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Don Giovanni, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, follows the endeavors of a libertarian, sexual deviant, and elite member of society, Don Giovanni. Both from the libretto and numerous interpretations of the text, it is is clear that Don Giovanni has a clear disregard for the ‘rules’ of society, despite his elevated position in the feudal system he lives in. His actions are seemingly guided by his personal whims, not ‘morally’ influenced by many social norms or others’ opinions; he has a ‘sense of agency’, motivating his decisions based on his desires alone. Even when threatened to repent by a statue of the Commendatore, come to life (who he murdered previously in the play), he remained steadfast in believing and insisting that his actions were not wrong with the result that he is eternally damned to Hell. Donna Elvira, a jilted lover and a victim of Don Giovanni’s sexual prowess, also displays a sense of agency in her public retaliation against him. Elvira denounces him in densely populated streets, revealing his treachery without regard to how the proclamation might negatively affect her own social status. However, we see her struggle with her continued physical attraction to Don Giovanni, despite her understanding of his malice. How does a character’s sense of self agency or control over their own decisions, especially when pressured by societal factors to make those decisions differently, affect their role in the opera? One scholar, Jonathan Miller, in Don Giovanni: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal offers the answer that Donna Elvira’s sense of her own agency allows her to be the only true, viable ‘antagonist’ to Don Giovanni. Her freedom from societal norms, especially those pertaining to a woman and her sexuality, allow her to better understand her ‘opponent’ and therefore become a better suited, ‘equal’ antagonist. Miller also posits, like many others, that Don Giovanni’s agency and freedom from societal norms allows him to move freely as he desires, and results in his sexual dominance. Miller contrasts Don Ottavio as “totally [dependent] on a social system”, completely stripping the character of any independence, or agency (Miller 87). This response seems to identify the roles of the characters well, yet a closer reading of the libretto reveals that Don Giovanni does not in fact have the sense of agency that he thinks that he may have, and the effects of the social expectations on Giovanni are more profound than he is aware.
Miller concludes in his text that the fundamental theme of Don Giovanni is “Don Giovanni versus Society” (Miller 86). Thus, Miller believes that Don Giovanni operates with the knowledge that his actions are not being influenced by how society is structured, or societal morals. Miller analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of other characters in comparison to the Don, and specifically references agency in Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira. He also talks about Zerlina and Masetto, but given their peasant feudal status, he concludes that any individual agency or societal dependance is compulsory, and isn’t attributed necessarily to their character. However, he finds Ottavio dependent on a social system in all his actions constrained by its structure, and he praises Elvira for moving fluidly without regard to societal norms and principles. He attributes some of this praise for Elvira to the simple fact that she “has escaped from a nunnery in Burgos”. Donna Elvira’s escape from a nunnery indicates that she does not desire to remain in the role that society, at the time, deemed socially appropriate for many women, and physically escapes that role, and its setting. Because of this, Miller calls Elvira “the only character in the cast who might understand Don Giovanni, because, like him, she moves independently of the reigning social rules and conventions… [Donna Elvira] is Don Giovanni’s principal antagonist” (Miller 87). He also goes on to say that Don Ottavio, by being so dependent on the social system: for example, by being blind to Don Giovanni’s murderous guilt because of his presumption that a man of high societal stature would be incapable of such an act, has “practically dehumanized himself” (Miller 87). Therefore, Miller’s thesis seems to be that the more agency and freedom from the social contract a character has, the more they are able to compete with Don Giovanni, and the more ‘character’ they are given in the Opera. Don Ottavio is a “slave of social convention… without any human dimension”, and Donna Elvira is “the most interesting figure among Don Giovanni’s adversaries” (Miller 87).
