Johann von Goethe Wolfgang Essay - Critical Essays

Wolfgang, Johann von Goethe


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832

(Surname also rendered as Göthe and Göethe) German poet, novelist, playwright, short story and novella writer, essayist, critic, biographer, autobiographer, memoirist, and librettist.

The following entry presents criticism of Goethe's dramatic works through 2001.

Goethe is considered one of Germany's greatest writers. He distinguished himself in several literary genres; moreover, he was a botanist, physicist, biologist, artist, musician, and philosopher. Excelling in all areas, Goethe was a shaping force in the major literary movements of late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Germany. His drama Faust (1808) is considered the greatest monument to nineteenth-century Romanticism. The result of a lifetime's work, Faust is ranked beside the masterpieces of Dante and William Shakespeare.

Biographical Information

Goethe was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1749 and had a happy, middle-class upbringing. By the time he was eight years old, he had composed an epistolary novella in which the characters correspond in five different languages. He studied law at the university in Leipzig, but spent most of his time pursuing drawing, music, science, and literature. Forced by illness to leave school, he spent his convalescence studying alchemy and chemistry, subjects that reverberate throughout Faust. When he returned to school at the University of Strausberg, he met Johann Gottfried von Herder, who helped him focus his literary interests. Herder taught Goethe a reverence for Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and German folk songs, as well as an appreciation for classical literature, especially Homer and Russian literature. For several years after graduation, Goethe practiced law in Frankfurt. In 1774, his novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) created a sensation throughout Europe and is thought to have inspired the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany. The following year, one of Goethe's patrons, the Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach, invited Goethe to visit him in Weimar. The author's intended short stay became a lifelong residence, during which he occupied various official positions and served for more than twenty-five years as director of the ducal theater. Goethe's creative life was enhanced when he became friends with Friedrich von Schiller. Goethe found in Schiller a mind of the breadth and intensity of his own, and during their ten-year friendship the two eagerly probed questions of art, science, and philosophy. During the last decades of his life, Goethe became something of a European sage, and writers and artists from Europe and America traveled to Weimar to visit him. Goethe remained an active artist until his death in 1832.

Major Works

Early in his career, Goethe wrote Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (1773; Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand), which is thought to exemplify his work during that period. The play revolves around the conflict between two knights, Götz and Weislingen, and the Bishop of Bramberg, who attempts to manipulate them both. Shakespearean in form, the drama was popular in its day for its action and emotion, but modern critics generally consider it superficial. Goethe's 1787 play, Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), is based on Euripides's play of the same name. Egmont (1788), which was first produced in 1789, chronicles the rule of Count d'Egmont in the Netherlands during the revolt against Spain. Goethe's Torquato Tasso (1790) has been described as a psychological drama inspired by the life of the famous Italian Renaissance poet. Goethe had begun his best-known work, Faust, while a student in Strausberg, and in 1790 he published an incomplete version. In 1808, three years after Schiller's death, the complete version of the first part appeared. The subject continued to absorb Goethe throughout his life, and Faust II was published posthumously in 1832. Romantic, spirited, and egocentric, the first part is viewed as a dazzling reflection of Goethe's youthful mind, while Faust II is considered the product of his mature intellect. The play focuses on an elderly necromancer, Faust, who sells his soul to the devil for youth, knowledge, and magical powers. For its language, form, and complex philosophical reverberations, Faust was recognized immediately as a masterpiece, although Faust II was not fully analyzed or appreciated until the twentieth century.

Critical Reception

Following his death, Goethe's critical reputation plummeted in Europe and in America. The twentieth century saw a renewal of his reputation, particularly in Germany. Elsewhere critics often share T. S. Eliot's view that Goethe is more noteworthy for his genius than for his literary ability. His plays are viewed as remote to the modern reader, and often as flawed. Although his works, excepting Faust, aren't popularly read outside Germany, they have been the subject of intensive study, and the body of Goethe criticism continues to grow.

