Andreas Gryphius Essay - Critical Essays


Although not widely known outside Germany, Andreas Gryphius is among the exemplary figures of his age. His drama, like his poetry, contributes greatly to an understanding of that complex period of European culture known as the Baroque.

There is a natural division to Gryphius’s dramatic production and a remarkable consistency of themes. There are, first, his translations and adaptations from other languages; second, his tragedies; and third, his comedies and occasional pieces. They all center on the vanity of all earthly things and the need to maintain constancy of faith in the face of adversity. This central concern may be expressed either in the form of a great personage enduring hardships with magnanimity, as it appears in the tragedies, or it may manifest itself as an investigation into the nature of love and its complexities, as it often does in the comedies. Unfortunately, the available information does not allow precise dating of certain works, but there is a rough chronology that indicates that most of Gryphius’s translations and adaptations were written at the beginning and toward the end of his career. The early translations and adaptations were followed in time, more or less, by the tragedies, which in turn were followed by the comedies. It is worthy of note that Gryphius’s actual dramatic production was concentrated in the relatively short time span between 1645-1646 and 1650-1652, and then again between 1659 and 1661.

Beständige Mutter

The earliest translation, to start with that group, seems to have been Beständige Mutter, by Nicholaus Causinus, which Gryphius translated from the Latin, possibly between 1634 and 1644-1646. This translation of Tragoediae sacrae (1621) of Causinus, who was the Jesuit father confessor to Louis XIII of France, exemplifies the standard martyr tragedy of the Baroque and provides the basic scheme of many of Gryphius’s later tragedies in the same genre. The action is set in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius: The emperor tries to force Felicitas to renounce her Christian faith, only to be firmly rebuked by the steadfast paradigmatic believer. With great constancy, Felicitas endures the execution of her seven sons and rejects the advances, religious and amorous, of the tyrannical pagans, dying in prison still faithful to her Christian faith. Recalling the psychomachia of medieval theater, the basic pattern of such martyr tragedies, as employed by Gryphius and others, is a triangle consisting of the suffering but steadfast martyr and his or her family; evil counselors and Machiavellian tyrants, here including the lustful Apollonius, who is inflamed by the physical and spiritual beauty of Felicitas; and finally, a ruler torn between human impulses and evil counsel, who finally gives in and condemns the martyr to a gruesome death. This pattern is followed closely in Catharina von Georgien, written around 1647.

Die Sieben Brueder

Another early translation is Die Sieben Brueder, based on Joost van den Vondel’s De Gebroeders and probably undertaken around the time of Gryphius’s stay in Leiden. The sources for this piece are the second book of Samuel in the Old Testament and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquitates Judaicae (93 c.e.; Jewish Antiquities, 1737), book 7. The issue is the obedience of David to God’s will despite the appearance of inhumanity, juxtaposed to the embittered people and priests, who demand the execution of Saul’s sons to lift the curse from their land. (Of interest to scholars is the comment by Christian Gryphius that his father had composed all but the fifth and last act of an independent play concerning the same theme which, however, has been lost.)


Seugamme, probably completed around 1645, is a translation from the Italian Girolamo Razzi’s La Balia first published in 1560. A typical commedia with several interlocking plots and intrigues, it displays the corruption of several families, households, and generations by lust and love, which is, however, resolved in the end despite lingering implausibilities. The attraction for Gryphius, who translates rather literally, seems to have lain in the power of lust and deception and the disruptions they can wreak in human affairs, a topic to which he returned in his Cardenio und Celinde, albeit in tragic garb.

The early translations not only indicate Gryphius’s mastery of languages and his familiarity with contemporary and earlier European drama but also left notable traces in his own works. By contrast, the later translations and adaptations, such as Der Schwermende Schäffer, do not appear to have provided the playwright with a genuine learning experience.

Leo Armenius

Leo Armenius was Gryphius’s first independent drama. First published in 1650 and reprinted at least five times in the course of the seventeenth century, it was probably written before 1647. This historial tragedy, an exemplification of the workings of fickle fortune in human affairs, shows how easily the mighty are humbled. Based on the Greek historians Cedrenus and Zonaras, Leo Armenius is the story of the fall of the Byzantine emperor at the hands of his general Michael Balbus. Leo admonishes Michael to desist from his plottings against the throne and finally condemns him to die at the stake. At the intercession of his wife, the Empress Theodosia, however, he stays the execution; Michael’s coconspirators use the delay to enter the palace and kill the emperor on the night before Christmas. Gryphius had probably known of the Jesuit drama Leo Armenius (1646) by Joseph Simon, dealing with the very topical issue of tyrannicide. Yet where the Counter-Reformation Jesuit sees divine justice done in the fall of the heretic Leo, Gryphius condemns the killing of a prince, both as a Lutheran and as a lawyer believing in the divine right of princes and God’s prerogative to judge them. This conservative tendency also informs his later depiction of the death of Charles I in England, as well as that of his jurist hero Papinian. In the highly stylized, declamatory Leo Armenius, little emphasis is given to establishing causal connections or psychological motivations. The interest focuses instead on the moral and spiritual significance of acts and symbols, such as the emperor’s apotheosis and transformation into...

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