Reading “Saul” by Vittorio Alfieri

Note: I had the opportunity to get to know Alfieri through my university professor whose great knowledge over the matter came to be of great help. My personal fondness of this play, and the fact that it narrates a biblical event made me decide to analyze it. Obviously the opinions here are totally personal. I have not had access to the English text of “Saul” so throughout this analysis, whenever a reference to the original text was needed, I have translated the text myself. As usual, the translations tend to be precise but, not being a professional translator, they obviously fail to grasp the beauty of the text by Vittorio Alfieri. The text I have been using for the reading is “Vittorio Alfieri, Tragedie. Garzanti; Milano 2015.” For Jewish Antiquities. I have used the Wordsworth Edition, Translated by William Whiston (London, 2006)

There seem to have been four main reasons that led Vittorio Alfieri to write tragedies: his natural pessimism, his resentment for tyranny, his fondness of classicism and the lack of tragic literature in the Italian eighteenth century literary tradition.

Alfieri belonged to a noble family from Piedmont but he refused to follow his noble destiny and decided to dedicate his life to literature; he believed that literature can be his key instrument in what he considered the most abominable thing that could exist: tyranny.

His rejection of his family values is, as a matter of fact, explained in a pamphlet called “Living Under Tyranny” where he explains how the only way to maintain one’s dignity, while living under a tryranny, is to stay away from it. He reckons that this is not what everyone can be capable of, and he admits to be among those who have the privilege of being able to do so.

Alfieri, in a rare case, writes a tragedy based on the biblical account of Saul from the first book of Samuel. Saul, was chosen by God as the first King of Israel. Hebrews have not had a king before Saul and people have requested to have one. God is reluctant over the matter but the people’s request is eventually granted. Saul, whose reign was quite eventful, mostly for the victories he earned against the Philistines, is depicted by Alfieri in a very different way in comparison to the portray that we have in the Scriptures.

In Book Six of Jewish Antiquity by Flavius Josephus it is stated that Saul enraged God when he spared the Amalekite king and lost divinity’s favor. In the wake of David’s triumph over Goliath, Saul despises him since David has obtained women’s fondness. Saul grows old, resenting David and against the divine favor until he finally orders the murder of a high priest:

… then it is that they have this belief about God, that he is present to all the actions of their lives, and that he does not only see the actions that are done, but clearly knows those their thoughts also, whence those actions do arise. But when once they are advanced into power and authority, then they put off all such notions, and, as if they were no other than actors upon a theater, they lay aside their disguised parts and manners, and take up boldness, insolence, and a contempt of both human and Divine laws, and this at a time when they especially stand in need of piety and righteousness, because they are then most of all exposed to envy, and all they think, and all they say, are in the view of all men…

Flavius Josephus – Jewish Antiquites (Book Six – Chapter 12, Verses 262, 263)

Alfieri in his play, portrays a different Saul. Alfieri’s Saul is old too but he is suffering from a type of mental disoder due to which he has hallucinations; Saul, like any other person who suffers from mental disease oscillates from rage, where he consides revenge from everyone for the act of treason committed by them, to melancholy for the days he used to enjoy the serenity of his reign; from believing in David’s enmity – and eventually Johnathan and Micol’s treasonousness towards himself – to making references to memories of old days of glory and triumph:

… Ah! If only with me were as well
the invincible right hand of the Almighty…
and with me were there valorous David

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act II, Scene 1)

Oh! Days gone by… Oh cheerful from victory
were my glorious days… deployed they are
in my mind, my valuable triumphs.

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act II, Scene 2)

Alfieri‘s account of the story is visibly different with the Biblical account and Flavius Josephus’ narration. Saul begins with a meeting between Johnathan and David, right before the battle between the Hebrews and the Philistines. According to Flavius Josephus, this meeting happens after Ahimelech, the priest, has been killed by Saul for having treated David well and given him arms. In Alfieri‘s account, Ahimelech is summoned, and then murdered by Saul, during the play, while according to the Bible, everyone, except for a Syrian stable boy, refuses to conduct Saul’s rage and kill Ahimelech.

It seems that by positioning Saul as the murderer, Alfieri seeks to increase the tragicness of the theater and in the meantime, lay the blame of murder upon the tyrant in order to depict him even more fierce.

