Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

Partly a historical drama and partly a character drama, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Egmont links public and private realms in a way that was somewhat unusual for eighteenth century literature. In his crowd scenes, Goethe provided historical breadth through the comments of ordinary folk, and he made deft and accurate use of the biographies of the important public figures around Count Egmont: the regent, Margaret of Parma, the duke of Alva, and Prince William of Orange. However, it is useful to view the work as at heart a character drama. Count Egmont represents a way of living and a philosophy of life that has continued to fuel controversy about the play. Because most characters in the drama and fiction of Goethe’s era were devoted either to public duty or to private desires, Egmont, who integrates the two realms effortlessly, dazzles as an exception. This aspect of Egmont affects the way Goethe treats the essential underlying theme of freedom, and it requires that the plot concerning his political career be complemented by the largely separate (and fictive) story of his love for the commoner Clärchen.

In literary tradition, love between a nobleman and a woman from a lower class usually illustrates class conflict and ends tragically; Goethe’s drama Faust (1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1838) is one of many examples of this. It is an innovation that for Clärchen and Egmont, class and morality are never at issue. Clärchen resists her mother’s suggestion that she will be scorned for engaging in an affair that cannot lead to marriage. Indeed, it was offensive to many of Goethe’s contemporaries that the play depicts Clärchen as being virtuous and the bourgeois morality of her mother and the pitifully weak Brackenburg as being deplorable. Clärchen and Egmont illustrate the continuity of the personal and the political. Because she loves Egmont both as the human being and as the hero of her people, her attempt to launch a movement to rescue him is privately as well as publicly justified. When he embraces his sweetheart in full Spanish dress uniform, Egmont shows symbolically the fusion of public and private life. What he wants for himself and what he fights for on behalf of his people are unified: freedom to enjoy life, not just the freedom of speech or assembly. As a further token of the possible union of private and public, the goddess Freedom, who promises national liberation in Egmont’s dream, physically resembles Clärchen.

Written between the time of the American and French revolutions, the play Egmont, in the spirit of its era, joins liberty to nationalism without being nationalistic. The religious conflict that motivates the rioters to destroy churches and smash images is presented as an aspect of the political struggle for self-rule. Egmont tells Alba that the people consider imposed Catholicism just a façade to hide tyrannous governmental policies. The riots in Flanders are thus less a matter of conscience than a political protest fanned by oppression. Nationalism becomes a forced product of the tyranny of foreign rulers rather than a natural, healthy assertion of common identity, as it was for later German nationalists. Egmont is perfectly content to serve a Spanish king; Margaret is presented as a capable and lenient ruler, praised by Clärchen and the townspeople, despite the fact that she is a Spaniard. Although Goethe’s contemporaries were shocked by the political radicalism of the play, Egmont subdues the burgher who advocates revolutionary violence by telling the people that rights cannot be secured by rioting. It is only on the eve of his execution that Egmont can accept the inevitability of a national war for independence from Spain. His desire to prevent the devastations of war is one reason he refuses to flee with William when Alva enters Brussels with Spanish troops.

Structurally, this play is organized to display Egmont’s temperament and attitude toward life. The count speaks of his ability to enjoy parties, hunting, and food and drink without letting anxiety for the future hamper him. The burghers of Brussels approve, for it makes them feel that he understands them and is one of them. Several characters speak of Egmont’s prowess in past battles, his generous, open nature, and his relative tolerance for Protestant preachers. Those who criticize the count’s way of life attack his lavish entertainments, irresponsibility, and lack of circumspection. By walking into the trap set for him by Alva, Egmont demonstrates imprudence and overconfidence; but if this is a flaw, it is also inseparable from his strength and charm. The nobles Margaret, Alva, and William function as foils for Egmont in their caution, practicality, and ability to maneuver better politically. Although Egmont is not like them, he is far happier as a human being for entrusting himself to fate; and his political idealism does him credit. Egmont is neither calculating nor sober, but rather playful and free; because he does not worry about the future, he can enjoy the present moment. It is this freedom to live life to the fullest, as well as political freedoms for his people, for which Egmont claims he is dying.

Some critics take a dim view of Egmont’s happy-go-lucky temperament, and others have faulted Goethe’s play for the lack of action on stage and for the dream sequence near the end. It is true that the characters tend to talk about their attitudes and values rather than to show these through their actions. Like all Goethe’s plays, this one is more reflective and poetic than outright dramatic. Besides the fascination with Egmont’s character, the strength of the play lies in its artful exploration of the philosophy and psychology of all the characters, in its absorbing analysis of the historical forces at work, and in its treatment of the issues of nationalism, freedom, and power politics. Although it is true that the count’s death sparked the great uprising of the Netherlands, the ironic fact is that Brussels and Egmont’s province Flanders, both part of Belgium today, never succeeded in throwing off the foreign yoke as the northern Dutch provinces did several decades after the historical Egmont was executed. That Egmont is consoled in prison by a dream that predicts the future Dutch victory, inspired by his own martyrlike death, perhaps detracts from the realism and tragedy of the play, but poetically it is compelling.

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