Principal Works

Die Laune des Verliebten 1767

Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand [Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand] 1773

Clavigo [Clavidgo] 1774

Stella 1776

Die Geschwister [The Sister] 1787

Iphigenie auf Tauris [Iphigenia in Tauris] 1787

Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit 1787

Egmont 1788

Torquato Tasso 1790

Der Gross-Kophta 1792

Der Bürgergeneral 1793

Die natürliche Tochter 1804

Faust 1808

Pandora (unfinished drama) 1810

Des Epimenides Erwachen 1815

Faust II 1832

Von deutscher Baukunst (criticism) 1773

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers [The Sorrows of Werter; also published as Werter and Charlotte, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and The Sufferings of Young Werther] (novel) 1774

Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship] (novel) 1795-96

Hermann und Dorothea [Herman and Dorothea] (poetry) 1798

Die Wahlverwandtschaften [Elective Affinities] (novel) 1809

Zur Farbenlehre [Theory of Colours] (essay) 1810

Italienische Reise [Travels in Italy] (travel essay) 1816

Zur Morphologie [On Morphology] (essay) 1817-23

Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre; oder, Die Entsagenden [Wilhelm Meister's Travels; or, The Renunciants] (novel) 1821

Novelle [Goethe's Novel; also published as Novella] (novella) 1828

Annalen; Tag-und Jahreshefte (journal) 1830

Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens: 1823-1832 [with J. P. Eckermann; Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life] (conversations) 1837-48

Goethes sämmtliche Werke 30 vols. (poetry, drama, essays, novels, novellas, short stories, criticism, history, biography, autobiography, letters, librettos) 1848

Goethes sämmtliche Gedichte (poetry) 1869

*Goethes Faust in ursprünglicher Gestalt nach der Göch hausenschen Abschrift herausgegeben 1888

Werke 14 vols. (poetry, drama, novels, novellas, short stories, autobiography, biography, criticism, essays, history) 1961-64

*This work is generally referred to as Urfaust.

Criticism: General Commentary

SOURCE: Crosby, Donald H. “The German Stage-Image of Goethe, 1969-1981.” In Goethe in the Twentieth Century, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, pp. 29-35. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Crosby considers some contemporary interpretations of Tasso, Iphigenie, and Faust on the German stage in order to “provide at least an outline of the current stage image of Goethe.”]

“As you know, the German stage lets
each one try what he may.”

—Goethe, Faust

The words of that ever-quotable pragmatist, the Theater Director of Faust, are if anything truer today than they were in Goethe's own time. After a postwar period of reconstruction, the German stage over the past two decades has once again become a proving ground for directorial innovation. Spawned from the political and social ferment of the 1960s, an impressive cadre of fresh directorial talent has succeeded in reviving the tradition of creative, interpretive direction associated with the names of Max Reinhardt and Bertold Brecht. Taking advantage of the temper of the times, which had mandated the reexamination of all traditional values, these artists have imposed their directorial egos not only on contemporary plays but on the traditional masterpieces of dramatic literature as well. Thus the “classics” of Shakespeare and Schiller, of Buchner, Kleist, and of course Goethe have been turned inside out, as it were, in an attempt to explore their relevance to our own times.1 In reshaping these texts, the directors have inevitably also reshaped the perception of their authors, so that the current stage image of, say, Schiller and Goethe differs from what it was twenty, forty, or sixty years ago. Surely this is as it should be: one does not play Hamlet as it was performed in Shakespeare's time, or even in Goethe's; it would be considered bad taste to play the music of Franz Liszt the way Franz Liszt played the music of Franz Liszt; and even in Bayreuth, where the Holy Grail of tradition was so zealously guarded for decades, the operas of Richard Wagner may now be seen in controversial but resolutely contemporary interpretations.

Since the very flux of time itself reshapes the image, or perception, of every creative artist, be he painter, poet, or composer, it seems fair to examine just how the recreative artists—the conductors and soloists in the world of music for example, and the stage directors and actors in the theater—have responded to their interpretative mandates. In the case of Goethe, the sheer number of productions of his works on the German-language stage precludes a comprehensive discussion of the many interpretations—and reinterpretations—of his works in recent years. Although Goethe's major plays are limited in number, the broad compass of their themes, the variety of their forms, the power of the poet's dramatic conceptions and the often matchless language have assured these plays a place in the permanent repertoire of the German stage. This report on some recent stagings of three major dramas—Tasso, Iphigenie, and Faust—is offered in the hope that it will provide at least an outline of the current stage image of Goethe.

