Previous page Page 2 of 2  
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

Goethe and Schiller: 1771-1832

In Goethe and Schiller Germany produces two writers at the forefront of European literature at a turning point of profound significance in cultural history. Their versatility (particularly Goethe's) and their willingness to respond to the many conflicting strands of contemporary thought make them seminal figures.

The first movement in which they both feature prominently is the early stirring of German romanticism known as Sturm und Drang.

By the 1790s both men are much influenced by the revival of interest in the achievements of classical Greece (resulting from the pioneering work of Winckelmann). For eleven years they become close colleagues in the movement known as Weimar classicism.

Goethe, long outliving Schiller and reaching a ripe old age, achieves a unique status as the last generalist before the era of inevitable specialization. He turns his hand successfully to every form of literary endeavour but is himself even more interested in his scientific enquiries, particularly in the fields of evolution and light. Typical of the baffling breadth of Goethe's interests is his last great sprawling work, the second part of Faust.

Sturm und Drang: 1771-1782

The phrase Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) is the title of a wild and extravagant drama by Friedrich Klinger, first performed in 1776. Its mood is typical of a fashion among young writers in Germany during the 1770s. Critics have subsequently adopted the title as the ideal name for the entire school. Storm and stress are the ingredients with which these writers challenge the calm certainties of 18th-century rationalism.

The first significant success in the new style is the play which brings Goethe fame throughout Germany - Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand), written between 1771 and 1773 and first performed in Berlin in 1774.

Based on the buccaneering autobiography of a real character of the 16th century, Goethe's play presents Götz as a hero fighting for natural rights against the repressive and corrupt bishop of Bamberg. His last words, as he dies, are Freiheit! Freiheit! (Freedom, Freedom).

Three years later, in 1777, the 18-year-old Friedrich Schiller, a resentful student in a military academy, begins writing an even wilder play, Die Ra:uber (The Robbers), which can be seen as the final fling of Sturm und Drang. Schiller borrows money to publish the play privately in 1781. It causes a sensation when it is performed at Mannheim in 1782.

Die Räuber tells the story of two sons of a nobleman. The evil younger son schemes to disinherit his brother and then systematically torments his father. The good son, reacting against unjust rejection by his father, joins a robber band and is implicated in appalling crimes. When his brother is finally unmasked, and his father found naked in a dungeon, the good son's evil deeds prevent his returning to normal life.

This family triangle is a more extreme version of Gloucester and his sons in King Lear, and Shakespeare is one of the strong influences on the Sturm und Drang generation. The first collection of his plays in German is published in 1762-6.

Another powerful influence also comes from Britain. It is the forged poems, attributed to the Celtic bard Ossian, which are published in 1760-63 and are widely greeted as an inspiring glimpse of the authentic spirit of the Middle Ages. The revival of interest in Gothic architecture also plays its part. Goethe, when a student in Strasbourg in 1770-71, is particularly impressed by the beauty of the city's cathedral.

Finally, there is a revolutionary voice from France which inspires these young German poets in their reaction against convention and conformity. They instinctively respond to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's message that the heart is wiser than the head, and the man of feeling superior to the man of intellect.

Young Werther: 1774

The influence of Rousseau, the man of feeling, is particularly strong in the book which brings Goethe a European reputation. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) has an immediate success in 1774. Like many first novels, it has strong autobiographical elements.

In 1772 Goethe lives for some months in Wetzlar, where he falls in love with the 19-year-old Lotte Buff. She is already engaged, but her fiancé very tolerantly allows the tormented poet to share their social life as an informal trio. Just after Goethe's departure from Wetzlar, a friend - in love with a married woman - shoots himself. This tragedy too is directly reflected in Werther.

Werther, an exceptionally sensitive young man, arrives in spring in a new town (as Goethe did) and is bowled over by the beauty of his new environment - and soon by the beauty of Lotte (the name in the novel as well as in real life).

The triangular friendship continues through the summer, mingling joy and torment, until Werther tears himself away in the autumn. But he cannot resist returning in the following spring. After a while, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his position, he shoots himself with the fiancé's revolver.

Young Werther's almost morbid introspection, heightened by extreme sensibility and made irresistibly convincing by Goethe's genius, captures the mood of a young generation increasingly inclined to a romantic view of the world. Werther's favourite clothes (blue jacket, yellow breeches) immediately become the fashion. So too, in a few unfortunate cases, does his fate. Several suicides seem to imitate the book. One woman, in 1777, even drowns herself near Goethe's house with a copy of the novel in her pocket.

A reader less enthusiastic than the majority is Lotte's fiancé, now her husband. On publication of Werther he breaks off contact with Goethe, ending the triangle which until then has continued in correspondence.

Weimar: 1775-1832

In 1775 Goethe accepts an invitation to visit the 18-year-old duke Karl August of Weimar, ruler of a tiny state. Weimar becomes Goethe's home for the rest of his life. In this small realm he plays many roles in addition to that of resident genius. For much of the first ten years he is chief minister of the duchy. He inspects mines, plans irrigation schemes, considers the design of uniforms for the ducal army.

