Tristan und Isolde


Read the synopsis of Tristan und Isolde

Act I

Tristan is bringing the Irish princess Isolde to Cornwall to be married to his uncle, King Marke. The voice of a young sailor is heard, pining for his Irish maiden. Isolde complains to her maidservant, Brangäne, that Tristan is ignoring her, and sends Brangäne to ask Tristan to come to her. Tristan politely but coldly refuses to leave the helm; his servant Kurwenal is less polite, and sings a mocking song about Morold, an Irish knight killed by Tristan.

Brangäne tells Isolde how Tristan reacted to her request. Isolde explains why she cannot forgive Tristan: she had been betrothed to Morold. In the course of the fight that had ended in Morold’s death, Tristan was gravely wounded; he sailed to Ireland, where he was nursed back to health by Isolde, who recognized him despite his false name of ‘Tantris’. She had been about to kill him in revenge, but he gazed into her eyes and her feelings towards him softened. He pledged his loyalty to her, and in return she kept his true identity a secret. Now she feels cheated because he has returned to Ireland to woo her, not for himself but for King Marke, his elderly uncle, with whom she is to be united in a loveless marriage. Tristan himself shows no sign of affection towards her.

Brangäne suggests that the spark of love might be ignited by a magic potion from a collection of remedies given to them by Isolde’s mother, a wise woman with a knowledge of herbs and spells. In her despair, Isolde chooses another remedy: a deadly poison.

The coast of Cornwall is sighted. Kurwenal rouses Isolde and Brangäne; Isolde must get ready to meet her husband, King Marke. She refuses to disembark until Tristan has come to her to seek forgiveness for an unatoned wrong. Isolde asks Brangäne to prepare the poison draught so that the ‘drink of atonement’ will result in their deaths.

Tristan comes to Isolde and explains that he had remained aloof during the voyage out of respect for another man’s bride. Telling him that his murder of Morold is still unavenged, she invites him to share a drink of atonement. He realizes that she intends to poison them both; but Brangäne has secretly substituted a love-draught for the poison, and Tristan and Isolde instead find themselves passionately in love. As the ship enters harbour, Tristan and Isolde are oblivious of the sailors’ cries and the imminent arrival of her husband.

Act II

Isolde has arranged an assignation with Tristan. King Marke is away on a hunting expedition; as evening falls, Brangane can still hear the horns in the distance. She warns Isolde that she and Tristan are in danger; she fears that Tristan’s treacherous friend Melot has arranged the hunt as a trap. Ignoring Brangane’s misgivings, Isolde begs her to extinguish the torch as the prearranged signal to Tristan. Impatiently she herself puts out the light, sending Brangane to the watch-tower to stand guard.

Tristan arrives; as the lovers are rapturously reunited, they contrast the hateful brightness of day with the welcoming darkness of night. Brangane’s warning voice is heard. Tristan and Isolde sing ecstatically of the wonder of their love; they will remain undivided for ever, even in death.

Kurwenal rushes in, telling Tristan to flee; but it is too late for the lovers to escape the arrival of King Marke, who enters with Melot and the hunting party. King Marke is not angry, but shocked and saddened. He recounts that, after the death of his first wife, it was Tristan himself who had urged him to marry again and undertook to win him a worthy bride, bringing back Isolde for him from Ireland. Deeply hurt, he asks why Tristan, his dearest and most trusted friend, has now brought this shame and dishonour upon him.

Tristan has no answer for King Marke, but instead asks Isolde to follow him to the dark realm of death. Tristan turns on Melot, who has betrayed him because he too loves Isolde; they draw swords, and Tristan allows himself to be wounded.


Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his ancestral castle in Brittany, where his wounds have not healed and he lies unconscious. Realizing that Isolde is the only person who might be able to restore him to health, Kurwenal has sent a ship to fetch her from Cornwall. A shepherd plays a mournful melody on his pipe; Kurwenal instructs him to watch the sea and play a cheerful tune as soon he sights an approaching ship.

Tristan wakes; Kurwenal tries to explain what has happened, where he is and how he got here. Aware that he has been brought back from the realm of night, Tristan longs to see Isolde again. Kurwenal tells him he has sent for her to heal his wounds; Tristan thanks him for his loyalty. In his delirium, he thinks Isolde’s ship is already approaching, but only the mournful tune of the shepherd’s pipe is heard. Tristan reflects on the significance of its sad music, which has haunted him throughout his life. At last the shepherd plays a merrier tune; Kurwenal confirms that Isolde’s ship is on the horizon, and watches as it is brought safely into harbour. As Kurwenal goes to fetch her, Tristan exultantly tears the bandages from his wounds. Isolde arrives; Tristan tries to greet her, but dies in her arms. After vainly attempting to revive him, she sinks unconscious beside his body.

The shepherd announces the arrival of a second ship, bearing Melot, King Marke and Brangane. Kurwenal hurries to defend the castle against the intruders. Ignoring Brangane’s protestations, he stabs Melot to death, but is himself wounded in the fight with Marke’s followers, and dies at Tristan’s feet.

Brangane tells Isolde that she has confessed to King Marke that she gave Tristan and Isolde the love-potion; King Marke has forgiven them, and has hurried here to give Isolde to Tristan with his blessing. Gazing ecstatically at Tristan’s body, Isolde feels herself united to him in death, in the highest bliss of unending love.

©Jonathan Burton 2003

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