Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

More than a series of allusions to and reenactments of important historical events in the life of Martin Luther and the religion he founded, Luther is an incisive portrait of a self-divided man who—in pursuit of satisfying his own needs rather than those of his countrymen—shaped Germany’s religious and cultural...

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More than a series of allusions to and reenactments of important historical events in the life of Martin Luther and the religion he founded, Luther is an incisive portrait of a self-divided man who—in pursuit of satisfying his own needs rather than those of his countrymen—shaped Germany’s religious and cultural history.

When, in the final scene of Luther, Martin prays to his Lord that he believes, but nevertheless needs help with his unbelief or lack of religious faith, this seeming contradiction is consistent with John Osborne’s portrait of him as a neurotic man who is, from beginning to end, a rebellious son used to being punished by his father yet in need of his father’s love. “I beat you fairly often, and pretty hard sometimes I suppose,” Martin’s father Hans says, but he defends his past habit: “You were stubborn, you were always stubborn, you’ve always had to resist. . . .” From his acts of rebellion, therefore, Martin received a punitive expression of love sufficient for his need: “I loved you best,” he admits to Hans. “It was always you I wanted. I wanted your love more than anyone’s, and if anyone was to hold me, I wanted it to be you.” Indeed, Martin equates punishment with love, and without the one he seems unable to believe he will be deserving of the other.

It is one thing to equate punishment and love in relation to a mortal father. In relation to a heavenly and physically absent Father, though, the reception of both punishment and love by the son depends upon his ability to perceive such by means of his faith. Thus Martin the son wants to believe in the Father but lacks the requisite faith to perceive his love; sensing that love’s absence, and having been conditioned to expect love to be connected to punishment, Martin believes he needs punishment in order to make the absent love (and the absent Father) perceivable. By demanding of himself what Staupitz calls “impossible standards of perfection,” Martin punishes himself with “mortifications,” with “severe fasts,” and he is obsessive about his constipation, gripes, insomnia, boils, indigestion—all of his maladies are to him his “meat and drink.” He tells Weinand, “All I can feel . . . is God’s hatred,” and “He’s like a glutton, the way he gorges me. . . . He gorges me, and then spits me out in lumps.”

As a bitter son, intellectual priest, and independent, recalcitrant doctor of theology, Martin rebels against Hans, the pope, the Catholic Church and its spokesmen, the German people, and God himself. His single greatest weapon is his intellect; his place of greatest vulnerability, his malnourished heart. Indeed, he compensates for the latter by overemphasizing the importance of the former, and because of this the division between his head and heart, as well as between his need for God’s love and his perception of it, widens into the creation of his own religion. “I smell,” Martin says to a battle-weary knight near the end of the play, “because I never stop disputing with Him and because I expect Him to keep His Word.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262

Loss of Faith
Martin Luther’s religious crisis—and the resulting Protestant Reformation—stemmed from his loss of faith in the teachings and practices of the church. Osborne does not analyze the social, political, and economic causes of the religious reformation that swept Europe in the 1500s; instead, he focuses on Luther’s personal struggle. Luther takes action, posting the 95 theses, that makes him the first protestant, but even before this, his doubt is evident. The man who joins the monastery is prone to despair, histrionics, and self-castigation. His anxiety arises from his uncertainty about the vows that he upholds. Eventually, Luther’s doubts about Roman Catholic doctrine, as well as his disgust for the moral laxity of church leaders, lead him to reject both. Yet, even when doing so, Luther is not certain of his actions. As he reveals to Von Staupitz decades later, he waited a day to answer the questions posed at the Diet of Worms because he was not sure: ‘‘I listened for God’s voice, but all I could hear was my own.’’

It is important to remember, however, that Luther’s rejection of the church does not equate with a rejection of God. When called to the Diet of Worms to recant his beliefs, Luther refuses to do so because his ‘‘conscience is captured by God’s own word.’’ Upon receiving the papal bull excommunicating him, Luther asks God for help. ‘‘I rely on no man, only on you,’’ he says. ‘‘My God, my God do you hear me? Are you dead? Are you dead? No, you can’t die. You can only hide yourself, can’t you?’’ Luther’s doubts in God’s ability to help him in his isolation are clearly expressed here as are his belief in God’s eternal presence.

