Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Brussels. Prosperous Flanders city (now part of Belgium), whose streets are gathering places for merchants, soldiers, and simple people to discuss politics freely. However, a revolt against Spanish rule fanned by Calvinist preachers has brought political turmoil. When the occupying army under the duke of Alba enters the city, the streets of Brussels are emptied and silenced by martial law. Gallows, built at night and shrouded in black on the town square, point up the treachery of Alba, the intolerance of the Spanish rule, and the end of the freedoms the citizens have enjoyed.

Alba’s palace

Alba’s palace. Official Brussels residence of the duke of Alba, the emissary of the Spanish king, Philip II. The palace, in keeping with his harsh regime, is an armed camp. Stiff, motionless soldiers line its corridors; entrances are tightly guarded; ministers fear to speak. Lured to the palace under false pretenses, Count Egmont is arrested and chained in its subterranean dungeon. In his despair he dreams that the prison wall opens, and a female figure in the guise of his beloved Clara predicts that his death will bring his people freedom. When he awakes, surrounded by soldiers who will conduct him to the gallows, the victory symphony stimulates the audience to contemplate the eventual triumph of Dutch independence, as well as the tragedy of Egmont’s unjust execution.

Clara’s house

Clara’s house. Home of Clara (Clärchen), a commoner who loves and is loved by Egmont. The house is clearly a domestic space, in which women sew together and talk of marriage. While Clara’s suitor Brackenburg and her lover Egmont frequent the house, Clara sings of her longing to be a soldier rather than a bride. She and her mother are often drawn to the windows and doors of the house, leaning out to watch marching soldiers. In Clara’s demeanor as well as in her house, private, domestic life is connected to public, political concerns. From her house Clara gives a rousing speech to the citizens, urging them to take up arms to rescue Egmont after he has been imprisoned. Unfortunately it falls on deaf ears, and Clara poisons herself.

Egmont Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Egmont: A Tragedy in Five Acts. Translated by Charles E. Passage. New York: Ungar, 1985. Included in this careful translation of Goethe’s play is a very useful ten-page introduction to the work. Provides a good overview of theme, character, style, and structure. Also places the work in its historical and literary context.

Gray, Ronald. Goethe: A Critical Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Provides a concise account of Goethe’s works, including not only information about sources, influences, and relationship to the author’s life and position in German literature but also insightful critical assessment. Chapter 4 discusses Goethe’s major dramatic works, including Egmont. Includes bibliography and chronology of Goethe’s life and works.

Hatfield, Henry C. Goethe: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Provides interpretations of Goethe’s works with a minimum of biographical and background material. In chapter 3, “Resolution and Maturity,” the author discusses Goethe’s turn toward “objective” verse in Egmont and several other works. Includes a bibliography.

Peacock, Ronald. Goethe’s Major Plays. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1959. Excellent though dated introduction to and interpretation and assessment of Goethe’s major plays. Discusses Egmont as a historical tragedy, personal portrait, and hymn to freedom. Also places the play in the context of Goethe’s development as a dramatist.

Wells, G. A. “Criticism and the Quest for Analogies: Some Recent Discussions of Goethe’s Egmont.” New German Studies 15, no. 1 (1988-1989): 1-15. Summarizes critical viewpoints on Goethe’s play. Among other perspectives, the work is viewed as a drama of innocence versus experience and a conflict between romanticism and social/moral realities.