Above, Theseus conquers Hippolyta (from a Grecian urn).
For me, the character whose motivation has always been the most obscure is Hippolyta, who weds Duke Theseus in the final scene. Is Hippolyta getting what she wants? Shakespeare doesn’t explain exactly what Theseus means when he tells Hippolyta he “woo’d her with my sword”; but when we first meet them, it’s clear that he’s impatient to get into bed with her, whereas she’s in no rush. In the first lines of the play, they both draw metaphors for the moon, which separates and will unite them. Theseus’ moon is a miserable old spinster, frustrating a young man from spite, whereas Hippoyta’s moon is Diana, the chaste huntress:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.
This day will quickly steep itself in night;
This night will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.
Or, to translate from Shakespeare to the language of images:
Although Benjamin Britten cut Shakespeare’s first scene from his opera, he kept these famous lines for the introduction of Hippolita (Britten also changed Shakespeare’s spelling!) and Theseus in his Act Three. As voice-types, he chose a regal bass and a husky alto; but the music for these two characters is orchestral as well, a wedding of strings and brass in the orchestral interlude immediately preceding their entrance.
ENTRANCE OF HIPPOLITA AND THESEUS
(Brian Bannantyne-Scott; Philips 454 122-2)
Theseus’ brassy fanfares may sound royal and pompous, but they are, in fact, the echoes of barking dogs! Britten’s inspiration for this musical figure was a passage he had to cut, where Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the music of such a cacaphony:
THESEUSAs for the beautiful string theme you heard in that passage, I’ve always thought it represented Hippolita, her beauty and her mixed emotions about her rapidly approaching marriage. If she was lukewarm about wedding Theseus at first, and saw the moon as Diana, the chaste huntress-goddess of the Amazons of her youth, by the end she’s ready to move on: of Robin Starveling the Tailor’s performance as Moon, in the Mechanicals’ Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, Hippolita comments: “I am weary of this moon. Would he would change!”
We will, fair queen, up to the mountain's top,
And mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.
... Besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry: I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
Jeffrey Beruan plays Theseus in Seattle Opera's production; the role of Hippolita is shared by Rose Beattie and Young Artist Margaret Gawrysiak.