Hans Sachs gained international fame as the central figure of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867). Sachs was a Meistersinger, or master singer, who plied his trade as a shoemaker in the city of Nuremberg, where he was also the leader and a creative innovator in the local Singschule, the guild of poets and musicians. The guild members were mostly artisans, skilled in the composition and singing of rigid technical formulas, who claimed descent from the medieval Minnesänger, or courtly poets. To gain the rank of Meister, a candidate had to compete in a public contest in which he created and performed a new melody and a new stanzaic form.
Between 1511 and 1516, during the prescribed Wanderjahre that completed a craftsman’s professional and general education, Sachs the journeyman shoemaker and poet traveled throughout Germany and Austria. An eager student and accomplished writer, he had gained a reputation as a poet before he returned to Nuremberg at the age of twenty-two to marry and settle down. A prolific poet for the rest of his eighty-two years, he left more than two hundred plays; countless fables, epic poems, and anecdotal stories; and more than four thousand master songs. In addition to his writing, he was influential in the stagecraft of his day both as an actor and as a theatrical manager. There was no theater that could be termed professional in Nuremberg, but the Nuremberg Meistersinger guild carried on a lively amateur theatrical tradition and performed plays in churches, convents, and inn yards. The performances were so popular that playgoers were sometimes known to interrupt the church’s afternoon religious service in order to obtain seats for an evening’s theater performance.
Sachs classified his dramatic works as tragedies, comedies, Fastnachtspiele (Shrovetide plays), and, quite simply, plays. Critics are in general agreement that the tragedies and comedies, while exhibiting a wide range of subjects from biblical material to medieval legends and classical mythology, are often plodding in style and technique. It is with his innovations and skill in the Shrovetide plays that Sachs achieved mastery.
The Shrovetide play, essentially a farcical dialogue written in verse and centered on a humorous incident, was meant to amuse theatergoers during carnival time. It generally reflects the lives of the peasants and burghers among whom Sachs lived. The early Shrovetide plays were rather formless and full of coarse and obscene humor....
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