Madame de Staël: Goethe – Pt. 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. III, 138-146. Illustrations by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (1763-1840)

Goetz of Berlichingen

The dramatic career of Goethe may be considered in two different lights. The pieces he designed for representation have much grace and facility, but nothing more. In those of his dramatic works, on the contrary, which it is very difficult to perform, we discover extraordinary talent. The genius of Goethe cannot bound itself to the limits of the theatre; and, endeavoring to subject itself to them, it loses a portion of originality, and does not entirely recover it till again at liberty to mix all styles together as it chooses.

No art, whatever it can be, can exist without certain limits; painting, sculpture, architecture, are subject to their own peculiar laws, and in like manner the dramatic art produces its effect only under certain conditions; conditions which sometimes restrain both thought and feeling; and yet the influence of the theatre is so great upon the assembled audience, that one is not justified in refusing to employ the power it possesses, by the pretext that it exacts sacrifices which the imagination left to itself would not require.

As there is no metropolis in Germany to collect together all that is necessary to form a good theatre, dramatic works are much oftener read than performed: and thence it follows that authors compose their dramas with a view to the effect in reading, not in acting.

Goethe is almost always making new experiments in literature. When the German taste appears to him to lean towards an excess in any respect, he immediately endeavors to give it an opposite direction. He may be said to govern the understandings of his contemporaries, as an empire of his own, and his works may be called decrees, by turns authorizing or banishing the abuses of art.

Goethe was tired of the imitation of French pieces in Germany, and with reason; for even a Frenchman might be equally tired of it. He therefore composed an historical tragedy, in the manner of Shakespeare, Goetz of Berlichingen. This piece was not destined for the stage; but it is nevertheless capable of representation, as are all those of Shakespeare of the same description.


Goethe has chosen the same historical epoch as Schiller in his play of the Robbers; but, instead of presenting a man who has set himself free from all the ties of moral and social order, he has painted an old knight, under the reign of Maximilian, still defending the chivalrous manners and the feudal condition of the nobility, which gave so high an ascendant to their personal valour. Goetz of Berlichingen was surnamed the “iron-handed” because having lost his right hand in war, he had one made for him with springs, by the aid of which he held and managed his lance with dexterity.

He was a knight renowned in his time for courage and loyalty. This model is happily chosen to represent what was the independence of nobles before the authority of government became coercive on all men. In the middle ages, every castle was a fortress, every noble a sovereign.

The establishment of standing armies, and the invention of artillery, effected a total change in social order; a sort of abstract power was introduced under the name of the state or the nation; but individuals lost, by degrees, all their importance. A character like that of Goetz must have suffered from this change whenever it took place.

The military spirit has always been of a ruder cast in Germany than anywhere else, and it is there that we might figure to ourselves, as real, those men of iron whose images are still to be seen in the arsenals of the empire. Yet the simplicity of chivalrous manners is painted in Goethe’s tragedy with many charms.

This aged Goetz, living in the midst of battles, sleeping in his armour, continually on horseback, never resting except when besieged, employing all his resources for war; contemplating nothing besides; this aged Goetz, I say, gives us the highest idea of the interest and activity which human life possessed in those ages. His virtues, as well as his defects, are strongly marked; nothing is more generous than his regard for Weislingen, once his friend, then his adversary, and often engaged even in acts of treason against him.


The sensibility shewn by an intrepid warrior, awakens the soul in an entirely new manner; we have time to love in our inactive state of existence; but these lightnings of passion which enable us to read in the bottom of the heart through the medium of a stormy existence cause a sentiment of profound emotion. We are so afraid of meeting with affectation in the noblest gift of heaven, sensibility, that we sometimes prefer in the expression of it even rudeness itself as the pledge of sincerity.

The wife of Goetz presents herself to the imagination like an old portrait of the Flemish school, in which the dress, the look, the very tranquility of the attitude, announce a woman submitted to the will of her husband, knowing him only, admiring him only, and believing herself destined to serve him, as he is to defend her.