Although Goethe's current stage profile has been shaped by many hands, no single personality in the theater world has contributed more to its configuration than the director Peter Stein. In the year 1969, three years after Peter Zadek had “modernized” Schiller's Die Räuber by presenting the play as a sort of comic-strip version of an American Western, and two years after Stein himself had ventured a strictly nontraditional staging of Kabale und Liebe in Munich, the gifted young director evidently felt that it was Goethe's turn. Seizing upon Tasso, that inward, almost introverted play that is normally prized more by philologists than by playgoers, Stein and his Bremen ensemble offered a reinterpretation of this “classic” that shook the German theater “establishment”—and Goethe traditionalists—to the core. Looking back at the “legendary Bremen Tasso,” as it is often called, the student of the stage might not find the production to have been quite as revolutionary as the critical reaction at the time indicated; over the intervening thirteen years, after all, directors have shown us Hamlet leaping into bed with his mother, Othello chasing a nude Desdemona across the stage, Franz Moor urinating on his father, and the Prinz von Homburg standing stark naked in a potato field. To evaluate the impact of the Stein production, however, the critic of the 1980s need only recall the time when German professors were being hounded out of their lecture halls, collections for the Vietcong were being taken in the Munich Kammerspiele, and German youths—like their American counterparts—were sounding like that prescient baccalaureus in Faust II who urged the slaying of everyone over the age of thirty. In an era in which all traditional values were being reappraised, it was inevitable that even so venerable a “classic” as Tasso would be plumbed for its relevance to contemporary ideas and contemporary problems.

And, indeed, that was the main thrust of Stein's production: to draw a parallel between an effete, luxury-loving, caste-conscious Renaissance clique and Stein's own perception of the elitist, power-drunk capitalist society of today. To underscore the encapsulated artificiality of Belriguardo, Duke Alfons' stately pleasure dome, Stein had the stage covered with green cloth suggestive of a lush lawn; its boundaries were formed by transparent plastic curtains. Within this hothouse sphere of idle privilege moved deliberately devitalized impersonations of Duke Alfons, the two Leonores, Antonio and Tasso. Gliding about in ballet-like choreography, the players drifted in and out of the action as required by the plot; when not actually “onstage,” they hovered on the periphery of the action, which evolved out of a heavily cut text. In the midst of the action, of course, was Tasso himself, that neurasthenic, hypersensitive poet whom Goethe once called “an intensified Werther.” Stein's own description of Tasso, as one reads in his notes to the production,2 was that of an “Emotional clown:” Stein, a committed Marxist, projected Tasso as a lap dog of the aristocracy who makes himself ridiculous by trying to adapt himself to ridiculous norms. Although Tasso was at one point costumed to resemble Tischbein's Goethe, he behaved more like a refugee from Thomas Mann's gallery of artist-misfits. Tripping over his own feet, his laurel wreath askew, Tasso was more of a Detlev Spinell than a Goethe redivivus. Even the famous metaphor which closes the play: “Thus the seaman finds himself firmly clinging to the very rock on which he was to founder,” was concretized in such a way as to underscore Tasso's total helplessness: the poet did not merely cling to Antonio—as the text suggests—but rather clambered up onto his shoulders, whereupon he was borne, kicking like a toddler, from the stage. Although a dispassionate observer might well find such a conclusion tragic, critics noted that Tasso's pathetic exit drew guffaws from the audience.3

Whether or not one agrees with Stein's interpretation of Tasso—and devotees of textual fidelity would find much to carp about—one cannot deny the impact of the production. For months German critics hardly discussed anything but the Bremen Tasso; Stein and his ensemble became famous beyond Germany's borders; and more than a decade would pass before another major staging of the play would be mounted. More important; Stein's production proved that even so remote and delicate a dramatic subject as Tasso was robust enough to survive an ideological transplantation into the twentieth century and that its basically static plot could, in the hands of a dedicated ensemble, be turned into arresting theater. Finally, Stein's iconoclastic approach to Tasso dissipated, at least temporarily, than nimbus of reverence which had come to surround Goethe's plays. Like Faust's old academic gown, Tasso had gathered a few cobwebs and moths over the decades; Peter Stein deserves credit for taking the play out of the closet—or more accurately the seminar room—giving it a good shake, and putting it back into circulation.