In Alfieri‘s tragedies, the first act does not usually see the tragic character. In Saul, Alfieri does quite likewise and denies any presence to Saul during the entire first act. Despite the absence of Saul, the entire dynamic and the way people in this play are related to him is laid out: Johnathan and Micol’s dissatisfaction with their father’s mental state, David’s love for their entire family (including for Saul, whose murderous schemes have made David flee the country), Abner’s effort to manipulate Saul for his own good (which is widely in contrast with the Biblical account, where Abner has a quite neutral role) and above all David’s virtuousness in asking Micol and Johnathan not to defy the King’s will (regardless of how illegitimate King’s will might seem) are all depicted in the first act. Act I occurs during the night whereas it has a very clarifying role for the entire audience who might not know of the way the matters are unfolding around the entire family and how a political issue is jeopardizing the family.

David:
What do you want? Death,
from close, a thousand times,
I encountered in the battlefield:
Facing your father’s unjust rage, I fled
but fear is the only death for the brave.
Now, no longer shall I fear… the King,
and his multitude are in great peril.
Shall David rest among those who are away
in safety? Shall I mind my life while above you
hangs the sword of the infidels?
To death, I come; in the midst of the army, in the battlefield
for the homeland, and for the ungrateful
father of yours, who hollers my death!

Johnathan:
Oh, virtuous you are! For sure, you are
elected by God.

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act II, Scene 2)

The second act, happening at dawn, starts with a scene where Saul and Abner share a conversation. It is particular because Saul at the beginning is fond of David and considers his absence from the battle a serious issue. When Abner starts speaking, albeit admitting David’s strength and skill as a warrior, he manages to changes Saul’s mind over David. This is presumingly a demonstration of how people close to a tyrant can deteriorate both themselves and the tyrant:

Saul:
David?… I hate him… I even gave him
my own daughter to marry… Ah, you do not know!

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act II, Scene 1)

Alfieri strongly highlights the extent to which the political issue has put the family in turmoil in different levels:

First of all, in Josephus‘ account, Micol’s indispensable grief upon the fact that her husband has been torn away from her because of her dad’s conspiratorial ideas is not mentioned at all. Here, Alfieri has taken a step forward. Alfieri‘s Micol gets a chance to speak and voice her concerns.; Secondly, the most frequent exchange between Micol and Saul in the play includes Micol expressing her preoccupation over her conjugal issues and Saul lambasting at her for the fact that she is putting her household before the multitude’s fate.

As mentioned previously, the Bible and Jewish Antiquities give us a clear background of Saul’s loathe against David; under Alfieri, it seems that David is facing Saul’s rage because of Abner’s intervention in the affair and the way he gaslights Saul over the issue. Although Abner succeeds in enraging Saul, he fails to be the figure who can vouch the well-being and safety of the Hebrew army in the absence of its bravest warrior:

Saul:
Now, you might need to leave your foolish joy apart
What glory? What spirit?…
You will all be weeping. Today the old oak
will be uprooted, and its roots will breathe the air
that its branches had previously been breathing.
It is all weep, tempest, blood and death.

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act II, Scene 2)

Saul proves to be more bewildered than what he seems to be when David appears in Act II, Scene 3. The previous scene ends when Abner is trying once again to convince Saul over insignificance of David’s presence. Act 3 begins with David appearing on the stage. While according to the Bible and the Jewish Antiquities David has to face Saul’s rage, it is Abner who screams at him and Saul appears to be quite welcoming:

Saul:
What am I hearing?… Oh David… David!
A God speaks within you: here, as we prepare for the battle,
calls me a God through you.

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act II, Scene 3)

In Jewish Antiquities, there are two instances provided by David to Saul of the former having spared the latter in order to vouch his loyalty to the King. Alfieri has somehow merged the two episodes into one and that is how David manages to, temporarily, win over Saul’s rage. David proves his loyalty to the tyrant and he is encharged of keeping the core of the army. David, having proved his loyalty, it is Abner’s turn to do likewise and follow the kingly order and stand behind David.

Abner:
The chief of the battle is David
The master is David.
Who leads the war except him?

David:
Who has to prove less envious than Abner
since he is so valorous?
Flawless, wherever I look at it, is your scheme…

Abner:
The chief spot awaits you.

David:
And there, I emplace you.

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act III, Scene 1)

I have not had the chance to read the entire plays written by Alfieri; however, among the ones I have, Saul is particularly different in a certain formal aspect: soliloquies are less frequent in it. There are other plays by Alfieri, which are loaded with the characters thinking out all alone for an entire scene in almost every act. Whereas such a reflection does not exist in Saul. Probably a monologue by Abner could have proved how he awaits to stab David in the back but this is what Alfieri does not provide us with.

