Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4086

Like his poetry and prose narratives, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dramas are powerful documents of personal introspection, evaluation, and interpretation of experience. Even the plays that are based on historical and earlier literary models derive their special character from their reflection of intimate feelings, concerns, passions, and perceptions that informed the author’s being. In defining the relationship between his works and his life, Goethe said that everything that he wrote was part of a grand confession. Examination of his creative growth and development, especially as mirrored in his dramatic writings, uncovers the rich and colorful panorama of his personal response to stimuli from people, both contemporaries and influential personalities of the past, directly and vicariously experienced events, traditions, issues, philosophies, cultural and social heritage, ideals, science, and confrontations with self.

The basic characteristics of Goethe’s dramaturgy include episodic form, focus on cultural and existential polarities, emphasis on strong and careful characterization more than on the traditional external dramatic conflict and action, treatment of problems related to social and human ideals, and externalization of psychologically complex tensions arising from encounters between the individual and the surrounding world. Well defined in Goethe’s earliest successful plays, these features mark especially his theatrical masterpieces and set them apart from works by other playwrights of the time.

Goethe’s successful career as a serious creator of dramatic literature did not actually begin until he came under the influence of Herder in Strasbourg. Before then he had experimented with light, undemanding plays written in the popular anacreontic style of the day and comedy in the manner of the classical French theater, but the results had not been very impressive. The Wayward Lover, his first pastoral work, is interesting for its revelation of an early command of sensitive, natural, graceful lyricism, yet has little to recommend it as stageworthy. The Fellow-Culprits, a comedy reflecting Goethe’s intense study of Molière, is a more demanding product of concrete observation of middle-class society, but a certain harshness in the portrayal of acts against law caused it to be rejected in the German theater.

Involvement with Herder and the Sturm und Drang movement in Strasbourg was the first of three major intellectually formative experiences that triggered and gave direction to the most important stages in Goethe’s evolution as an internationally known dramatist. Herder introduced him to Shakespeare as a representative of a natural ideal that was preferable to the artificiality of French classicism as a literary model. Shakespeare’s approach to history, the realistic content and tragic nature of his art, and his emphasis on situations centered on the personalities of powerful individuals became patterns whose lasting impression is clearly visible in Goethe’s most famous plays, from Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand through the final version of the second part of The Tragedy of Faust.

Goethe’s special interpretation of Shakespeare’s motives and intentions provided him with the timeless dramatic situation that is central, in one guise or another, to all of his best-remembered plays: the conflict between the particular nature of the individual—his specific needs, freedom of will, natural ideals, creative genius—with the demands of the social establishment. In Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand and the original fragmentary version of The Tragedy of Faust, the most significant dramatic products of the Strasbourg influences, a strong element of subjectivity prevails, in that the treatment of this problem of individual freedom corresponds to Goethe’s perception of his own struggle between an inner law of creativity and the external order of society’s institutions.

By introducing in his Sturm und Drang plays a previously unattained richness and depth of individuality combined with a picture of life as organized around a definite focus, Goethe created a pattern that allowed his subsequent dramas to mature as symbolic and general statements about life. These artistic utterances are at once powerful in what they communicate and weak in traditional theatrical impact. Their great strengths are vivid characters who are alive in language and psychological presence; substantial, captivating situations; colorful scenes with intense representational quality; and effective dramatization of conflicting attitudes and worldviews. In his best plays, these factors outweigh significant weaknesses of plot and a persistent failure to develop dramatic situations to the full.

For more than a decade after the appearance of Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand, Goethe was unsuccessful in completing any new play of comparable artistic merit. In some cases, potentially powerful projects were left incomplete because of the struggling playwright’s inability to master the chosen substance; still other works foundered on their internal weaknesses or on general mediocrity. As Goethe turned away from the influences of Sturm und Drang, he attempted to emulate Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in the development of middle-class tragedy as a viable stage form. In Clavigo, he achieved a strong depiction of contemporary bourgeois society, its moods and spiritual attitudes, but could not compete with Lessing in dramatic technique or proper organization and orientation of plot. Like Clavigo, Stella, with its elegiac tone and its emphasis on the problems of the inner man, remained a secondary accomplishment in which the author captured social reality without attaining the literary power and originality that made Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand dynamically appealing. Only in specific manifestations of the writer’s facility with language, especially his lyric virtuosity, do any of the completed plays of this period display substantial literary artistry.