Like its companion in classicism, Goethe's Iphigenie is a drama which, one might think, would be more likely to thrive in the carefully controlled atmosphere of a graduate seminar than before the unsparing footlights of the stage; yet Iphigenie, like Tasso, has in recent years staked a claim to a life beyond the walls of academe and to a place in the standard repertoire. Among recent stagings, the acclaimed production at the Munich Kammerspiele (1981-1982) deserves close attention both on its artistic merits and because of its substantial...

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Criticism: GöTz Von Berlichingen

SOURCE: Lange, Horst. “Wolves, Sheep, and the Shepherd: Legality, Legitimacy, and Hobbesian Political Theory in Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen.Goethe Yearbook 10 (2001): 1-30.

[In the following essay, Lange provides a historical reading of Götz von Berlichingen and asserts that “the play is to a large extent a reflection upon the difficulties Enlightenment social contract theory faced in accounting for the legitimacy of the modern state.”]

Goetz de Berlichingen … est heureusement choisi pour représenter quelle étoit l'indépendance des nobles avant que l'autorité de gouvernement pesât sur tous. Dans le moyen âge,...

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Criticism: Iphigenie Auf Tauris

John N. Hritzu (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: Hritzu, John N. “Dramatic Irony in Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris.Monatshefte 36, no. 5 (May 1944): 217-23.

[In the following essay, Hritzu commends Goethe's development of dramatic irony in his Iphigenie auf Tauris.]

Irony of various species is a favorite device in all dramatic literature. Irony may be tragic, it may be dramatic; it may be directed consciously by the speaker, it may develop unconsciously; it may be sarcastic or ridiculous, satirical or humorous. In tragedy, especially in Greek tragedy, we are accustomed to that species of irony known as tragic. This species is employed when some catastrophe is about to befall a character in the...

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Martin Swales (essay date October 1994)

SOURCE: Swales, Martin. “‘Die neue sitte’ and Metaphors of Secular Existence: Reflections on Goethe's Iphigenie.Modern Language Review 89, no. 4 (October 1994): 902-15.

[In the following essay, Swales surveys the major thematic concerns in Iphigenie auf Tauris.]

Whatever kind of work Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris may be held to be, it is not usually described as a ‘problem play’. On the contrary: in its (to invoke a famous phrase) ‘avoidance of tragedy’, in its conciliatory glory, it is frequently (and particularly by present-day students, in my experience) felt to be problematic only in virtue of its non-problematic condition: that is,...

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Criticism: Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel In FüNf AufzüGen

Edward T. Larkin (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Larkin, Edward T. “Goethe's Egmont: Political Revolution and Personal Transformation.” Michigan Germanic Studies 17, no. 1 (spring 1991): 28-50.

[In the following essay, Larkin explores the significance of political revolution in Egmont, deeming it a “means toward societal transformation and political self-determination.”]

One of the central issues in Goethe's Egmont, as indicated by the author's recollection in 1825 of the revolutionary events in the Netherlands in 1786, concerns the desirability of revolution as a means toward societal transformation and political self-determination.1 One can distinguish the play's...

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David G. John (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: John, David G. “Margarete von Parma in Goethe's Egmont: Text and Performance.” In Queering the Canon: Defying Sights in German Literature and Culture, edited by Christoph Lorey and John L. Plews, pp. 126-41. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998.

[In the following essay, John examines the role of cross-dressing in Egmont, asserting that it is “not always a matter of gender crossing, but can be a political transfer even within one sex.”]

In her stimulating collection of essays, Outing Goethe and His Age, Alice A. Kuzniar includes a contribution by W. Daniel Wilson, “Amazon, Agitator, Allegory: Political and Gender Cross(-Dress)ing in...

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Criticism: Torquato Tasso

Regina Hewitt (essay date fall 1983)

SOURCE: Hewitt, Regina. “Tasso's Place in the Courtly Universe: The Atavistic Cosmography of Goethe's Torquato Tasso.Michigan Germanic Studies 9, no. 2 (fall 1983): 141-48.

