Johann von Goethe Wolfgang Introduction - Essay


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.