‘”How shall we heal this evil wound?” Thinking about bodily pain in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde’ – a contribution to our special edition collection of pain in the medical humanities, by Fraser Riddell

Painful bodies abound in the operas of Richard Wagner. The penitent Tannhäuser purposefully endures stones and thorns under his bare feet on his pilgrimage to Rome. As Mime toils to forge the ring in the caverns of Nibelheim, Alberich viciously digs his nails into the servile dwarf’s ear. Even in the comically inflected Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, bodily pain makes it presence felt not just in the mundane pinch of Eva’s ill-fitting shoe, but in the metaphor of torn bodily flesh used to characterise Hans Sachs’s sense of universal self-destructive delusion in his Wahn monologue.

Yet despite the physicality of Wagner’s bodies, critical attention has often focussed not on pain as bodily experience, but rather as a metaphor for suffering more generally. In many cases this is entirely justifiable. Wagner was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer – a profoundly pessimistic system of thought characterised by a belief that existence is necessarily defined by suffering (Magee). Life consists of eternal yearning and unquenchable longing, so that each time one desire is fulfilled another takes its place. The only way to mitigate suffering is to free oneself from this perpetual striving. In Act 3 of Tristan und Isolde (and in Parsifal more generally), the unhealed wound serves as a symbol of the unquenchable Sehnen (longing) that, for Schopenhauer, underlies the torment of existence. So is Wagner uninterested in the lived experience of bodily pain? Is the wounded body merely a convenient theatrical tableau for externalising the psychological pain of Sehnen?

In brief, the plot of Wagner’s opera involves an adulterous affair between the eponymous lovers. At the conclusion of Act 2, they are discovered in flagrante by Isolde’s huband-to-be, King Mark. In the altercation that follows, Tristan falls upon the sword of Mark’s courtier, Melot. Act 3 opens with the wounded Tristan lying incapacitated on his deathbed. Only towards the end of Act 3 – at the height of an ecstatic vision of reunion with Isolde – does he rise from his bed, throwing off his bandages, so that his wound bleeds openly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many modern directors have found it insufficiently theatrical for Tristan to remain bed-bound throughout such intensely emotionally fraught music. But taking Tristan’s physical confinement seriously (that is, following Wagner’s stage directions) might usefully refocus attention on the manner in which Tristan is physically incapacitated. The anguish that follows becomes not just a reflection on the metaphysical nature of suffering, but also a vivid attempt to narrate the experience of bodily pain. And, as Samuel Beckett has shown, immobilised bodies can possess their very own disturbing theatricality.

Aspects of Wagner’s opera might also suggest ways in which an easy conceptual distinction between bodily pain and mental pain can be called into question. As many modern theorists of pain have noted, such a distinction is certainly untenable from the point of view of clinical practice (Davies 2014:10). It fails to account for the experiences those who suffer from chronic pain— whose symptoms persist in the absence of any discernible organic lesion. Bodily pain is never an unmediated sensation consequent on physical injury, but rather a complex perception within which affects, interpretations and self-images play a necessary part (Morris 1993).

Those who practice narrative-based medicine note the thoroughgoing co-dependence of the physical and the mental – our subjective experiences and representations of pain are not somehow ontologically secondary to tangible ‘objective’ biological reality, rather they are a constituent part of the way in which pain is perceived and understood by a patient.

How does Wagner suggest this ‘co-dependence of the physical and the mental’? In a section towards the end of Act 3, Tristan lies motionless, seemingly dead. Kurwenal, his loyal retainer, looks closely for any sign of life:

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As Kurwenal listens intently, the orchestra plays syncopated ‘Tristan chords’ (here, the enharmonic equivalent of the F-B-D#-G# chord that opens the opera). In the opera’s complex web of associative musical ideas (leitmotifs), this chord comes to represent the Sehnen that is the source of Tristan’s torment. Here, though, pain is not just mental – it is located in the physical body. The pianissimo syncopated rhythms evoke shallow breathing, a faint murmur of a heartbeat. And when combined with the harmonic tension of the Tristan chord, it becomes clear that the way in which Tristan feels his own body is mediated through the intensity of his subjective mental suffering. Sehnen exists not just as a mental experience, but is thoroughly embodied; mental and physical pain cannot be easily extricated from one another.

Despite the long association between Wagner and the pathological sounds of suffering, little attention has been paid to the manner in which Wagner’s music depicts bodily pain, or how this is presented dramatically. Theories of pain formulated within the Medical Humanities can no doubt provide illuminating new perspectives on this issue.


This guest contribution was written by Fraser Riddell, a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Studies at Durham University. His thesis examines the manner in which musical experience is understood in terms of disease and illness in literature of the fin-de-siècle. His research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

You can follow Fraser on Twitter with @fraser_riddell

Correspondence to Fraser Riddell



This is a summary of a paper first presented at Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities Postgraduate and Early Career Research Network on 5 February 2015.

Works cited

Coakley, Sarah, and Kay Kaufman Shelemay. 2007. Pain and Its Transformations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Davies, Jeremy. 2014. Romanticism and the Sense of Pain. New York: Routledge.

Groos, Arthur. 2011. Tristan und Isolde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magee, Bryan. 2001. Wagner and Philosophy. London: Penguin.

Morris, David B. 1993. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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