By the end of the play, which takes place toward the end of Luther’s life, Luther demonstrates far less doubt about his relationship with God. In sharing the story of Isaac and Abraham, he emphasizes man’s obedience to God. In a conversation with Von Staupitz regarding the rebellion of the Peasants’ War, he declares, ‘‘For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth that power, resisteth the ordinance of God.’’ In these words, Luther implies more certainty than in previous years, for if he had actually showed the obedience that he exalts, he never would have rebelled against the church and its practices and leaders.

Father-Son Relationships
Martin Luther’s relationships with the various father figures in his life each present their own set of complexities. His attitude toward these ties is best summed up by his words in act I: ‘‘I suppose fathers and sons always disappoint each other.’’ His father, Hans, is a driving force in his life. The play suggests that one reason that Luther became a monk was to get away from his father’s domination. Hans wanted his son to become a lawyer or a magistrate, anything but a priest, a profession that takes him away from the material world. Hans believes that his son chose to become a monk because he has given up and needs to run away from life. Luther, however, tells his father, ‘‘All you want is me to justify you,’’ clearly showing that he feels like a pawn for his father, one with the purpose of fulfilling the older man’s expectations. This relationship remains difficult throughout Luther’s life; as he reveals to Von Staupitz in the final scene, ‘‘He [Hans] was never pleased about anything I did. . . . Only when Katie and I were married and she got pregnant. Then he was pleased.’’ This revelation suggests that Hans is also concerned with the continuation of his family line, which can only be carried on by Luther since his other two sons died in the plague.

Luther’s relationship with his spiritual Father is as difficult if not more so. At various points throughout the play, Luther entreats God for guidance and casts himself as a helpless child. After his excommunication, Luther sees himself as a lost child, a stillbirth, and pleads with God to ‘‘[B]reathe into me, . . . yes, my mighty fortress, breathe into me. Give me life, oh Lord. Give me life.’’ In this instance, God takes on the role of the father, creating the son. At other times, Luther rebels against God, much as he rebels against his earthly father. To this Luther, God is an angry being, one who ‘‘demanded my love and made it impossible to return it.’’

Another father figure exists for Luther: Von Staupitz. Like a father, the older theologian tries to set Luther on an easier path than the one he consistently seeks for himself. By the play’s final scene, Luther openly refers to Von Staupitz as ‘‘Father’’ and asks questions that children are likely to ask of their parents, such as ‘‘Are you pleased with me?’’ The play ends on yet another representation of the father-son relationship: Luther is holding his young son, appropriately named Hans.

Resistance to Authority
As Luther resists the authority of his father, he also resists the authority of the church but with far greater consequences. The church leaders, parroting the beliefs of the pope—the highest religious authority—expect complete allegiance; Luther must not question church doctrine. ‘‘I ask you:’’ says Von Eck at the Diet of Worms, ‘‘don’t throw doubt on the most holy, orthodox faith, . . . This faith has been defined by sacred councils, and confirmed by the church. It is your heritage, and we are forbidden to dispute it by the laws of the emperor and the pontiff.’’ While in earlier scenes, Luther has been seen adhering too strictly to the rules of his order, as Von Staupitz points out, in the words of Herbert Goldstone writing in Coping with Vulnerability, Luther ‘‘actually ridicules authority to set himself up as the only authority capable of determining his relationship to God.’’ In doing so, Luther challenges the church hierarchy that forces regular people to deal with God through the mediation of a priest; in the case of a priest, the pope and other high church officials are the mediators. In his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther shows his own sense of self-importance when it comes to religious matters. Luther alone dares protest the complaints that the German people hold about the ‘‘avarice of the priests.’’ While everyone else is too filled with terror at the pope’s reaction, Luther strives to protect the glory of Christianity by publishing his 95 theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg. ‘‘And now, most holy father, the whole world has gone up in flames,’’ he writes, but, a mere few lines later, Luther asks the pope for his help because Luther is ‘‘far too insignificant to appear before the world in a matter as great as this.’’ Luther’s words are seemingly disingenuous, particularly so for a man of his superior intellect and sensitivity, as he has recently elected him as the one person to stand up and defend God and His purity.

Luther grows more conservative in his views, particularly by 1525, when he critiques the failed Peasants’ War, which his religious rebellion helped spark. However, he still flouts the authority of the clergy by marrying, notably, a former nun. He also nostalgically looks back on his former actions, telling his young son, ‘‘You should have seen me at Worms. . . . ‘I have come to set a man against his father,’ I said, and they listened to me.’’

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