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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The cradle of writing
The eastern heritage
The western heritage
Greek drama
Greek history
Greek philosophy
Augustus and patronage
4th - 8th century
8th - 11th century
12th - 13th century
The Italian awakening
The path to Chaucer
17th century
18th century
Late 18th century
18th - 19th century
     Schiller's last years

To be completed

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Weimar: 1775-1832

In 1775 Goethe accepts an invitation to visit the 18-year-old duke Karl August of Weimar, ruler of a tiny state. Weimar becomes Goethe's home for the rest of his life. In this small realm he plays many roles in addition to that of resident genius. For much of the first ten years he is chief minister of the duchy. He inspects mines, plans irrigation schemes, considers the design of uniforms for the ducal army.

In 1791, when Karl August establishes a permanent company for his court theatre, Goethe becomes its director. His presence, and the eager patronage of his employer, combine to make Weimar in these years the literary centre of Germany.


In 1786, exhausted by the range of his duties, Goethe escapes for an eighteen-month tour of Italy. It proves another turning point in his life. Rejecting the Sturm und Drang emphasis on the Gothic, he is inspired now by the current movement of neoclassicism - looking back beyond Rome to the original example of Greece.

In Italy he writes Iphegenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), turning into poetry an earlier prose version which he has made of the tragedy by Euripides. It is the first important work in German literature in the neoclassical vein. Goethe returns to Weimar in 1788 refreshed and, so to speak, idealized.


In 1794 Goethe meets Schiller, who is working as professor of history in the nearby university of Jena. The two men become friends. In Die Horen, a periodical edited by Schiller from 1795, they pursue their shared interest in classical themes. Together they develop an aesthetic which becomes known as Weimar classicism.

In recent years Schiller has written nothing for the theatre. Instead he has busied himself with history and philosophy. Now, with the active encouragement of the director of the Weimar court theatre, he returns to his first interest - and produces a large body of work in the remaining few years of his life.


Schiller's last years:1797-1805

In 1797, when Europe is in the turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Goethe - with his power to guarantee a production in the Weimar court theatre - persuades Schiller to return to the role of dramatist. The result is seven plays in as many years, written in verse on broadly classical principles. They place Germany in the forefront of contemporary theatre.

The first plays in this group, performed on the Weimar stage in 1798 and 1799, are a trilogy about Wallenstein, a larger-than-life character in another great European conflict. Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod dramatize the rise and fall of the brilliant but flawed commander in the Thirty Years' War.


The subsequent plays, several of them made famous by operatic adaptations, are Maria Stuart (1801, about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801, about Joan of Arc), Die Braut von Messina (1803, an invented story set in medieval Sicily and the most deliberately classical in its use of a chorus) and Wilhelm Tell (1804).

While Goethe encourages this final flowering of Schiller's theatrical talent, there is influence in the other direction too. It is largely on Schiller's urging that Goethe returns in 1797 to an early work on Faust and begins to revise it in keeping with the new classical principles of Weimar.


Faust: 1808-1832

For the whole of his life Goethe is fascinated by the legends which have accumulated round the 16th-century quack and magician Georg Faust. The story of Faust's pact with the devil is a favourite subject in Europe's travelling puppet shows, which Goethe is known to have enjoyed as a boy.

In his twenties Goethe writes a play on the subject - adding a love theme and the character of Gretchen. Luckily a copy of this early play is made in about 1776 by one of the court ladies in Weimar. It is found among her papers a century later and is published, becoming known as the Urfaust (Original Faust). This is the play which Schiller persuades Goethe to take up again in 1797.


The work is ready for publication as Faust Part I in 1808. Like earlier versions deriving from Marlowe, it concentrates on Faust's thirst for knowledge, his resulting pact with Mephistopheles, and the many pranks and adventures made possible by Mephistopheles' magic. But at the centre of the play there is now an innocent and simple woman, Gretchen, who instinctively sees through Mephistopheles.

Gretchen's affair with Faust leaves her pregnant. At the end of the play she is in prison, sentenced to death for infanticide. When she rejects the opportunity to escape by means of Mephistopheles' evil arts, a voice from above exclaims Ist gerettet (She is saved).


Goethe puts the Faust theme aside for the next two decades, taking it up again in 1826. Faust Part II is published in separate non-consecutive parts over the next few years, and the entire work appears just after Goethe's death in 1832.

Treating a wide range of subjects, in an extraordinary medley of metres and styles, this work is like a concluding survey - by Europe's leading man of letters, now in his late seventies - of life and its meaning. It is as if Goethe is consciously revisiting and testing his own long pattern of experience.


At the end of Part II Mephistopheles naturally expects his part of the bargain, the delivery of Faust's soul - which he has duly received in every other version of the story since Marlowe. But Goethe, the last of the 18th-century optimists, defies the fiend. Heavenly spirits drive Mepshistopheles away, and Faust's soul - interceded for by that of Gretchen - is carried to heaven.

Two themes central to Goethe's view of life play their part in Faust's redemption. Both are explicit in often quoted phrases which occur in the final lines of Faust Part II.


One of these themes is the value of humanity's unremitting pursuit of knowledge and improvement. The angels carrying Faust's soul to safety pronounce: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, Den können wir erlösen (Whoever exerts himself in constant striving, Him we can save).

Goethe's other special theme is the source of man's inclination to strive. His own life is notable for the series of women, often unattainable except in a platonic frindship, who each in their turn inspire him. The 'eternal feminine' becomes his concept of the ideal. The last two lines of Faust conclusively state: Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan (The eternal feminine draws us upwards).


This History is as yet incomplete.


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