Jealousy, Love, Madness: A Synopsis of Handel’s Saul

By April 26, 2016Blog
Guernico, Saul attacking David, 1646

Guernico, Saul attacking David, 1646

This weekend Harry Christophers leads the H+H premiere of Handel Saul at Symphony Hall. When Handel and his librettist Charles Jennens wrote Saul in 1738, they could have expected their entire audience to be familiar with the story, taken from the First Book of Samuel. For today’s audience, this might not be the case, so here’s a plot synopsis of the dramatic oratorio.

Act I

David has killed the Philistine giant Goliath and so the Israelites, under their King Saul, have defeated the Philistines. David is introduced to Saul, who decides David should marry his eldest daughter, Merab, though she thinks David is not noble enough to be worthy of her. However Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, is truly in love with David.

Saul, meanwhile, grows jealous when the Israelites praise David too strongly. In a rage, Saul tries to kill David, but fails, and then orders his son Jonathan—David’s friend—to hunt him down.

Act II

Jonathan convinces Saul to lift his order to kill David. Saul allows David to marry the younger Michal instead of Merab, but secretly hopes that David will soon be killed in battle with the Philistines.

Michal and David discuss Saul’s cruelty and madness: David is fearless, while Michal worries for his safety. Doeg, Saul’s messenger, arrives to arrest David and bring him again to the king’s court. David escapes through a window. At the Festival of the New Moon, Saul expects David to appear; when he does not, Saul questions Jonathan about David’s absence, and attempts to kill his own son for being too loyal to David; the onlookers are horrified.


Saul realizes that he has alienated not only his family but also his subjects. He is losing power and consults the Witch of Endor, even though he himself has banished witchcraft. At Saul’s command, the Witch conjures up the ghost of the prophet Samuel, who says that Saul and his sons will soon be killed by the Philistines, and David will become King of Israel.

Later, David meets an Amalekite who has just left the battle. The Amalekite informs David that Saul and his sons—including Jonathan—are dead. A great elegy ensues. The Israelites mourn until the High Priest proclaims David as the new king who will unify the nation.


Listen to some of Harry Christopher’s recording of Saul with The Sixteen below, and buy tickets to his performances with H+H on April 29 and May 1 at Symphony Hall.