In 1791, when Karl August establishes a permanent company for his court theatre, Goethe becomes its director. His presence, and the eager patronage of his employer, combine to make Weimar in these years the literary centre of Germany.

In 1786, exhausted by the range of his duties, Goethe escapes for an eighteen-month tour of Italy. It proves another turning point in his life. Rejecting the Sturm und Drang emphasis on the Gothic, he is inspired now by the current movement of neoclassicism - looking back beyond Rome to the original example of Greece.

In Italy he writes Iphegenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), turning into poetry an earlier prose version which he has made of the tragedy by Euripides. It is the first important work in German literature in the neoclassical vein. Goethe returns to Weimar in 1788 refreshed and, so to speak, idealized.

In 1794 Goethe meets Schiller, who is working as professor of history in the nearby university of Jena. The two men become friends. In Die Horen, a periodical edited by Schiller from 1795, they pursue their shared interest in classical themes. Together they develop an aesthetic which becomes known as Weimar classicism.

In recent years Schiller has written nothing for the theatre. Instead he has busied himself with history and philosophy. Now, with the active encouragement of the director of the Weimar court theatre, he returns to his first interest - and produces a large body of work in the remaining few years of his life.

Schiller's last years:1797-1805

In 1797, when Europe is in the turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Goethe - with his power to guarantee a production in the Weimar court theatre - persuades Schiller to return to the role of dramatist. The result is seven plays in as many years, written in verse on broadly classical principles. They place Germany in the forefront of contemporary theatre.

The first plays in this group, performed on the Weimar stage in 1798 and 1799, are a trilogy about Wallenstein, a larger-than-life character in another great European conflict. Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod dramatize the rise and fall of the brilliant but flawed commander in the Thirty Years' War.

The subsequent plays, several of them made famous by operatic adaptations, are Maria Stuart (1801, about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801, about Joan of Arc), Die Braut von Messina (1803, an invented story set in medieval Sicily and the most deliberately classical in its use of a chorus) and Wilhelm Tell (1804).

While Goethe encourages this final flowering of Schiller's theatrical talent, there is influence in the other direction too. It is largely on Schiller's urging that Goethe returns in 1797 to an early work on Faust and begins to revise it in keeping with the new classical principles of Weimar.

Faust: 1808-1832

For the whole of his life Goethe is fascinated by the legends which have accumulated round the 16th-century quack and magician Georg Faust. The story of Faust's pact with the devil is a favourite subject in Europe's travelling puppet shows, which Goethe is known to have enjoyed as a boy.

In his twenties Goethe writes a play on the subject - adding a love theme and the character of Gretchen. Luckily a copy of this early play is made in about 1776 by one of the court ladies in Weimar. It is found among her papers a century later and is published, becoming known as the Urfaust (Original Faust). This is the play which Schiller persuades Goethe to take up again in 1797.

The work is ready for publication as Faust Part I in 1808. Like earlier versions deriving from Marlowe, it concentrates on Faust's thirst for knowledge, his resulting pact with Mephistopheles, and the many pranks and adventures made possible by Mephistopheles' magic. But at the centre of the play there is now an innocent and simple woman, Gretchen, who instinctively sees through Mephistopheles.

Gretchen's affair with Faust leaves her pregnant. At the end of the play she is in prison, sentenced to death for infanticide. When she rejects the opportunity to escape by means of Mephistopheles' evil arts, a voice from above exclaims Ist gerettet (She is saved).

Goethe puts the Faust theme aside for the next two decades, taking it up again in 1826. Faust Part II is published in separate non-consecutive parts over the next few years, and the entire work appears just after Goethe's death in 1832.

Treating a wide range of subjects, in an extraordinary medley of metres and styles, this work is like a concluding survey - by Europe's leading man of letters, now in his late seventies - of life and its meaning. It is as if Goethe is consciously revisiting and testing his own long pattern of experience.

At the end of Part II Mephistopheles naturally expects his part of the bargain, the delivery of Faust's soul - which he has duly received in every other version of the story since Marlowe. But Goethe, the last of the 18th-century optimists, defies the fiend. Heavenly spirits drive Mepshistopheles away, and Faust's soul - interceded for by that of Gretchen - is carried to heaven.

Two themes central to Goethe's view of life play their part in Faust's redemption. Both are explicit in often quoted phrases which occur in the final lines of Faust Part II.

One of these themes is the value of humanity's unremitting pursuit of knowledge and improvement. The angels carrying Faust's soul to safety pronounce: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, Den können wir erlösen (Whoever exerts himself in constant striving, Him we can save).

Goethe's other special theme is the source of man's inclination to strive. His own life is notable for the series of women, often unattainable except in a platonic frindship, who each in their turn inspire him. The 'eternal feminine' becomes his concept of the ideal. The last two lines of Faust conclusively state: Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan (The eternal feminine draws us upwards).

This History is as yet incomplete.

Previous page Page 2 of 2