Critical Evaluation

Regarded as one of Italy’s major poets, Vittorio Alfieri helped define the Italian drama of his age, particularly the tragedy, of which he wrote nineteen between 1776 and 1786. Saul was written in 1782. Alfieri also wrote an engaging autobiography, one that accounts for various love affairs in which he engaged while traveling throughout Europe, and his published writings include a treatise on tyranny, several comedies, lyric poetry, and satires. His best work, however, is in the genre of tragedy, and Saul is generally considered his best play.

In the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, Alfieri was admired as one of Italy’s foremost Romantic writers, an opponent of tyranny, a spokesman for Italian political unity and identity, and a libertarian. Although he was not inclined toward religious subjects for his work, his reading of the Bible in 1782 led him to write Saul with great rapidity. His personal inclination toward depression (melancholy) and his sense of his own aloneness may be detected in Saul, for whom he creates genuine stature as a tragic hero. In 1793, Alfieri himself appeared onstage in the play’s title role.

Although Alfieri’s acquaintance with William Shakespeare’s tragedies was not extensive (he knew them mostly in French translation), Saul is somewhat reminiscent of King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608). In both plays one encounters the motif of an aging monarch who turns against his own best interests, including the good of his people and even his own children, and in the process goes mad and brings destruction on himself and his kingdom. Lear is manipulated by two of his daughters, Saul by his cousin, the “perfidious” Abner, who is ambitious and deeply envious of David.

Although David is a victim of Saul’s insanity, he is not especially appealing, in spite of his obvious virtue and strength of character. David, who opens the play with a soliloquy in which he states his determination to fight the Philistines even if Saul will have him executed, is courageous to the point of audacity. He seems perhaps too aware of his heroism. In act 2 he directly confronts the unstable king and boldly demonstrates his innocence. In the third act he also shows his compassion by singing to soothe Saul’s troubled mind.

The four substantial lyrical poems sung by David, which Alfieri inserts into act 3, scene 4, are noteworthy in their own right. The remainder of the tragedy is composed in unrhymed hexameter, a conventional meter in Italian and French plays, and it is typically translated into English as blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Alfieri’s style in his plays has been characterized as “severely simple,” which is somewhat surprising for a lyric poet. Extensive descriptive passages and metaphoric language are not common in his dramatic writing, so the lyrics in the third act of Saul are exceptional. A note Alfieri includes with the play indicates that if the actor portraying David is not also a capable singer, then an instrumental passage before each stanza would be appropriate, followed by David reciting “with majesty and gravity.”

Perhaps in an effort to build...

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