Friedrich Hebbel Essay - Critical Essays


Personal experience and keen observation led Friedrich Hebbel to note early in his journal that life is a struggle between the individual and the universe. He further noted that just as leaves that fall and decay stimulate plant growth the following season, so the life of an individual contributes to the progress of the universe, even though the leaf that falls or the human being that suffers cannot claim compensation. It was but a short step for Hebbel from such general dicta to their application in his literary theory. In Hebbel’s view, any human being can be a tragic individual. Any person, asserting himself as an individual, disturbs the universe’s equilibrium and thus evokes tragedy. The descriptive term Pantragismus (“pantragism”) was coined by Arno Scheunert in his book Der Pantragismus als System der Weltanschauung und Ästhetik Hebbels (1930) to refer to Hebbel’s worldview and his aesthetic system.

Given such a conceptual framework, it is no surprise that Hebbel wrote Maria Magdalena, the first genuine bourgeois tragedy in German literature. According to Aristotle, only individuals of high rank were fit subjects for tragedy. Under English influence, this axiom had been modified in mid-eighteenth century German letters by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (1772; English translation, 1786), and subsequently by the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) playwrights. In both cases, however, tragedy developed out of a dubious interaction between the nobility and the commoners, who bore the consequences. In Maria Magdalena, tragedy ensues, as the result of a rigid value system, entirely from within lower-middle-class society.

Hebbel’s notion that the individual who is freed temporarily from a nexus with the universe, of which he nevertheless remains a part, falls through self-assertion into Masslosigkeit (immoderation), led him to a revised concept of tragic guilt. Aristotle viewed the tragic hero as an individual not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune is brought on him not by vice or depravity but by some error, resulting from poor judgment, ignorance, or a moral flaw. Aristotle’s comments, originally descriptive, had long been tacitly accepted as proscriptive. In contrast, Hebbel argued in “Mein Wort über das Drama,” that dramatic guilt does not arise from the direction of the human will but immediately from the act of willing itself. Individuation—the state of existing as an individual—implies universal metaphysical guilt. Self-assertion added to that leads to Masslosigkeit, eliciting tragedy. Hence, he concludes, it makes no difference whether a hero perishes in pursuit of a praiseworthy or reprehensible aim. In a journal entry of the same period, he adds that it is foolish to demand of the poet what even God does not offer: reconciliation and a leveling of dissonances. The poet, he claims, may let any character perish, but he must show simultaneously that his doom was unavoidable—that it, like death, was set a priori at birth.


Although these ideas were not committed to paper at the time Judith was written, they clearly apply to Hebbel’s first play. Based on the account of the Jewish heroine in the Apocrypha, Hebbel altered the plot in some significant aspects to provide psychological veracity and a tragic outcome. Whereas the Apocryphal Judith is certain at all times that she acts in accord with God’s will as she saves her people, Hebbel’s heroine receives only ambivalent signs of divine approval. On her wedding night, for example, her husband sees something—a vision?—that moves him not to consummate the marriage, then or subsequently. He meets with an accident not long afterward, and his dying words, which might have shed light on his unusual behavior, break off inconclusively.

Her husband’s behavior and various other incidents confirm Judith’s resolve to trick Holofernes, slay him, and free her people from the death-dealing siege. When she meets Holofernes, however, she is so taken by his stature that she is unable to carry out her plan. In fact, she reveals it to him, speaking as an equal to the avowed enemy of her people. Completely unable to understand her unique personality, Holofernes rapes her. The physical abuse (Hebbel had purposely prepared for it with the virgin-widow motif), but even more so the psychological shock of being reduced to a “thing,” together cause Judith to lose sight of her commission. When she beheads Holofernes in his sleep, she acts in personal revenge.

This switch of motives is taken by Judith as evidence that God has “dropped her,” a fate prefigured in a dream. She is deeply despondent. As the play ends, her people celebrate the rout of the leaderless enemy, but Judith hopes for death. Hebbel endowed Judith with exemplary attributes, in part based on his source—that is, with piety, charity toward the unfortunate, and so on—yet circumstances force her into actions and reactions that make her a guiltless victim in the evolution of the world.

The notion that the world evolves by a process in which a status quo or a thesis is challenged by an antithesis, implying a tragic struggle and the doom of those involved in it, but leading to a synthesis further on, is a Hegelian notion. When Hebbel first embraced this view and saw one purpose of drama to be the depiction of such evolutionary change, he did not know that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had preempted him. It is uncertain whether Hebbel arrived at the same view entirely on his own or unknowingly absorbed Hegelian thought through an intermediary in his wide-ranging autodidactic studies. At any rate, Hebbel enunciated his conviction that dramas ought to be set at historic turning points, as early as 1843 in “Mein Wort über das Drama,” and noted subsequently in his journal his surprise that some of his ideas matched those of Hegel.

Maria Magdalena

Just as in Judith, heathen polytheism and Judaic monotheism are the contending orders from which the characters derive their uniqueness, so in Maria Magdalena, Hebbel sets up an opposition between the older generation and the younger one. In...

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