Don Giovanni: The (Romantic) Politics of Violence
The Libertine Punished, or Don Giovanni is a dark comedic opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that satirises conservative social conventions while criticising excessive violence that entailed the Enlightenment. On surface, it adopts the myth of Don Juan into operatic form, in which the protagonist is dragged into Hell for his behaviours that undermined traditional Christian values. However, Mozart’s Don Giovanni goes far beyond merely being a moral tale by reprobating the traditional norms of virtue and promoting enlightened ideas such as liberty and individuality, which make the opera satirical. In this paper, I will examine the philosophy represented by Don Giovanni through the lens of Leporello and Donna Elvira.
Don Giovanni has every attribute of Don Juan — promiscuity, deceit and dishonesty. He is a Don Juan without a doubt. But he is not just a Don Juan; he also is the embodiment of liberty, the personification of the Enlightenment with both its good and its bad. Bernard Williams suggests that
The negative, melancholic, or merely frantic embodiments of the hero: fleeing from exhaustion and inner emptiness…or engaged in a despairing hunt for a genuine encounter with another person…are not Don Giovanni, who is unambiguously and magnificently removed from despair and boredom as it is possible to be. (The Don Giovanni Moment, pp 107)
Indeed, Mozart is careful not to include any self-reflective aria for Don Giovanni (every other singing character has one) and make Don Giovanni merely another normal human being.
In absence of self-reflective aria, however, we get to understand Don Giovanni through other characters’ perspectives and their interactions with him. The opera starts with Leporello complaining ‘night and day, I slave for one who does not appreciate it’ (Don Giovanni, 00:05:45) which calls attention to the ill treatment by Don Giovanni, suggesting that Leporello might leave or even betray his master at some point in the future. Even character-wise, they are the polar opposites of each other — Leporello is lower-class, faint-hearted and shy whereas Don Giovanni is wealthy, courageous and charismatic. But surprisingly, despite Don Giovanni’s ill treatment and apparent dissimilarities between them, Leporello gets along with his master, deciding not to leave him and even showing concerns for him at several instances. For example, when the statue offers Don Giovanni to come to dinner, Leporello tries to save his master, saying ‘Oh my! Excuse he doesn’t have time’ to the statue and ‘Tell him no!’ to his master (02:42:08), even though he is extremely afraid of the supernatural being.
When Don Giovanni betrays Leporello and frames him for the attempted rape of Zerlina, Leporello tries to leave him. However, when Don Giovanni says ‘Love is much the same in any form. He who remains faithful to one is being cruel to the others,’ ‘I have never come across kindness more abundantly dispensed!’, Leporello responds (01:30:40). It shows that Leporello succumbs to his master’s charms because he likes his master’s nonconformist attitude to life and the free spirit he possesses. Furthermore, Don Giovanni’s promiscuity connects with the larger idea of liberty and the Enlightenment because according to Liane Curtis,
Don Giovanni’s sexual compulsion must be carefully considered in light of eighteenth-century-values: it represents neither a romanticised view that ennobles a “rugged individual”, nor a manifestation of patriarchal control. In the era of the Enlightenment, the sexual drive was perceived as just another bodily function (NWSA Journal, pp 126).
In other words, by offering love to everyone without discrimination, refusing to be faithful and expecting others to be faithful to him, Don Giovanni comes to embody the Enlightenment ideas. Bernard Williams explains this as ‘the seducer is one who affirms the liberty of women: though he exploits or even destroys them, he does decline to imprison them in a possessive institution’ (The Don Giovanni Moment, pp 111).
Essentially, Don Giovanni gives Leporello a reason to enjoy his life through his Enlightenment philosophy, that he does not have to suffer on Earth for the promise of pleasure in afterlife as a lower-class person. As Bernard Williams explains that ‘[Don Giovanni] is a kind of nihilist…: one who indeed denies God and the fetishism of conventional moral approval and social rewards, and who lives through free action for its own sake’ (The Don Giovanni Moment, pp 112). If we recall Leporello’s first aria in which he admits that he wants ‘to be a gentleman and to give up [his] servitude’ (00:05:45), we can see how Don Giovanni’s company impacted Leporello to be bold enough to wish for upward mobility and freedom to follow his desires despite class constraints. The impact is further highlighted by the change of tone by Leporello at the end of the opera when he announces that he will ‘go to the tavern and find [himself] a better master.’ It contrasts with his earlier wish and signifies a return to the mundane world without the presence of Don Giovanni, who, according to Bernard Williams, has been ‘the life principle within [the other characters]’ (The Don Giovanni Moment, pp 111). Without him, the excitement of life seems gone with the characters discarding their ambitions and desires.
However, Mozart does not portray Don Giovanni as a saintly messiah of liberty — instead, he wants us to disrelish his aggressive and violent behaviour. After the encounter with Donna Anna and the Commendatore, ‘Well done! Two misdeeds! First you raped the daughter and then murdered the father!’, Leporello sarcastically remarks (00:10:45) and then warns his master that ‘the life you are leading is that of a knave’ (00:18:50), hinting at the severity of the incident. Leporello’s reaction is unusual because normally he is not bothered with (if not explicitly supportive of) his master’s promiscuity. For instance, in ‘Madamina,’ Leporello talks about the ‘list of the beauties [his] master has loved’ in a comedic manner by using hyperbole such as ‘each town, each district, each countryside testifies to his affairs with women’ and proudly highlights the fact that the list is compiled by him while the orchestra plays fast paced energetic notes, demonstrating the light-heartedness of the aria (00:26:50). It implies that the reason why Leporello is bothered is not Don Giovanni’s promiscuity but the excessive amount of violence he employs during the incident.
