Friedrich Hebbel Essay - Hebbel, Friedrich

Hebbel, Friedrich


Friedrich Hebbel 1813-1863

(Full name Christian Friedrich Hebbel) German playwright and poet.

The following entry presents criticism on Hebbel's life and works from 1927 through 1987.

Hebbel is considered an important transitional figure in European drama. Scholars maintain that his works reflect both the Romantic idealism of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the psychological realism of Carl Hauptmann and Henrik Ibsen. Hebbel viewed the dramatic process as a conflict between the individual searching for identity and meaning and the seemingly intransigent world-historical Idea propounded by philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who believed that an omnipresent, unstoppable moral force determines the course of history.

Biographical Information

Hebbel was born in the small town of Wesselburen in the Holstein district of what is now Germany. His father was an impoverished mason who died when Hebbel was fourteen, leaving him and his brother to be raised by their mother, who was employed as a domestic. In order to continue his education, Hebbel worked as an errand boy and clerk for the local magistrate, studying during his free time. In 1932 he sent some poetry and short stories to the popular novelist Amalie Schoppe, who published several of the pieces in two Hamburg periodicals she edited. Schoppe invited Hebbel to Hamburg to prepare for admission to the university; however, he failed to pass the necessary entrance examinations. He left Hamburg in 1836 to attend jurisprudence lectures at the University of Heidelberg, and eventually traveled to Munich where he worked as a reporter. Unable to support himself, however, Hebbel returned to Hamburg early in 1839, accepting a position as a correspondent for the Telegraph für Deutschland. Later that year he began writing his first drama, Judith: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (Judith: A Tragedy in Five Acts) which was completed in January 1840 and first produced in 1841. A stipend from the king of Denmark allowed Hebbel to complete his second drama, Genoveva: Tragödie in fünf Acten (1843). In 1863 Hebbel won the first Schiller Prize in German literature for his trilogy, Die Nibelungen: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in drei Abtheilungen (1862; The Nibelungs: A Tragedy in Three Acts). He died after contracting pneumonia that same year.

Major Works

Nearly all of Hebbel's plays are tragedies, the notable exceptions being the comedies Der Diamant: Eine Komödie in fünf Acten (1847) and Der Rubin: Ein Märchen-Lustspiel in drei Acten (1851), which critics have described as black comedies. His best-known works are distinguished by the presence of a remarkable individual who struggles against the world-historical Idea. To heighten the drama of this struggle and highlight the problems that have historically fostered such encounters, Hebbel set his plays during turning points of world history. For example, Judith relates the attempted extermination of Jews by the Assyrians; Herodes und Mariamne: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (1850; Herod and Mariamne), events immediately preceding the birth of Jesus; Agnes Bernauer: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen (1852; Agnes Bernauer: A German Tragedy in Five Acts), the beginnings of the breakdown of fifteenth-century feudalism; and The Nibelungs, the twilight of German paganism. In another drama, Maria Magdalen: Ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel in drei Acten, nebst einem Vorwort (1844; Maria Magdalena), Hebbel emphasizes more personal aspects of tragedy, using non-historical characters to depict the universality of an individual's plight. Critics have also noted the important role that women play in Hebbel's work. With the exception of his autobiographical drama Michel Angelo: Ein Drama in zwei Akten (1851) and his unfinished Demetrius: Eine Tragödie (1864), women are central to the dramatic conflict in each of his tragedies.

Critical Reception

Although reception of his work was initially lukewarm, Hebbel eventually became recognized as a leading dramatist in his time. His plays were staged throughout Europe, and he was invited to conduct performances at the courts of both Weimar and Munich. Critical interest in Hebbel dissipated shortly after his death; however, a state-sponsored Hebbel resurgence was initiated during the German National Socialist movement. While such attention restored the dramatist to the forefront of German literature, the misguided “Nazification” of Hebbel's work stigmatized him in the post-war world. However, new interpretations of his dramas have emerged and newer productions have been staged. Judith, Maria Magdalena, and Gyges und sein Ring: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten (1856; Gyges and His Ring) have remained fixtures in the repertoire of many German theatres.

Principal Works

Judith: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten [Judith: A Tragedy in Five Acts] 1841

Genoveva: Tragödie in fünf Acten 1843

Maria Magdalen: Ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel in drei Acten, nebst einem Vorwort [Maria Magdalena] (essay and drama) 1844

Der Diamant: Eine Komödie in fünf Acten 1847

Ein Trauerspiel in Sizilien: Tragicomödie in einem Act, nebst einem Sendschreiben an H. T. Rötscher (drama and letter) 1847

Herodes und Mariamne: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten [Herod and Mariamne] 1850

Der Rubin: Ein Märchen-Lustspiel in drei Acten 1851

Michel Angelo: Ein Drama in zwei Akten 1851

Agnes Bernauer: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen [Agnes Bernauer: A German Tragedy in Five Acts] 1852

