Tristan and Isolde, Tristan also called Tristram or Tristrem, Isolde also called Iseult, Isolt, or Yseult, principal characters of a famous medieval love-romance, based on a Celtic legend (itself based on an actual Pictish king). Though the archetypal poem from which all extant forms of the legend are derived has not been preserved, a comparison of the early versions yields an idea of its content.
The central plot of the archetype must have been roughly as follows:
The young Tristan ventures to Ireland to ask the hand of the princess Isolde for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and, having slain a dragon that is devastating the country, succeeds in his mission. On the homeward journey Tristan and Isolde, by misadventure, drink the love potion prepared by the queen for her daughter and King Mark. Henceforward, the two are bound to each other by an imperishable love that dares all dangers and makes light of hardships but does not destroy their loyalty to the king.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
Tristan and Isolde (Wagner)
celebrating its premiere at Court Theater, Munich, in 1865
June 10 at 1:30pm EST
The greater part of the romance is occupied by plot and counterplot: Mark and the courtiers seeking to entrap the lovers, who escape the snares laid for them until finally Mark gets what seems proof of their guilt and resolves to punish them. Tristan, on his way to the stake, escapes by a miraculous leap from a chapel on the cliffs and rescues Isolde, whom Mark has given to a band of lepers. The lovers flee into the forest of Morrois and remain there until one day Mark discovers them asleep with a naked sword between them. Soon afterward they make peace with Mark, and Tristan agrees to restore Isolde to Mark and leave the country. Coming to Brittany, Tristan marries Isolde of the White Hands, daughter of the duke, “for her name and her beauty,” but makes her his wife only in name. Wounded by a poisoned weapon, he sends for the other Isolde, who alone can heal him. If she agrees to come, the ship on which she embarks is to have a white sail; if she refuses, a black. His jealous wife, who has discovered his secret, seeing the ship approach on which Isolde is hastening to her lover’s aid, tells him that it carries a black sail. Tristan, turning his face to the wall, dies, and Isolde, arriving too late to save her love, yields up her life in a final embrace. A miracle follows their deaths: two trees grow out of their graves and intertwine their branches so that they can not be parted by any means.
The archetypal poem, which has not survived, seems to have been a grim and violent work containing episodes of a coarse and even farcical character. Two adaptations, made in the late 12th century, preserved something of its barbarity. About 1170, however, the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas, who was probably associated with the court of Henry II of England, produced an adaptation in which the harshness of the archetype was considerably softened. A mellifluous German version of Thomas’ adaptation, by Gottfried von Strassburg, is considered the jewel of medieval German poetry. Short episodic poems telling of Tristan’s surreptitious visits to Isolde at King Mark’s court appeared in the late 12th century. Of these, the most important are two versions of the Folie Tristan, in which Tristan is disguised as a fool, and the Luite Tristan, in which he appears as a minstrel. During the 13th century the story—like Arthurian legend—was embodied in a voluminous prose romance. In this, Tristan figured as the noblest of knights, and King Mark as a base villain, the whole being grafted onto Arthurian legend and bringing Tristan and King Arthur’s knight Sir Lancelot into rivalry. This version, which recounts innumerable chivalric adventures of a conventional type, had superseded all other French versions by the end of the European Middle Ages, and it was in this form that Sir Thomas Malory knew the legend in the late 15th century, making it part of his Le Morte Darthur. A popular romance in English, Sir Tristrem, dates from approximately 1300 and is one of the first poems written in the vernacular.
Renewed interest in the legend during the 19th century followed upon discovery of the old poems. Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (first performed in 1865) was inspired by the German poem of Gottfried von Strassburg.
