Thursday, December 14, 2006

Whaddya mean, "six"?!

Interesting post on honor here. Not having anything substantial to contribute to the discussion there, I will limit myself to the following empty but diverting pedantry.

Verdi's opera Falstaff takes its plot pretty much from The Merry Wives of Windsor, but there's also some stuff from Henry IV, Part 1, in which the rotund one also appears. This latter includes the famous rant about honor (cut and pasted from here):
Why, thou owest God a death.


'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
What's interesting is that in the original context this is a soliloquy, delivered on the morn of battle, as our doughty doughy knight ponders his fate -- and how possibly to cheat it. Indeed, later on he escapes death by feigning mortal injury, explaining (when once again alone; this is scene 4):
'Sblood,'twas time to counterfeit, or
that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too.
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.
Actually, he's not alone, if you count Hotspur's lifeless body (killed by Hal) lying beside him:
'Zounds, I am afraid of this
gunpowder Percy, though he be dead: how, if he
should counterfeit too and rise? by my faith, I am
afraid he would prove the better counterfeit.
Therefore I'll make him sure; yea, and I'll swear I
killed him. Why may not he rise as well as I?
Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me.
Therefore, sirrah, [stabbing him]
with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me.
So indeed, no honor here. Anyway, what I was going to say was that when Verdi's librettist Arrigo Boïto lifts the honor soliloquy, he sticks it into an entirely different context. Here's Wikipedia's summary of the scene (Act I, Scene 1):
A room at the Garter Inn. Falstaff is surrounded by his servants Bardolph, Pistol and the innkeeper, when Dr. Caius arrives and accuses him of robbery, but the excited doctor is soon ejected. Falstaff hands letters to his servants for delivery to Mistress Ford and to Mistress Page. The letters, which purport of Falstaff's love for the respectable women, are intended to seduce them (although he is really seducing them for the money). Bardolph and Pistol refuse, however, claiming that 'honor' prevents them from obeying his orders. Sending the letters by a page instead, Falstaff confronts his servants ('Che dunque l'onore? Una parola!' -- 'What, then, is honor? A word!') and chases them out of his sight.
That's not quite right (and no, I didn't correct it at Wikipedia); here's how it really goes (the last part anyway):
Il vostro Onor! Che onore?! che onor? che onor! che ciancia!
Che baia! - Può l'onore riempirvi la pancia?
No. Può l'onor rimettervi uno stinco? Non può.
Né un piede? No. Né un dito? Né un capello? No.
L'onor non è chirurgo. Che è dunque? Una parola.
Che c'è in questa parola? C'è dell'aria che vola.
Bel costrutto! L'onore lo può sentire chi è morto?
No. Vive sol coi vivi?... Neppure: perché a torto
Lo gonfian le lusinghe, lo corrompe l'orgoglio,
L'ammorban le calunnie; e per me non ne voglio!
... ending, as I recall, on a triumphantly rebellious high G. So the tone is quite different: while there he was the morally dubious coward and braggart, here he's the jowly rogue looking to fill his purse and/or warm his bed, scolding his pathetic servants and giving them a cynical lesson in real roguery. I note also that Boïto might have been inspired by this "catechism" in his previous collab with Verdi, i.e., Otello, in which, in a soul-baring "Credo" which has no analogue in Othello that I know of, Iago declares, among other things:
Credo che il guisto è un istrion beffardo,
e nel viso e nel cuor,
che tutto è in lui bugiardo:
lagrima, bacio, sguardo,
sacrificio ed onor.
Although he hasn't picked out honor for specific abuse, as Falstaff does (interestingly, after acknowledging that it "pricks him on"), Iago does echo, a few lines earlier, Falstaff's reference to "catechism": "Si, questa è la mia fè." Anywho, the thing that set me off today was having the line from the aria run through my head ("Che è dunque? Una parola. Che c'è in questa parola? C'è dell'aria che vola"), followed closely by the memory of looking at a score which included an English translation in a near-enough meter to the original that it could be sung (as I indeed saw it so performed in Santa Fe, a performance memorable for, among other things, the size of Thomas Stewart's feet as he soaked them in a tub of hot water after his character's midadventure in the preceding scene). But this metrical constraint often means you can't translate literally, and here is a fine example. "Una parola" is five syllables long; but "a word" is only two. So the translator did the best he could, rendering it "a word of six letters," which has an extra syllable at the beginning (harmless given the melody). Now of course Santa Fe is in New Mexico, in the United States of America, where "honor" has five letters, and the point of singing in English is to sing in the local language, which is American English; but Sir John is a Brit, and he's mentioning the word as well as using it, and that's how he spells it, so the translation is appropriate after all. Aren't you glad we figured this out?


Ihsan said...

Oh no. You didn't really just do that, did you? Did you actually write Italian as if only a moron would need a translation?

Duck said...

No, I wrote Italian as if I couldn't find a translation on the web, and I don't seem to have any here either (maybe in the basement), and any translation of my own would be, um, inelegant, and you have the Shakespeare (for the Falstaff anyway). Plus it's not that relevant to my point (such as it is).

But thanks for noticing. Buon Natale! ("Merry Christmas!")