Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

Peter Shaffer has described Amadeus as “a fantasia on events in Mozart’s life,” but such a description, while accurate, obscures the fact that the play is only ostensibly biographical. Its significance derives not from its most sensational feature, its portrait of Mozart, but instead from its handling of complex and largely overlapping psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic matters. At the most accessible and perhaps most melodramatic level, Amadeus concerns the mystery of creative genius. Here Shaffer draws heavily on biographical legends in order to suggest that Mozart’s greatness was more than human and the man himself touched by God. Mozart’s genius, however, also raises a number of troubling questions. How, for example, is it to be reconciled with his immaturity and vulgarity? The relationship between genius and talent (Mozart and Salieri respectively) or, to put it somewhat differently, between the greatness of the few and the mediocrity of the many, is a more troubling question than it may at first appear, given the play’s political context: the weakening power of monarchy and corresponding rise in democratic aspirations.

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The problem is compounded by Salieri’s depiction of Mozart as not only the greatest of composers but the most independent and innovative as well, and thus a double threat to the status quo. The play’s theological dimension is more apparent than the political, to which it is necessarily related; the divine right of monarchs parallels the divine inspiration of poets, artists, and composers. That equation leads, however, to the play’s central conflict between Salieri and the God to whom he first turns (for without God’s help, Salieri believes, he can never become a composer) and subsequently turns against (believing that Mozart’s apparently undeserved genius constitutes God’s way of mocking Salieri). Salieri destroys Mozart with the poison of hatred in an effort to make God declare himself—his purpose and his existence; without the assurance of the Absolute, Salieri’s life, his world, and his music have no meaning. Salieri’s quest for God has, however, a psychological dimension.

At the level of pathology, Salieri’s quest and cosmic defiance prove merely delusive. He becomes a man driven mad by his own jealousy, his failure to form an adequate self-image and similarly adequate relationships with authority figures (whether his middle-class Roman Catholic “God of bargains” or the emperor Joseph II, whom he so obligingly serves). Shaffer’s, or rather Salieri’s, Mozart suffers a similar fate, rebelling against the very authorities upon whom he most depends: the emperor, the archbishop of Salzburg, Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Director of the Royal Opera), Salieri (who is five years his senior), and above all his father, Leopold.

The play does not so much shift from one thematic level or plot to another as suggest that each overlaps all the others, that each may be a variation on the others. The complexity of Amadeus is troubling but aesthetically necessary, and to complain of its intricate texture is ultimately as beside the point as the comment that Mozart’s music has “too many notes.” Amadeus cannot be reduced to the level of psychology or exalted to the level of metaphysics without doing violence to its complex aesthetic integrity. Each level exists in uneasy tension with the others.

The psychological factors that motivate Salieri’s plan to destroy Mozart prove no more and no less important, interesting, and verifiably certain than, for example, the religious beliefs and doubts that Shaffer does not allow his modern audience to dismiss. Salieri must posit the existence of God, if not as Father then as enemy; his desire for immortality demands it. Mozart need not, for he will live through his music, although the...

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