Tristan and Isolde — opera in three acts
Music: Richard Wagner
Libretto: Richard Wagner
Isolde, an Irish princess, is being taken to Cornwall aboard the ship of Tristan, whose uncle, King Marke, plans to marry her. She becomes enraged by a sailor’s song about an Irish girl, and her maid, Brangäne, tries to calm her. Isolde interrogates Tristan, but he replies evasively. His companion Kurwenal loudly ridicules the Irish women and sings a mocking verse about Morold, Isolde’s fiancé, who was killed by Tristan when he came to Cornwall to exact tribute for Ireland. Isolde, barely able to control her anger, tells Brangäne how the wounded Tristan came to her in disguise after his fight with Morold so that he could be healed by Isolde’s knowledge of herbs and magic, which she learned from her mother. Isolde explains to Brangäne that she recognized Tristan, but her determination to take revenge for Morold’s death dissolved when he pleadingly looked her in the eyes. She now bitterly regrets her reluctance to kill him and wishes death for him and herself. Brangäne reminds her that to marry a king is no dishonor and that Tristan is simply performing his duty. Isolde maintains that his behavior shows his lack of love for her, and asks Brangäne to prepare her mother’s death potion. Kurwenal tells the women to prepare to leave the ship, as shouts from the deck announce the sighting of land. Isolde insists that she will not accompany Tristan until he apologizes for his offenses. He appears and greets her with cool courtesy. When she tells him she wants satisfaction for Morold’s death, Tristan offers her his sword, but she will not kill him. Instead, Isolde suggests that she and Tristan make peace with a drink of friendship. He understands that she means to poison them both, but still drinks, and she does the same. Expecting death, they exchange a long look of love, then fall into each other’s arms. Brangäne admits that she has in fact mixed a love potion, as sailors’ voices announce the ship’s arrival in Cornwall.
In the garden of Marke’s castle, Isolde waits impatiently for a rendezvous with Tristan, while distant horns signal the king’s departure on a hunting party. Isolde believes that the party is far off, but Brangäne warns her about spies, particularly Melot, a jealous knight whom she has noticed watching Tristan. Isolde replies that Melot is Tristan’s friend. She sends Brangäne off to stand watch and puts out the warning torch. When Tristan appears, she welcomes him passionately. They praise the darkness that shuts out the light of conventionality and false appearances and agree that they feel secure in the night’s embrace. Brangäne’s distant voice warns that it will be daylight soon, but the lovers are oblivious to any danger and compare the night to death, which will ultimately unite them. Kurwenal rushes in with a warning: the king and his followers have returned, led by Melot, who denounces the lovers. Moved and disturbed, Marke declares that it was Tristan himself who urged him to marry and choose the bride. He does not understand how someone so dear to him could dishonor him in such a way. Tristan cannot answer. He asks Isolde if she will follow him into the realm of death. When she accepts, Melot attacks Tristan, who falls wounded into Kurwenal’s arms.
Back at his castle, the mortally ill Tristan is tended by Kurwenal. A shepherd inquires about his master, and Kurwenal explains that only Isolde, with her magic arts, could save him. The shepherd agrees to play a cheerful tune on his pipe as soon as he sees a ship approaching. Hallucinating, Tristan imagines the realm of night where he will return with Isolde. He thanks Kurwenal for his devotion, then envisions Isolde’s ship approaching, but the shepherd’s mournful tune signals that the sea is still empty. Tristan recalls the melody, which he heard as a child. It reminds him of the duel with Morold, and he wishes Isolde’s medicine had killed him then instead of making him suffer now. The shepherd’s tune finally turns cheerful. Tristan gets up from his sickbed in growing agitation and tears off his bandages, letting his wounds bleed. Isolde rushes in, and he falls, dying, in her arms. When the shepherd announces the arrival of another ship, Kurwenal assumes it carries Marke and Melot, and barricades the gate. Brangäne’s voice is heard from outside, trying to calm Kurwenal, but he will not listen and stabs Melot before he is killed himself by the king’s soldiers. Marke is overwhelmed with grief at the sight of the dead Tristan, while Brangäne explains to Isolde that the king has come to pardon the lovers. Isolde, transfigured, does not hear her, and with a vision of Tristan beckoning her to the world beyond, she sinks dying upon his body.
Source: Metropolitan Opera