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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1267

The people of the Netherlands are unhappy in the state of their homeland. Philip II of Spain is tightening his absolute control of the Lowlands, particularly in religious matters, for Philip is the main instrument of the Inquisition. A new regent is appointed to administer his rule. The populace hoped the office would go to Count Egmont, who, after his defeat of the French at Gravelines, has become a national hero. Besides, although Egmont is a Catholic, he treats Protestants with kindness, and he even goes to Madrid to plead with Philip to lessen the strictures of Catholic repression.

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The king, however, gives the office to Margaret, his half sister. She, like Philip, tolerates no dissent from the established church, yet by firmness and tact she pacifies the burghers who stubbornly resist any laws but their own. She even manages to conciliate Egmont and William of Orange, so that outwardly at least there is harmony among the nobility.

Margaret summons Machiavel, her secretary, to hear his account of new uprisings. He tells her how throughout Flanders mobs are breaking into cathedrals and despoiling the monuments of the hated foreign religion. He counsels Margaret to be firm but not cruel toward the Protestants. Margaret tells him that her efforts toward conciliation will mean little, for it is rumored that the cruel duke of Alva is on his way to assume control of the provinces. Machiavel reminds her that as regent she will hold the final power, but Margaret is wise in the ways of kings. Officially or not, Alva will rule the Netherlands, and she will be able to circumvent him only by appealing directly to her brother. She is especially fearful of what might happen to Egmont and William of Orange and of the effects of Alva’s harsh rule on the people.

In her humble house, Clärchen is happily singing, for she expects Egmont that night. Brackenburg watches her anxiously. He loves her and is certain that no good will come of the love between a count and a commoner. When Clärchen, looking out of her windows, sees a mob in the street, she asks Brackenburg to learn the cause of the disturbance. While he is gone, her mother reproaches Clärchen bitterly for having rejected Brackenburg’s suit. Even now, the mother declares, the burgher will be glad to marry Clärchen. Brackenburg returns to tell them the people are hearing of the outbreaks in Flanders and are heartened by that uprising against their oppressors.

A group of commoners argue about their rights as citizens. One, who can read, tells them of their rights under the constitution and of their forefathers’ vigilance in protecting their privileges. Egmont, arriving on the scene, advises them to be moderate in their talk but to preserve their ancient liberties. After he leaves, a keen observer remarks that Egmont’s head will make a dainty morsel for the headsman.

In his residence, Egmont attends to duties of state. One of his letters comes from Count Oliva, his old preceptor, who counsels him to be more circumspect in his behavior and less free in his talk. Egmont throws the letter aside, remarking that everyone is different; he himself believes in doing what is right without fear or favor. Let others play the part of fawning courtier.

William of Orange arrives to talk about Alva’s coming. William is in favor of caution; they will do nothing until they know what Alva is being sent to accomplish. Egmont reminds him that they are both Knights of the Golden Fleece. As members of that order, they cannot be punished except by a trial by their peers. William is inclined to place little trust in their rights, however, for Philip is a determined and ruthless ruler. William declares that he will remain on his own estate and refuses to meet the duke of Alva. Egmont decides to speak his mind freely. If he has to be a rebel, he will openly do his best to advance the welfare of the Netherlands.

Margaret, in the meantime, receives a dispatch from Philip. The letter is gentle and considerate in tone, a fact ominous in itself. The king informs her officially of Alva’s mission and gives details of the formidable army the duke is bringing to garrison the recalcitrant towns. Margaret knows that her authority as regent has been superseded.

In the evening, Clärchen joyfully receives Egmont. For a time, Egmont is remote, even keeping on his mantle. Then he shows her that he is wearing his full uniform, decorated with the emblem of the Golden Fleece, and says that he comes thus attired because she asked him to do so as a favor. Clärchen, particularly impressed by the decoration of the Golden Fleece, is touched by that evidence of his regard.

The inhabitants of the town grow fearful. Alva’s soldiers are stationed at every strategic point and his spies are everywhere, so that the citizens dare not congregate to discuss their new woes. The ordinary people are afraid for Egmont; it is rumored that he will be killed.

In his palace, Alva makes his plans, with his trusted guards forming so tight a cordon around the residence that no one can get in or out. To his natural son Ferdinand he announces that he is expecting Egmont and William. At the end of the audience, Alva will detain Egmont on a pretext. William will be arrested outside. As soon as he is safely in custody, Ferdinand, acting as the duke’s messenger, is to return to the reception chamber. His arrival will be the signal to arrest Egmont. Ferdinand, uneasy over the success of the plot, is nevertheless flattered by the part he is to play.

William is too cautious to fall into the duke’s trap, however, and he stays away from the audience. Egmont, who knows no fear, goes without hesitation and discusses at great length the troubled situation in the Netherlands. He is a skillful debater. At every point he upholds the dignity of the burghers and wisely counsels patience and tact in dealing with them. At last, Alva becomes impatient and abruptly orders his arrest. He reads a document in which Philip decrees that Egmont was tried and found guilty of treason. Because the king of Spain does not acknowledge the authority of the Knight of the Golden Fleece, Egmont fails in his demand for immunity.

Clärchen is distraught when she hears of Egmont’s arrest. Accompanied by the faithful Brackenburg, she wanders about the town in an attempt to incite the citizens to rescue Egmont. Alva did his work well, however; the burghers are afraid even to discuss the matter. Returning to the house, Clärchen thinks of the vial of poison that Brackenburg once showed her when he was disconsolate. Thinking to quiet her temporarily, he gives her the vial. Clärchen immediately drinks the poison.

In the palace prison, Egmont is wakeful. When he finally dozes off he is awakened by Ferdinand and Silva, who reads him his sentence: He is to be executed publicly in the marketplace as a warning to the people. Silva leaves, but Ferdinand remains behind to condole with the count. Although he had a part in the plot, he actually sympathizes with Egmont.

When Egmont sleeps again, a vision appears. Freedom is reclining on a cloud. Her features are those of Clärchen. She holds above his head a wreath of victory. Egmont awakens at dawn to strains of martial music. The guards are at his door.

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