The second upswing in Goethe’s advancement as a dramatist occurred as a direct consequence of the process of rebirth and reorientation that he experienced in Italy between 1786 and 1788. Specific renewal of his creative approach featured a return to the elaboration of individual characters for their own sake, combined with expansion of the dramatic framework to give it the breadth and reality of history. At the same time, new awareness of models provided by the art of classical antiquity moved him toward strictness of form and organization, simplicity of plot and action, and pure, refined, stylized language. In the resulting completed works, including Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont, and Torquato Tasso, the external conflict between individual will and the dominant order of the social whole is subordinated to the ideals of harmonious self-education and self-fulfillment governed by the principles of pure humanism. Action and plot are minimized in favor of portraiture, psychological penetration, and revelation of the central character’s internal dilemma in a situation that forces him to confront his own nature.

Following the appearance of a fragmentary version of the first part of The Tragedy of Faust in 1790, the quality of Goethe’s completed productions again waned. Although the association with Schiller was fruitful in its impact on the technical aspects of his dramaturgy, it did not immediately stimulate the creation of new plays of lasting import. Among the writings completed before Schiller’s death, only The Natural Daughter—the first part of a planned, unfinished trilogy and the last of four plays in which Goethe came to grips with the phenomenon of the French Revolution—exhibits elements of potential greatness. These are visible especially in its cool, formal perfection; its carefully formed, elevated language; and the richness of its disputation.

Finally, however, Schiller’s influence was the formative impulse that moved Goethe into his last and greatest period of dramatic-literary achievement. It was Schiller who encouraged him to complete The Tragedy of Faust, providing him with ideas and direction that in part enabled him to master seemingly insurmountable problems that had troubled him since he began the project during his Sturm und Drang years.

The two parts of The Tragedy of Faust, which Goethe finished in 1808 and 1831 respectively, represent a summation, a synthesis, and a culmination in the development of the most representative characteristics of Goethe’s dramatic uvre. The episodic form that dominates Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand and Egmont is carried to its greatest extreme in The Tragedy of Faust. Lyric language and portraiture, the major strengths of earlier works, attain new heights. The standard conflict of the great individual at odds with his social context finds logical resolution in Faust’s transformation from a seeker of experience into a man who accepts limited fulfillment in constructive human service.

Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand

Exposure to the Sturm und Drang enthusiasm for Shakespeare in Strasbourg caused Goethe to seek out identifiably German material for his plays, comparable to the English national material used by Shakespeare. In the autobiography of Gottfried von Berlichingen, a robber baron of the sixteenth century, Goethe found suitable subject matter which he adapted to his own purposes in Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand, his first truly successful drama.

The portrayal of Goetz in his role as Sturm und Drang hero—a man of natural genius, a great, free, creative personality—established the pattern for a completely new kind of dramatic literature. Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand is not a play centered on a tension-filled situation. It is the dramatized chronicle of an entire life. In its abandonment of the traditional unities of time, place, and action; its panorama of disjointed yet often strikingly original scenes; its varied, colorful, vital dialogue; and its natural, vigorous tone, it shattered the barriers of the French classical theatrical heritage and anticipated the ultimate course of Goethe’s dramaturgical development.

