Ludvig Holberg Essay - Critical Essays


Ludvig Holberg grew up among the burghers of Bergen, representatives of a class that at that time was starting to come into its own. The scholar and dramatist shared their basic values, and in his comedies he catered to their tastes. Holberg was also a man of considerable learning, and as such he never doubted his competence as a judge of good and evil and prudence and folly. His background in the emerging bourgeoisie and his position as an intellectual leader combine to explain the form of his comedies.

The typical Holberg comedy is constructed according to the rule of Horace, in that it attempts to instruct the audience at the same time that it entertains. The comedy is centered on a character who has one dominating weakness, and around this figure are placed both schemers and innocent characters who suffer because of the central figure’s follies. The characters onstage are also typical of the people in the audience, for although people are basically rational beings, they are also afflicted with all manner of caprices, obsessions, and strange notions. By holding up a mirror in which the audience can get a clear view of itself, Holberg attempts to remove some of this folly and strengthen the rule of reason.

The Political Tinker

Holberg’s first play, The Political Tinker, has struck a later age as antidemocratic, in that its central character, a Hamburg pewterer named Herman von Bremen, is soundly thrashed by the author for his desire to become involved in political life. His basic fault is that he neglects his work in order to read books about politics and engage in useless discussions with equally silly companions. Herman also possesses a considerable amount of pride, however, and it can be argued that he is punished for this rather than for his wish to influence life in the society in which he lives. There is indeed little desire for true understanding to be detected in Herman von Bremen; his “politics” is a means to satisfy his vanity and desire for power rather than the expression of a genuine wish to be of service to his fellow citizens.

Those who suffer most from Herman’s folly are his wife Geske, his daughter Engelke, and Antonius, a young man who wishes to marry Engelke. Geske must watch Herman destroy both his reputation as a reliable craftsperson and the family finances, while Antonius and Engelke cannot get married because of the father’s desire to get a son-in-law who is as interested in politics as himself. The schemers in the play are two men, Abrahams and Sanderus, who inform Herman that he has been elected mayor by the city council. This is according to a plan supported by some of the councilmen, who are annoyed at Herman’s criticism of city politics.

As soon as Herman believes that he has been elected mayor, his vanity and lust for power take complete control of him. Much comedy results from his attempts to imitate his social superiors as well as from the way that his wife and servants cope with his elevated standing. Herman changes his last name to Bremenfeld, Geske is no longer permitted to get up at sunrise and has to acquire a lapdog, and the servant Henrich takes advantage of the situation by soliciting bribes from visitors to the “mayor.”

Herman soon gets his just reward. According to the plan, he is presented with a number of difficult problems, and he discovers that he is totally unfit for his job. In the end, he regrets ever having wanted to be mayor and is immensely relieved when the truth of the matter is revealed to him. He swears never to read another book about politics, promises to do his work as he did before, and welcomes Antonius as his son-in-law.

The Political Tinker is, in the final analysis, not only a play about a political eccentric but also a discussion of the opposition between appearance and reality, what a person thinks he is and what he really is, and what happens when a person is robbed of his illusions. As such it is a play of universal interest.

Jeppe of the Hill

The basic motif in The Political Tinker is the age-old story of the man who is lifted up from a lowly station to a position of prominence for a short period of time. The same motif is employed in Jeppe of the Hill, but while Herman von Bremen is a German burgher, Jeppe is a Danish peasant. He is also a drunkard who squanders his family’s meager substance. He is henpecked by his wife, Nille, and is made a cuckold by the local sexton.

Holberg borrowed the plot of Jeppe of the Hill from the German Jesuit Jacob Bidermann’s fictitious travel memoir Utopia (1640). While Jeppe is drunk and asleep, he is found by the local baron and his men and, for sport, is placed in the baron’s bed. When awake, he is made to believe that he is the baron. The power is too much for him, however, and he begins to behave in a most tyrannical fashion. He attempts to take indecent liberties with the wife of the bailiff of the estate, and knowing that the bailiff cheats his lord, he wants to punish him by hanging the bailiff,...

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