As stated before, loyalty is a key issue for Saul, the tyrant in Alfieri‘s opinion. So when he is ensured by David’s loyalty he chills and Abner, follows suit. What eventually enrages Saul, is again the issue of loyalty and the fact that there have been those who have been loyal to David and not to Saul and have therefore armed him against Saul while the former was fleeing the royal authority.

In Alfieri‘s portrait of Saul, which is probably due to the specific mental condition that he suffers from, the King has a quite unitray view of those around him: either they are all faithful servants of the Kingdom of Israel or they are entirely a bunch of traitors who should face with the penalty of their treasonous acts. Even David’s singing fails to tranquilize Saul.

Once Ahimelech is brought forward to the King, we see Alfieri taking another step forward towards more dynamic characters:

But the high priest did not betake himself to deny what he had done, but confessed boldly that he had supplied him with these things not to gratify David, but Saul himself: and he said ‘I did not know that he was thy adversary but a servant of thine, who was very faithful to thee, and a captain over a thousand of thy soldiers and, what is more than these, thy son-in-law ad kinsman. Men do not choose to confer such favors on their adversaries, but on those who are esteemed to bear the highest god will and respect to them. Nor is this the first time that I prophesied for him, but I have done it often, and at other times, as well as now. And when he told me that he was sent by thee in great haste to do somewhat, if I had furnised him with nothing that he desirred I dhould have thought that it was rather in contradiction to thee than to him; wherefore do not thou entertain any ill opinion of me…

Flavius Josephus – Jewish Antiquites (Book Six – Chapter 12, Verses 256 – 258)

Ahimelech:
Certainly, I am here to betray you;
since I have been imploring God that He deny you
the victory of your arms.
It is me, yes, me the benign hand
who lent arms to David. Whilst, who is tha David?
Is not he the husband to the King’s daughter?
Is not he the most courageous warrior of his?
Is not he the most humane, the most graceful, the most righteous
son of Israel? Is his bravery not your strength in the battles?
In your dwelling, is not his song the peace of your heart?
For the ladies love, for the people joy,
for the enemy terror thus he was
that put me to flee. And you, yourself, would not you
return him the honor from the first day? Would not
you choose him to lead the battle to lead you to victory?
To remove the fear of defeat that in your heart God has left?
If you condemn me, you condemn yourself.

Vittorio Alfieri – Saul (Act IV – Scene 4)

As it is clearly visible, Alfieri has given an entirely different tone to Ahimelech. Whereas in Jewish Antiquities there is a preist who seeks to wipe the guilt off himself by affirmations that state a misunderstanding, Alfieri‘s Ahimelech is a totally different character who seeks to undermine the entire reasoning of Saul over the issue. Alfieri‘s Ahimelech does not make statements; he asks questions and the questions are fundamental enough to jeopardize the entire thoughts of Saul. If in the Bible’s Saul demands the head of Ahimelech as a punishment for what the latter has done, Alfieri‘s Saul is so frustrated that he has no choice but to kill the person who is questioning his integrity; this could be why Alfieri‘s Saul takes over the killing himself! (Obviously this is not the reason! Alfieri basically refuses to include rudimentary and secondary characters and Doeg, the person who according to the Scriptures, kills Ahimelech can be nothing but a secondary character here!)

The final act of the play takes place during the night again. Seemingly, the play has followed the Aristotelian unity lasted an entire day. Whereas the previous night, was for the brotherly love of Johnathan and David and the conjugal love of David and Micol, the night in Act V is there to call upon the misery in which Saul has befallen. David has had to flee the King’s rage and Saul’s sons, of whom we have only encountered Johnathan, have perished in the battle. Abner lives, but to Saul’s rage. Saul, who had been sharing moments with Abner, at the end of the play is upset over Abner’s survival.

In the Hebrew Bible, there are two different accounts of King Saul’s death; whereas Alfieri makes the death of the King even more tragic to any of them. The catharsis here is death, and it is not even an easy one: committing suicide while deprived of family, aware of God’s rage over one’s conduct and followed by a crushing defeat at the hand of the enemy. However, death is still an easier outcome after all these failures. Alfieri usually lays the play otherwise by letting the tragic persona live their misery. No matter how progressive Alfieri was for his era, the King could not have lived.

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