Miller compares all of Mozart’s characters’ agency to Don Giovanni’s, which presumes Don Giovanni is the authoritative figure on agency. While his interpretation offers interesting insight into the characters in the opera, it is both incomplete in its analysis and assumes too much about Don Giovanni. First, Miller’s interpretation ultimately recognizes that “Don Giovanni’s aim is gratification of power, to be achieved by destruction of the strongest obstacle he finds in his path: the laws of society… The Don’s adversary is not a single person but a total social system, and the weakest link of this system is undoubtedly the relation between the sexes” (Miller 86). Miller assumes that Don Giovanni, as a domineering sexual predator, is attacking the weakest link of society, the relation between men and women. This assumption additionally implies that Don Giovanni does not follow any societal rules in his conquests, making it the ultimate attack on society. However, when observing how Don Giovanni goes about his conquests, it becomes clear that he is indeed following some societal rules and norms: “look, this not-so-small book is completely filled with the names of his beauties; every home, every village, every town has witnessed his enterprises with womankind” (Mozart 18). While Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, does make clear that it is he who has made the list, it can be assumed that he would not do something so time consuming and detailed as this without an order from his lord, Don Giovanni (this can also be inferred because Leporello is seen bemoaning his position under Don Giovanni, and would most likely not do any additional work without being ordered to do so directly) (Mozart 1). Therefore, why does Don Giovanni keep a list of his sexual conquests? It would seem of no practical use (given that he doesn’t return to these lovers) other than to show to other people, similar to a ‘bragging right’, or some sort of physical record to prove his conquests. Why, then, would he need to prove it to people other than himself? Surely, if he craved only intercourse, he would simply have intercourse without making a record. In fact, the recording of his sexual encounters seems to be a way to prove his masculinity through sex, a way for men in many societies to prove their masculinity, ergo their worth, in that society. If his goal were in fact to break societal rules, he would not waste his time with this list, as it would only enforce the implementation of another societal norm. It is possible to conclude that Don Giovanni does not have the agency that Miller believes he has, and his decisions, at least with regards to sex, are being influenced by societal norms and expectations of masculinity.
Additionally, Miller’s answer fails to recognize or consider the sexuality of any character but Don Giovanni. For example, an interesting observation might have been that Don Ottavio, through his social restraints, can be interpreted as sexually repressed. His every action seems to be designed to please his fiancee, Donna Anna, and not because he wants the outcome himself. His decisions are not his own and thus, his fate, at least in the course of events in the opera, is to be led on a wild goose chase for sex with Donna Anna that he can seemingly never get. Don Ottavio even strangely attempts to fulfill an almost parental role for his fiancee, Donna Anna: “Your father? Let the bitter memory be, o dearest! You have a husband and a father in me” (Mozart 10). At the end of the libretto, Donna Anna also retires for a year to a nunnery because of her grief for her father, once more taking Don Ottavio’s goal of sexual relations out of reach. Additionally, Don Ottavio is the only tenor in the entire cast, evoking imagery of the castratis, men who, as boys, were forcibly castrated so their voice never dropped. In this sense, Don Ottavio is castrated, forcefully removed from the world of any sexual viability, both in the libretto by Donna Anna, and by the casting of his character.
The most important point of Miller’s argument that rings true is that Donna Elvira “moves independently of the reigning social rules and conventions” (Miller 87). She is not afraid to seem crazy so that the truth about Don Giovanni can come to the surface. Sbe also has a somewhat healthy dialogue with herself and others about her sexuality. “[Don Giovanni hushes Elvira, as a crowd is forming] Don’t hope it, o villain, I have lost my prudence, I want to show everyone your guilt and my condition” (Mozart 34). Her self-realized sexual desire for Don Giovanni and her realization of his cruel nature are constantly at odds with each other, and never really give in to each other, either. “Ah, be still, unreasonable heart! Do not pound in my breast! [h]e is a wicked man, he is a betrayer, it is wrong to have pity, it is wrong to have pity” (Mozart 68). Donna Elvira is once again being seduced by Don Giovanni, despite her knowledge of his deceit. Donna Elvira, while experiencing this dichotomy in her contradictions between her own sexual desire and rational understanding of Giovanni’s nature, expresses it in a way that is less destructive to others than Don Giovanni’s sexuality, and less limiting than Don Ottavio’s sexuality. Donna Elvira, as the only character who can be seen to have complete self agency, represents her sexuality in a way that is more realistic, yet less harmful in general to herself and others. Other characters, like Don Giovanni and Don Ottavio, confirm that with a lack of complete self agency, expressions of sexuality can be either harmful to others or harmful to themselves. Thus, a valid conclusion can be drawn that a character’s sense of agency (including the validity of their agency) when completed results in a sexuality that is more realistic and less harmful, but if non-complete can result in many harmful outcomes, from sexual repression to sexual tyranny.
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