Gyges und sein Ring: Eine Tragödie in fünf Acten [Gyges and His Ring] 1856

Die Nibelungen: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel in drei Abtheilungen [The Nibelungs: A Tragedy in Three Acts] 2 vols. 1862

Demetrius: Eine Tragödie (unfinished drama) 1864

Gedichte (poetry) 1842

Neue Gedichte (poetry) 1848

Erzählungen und Novellen (novellas) 1855

Mutter und Kind: Ein Gedicht in sieben Gesängen (poetry) 1859

Sämtliche Werke 12 vols. (dramas, essays, poetry, letters, and novellas) 1865-67

Tagebücher 2 vols. (diaries) 1885-87

Sämtliche Werke: Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe 24 vols. (dramas, essays, diaries, poetry, letters, and novellas) 1901-07

Friedrich Hebbel: Sämtliche Werke nebst Tagebüchern und einer Auswahl der Briefe 6 vols. (dramas, essays, diaries, poetry, letters, and novellas) 1911-25

Werke 5 vols. (dramas, essays, diaries, poetry, letters, and novellas) 1963-67

Criticism: General Commentary

Edna Purdie (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: Purdie, Edna. “Dramatic Technique” and “Conception of Tragedy.” In Friedrich Hebbel: A Study of His Life and Work, pp. 235-69. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.

[In the following essay, Purdie discusses Hebbel's dramatic theory and technique.]


Any detailed analysis of Hebbel's plays must in great measure demonstrate the poet's sense of dramatic effect and his mastery of dramatic means. Moreover, it is impossible to draw a rigid line of demarcation between dramatic technique and the substance of a drama, since the very substance is to some extent the outcome of the form. But Hebbel's actual methods are...

(The entire section is 12103 words.)

Edith J. R. Isaacs (essay date December 1938)

SOURCE: Isaacs, Edith J. R. “Concerning the Author of Herod and Mariamne.” Theatre Arts Monthly (December 1938): 886-90.

[In the following essay, Isaacs considers the appeal of Hebbel's drama.]

Twenty-five years ago every important theatre in Germany included some of Friedrich Hebbel's tragedies in its repertory, with Herod and Mariamne a prime favorite wherever there was an actress beautiful, majestic and magnetic enough to master the leading part. There were fine roles for actors in Hebbel's plays, but as material for the art of the actress such characters as Mariamne, Agnes Bernauer, Judith, and the noble Rhodope in Gyges and His Ring were...

(The entire section is 1672 words.)

Paul G. Graham (essay date December 1940)

SOURCE: Graham, Paul G. “The Principle of Necessity in Hebbel's Theory of Tragedy.” Germanic Review 15, no. 4 (December 1940): 258-62.

[In the following essay, Graham regards the principle of necessity as an integral aspect of Hebbel's dramatic theory.]

In Hebel's theory of tragedy no single aspect is of greater fundamental significance than the principle of necessity. Hebbel scholars such as Scheunert, Walzel, Schnyder, Frenkel, Seidmann, Purdie, and Rees refer to the importance of the principle of necessity without giving a clear and satisfying account of it. Hebbel employs the terms “notwending” and “Notwendigkeit” for at least three kinds of necessity....

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

Edna Purdie (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Purdie, Edna. “Hebbel: Some Aspects of Research and Criticism in the Decade, 1953-1963.” Euphorion (1966): 110-24.

[In the following essay, Purdie surveys the major trends in the critical analysis of Hebbel's work from 1953-1963.]

In any survey, however incomplete, of scholarly work concerning Hebbel during the decade preceding the centenary of 1963, at least two trends can be discerned. On the one hand, a new impulse to investigation of his relations with predecessors and contemporaries, greatly stimulated by Wolfgang Liepe's researches into further sources of Hebbel's thought and imagery, and powerfully supported by publications sponsored by the...

(The entire section is 10152 words.)

Von Günter E. Salter (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Salter, Von Günter E. “Friedrich Hebbel's Conception of God.” Hebbel-Jahrbuch 1969 (1969): 122-43.

[In the following essay, Salter elucidates Hebbel's conception of God as evinced in his work.]

The main difficulty in developing an understanding of Friedrich Hebbel's conception of God is not a lack of pertinent remarks by the poet, but it rather lies in the apparent inconsistency and contradiction of the many aphorisms and thoughts relative to the subject matter which abound in his diary and letters. A rather cursory examination of these writings would tend to lend credence to the verdict of some critics who in searching for a philosophical system expounded...

(The entire section is 7437 words.)

Ladislaus Löb (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Löb, Ladislaus. “Hebbel.” In From Lessing to Hauptmann: Studies in German Drama, pp. 239-87. London: University Tutorial Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Löb provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Hebbel's dramatic theory and his major dramatic works.]


Among Germany's outstanding dramatists Hebbel is one of the most debatable claimants to greatness. At their worst his plays abound in hysterical atmospheres, extravagant characters, hair-splitting arguments and contrived situations. At their best they rise to powerful tragic conflicts reflecting the perplexities of an unusual individual living at a...

(The entire section is 18168 words.)