Amadeus Summary

Peter Shaffer


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Amadeus Summary

 SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer.

Amadeus, a play written by Peter Shaffer, tells the story of Amadeus Mozart and his nemesis Antonio Salieri. It was first performed in 1979 and has undergone revisions since its introduction.

The play opens with a man seated in the shadows. Salieri, the former court composer to the Habsburg emperor, is sitting in his apartment. He begins to make a confession; he remembers his first meeting with the adult Mozart and how he was shocked to find Mozart’s music so different than his character.

Salieri believes that music is close to God. He longs to join the great composers in this pursuit of holiness, and when he first hears Mozart’s music as a child prodigy, he is astounded. Later, as Mozart grows up and his character becomes impudent and irreverent, Salieri cannot reconcile the vast genius of the man with his character. Mozart is everything that Salieri wants to be — divinely inspired. He knows the emperor is ungifted in music, and his position is more about his politicking than his actual talent.

Mozart arrives as an adult seeking commissions from the court. Salieri, who jealously guards the court music scene, is stunned when he meets him. We begin to see images of Mozart as a young man, cavorting on stage with a young woman. At times, he crawls on all fours and seems as if he will make a conquest of her on the spot. He runs off when he hears his music being played, realizing that the court musicians have started without him.

Mozart changes Salieri’s march theme to enliven it. Salieri cannot believe that God would choose such a boorish man to bestow such genius upon. For much of the rest of the play, Salieri pretends to be on Mozart’s side as he frustrates and impedes his career. Salieri renounces God and vows to do everything he can to destroy Mozart.

On more than one occasion, Mozart is only allowed to continue when the emperor himself steps in. Salieri always opposes the intervention, but when Mozart credits him for intervening, he is more than happy to take credit for the way events turn out. Salieri also humiliates Mozart’s wife, Constance Weber, and the woman we saw in the beginning in the play, when she comes to him for assistance.

He smears Mozart’s name with the emperor and the court. Mozart repeatedly tries to win over the aristocracy with music of increasing brilliance and genius, but Salieri always manages to frustrate his attempts. At times, Mozart’s audience is unable to comprehend the bounds of his genius.

The play ends with Salieri attempting to kill himself with a razor, but even this is frustrated. He confesses to poisoning Mozart with arsenic. Though he survives the suicide attempt, Salieri still slips into obscurity.

The play centers on the idea of confession and guilt. Salieri spends most of Mozart’s life preventing Mozart from being fully recognized for his genius; his actions haunt him after Mozart is gone. This confession begins and ends the play. He asks the audience to act as his confessor as he reveals his shortcomings through recounting the story.

There is also an element of madness. Each character is undone by his or her particular madness. Salieri is undone by his obsession with his rival, with ensuring that Mozart does not receive the credit he deserves. He wishes to destroy Mozart, and in the end, he succeeds. The cost of this madness is a life of guilt and shame.

Mozart also goes mad as the play progresses. In the beginning, he is a compelling communicator, but as the play moves forward, his exhaustion and his frustration at his lack of status as a court musician cause him to lose the ability to communicate. When Salieri commissions him to write a Requiem, he ignores Mozart’s weakened state and forces him to complete it. This further diminishes Mozart’s ability to function as a fully realized human being.

Mozart loses his wife through his inability to respond to her the way he once did and with his erratic behavior. She seeks the help of Salieri, but he humiliates her and smears Mozart’s name. Her madness is that she loves Mozart, but his genius removes him from her despite her best efforts.

Devotion also drives the story. Mozart devotes himself to his music in spite of his deteriorating health and well-being. In the play, we find him working on a piece in his final hours. Salieri’s two points of devotion, God and music, come into conflict until one of them must be left behind. Salieri chooses music over God, as he cannot fathom a God who would pass over him to bestow genius on Mozart. Leopold, Mozart’s father, and Constance, his wife, also find themselves in conflict with their object of devotion. Ultimately, they leave Mozart, as the source of their conflict proves too great.

Although the real story of Salieri and Mozart is not fully known, in the play, they are introduced as foils to each other. Where Mozart is irreverent, Salieri is reverent. Where Mozart is a genius, Salieri plots his way into a career. Their influence on each other and the path their lives take is fascinating and heartbreaking.