Central to the play’s exposition of Goetz’s existence is the confrontation and inevitably destructive conflict between an old, natural, free human order and the artificial institutions of a changing, ever more restrictive society—the opposition between individual will and the unrelenting progress of history. This conflict—couched in the story of Goetz’s feud with the bishop of Bamberg, his betrayal by a childhood friend, Weislingen, and his disastrous involvement in the historical backdrop of the peasant wars—serves to convey the tragedy of a man who has outlived his times. He can no longer be the free knight that he once was, because the impersonal political configurations of the dawning era make it impossible. Faced with the necessity to choose between inner collapse resulting from the resignation of freedom, and external destruction as a consequence of maintaining his integrity, Goetz stays true to himself and perishes.

Goethe’s major achievement in the writing of Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand was his success in creating the totality and fullness of a life that is its own reason for being. The lack of an organized thread of action and a uniform plot, often cited as the play’s most significant weakness, is more than balanced by the powerful authenticity of the characters, the successful portrayal of a complete social-historical reality, and the new and vital language that changed German theater forever.

Iphigenia in Tauris

During his early Weimar period, Goethe became concerned with the creation of drama on the highest possible artistic level. Proceeding from the perception that only in the patterns and spirit of antiquity can aesthetic perfection be achieved, he sought to create a literary unity that combined beauty of form with a thematic content advocating humanistic idealism. The most important result of this endeavor was Iphigenia in Tauris. A prose version of the play was completed and performed in 1779, with Goethe himself playing the role of Orest, but the ultimate recasting in blank verse was not accomplished until 1786, when he went to Italy.

Although based on Euripides’ model, Iphigenia in Tauris treats the existing elements of legend with a free hand, creating a synthesis of the classical and the modern. Goethe developed the tragic situation of antiquity from the perspective of the eighteenth century, replacing the ancient pagan religious motif with the concept of pure humane action. The central issue is expanded from the limited, localized situation of Euripides’ play to the entire history of the family of Tantalus, presented as a symbol for the historical progress of humankind. All the harshness and terror of her ancestors’ fate is brought to focus in Iphigenia, who must reexperience and suffer everything, not physically but psychologically.

Like Götz von Berlichingen, Iphigenia is faced with a moral dilemma. She matures through having to choose between lying, and thereby betraying the trust of Thoas, and telling the truth, thus placing the lives of herself, her brother, and his companion in jeopardy. Her victory over the tragic situation is a direct result of having exercised her own free will to maintain her personal integrity—a choice consistent with Goethe’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity.

Iphigenia in Tauris, like most of Goethe’s major dramatic works, is lacking in external action. Its artistic success derives, rather, from masterful lyric language, as well as a penetrating portraiture that reveals the title figure as the focus of a variety of complex themes. The latter include feminine ambition, isolation, evil and guilt, virtue, and humanity as a preserving and exalting force. The play is especially significant for a moral idealism that combines Christian and classical values in glorifying the possibility of absolute human goodness.


Although the final version of Egmont was completed and first published after Iphigenia in Tauris, making it at least technically a product of Goethe’s visit to Italy, it is primarily a document of transition from Sturm und Drang to classicism. In many respects it is the least satisfying of the major plays, exhibiting a lack of unity that is partly the result of the fact that it was written piecemeal, in the course of four distinct attempts made in the years 1775, 1778-1779, 1782, and 1787. Unsuccessful integration of surviving Sturm und Drang elements with new elements of classicism renders the presentation spotty and unconvincing, and the extreme emphasis placed on portraiture gives the work a static quality that caused even Schiller to criticize its lack of action. One result of this intensity of characterization is that secondary figures, especially Margaret of Parma, William of Orange, and the duke of Alba, are ironically more realistic, more vividly alive, than the central character.

The main dramatic concerns of Egmont are quite similar to those of Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand. In Egmont, as in Götz, Goethe intended to present a powerful figure with a will to maintain his personal liberty. Set against the historical background of Spain’s tightening political and religious hold on the Netherlands, the conflict is again a confrontation between the individual and a repressive social establishment—in this instance an environment dominated by fanaticism and mistrust of any freedom. To some extent, Egmont is also a Sturm und Drang hero whose behavior is governed by instinct and impulse. The problem is—and this is the critical point—he appears passive because his character is illuminated primarily from outside. The spectator is told of Egmont’s achievements, virtues, strengths, and successes, but they are not confirmed directly in what Egmont does within the movement of the play. He fails to act to avert destruction and therefore perishes because of a blind, heedless confidence in himself. For that reason, he comes across as shallow, ordinary, and unworthy of sympathy.

