Classicism, by the standards of many critics, is not necessarily defined by the boundaries of time; however, there are several major periods with which Classicism is generally associated, including the Golden Age of Greece, the age of Cicero and Augustus in Rome, and the Enlightenment periods of France, England, and Germany. Classicism also encompasses all of what is considered Neoclassicism, though it should be noted that the inverse is not considered true.
Both ancient Greek and ancient Roman cultures had definite ideas and attitudes about literature. The qualities they valued in literary works included a sense of restraint and of restricted scope, a dominance of reason, a sense of form, and a unity of purpose and design, to name a few. Clarity was especially important to the Greeks, emphasizing that communication was an act of informational transmission between multiple individuals rather than the end result of self-expression by a single individual. They also valued objectivity over passion.
Each classical revival emulated these characteristics differently. The French classicists stressed reason and intellect, while the English took great interest in form. The Germans wanted not only to imitate but to surpass the grandeur of the original classics. Some modern-day literary works also manifest various aspects of the classical traditions, as seen in the works of T. S. Eliot, though there is less agreement about whether they can truly be described as works of classicism.
Euripides (c. 485–406 B.C.)
A writer during the first classical period in Greece, Euripides was a playwright of great import. The decline of the Golden Age in Greece, as a result of the Peloponnesian War, was witnessed by Euripides probably accounts for the overall tone of his tragedies. His works also serve as a chronicle of Athenian thought during a rather turbulent time in its history and are excellent representations of Attic Drama, the theatrical genre of the time.
Euripides was born in 485 B.C. in Athens, where he spent most of his life. Historians believe that he was from a middle-class background, which suggests that he was well educated. Euripides was also a friend of many of the great thinkers of the time, including Anaxagoras, Socrates, and Protagoras. During his childhood and into early adulthood, Euripides enjoyed the splendor of an Athens rich in resources and political allies.
In 455, Euripides wrote his first tetralogy, a composition including three tragedies and a satyr play. Ninety-two plays are known to have been written by the dramatist after the start of the war. Only nineteen of his plays still exist, most of them tragedies in the form of divine myths, marital narratives, and noble family histories.
Euripides’s works were often not warmly received by the Greeks of his time, as he did not believe in the triumph of reason over passion, nor did he believe that reason and order regulated the universe. This idea is demonstrated in the gods of his plays, who do not always act in just or compassionate ways, even exhibiting the less desirable characteristics of their mortal counterparts. It has been suggested that, as a result of these stylistic differences, Euripides’s work was not popular at dramatic festivals, earning him relatively few prizes. Euripides eventually left Athens in response to his critics and at the invitation of the Macedonia King Archelaus. Archelaus requested that Euripides’s writings contribute to a new cultural center the king envisioned as a rival to Athens. Unfortunately, Euripides would live less than two years in Macedonia before he died.
Despite his unpopularity, Euripides has been tagged a “stylistic innovator” for his unconventional beliefs, particularly by contemporary critics who contend that his works contributed to the creation of modern drama. In his own time, Sophocles and others admired his work for its psychological realism and its use of simple, everyday dialogue in favor of the decorative aristocratic language that dominated the genre. The Dionysian festival would also revive his plays 100 years after his death in 406, to enjoy a much greater reception.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been recognized for his considerable writing talents as well as his genius. He has been called a shaping force in German literature, particularly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An exceptional man, Goethe excelled as a scientist, philosopher, musician, and artist, in addition to his literary accomplishments. Goethe’s drama Faust has been compared to the works of Dante and Shakespeare and is an important piece of Romantic literature.
Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt, Germany. His mother was the daughter of the mayor, and his father spent much of his time writing memoirs, supporting local artists, and educating his children. Goethe’s education was extensive at a very early age—so extensive that Goethe managed to write an epistolary novel (a novel written as a letter or series of letters) incorporating six different languages (German, French, Italian, English, Latin, and Yiddish) by his early teens. He entered the University of Leipzig at the age of sixteen to study law but found greater satisfaction in studying art, literature, and music. After two semesters, Goethe dropped out of the university to pursue an education independently. Some of Goethe’s earliest works created during this time include Buch Annette (translated as Book for Annette), a book of poetry inspired by a landlord’s daughter at an inn Goethe frequented, and the play Die Laune des Verliebten (translated as The Wayward Lover), a pastoral comedy.
In 1768, Goethe became ill and returned to Frankfurt to rest and recover. He studied alchemy, astrology, and the occult during this time and read the works of Shakespeare, Lessing, and Rousseau before continuing his law studies in Strasbourg in March of 1770. Goethe remained in Strasbourg to practice law for several years. During this time, Goethe wrote an epistolary novel entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther, based on the true story of a man’s suicide over a sour love affair and his own feelings for a friend’s fiancée. The novel was wildly popular in Germany but was tagged immoral by British and American critics because of the suicide depicted.
The popularity of Goethe’s Werther also earned Goethe various official posts in Weimar, by invitation of Duke Karl August, and he stayed for...
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