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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832

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(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,

(The entire section contains 762 words.)

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Principal Works