The Legend of Don Juan or Don Giovanni

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Don Juan is a legendary libertine figure that has roots in Spanish folk lore. Known as Don Giovanni in Italian, he is also referred to as the Seducer of Seville primarily because of his tendency to seduce young women, especially virgins and get into physical conflicts with their male protectors. Despite the morally ambiguous nature of Don Juan, the legend has became famous for elements like courtliness, rogue passions, fights and a rebellious morality which is why it has been a favorite of many writers, poets, composers and artists down the ages.

The legend of Don Juan goes back to sixteenth century Spain when it was invented by a Spanish monk, ostensibly to enforce strict moral conduct into the young1. According to the legend, Don Juan was a notorious womanizer, who liked nothing more than seducing young woman, especially virgins from noble families. One such victim who falls prey to Don Juan’s charms is Donna Anna whose father, the Commander, chances upon the scoundrel making love to his daughter. The Commander challenges Don Juan to a duel but is killed while the libertine escapes. Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio search for the renegade but are unable to trace Don Juan.

One day Don Juan while passing the tomb of the dead Commander, hears a voice asking him to repent for his sins, failing which he will be punished for his wicked deeds. Not only Don Juan is unrepentant, he even jokes with the statue asking it to have dinner with him. However the statue does turn up at the appointed hour and after partaking of the dinner invites Don Juan to a return feast at the graveyard. Don Juan reaches the desolate spot where the statue offers him to take to a different kind of banquet. As Don Juan takes the statue’s hand, it is caught in a freezing grip and the statue drags off the libertine to hell.

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Despite Don Juan essentially being a negative character in the original legend, his colorful personality and charm has led him to become a figure in several creative works. One of the earliest of these is play by Tirso de Molina titled El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra  or The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest that was published in Spain around 1630. However the more famous version of this play is the comedy by French dramatist Moliere and titled Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre in French or Dom Juan or The Feast with the Statue in English. Moliere’s Don Juan differs from Molina’s figure in being an atheist instead of a Roman Catholic. Because Moliere’s protagonist propagated a free-thinking way of life and morality and because the religious rebuttal was not sufficiently powerfully expressed, Moliere’s play was roundly criticized by the reviewers and the dramatist was even forced to delete a few scenes which openly showed the libertine’s morality and personality in a positive light.

However the most influential version of all is perhaps Don Giovanni, an opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. The first performance of the opera was in Prague in 1787 and over the years it has become a staple of standard operatic repertoire worldwide. To a great extent, the opera derives its power from the finale in which Don Giovanni refuses to buckle when called to repent for his sins; this is often interpreted as the inner strength of the truly liberated man who prefers to stand against the oppressions of conventional religion and morality. The influence of Mozart’s opera was widespread and continues till today. The most famous and probably the most musically substantial of these is the operatic fantasy, Réminiscences de Don Juan by Franz Liszt. Chopin, Beethoven, Danzi  and Tchaikovsky were among other eminent composers who composed arrangenmetns and variations of Mozart’s opera.

However the figure of Don Juan underwent a romantic makeover in the hands of Lord Byron who is some ways, modeled his own life on that of the libertine hero. Written in the form of an ‘epic satire’, Don Juan contains over sixteen thousand lines of verse divided into sixteen cantos. A seventeenth lies unfinished as Lord Byron died before he could complete it. Byron reverses the commonly-accepted version of the legend of Don Juan; in his poem, Don Juan is not so much as the seducer but one who is painfully vulnerable to the charms of women and succumbs to them many times, often to the detriment of his own safety. He moves from one place to another, from the arms of one woman to another in a search for the ideal love and passion, which remains unfulfilled to the very end. Byron’s Don Juan was commented as being similar to the figure of Childe Harolde and indeed Byron himself since all these figures were blessed with rank, beauty, education but suffered from a curious restlessness and rebelliousness which often took the form of breaking codes of conventional society and morality.
Byron envisaged his Don Juan as a poetic figure one who is looking for the ultimate meaning of love in all his sexual exploits but is unable to find an experience that is great enough to satisfy the core of his being. In this sense, Byron’s Don Juan becomes a Romantic hero, a rebel against insincere, meaningless moral conventions which do more to enslave souls rather than inspire people to be truly good.

While contemporary perception of Don Juan no longer conforms to the figure of Lord Byron’s romantic, misunderstood hero, it is true that his poetry has gone a long way in laying open the multiple layers of symbolism that the legend of Don Juan lends itself to. In the end it is in the complex, many-tiered meaning of his quest and rebelliousness that the legend remains relevant till  today and the image of Don Juan continues to thrill and attract.

Reference:

  1. Time Magazine:  Don Juan