In his essay Literary Criticism (1771), Goethe gives tribute to William Shakespeare stating, “The first page I read made me a slave to Shakespeare for life. And when I finished reading the first drama, I stood there like a man blind from birth…I realized and felt intensely that my life was infinitely expanded” (163). Goethe compares his life and importance as a writer to that of Shakespeare. “The noblest of our sentiments is the hope of continuing to exist even after destiny has apparently turned us to a state of non-existence”(163). Goethe wrote this at age twenty-two, 150 years after Shakespeare’s death. However, this is still true today, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death; he continues to exist. Why is this so?
This spring I will be teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a Survey of World Lit class for Seminary students. In preparing for this course, I read Macbeth for the first time, hence, I turned to Goethe’s essay on literary analysis to give me more insight into the genius mind of Shakespeare.
In his second essay, Shakespeare Once Again (1815), Goethe begins by discussing Shakespeare as a poet. Shakespeare achieved the “highest goal”, according to Goethe, in his awareness to his own attitudes and ideas—knowledge of himself. A poet must have this knowledge in order to provide himself the “means to gain intimate knowledge into the minds of others”(166). By calling Shakespeare “one of the greatest poets”, Goethe implies that he is among only a few who can perceive the world, express their visions and allow the reader to share so fully in the awareness of the world. “Shakespeare makes the world completely transparent for us; he does not write for the eye”.
As we readily use our sense of sight to perceive the world, our inner sense can sometimes take a back seat. Shakespeare’s intent is to address our inner sense which immediately activates our creative imagination and help us determine the things that are otherwise inexplicable. He makes things happen which are easily imagined, for example, Macbeth’s witches. Many a gruesome scene in Macbeth becomes meaningful only through the power of imagination. As this play cannot always be performed for the reader, including myself, Shakespeare is able to conjure the description of certain characters plus the image of what is happening in the characters’ minds through a sequence of words and speeches. Quite a daunting task-unless you are Shakespeare. Through this skill, Goethe continues, minor characters can be more active than leading ones; everything fills the air, unspoken, during a historical event. “Everything that is lurking in the human heart in moments of great distress” become apparent. What the mind anxiously represses and conceals is revealed frankly and without inhibition. “We experience the truth of life, and we do not know how”(167).
How was Goethe, a German poet, exposed to England’s Bard? Goethe was a young law student in Leipzig and Strasbourg when he was first introduced to Shakespeare’s writings in Rede zum Shakespear’s Tag, 1771. German was one of the first languages in which Shakespeare’s plays were translated by the great Schlegel, Tiecks and Wolf Heinrich Graf von Baudissin. The German poet August Wilhelm Schlegel called Shakespeare ganz unser (entirely ours). The Sturm and Drang writers of Germany also championed Shakespeare whose plays helped liberate German theatre from the constraints of the neoclassical French dramas in which Goethe derives in his subsequent essays on Observations of Art and Literature (see Essays on Literature, Part 3). Shakespeare has even been honored in Weimar, home to Goethe, with a statue in his honor.
Just as Goethe honors his homeland of Germany in his poems and novels, England is ever present in Shakespeare’s works. Goethe states, “this land, surrounded by the sea, shrouded in mist and clouds, active in all corners of the earth” was portrayed by Shakespeare through its culture, strengths and weaknesses in a positive spirit (167).
Goethe continues with his tribute by comparing Shakespeare to Ancient and Contemporary Writers. “What inspires Shakespeare’s mind is the real world”(168). The reality of Shakespeare’s own world and its vitality form the broad basis of his writings. For example, even though Macbeth is set in 11th century Scotland, it bears little resemblance to that time. He had to rely on Raphael Hollinshed’s historical account and add his own impressions and conclusions. Scotland is the backdrop; Macbeth is the protagonist wherein he is the underlying connection between desire and moral obligation. Hamlet and his ghost. Hecate and his wife. Brutus and his friends. It is true for all of his protagonists. Thus, eternal conflicts for his characters can take place in “any world” based on reality or fiction.
In this analysis of Shakespeare, Goethe accomplishes a journey by “examining a single footprint” which inspires and excites us more than gawking at a royal parade of thousands (163). I can say the same of my journey over the past year with Goethe!
Gearey, John. (1986). Goethe Essays on Art and Literature. Translated by Ellen von and Ernest H. Nardroff. New York: Suhrkamp Publishers.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Goethe paid great tribute to Shakespeare. It is amazing how writers of different eras seem to connect. Greatness attracts greatness.
Thank you Dr. Lowrie for your comments. What is your favorite play or sonnet by Shakespeare?
Yes, this article was fascinating to me as I am learning about the mind and purpose of Shakespeare for this course I’m teaching. I admire the poetry and essays of Goethe greatly. I am inspired, therefore, by what inspired him!
Goethe’s comments are great but insofar as he confined himself to Shakespeare’s mind he leaves us with nothing pertaining to the poet’s identity. Suffice it to say that a universal mind does not blossom in a dung heap. One must doubt that Goethe read the totality of Shakespeare, and those like Goethe and Lincoln who became fascinated with things like Macbeth have skewed impressions. What makes Shakespeare great is not so much his view of life but the embodiment of life in language. Further, to penetrate the substance of life one must be attuned to inner conflict uber alles. And such conflicts and emotions must take the highest linguistic form. Neither the German scholars and artists nor the 19th century Americans could ever come to terms with what Shakespeare our supreme poet was because they could not countenance his nobility. Notions of democracy and equality sapped their insight, a tendency that Schopenhauer freed himself from.
David, thank you for this perspective on Goethe and Shakespeare. I have recently been exploring the impressions that nineteenth century writers, specifically poets, had on their transatlantic counterparts and found this essay. Like Shakespeare, I feel that the works of Goethe and Longfellow also had the “embodiment of life in language”, which is my wheelhouse. I agree that few could match the intellect or genius of Shakespeare. Thank you for stopping by and giving credibility to my post! Robyn