Despite the obvious weaknesses of Egmont, the work is important to the development of German drama for several reasons. By transforming the historical Egmont, a middle-aged husband and father, into a youthful, carefree lover, Goethe made of him an original character and broke with the tradition that the playwright could be only the dramaturgical processor of given material. At the same time, Goethe remained faithful to the spirit of the historical record, evoking the era of religious strife with telling details. Finally, by supplementing his historical sources with personal material from his daily routine—as, for example, in certain dialogues that reflect his ministerial experience—Goethe gave the play an unprecedented realism.

Torquato Tasso

Aside from The Tragedy of Faust, the most deeply personal play that Goethe wrote was Torquato Tasso. It is the only drama in which he attempted to come to grips directly with the polarities and dilemmas of his vocation as a writer. Like Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand and Egmont, Torquato Tasso derives its basic substance from the life of a real, historical person, in this case a famous Italian poet of the late Renaissance. In aspects of Tasso’s situation at the court of his mentor Alfons II, Goethe saw mirrored the problematic elements of his own life in Weimar—from the frustrating relationship with Charlotte von Stein to the spiritually conflicting demands of his art and his political-social responsibilities. The result was a kind of dramatic confession, a justification of the existence of the artist in which Tasso emerges as a symbol both for Goethe himself and for the poet in general.

Tasso’s fate is related to that of earlier Goethean heroes in that it dramatizes the conflict between the will and nature of the individual and the demands and expectations of his or her society. Again, the play features little external action, and the dramatic tension is a function of the central figure’s inner being. The title character struggles to become a whole man, one who is at home in both the imaginative world of the poet and the practical, material realm of social intercourse and commitment. His counterpart is Antonio, Alfons’s state secretary, a genius of political reality with no meaningful artistic-creative dimension. They become enemies because, as one character observes, nature did not forge them into a single being. As more cultivated, refined versions of Faust and Mephistopheles, they symbolize the existential dichotomy that Goethe perceived as the very essence of his own (and modern humankind’s) nature.

In its harmonious interplay of motifs and ideas relating to individual and social behavior, ideals and etiquette, freedom and self-control, Torquato Tasso eloquently illuminates timeless principles of moral philosophy. Yet at the same time, the play is deeply and personally human. Its treatment of life’s central ethical questions—culture and wisdom, humanism and civilization, idealism and reality—is part of one of the most profoundly moving portrayals of suffering in all German literature. Tasso’s final achievement of reconciliation serves to celebrate the vitality of both the physical and the moral person.

The Tragedy of Faust

The two plays that constitute The Tragedy of Faust are, as a unit, universally regarded as Goethe’s greatest masterpiece and one of the most important artistic accomplishments of world literature. The Tragedy of Faust is the poetic-dramatic summation of Goethe’s career as a writer and thinker. It is also a powerful, perceptive, intricately modeled, symbolic representation of the vast spectrum of the human condition.

The legend of Faust occupied Goethe’s creative attention off and on from his Sturm und Drang years through his old age. The work that finally emerged is both the drama and the product of an entire life. Its two parts are framed and joined in the metaphysical relationship of the human to the divine in a way that justifies the work’s portrayal of human progress as a positive process of eternal development.

Part one of The Tragedy of Faust is a nontraditional, lyricized Sturm und Drang production, consisting of short, rapidly changing scenes that carry Goethe’s early episodic technique to its extreme. The action’s focus is Faust the seeker. A pact that the traditional Faust made with the Devil is transformed by Goethe into a wager between the protagonist and a cleverly, cynically human Mephistopheles, with Faust’s eternal soul at stake. The essence of the bet is that Mephistopheles may claim Faust’s soul if he can fully satisfy Faust’s insatiable thirst for new experience. Proceeding from this agreement, the drama unfolds in two intertwined threads of plot: the tragedy of the intellectual who fails to find in knowledge true meaning for his life, and that of Gretchen, the innocent girl whom he destroys through his inability to attain lasting contentment in love.