[In the following essay, Hewitt offers an interpretation of the outcome of Torquato Tasso, contending that the reconciliation of Tasso and Antonio fits the “atavistic cosmography at the heart of Goethe's play.”]

Having set up the apparent incompatibility of the poet Torquato Tasso with the statesman Antonio Montecatino, the dramatic action of Goethe's Torquato Tasso tends towards the final embrace of its two antagonists. Critics have long been divided over this...

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Frederick Burwick (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Burwick, Frederick. “Goethe's Classicism: The Paradox of Irrationality in Torquato Tasso.” In A Reassessment of Weimar Classicism, edited by Gerhart Hoffmeister, pp. 11-33. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Burwick explores Goethe's utilization of dramatic tension between the rational and the irrational in Torquato Tasso.]

It is quite likely that when Goethe first conceived the idea of dramatizing the conditions of madness tormenting the life of the poet, Torquato Tasso, he had in mind a very different sort of play than the one which he finally completed a decade later. However different the results may have been,...

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Criticism: Die NatüRliche Tochter

SOURCE: Gustafson, Susan E. “‘Don't See, Don't Tell’: Gender Transgression and Repetition Compulsion in Goethe's Die natürliche Tochter.Monatshefte 89, no. 2 (summer 1997): 148-67.

[In the following essay, Gustafson views Die natürliche Tochter as a play about gender transgression and the protection of the status quo.]

Goethe's Die natürliche Tochter depicts the emblematic eradication of a gender-bending daughter.1 Throughout the play Eugenie is subjected to multiple symbolic deaths. She is surmised, described, and reported dead, only to be revived to die again. More than a drama about the French Revolution, Die...

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Criticism: Faust

Frederick Burwick (essay date July-December 1988)

SOURCE: Burwick, Frederick. “Stage Illusion and the Stage Designs of Goethe and Hugo.” Word & Image 4, nos. 3-4 (July-December 1988): 692-718.

[In the following essay, Burwick examines Goethe's stage designs for Faust in order to trace his concern with “poetic imagination” and “mimetic reality.”]

The entire history of the drama could be studied in terms of the opposition of two basic elements: spectacle and mime. Certainly there have been periods in history when one or the other held dominance. Shakespeare's Globe, we know, provided only a naked stage with the barest minimum of props. The gimmicks of stagecraft, which began to dominate the...

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F. J. Lamport (essay date April 1999)

SOURCE: Lamport, F. J. “Goethe's Faust: A Cautionary Tale?” Forum for Modern Language Studies 35, no. 2 (April 1999): 193-206.

[In the following essay, Lamport investigates the role of guilt and redemption in Faust.]

Goethe's Faust being what it is, the life's work of Germany's greatest poet, and German literary criticism being what it is, intimately bound up with the catastrophic “Sonderweg” of German history over the past two centuries, it was inevitable that Faust criticism should have become highly politicised. The history of Faustian interpretation has indeed been, as Hans Schwerte called it, “ein Kapitel deutscher...

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Criticism: Faust Ii

SOURCE: Gearey, John. “Faust II and the Darwinian Revolution.” In Goethe's Other Faust: The Drama, Part II, pp. 14-30. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Gearey considers the ways in which Goethe's scientific interests and ideas shaped the structure of Faust II.]

In a footnote to the Introduction of his Origin of Species, Darwin cites Goethe as among those earlier thinkers whose views in one way or another had anticipated his own. ‘It is rather a singular instance of the manner in which similar views arise at about the same time, that Goethe in Germany, Dr. Darwin [his grandfather] in England, and Geoffroy...

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Further Reading


Atkins, Stuart. “A Reconsideration of Some Unappreciated Aspects of the Prologues and Early Scenes in Goethe's Faust.Modern Language Review 47, no. 3 (July 1952): 362-73.

Provides alternate interpretations of several passages of Faust.

Barry, Dave. “‘Ist Uns Nichts Übrig?’: The Residue of Resistance in Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris.German Life and Letters 49, no. 3 (July 1996): 283-96.

Places Iphigenie auf Tauris within a socioeconomic context.

Bennett, Benjamin. “Iphigenie auf Tauris and Goethe's Idea of Drama.” In Modern Drama and...

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