Christian Friedrich Hebbel was born on March 18, 1813, in Wesselburen in the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein, then under Danish suzerainty. His father, a mason, never was able to lift his family out of poverty; in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and Denmark’s bankruptcy, repairs and odd jobs were the only work a mason could find. When his father died in 1827, young Hebbel became a messenger boy and later a scribe for J. J. Mohr, the parish mayor. He worked there for more than seven years and was never treated better than the domestics but was allowed to use Mohr’s library. Hebbel read extensively and became acquainted with contemporary German literature and the philosophy of Gotthilf H. Schubert and Ludwig Feuerbach.
Area newspapers published Hebbel’s early poems and stories, some of which elicited the attention of Amalie Schoppe, author of trivial but then popular novels. She arranged for Hebbel to come to Hamburg, where he was to prepare himself for entrance into a university. Perhaps too old and certainly too impatient for detailed remedial work, Hebbel went to Heidelberg a year later to study law. Soon convinced that jurisprudence could not hold his interest, he moved on to Munich in 1836, in the hope of earning a living as a freelance writer. In the next two and a half years, Hebbel experienced almost continuous hardship. He earned little and came to rely on the financial support of Elise Lensing, a woman nine years his senior, whom he had met in Hamburg. He continued his autodidactic studies and wrote some of his finest poems. In March, 1839, his financial condition forced him to return on foot to Hamburg, where he contracted a severe case of pneumonia. Thanks to the patient care of Elise Lensing, he survived, and that fall, he wrote Judith. It was performed during 1840 in Berlin and Hamburg, then...
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