Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Franz Woyzeck is a conscript fusilier, a poor, simple soldier with a peasant’s slow mind and a peasant’s superstitions. The only happiness he has in his wretched existence comes from his relationship with his sweetheart Marie and their small son. Because his army pay does not suffice for the support of his household, he is forced to earn additional money by performing menial tasks about the camp and in the garrison town where his regiment is stationed.
Serving as a barber’s apprentice in his youth, he is often called in to shave his Captain. The officer, a man of speculative, ironic temperament, likes to talk about such topics as time and eternity, matters often beyond Woyzeck’s comprehension. Sometimes the Captain jokingly reproves the poor fellow for his lack of morals, since he fathered a child without benefit of a wedding ceremony. Woyzeck always declares that if he were a gentleman with a laced coat and a cocked hat he, too, could be virtuous. He considers virtue to be a privilege of the educated and great, and not intended for miserable creatures such as himself.
An eccentric Doctor also pays Woyzeck a few coins to act as the subject of fantastic medical experiments. The soldier is supposed to live on a diet of peas and to hold his water for stated periods of time. When Woyzeck tries blunderingly to explain his views on nature and life, the Doctor is delighted. He thinks Woyzeck’s halting remarks show an interesting aberration, and he predicts that the man will end in a madhouse.
One day, Woyzeck and his friend Andres go into the country to cut wood for the Captain. Woyzeck begins to talk wildly about the freemasons, claiming that they burrowed under the ground and that the earth they hollowed out is rocking under his feet. Their secret signs were revealed to him in dreams, and he is fearful of their vengeance. Andres, usually a matter-of-fact fellow, becomes rather alarmed when Woyzeck pictures the Last Judgment in the glowing colors of the sunset. Returning home, Woyzeck tries to explain to Marie the vision he saw in the sky. She is hurt because in his excitement he fails to notice his son. That afternoon, a handsome, bearded Drum Major ogled Marie while she stood at her window and talked to a friend outside. She wonders about Woyzeck and his strange thoughts. Marie is hearty and earthy. It is easier for her to understand people’s emotions than their ideas.
Woyzeck and Marie go to a fair. As they enter one of the exhibits, the Drum Major and a Sergeant come by and follow them into the booth, where the barker is showing a horse that can count and identify objects. When the showman calls for a watch, the Sergeant holds up his timepiece. To see what is going on, Marie climbs on a bench and stands next to the Drum Major. That is the beginning of their affair. A short time later, Woyzeck finds Marie with a new pair of earrings that she claims to have found. The simple-minded soldier remarks that he was never lucky enough to find anything in pairs. While Woyzeck is on duty or doing extra work, the Drum Major visits Marie in her room. Full-blooded and passionate, she yields to him.
Woyzeck has no suspicions of her infidelity. One day, as he bustles down the street, he meets the Captain and the Doctor. The Captain begins to talk slyly about beards and hints that if Woyzeck were to hurry home he will be in time to find hairs from a bearded lover on Marie’s lips. Woyzeck becomes pale and nervous, whereupon the Doctor shows great clinical interest in his reactions. The Captain assures Woyzeck that he means well by the soldier and Woyzeck goes loping home. When he peers steadily into Marie’s face, however, he can see no outward signs of guilt. His scrutiny disturbs and then angers her. She defies him, practically admitting that she has another lover, but she dares Woyzeck to lay a hand on her. Unable to understand how anyone so unkind could look so beautiful and innocent, he leaves the house. Not knowing what else to do, he goes to the Doctor’s courtyard. There the physician makes him appear ridiculous in front of a group of medical students.
The next Sunday, Woyzeck and Andres are together in the barracks, Woyzeck is restless and unhappy because there is a dance at an inn near the town and he knows that Marie and the Drum Major will be there. Andres tries to stop his friend, but Woyzeck says that he has to see them for himself. He goes to the inn and through an open window watches Marie and her lover dancing. Andres, fearing a disturbance, finally persuades him to go back to town. Karl, a fool, is among some loafers near the inn door; he says that he smells blood.
That night, Woyzeck, unable to sleep, tells Andres that he still hears music and sees the dancing. He also mumbles about his vision of a knife in a store window. The next day, when he encounters the Drum Major at the inn, the two men fight and Woyzeck is badly beaten by his swaggering rival. Mad with jealousy, he goes to a pawn shop and buys a knife like the one he saw in his dream. At the barracks, he gives away most of his possessions. Resisting Andres’s attempt to get him to the infirmary, Woyzeck goes to Marie and asks her to go walking with him. On a lonely path near the pond he takes out his new knife and stabs her to death.
Then he goes back to the inn and dances madly. When a girl named Käthe notices bloodstains on his hand, he says that he cut himself. Questioned further, he screams that he is no murderer and runs from the inn. Wanting to get rid of the incriminating knife that he had left beside Marie’s body, he throws it into the pond. His first throw falls short. Desperate, he wades out to hurl the knife into deeper water, gets in over his depth, and drowns.
A group of playing children hear adults talking about the murder. They run to Woyzeck’s son and tell him that his mother is dead.
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