By way of contrast to this most excellent woman, we have a creature altogether perverse, Adelaide, who seduces Weislingen, and makes him fail in the promise he had given to his friend; she marries, and soon after proves faithless to him. She renders herself passionately beloved by her page, and bewilders the imagination of this unhappy young man to such a degree as to prevail upon him to give a poisoned cup to his master.

These features are strong, but perhaps it is true that when the manners of a nation are generally very pure, the woman who estranges herself from them soon becomes entirely corrupted, the desire of pleasing is in our days no more than a tie of affection and kindness; but in the strict domestic life of a former age, it was an error capable of involving all others in its consequences. This guilty Adelaide gives occasion to one of the finest scenes in the play, the sitting of the secret tribunal.


Mysterious judges, unknown to one another, always masked, and meeting at night, punished in silence, and only engraved on the poniard which they plunged into the bosom of the culprit this terrible motto: THE SECRET TRIBUNAL.

They acquainted the condemned person with his sentence by having it cried three times under his window, Woe, woe, woe! Thus was the unfortunate man given to know that, everywhere, in the stranger, in the fellow citizen, in the kinsman even, he might find his murderer.

In the crowd, and in solitude, in the city, and in the court, all places were filled by the invisible presence of that armed conscience which persecuted the guilty. One may conceive how necessary this terrible institution might have been, at a time when every man was powerful against all men, instead of all being invested with the power which they ought to possess over each individual.

It was necessary that justice should surprise the criminal before he was able to defend himself; but this punishment hovered in the air like an avenging shade, this mortal sentence which might be harboured even in the bosom of a friend, inspired an invincible terror.

There is another fine situation — that in which Goetz, in order to defend himself in his castle, commands the lead to be stripped from the windows to melt into balls. There is in this character a contempt of futurity, and an intenseness of strength at the present moment that are altogether admirable. At last, Goetz beholds all his companion in arms perish; he remains wounded, a prisoner, and having only his wife and sister left by his side.

He is surrounded by women alone, he who desired to live among men, among men of unconquerable spirits, that he might exert with them the force of his character and the strength of his arm. He thinks on the name that he must leave behind him; he reflects, now that he is about to die. He asks to behold the sun once more, he thinks on God, who never before occupied his thoughts, but of whose existence he never doubted, and dies with gloomy courage, regretting his warlike pleasures more than life itself.

This play is much liked in Germany; the national manner and customs of times of old, are faithfully represented by it, and whatever touches on ancient chivalry moves the hearts of the Germans. Goethe, the most careless of all men, because he is sure of leading the taste of his audience, did not give himself the trouble even of putting his play into verse; it is the sketch of a great picture, but hardly enough finished even as a sketch.

One perceives in the writer so great an impatience of all that can be thought to bear a resemblance to affectation, that he distains even the art that is necessary to give a durable form to his compositions. There are marks of genius scattered here and there through his drama, like the touches of Michaelangelo’s pencil; but it is a work defective, or rather which makes us feel the want of many things. The reign of Maximilian, during which the principal event is supposed to pass, is not sufficiently marked.

In short, we may venture to censure the author for not having enough exercised his Imagination in the form and language of the piece. It is true that he has intentionally and systematically abstained from indulging it; he wished the drama to be the action itself; forgetting that the charm of the ideal is that which ought to preside over all things in dramatic works.

The characters of tragedies are always in danger of being either common or factitious, and it is incumbent on genius to preserve them equally from each extreme. Shakespeare, in his historical pieces, never ceased to be a poet, nor Racine to observe with exactness the manners of the Hebrews in his lyrical tragedy of Athalie.

The dramatic talent can dispense neither with nature nor with art; art is totally distinct from artifice, it is a perfectly true and spontaneous inspiration, which spreads an universal harmony over particular circumstances, and the dignity of lasting remembrances over fleeting moments.

To be continued…