The central concern of the plot strand that illuminates the main character in his role as scholar is the existential definition of Faust as a symbol for humanity in the modern world. In the first scene that follows the “Prologue in Heaven,” the famous opening monologue communicates Faust’s frustration at the lack of fulfillment provided by his one-sided search for personal meaning in the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. Failure to find a satisfactory solution in magic, subsequent contemplation of suicide, and the reawakening of his thirst for life in an almost mystical encounter with Easter and spring are the formative elements of experience that at last generate within him an awareness of the duality of his own nature. In a profound self-assessment in the second scene, Faust acknowledges that his soul consists of two opposing parts: one that draws him unrelentingly toward the things of the real, physical world, and another that urges him upward into an ideal, spiritual domain that holds the key to boundless existence. The internal conflict created by these two forces is what motivates him to forge the agreement with Mephistopheles and is the basis for all that follows. It leads him to new avenues of sensation and learning, including sensual, emotional gratification in the love affair with Gretchen, and the attempt to penetrate the secrets of nature through scientific investigations in renewed isolation from the world.

By presenting in the character Faust the concept of polarities within the human spirit, Goethe created the basis for a general interpretation of humankind’s being. With the appearance of the two plays, the Faustian man—an individual torn between his simultaneous inclinations toward the real and the ideal sides of life—immediately became a symbol for basic mortal struggle and progress. This symbol had enormous impact on German literature in the works of the most important authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Within the first part of The Tragedy of Faust, the tragedy of the intellectual serves as a frame for the self-contained, linearly developed Gretchen material. The quest for new experience in the real world leads through a magical restoration of youth to a seeking of satisfaction in the universal experience of love. Faust’s seduction of the innocent Gretchen; the resulting deaths of her mother, brother, and baby; Faust’s betrayal of their relationship; Gretchen’s final insanity; and Faust’s failure to find lasting purpose in the alliance are the particulars of a timeless story that lays bare the fundamental psychological and emotional processes that govern the interaction of people.

More important for the general conception of The Tragedy of Faust as a whole, however, is the fact that Faust’s destructive encounter with Gretchen, with all of its ramifications, has uniquely powerful symbolic value in its representation of a primary, potentially dangerous conflict that tears at the fabric of humanity’s social development. Specifically, Faust is the embodiment of cultivated civilization, while Gretchen is the essence of naïve, simple, natural being. The inherent tension between the two abstracts, culture and nature, is for Goethe the nucleus on which is centered the ultimate strain that dominates the internal world of the individual. Faust’s meeting with Gretchen and its attendant consequences thus become an admonitory representation of the sacrifice of natural human beings to the growing dominance of culture, and the temporal loss of elemental purity and goodness that can be regained only in the realm of divine absolutes.

The second drama, largely a product of Goethe’s old age, is a highly stylized, often weighty, symbolic idea play that is connected to the first part only by the cosmic frame and occasional faint allusion to earlier events. In spite of its five-act form, part 2 is not a unified dramatic work. It, too, consists of self-contained episodes that are often only loosely related to one another. Emphasis is on the mature Faust and his search for existential consummation in the ideal realm of aesthetics, the social context of political manipulation, and the personal achievement of great deeds, symbolized respectively in his liaison with Helen of Troy, his service in the emperor’s court, and his final commitment to human service in the winning of land from the sea. Although it appears that Faust loses the wager with Mephistopheles, in that he feels a degree of fulfillment in his land-reclamation project, his ultimate redemption in the final scene of the play conveys the message that as long as people never quit striving, they will in fact achieve the divine destiny of their existence.

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