1968. By that time, the Italian home production of Disney stories had been going on for more than ten years, and Italian comic book writers and artists had increasingly found their own voices in this format. Already in the 1950s there were made Donald Duck stories which imitated famous works of literature, such as Orlando Furioso and Doctor Faustus, to mention only a few. In future blogposts I will probably go into greater details, but here I want to highlight a minor case of delightful intertextuality in these stories.

Front page of  I Classici della Letteratura, vol. 38 

A few years back, the publishing house Corriere della Sera began a collected edition of literary parodies from the Italian Disney production, and the first edition reached 30 volumes in hardback. The second edition counted 40 volumes in paperback, with a slightly different order than in the first edition. In my attempts to learn Italian, I started to buy in a few of these volumes after I came to realise that many of the stories I had grown up with in Norwegian translation were often heavily abbreviated to suit the allotted page number in each pocket book. To read these familiar stories in the original language has been a great pleasure to me, and it has also given me great joy to embark on stories which have not been translated into Norwegian and which were completely new to me.

One of these volumes is the one shown above, a volume collecting three works by William Shakespeare, the first of which is the tragedy of Hamlet, King of Denmark with Donald Duck - or Paperino - in the lead role. The adaptation of the story was done by Giangiacomo Dalmasso and Giovan Battista Carpi, and it ran in three parts in the Italian Mickey Mouse magazine Topolino - Mickey's Italian name - in 1960: volume 226, 227 and 228, issued on January 10, January 25 and February 10 respectively.

The adaptation deviates significantly from the Shakespeare's version and necessarily so, most of all because this is a story for children played out by practically immortal characters, so the violence and the murders of the original are left out. However, several features of the play are retained: Prince Hamlet meets a king's ghost, the crown of the kingdom is usurped, and a Norwegian king - of sorts - makes an entrance.

As often is the case with these adaptations, there is a frame narrative which serves to justify the adaptation itself. As the above opening shows, Donald is taking a bath as the narrative begins and this leads to a sequence where he injures his head, confining the unlucky duck to the bed where he is given a copy of Hamlet.

The Duck household's edition of Hamlet

Reading Shakespeare's tragedy shapes the subsequent dream of the bed-ridden Donald, and in this dream the story unfolds within the framework of the Disney universe. As stated, there are many changes to the story and it reads perhaps more as a cloak-and-dagger castle intrigue than a deep psychological drama. The atmosphere is very dark, as can be seen below where Hamlet enters the treasure chamber of his uncle Scrooge (Paperone in Italian). This page also shows the ingenious playfulness of the writers and artists, as is evidenced by the coat of arms of Scrooge which bears the legend sola in auro exultatio, which can be roughly translated as "only in gold do I rejoice".

This playfulness is made manifest already in the opening page, and this is the very reason why I decided to write this blogpost. As seen above, the story opens with Donald in the bath, singing some lines in Italian. These lines are not just any lines but most likely selected carefully, resulting in a very beautiful intertextuality which gives a friendly nod not only to Shakespeare himself but also to the cultural legacy he inspired.

The lines sung by Donald comes from the opera Otello by Guiseppe Verdi, and these are the last lines of Othello as he smothers Desdemona in a jealous rage, heartbreakingly asking for "un bacio ancora", one more kiss. In other words, right in the opening of an Italian adaptation of Prince Hamlet, the mood is set by the performance of lines from an Italian opera based on another play by Shakespeare, an intertextuality which gave me great pleasure. For readers of this particular volume, moreover, the intertextuality becomes increasingly complex since the adaptation of Hamlet is followed by an adaptation of Othello, written by the very same author behind Amleto, Giangiacomo Dalmasso.

Othello as re-imagined by Giangiacomo Dalmasso & Giorgio Bordini
First published in Topolino, vol.851, March 19 1972

Desdemona and Othello the blackamoor
One of very few instances where an Italian Disney character has been portrayed as black

As I was growing up, I never read either of these adaptations so this has been my first encounter with them. Yet the many adaptations I did read made me familiar with a wide range of world literature, even though some of these works remained elusive to me until I reached adulthood. Nonetheless, I treasure these stories more now than ever, because as I learn more about world literature the more I see how beautifully and elegantly these adaptations are wrought.

Un bacio ancora as performed by Enrico Caruso
He has also been parodied in a Paperino comic - as a singing whale performing Figaro

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