In fact, Mozart is cautious not to depict Don Giovanni’s promiscuity, flirting and free spirit in negative light by keeping the moral message incredibly, and perhaps intentionally, ambiguous. For instance, in ‘L’ultima prova dell’amor mio,’ Donna Elvira begs Don Giovanni to ‘change his ways’ (02:36:22), and in ‘Don Giovanni, a cenar teco,’ the Commendatore’s statue commands him to ‘change his ways’ (02:43:10). But change which ways? His promiscuity? Hardly so. As Bernard Williams remarks, ‘Giovanni breaking Christian laws and that is why he is punished’ is ‘an excessively blank fact’ (The Don Giovanni Moment, pp 112). After all, if Mozart wanted to make this opera solely about Christian virtue, then the message should have been clear, containing messages like ‘stop womanising and live an honourable life.’ By making the moral message deliberately unclear, however, Mozart essentially makes fun of the traditional institutions and spreads liberal philosophy under the guise of a Christian moral tale.
Instead of criticism of nonconformism, violence is the central theme of the opera. Liane Curtis explains in ‘The Sexual Politics of Teaching Mozart’s Don Giovanni’ that ‘Mozart and Da Ponte clearly want us to see the shortcomings of their protagonist’ (NWSA Journal, pp 124) and gives the following summary of Don Giovanni’s experience with the three female characters:
These three women represent different types of sexual encounters with Giovanni:
• Donna Anna is a case of stranger rape. A masked assailant breaks into her room at night. Later, however, she is horrified to learn that the attacker was a neighbour and acquaintance.
• Donna Elvira is the one woman that we meet with whom Don Giovanni was successful in carrying out his goals: manipulation, seduction, three days of deceit, and then callous abandonment.
• We follow Zerlina’s encounter as it begins and progresses, from the initial attempt to charm and seduce, to its ultimate culmination in an attempt at violent rape. (NWSA Journal, pp 123; emphasis added)
From Liane Curtis’s summary, we can observe one notable outlier: Donna Elvira, whom Don Giovanni uses seduction instead of violence. Consequently, Donna Elvira contrasts with the other characters in the opera as she is hopelessly in love with Don Giovanni despite the deceit and abandonment. For instance, in ‘Sola, sola in buio loco,’ Donna Elvira vigorously defends Don Giovanni (unbeknownst to her, he is actually Leporello), asking the others to ‘Have mercy’ with a loud and nervous voice, which demonstrates her sincerity (01:53:30). It is an example of how charming the liberty (and other ideas that Don Giovanni represents) can be without the presence of violence.
The ‘divine punishment’ is hardly related to Christianity and the Christian virtue since the executioner is the statue of the Commendatore, whom Don Giovanni has murdered, instead of some heavenly being. The Commendatore in no way represents Christian virtue. He fights Don Giovanni because he mistakes Don Giovanni for a secret lover of Donna Anna, not because he wants to protect his daughter from a sexual offender, as he says ‘Leave her alone, wretch, and defend yourself’ (00:08:30). Even the duel itself undermines the Commendatore’s responsibility as head of the civil authority to be impartial and hold trials before passing judgement. Instead, the Commendatore represents the consequence of Don Giovanni’s grave crime, specifically the violence of rape and of murder.
Even ignoring the inconsistency of the Commendatore as a Christian magistrate, what else could have triggered Don Giovanni’s descent unto Hell other than the violence? Obviously, there is no such thing as 2065-sexual-intercourse quota for a person to be sent to Hell. Furthermore, if the reason was solely about the Christian virtue, then Leporello would have been sent to Hell too as he is no stranger to enjoying promiscuity and deceitfulness. For instance, Leporello flirts with other girls in the marriage of Masetto and Zerlina (00:35:45) and uses ‘chattering, flattery, and lies, tricks [he] picked up from [his master]’ to deceive Masetto (01:02:53). By choosing the statue of the Commendatore as the messenger of Hell to take Don Giovanni, thus, Mozart implies that an act of violence brings another violence while an act of love brings love (consider Donna Elvira).
Mozart was ahead of his time. His version of Don Juan is analogous with the French Revolution in many ways. The French Revolution, despite ushering in a new wave of progressive ideas into politics such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, is also criticised for its excessive violence that took place such as the Reign of Terror. And like how the French Revolution remains an incredibly controversial topic even today, Mozart’s Don Giovanni continues to be a debated topic. Perhaps Mozart wanted exactly that. Perhaps Mozart wanted to tell people that not everything is binary, that things can be both good and bad. Don Giovanni embodies freedom, conviction and life energy. Ultimately, his life ends because his conviction to freedom becomes too radical that his freedom starts violating other people’s freedoms, and that he becomes reliant on violence to satisfy his desires. And Mozart’s message still holds its relevance today, with increasing political polarisation encouraging people to resort to violence.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Medici TV, 2010. https://edu.medici.tv/en/operas/don-giovanni-vladimir-jurowski-glyndebourne/.
Williams, Bernard. “Don Juan as an Idea.” Essay. In The Don Giovanni Moment, 107–17. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Curtis, Liane. “The Sexual Politics of Teaching Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.” Essay. In NWSA Journal, Spring 2000, Vol. 12, №1, 119–42. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
This essay was written as a coursework for UC Berkeley. Any sort of plagiarism will be strongly condemned.