THE boy, Goethe,
was a precocious youngster. At the early age of eight he had
already acquired some knowledge of Greek, Latin, French and Italian.
He had likewise acquired from his mother the knack of story telling;
and from a toy puppet show in his nursery his first interest
in the stage.
Goethe's early education was somewhat irregular and informal,
and already he was marked by that apparent feeling of superiority
that stayed by him throughout his life. When he was about 16
he was sent to Leipzig, ostensibly to study law. He apparently
studied more life than law and put in his time expressing his
reactions through some form of writing. On at least two occasions,
this form was dramatic.
Finally, in 1770 Goethe went to Strassburg, this time really
intent on passing his preliminary examinations in law, and with
the somewhat more frivolous ambition of learning to dance. Along
with his study of law, he studied art, music, anatomy and chemistry.
A strong friendship with the writer, Herder, was likewise no
part of Goethe's experience at this time, a contact which was
of considerable importance in these formative years.
In 1771 Goethe returned to Frankfurt, nominally to practice
law, but he was soon deep in work on what was to be his first
dramatic success, Götz von Berlichingen. While this
was actually the story of a robber baron of the 16th century
it really represented Goethe's youthful protest against the established
order and his demand for intellectual freedom. Its success made
its hitherto unknown author the literary leader of Germany.
Goethe's invitation in 1775 to the court of Duke Karl August
at Weimar was a turning point in the literary life of Germany.
He became manager of the Court Theater, and interested himself
in various other activities, so that for a period of some ten
years not much actual writing was done.
The writing of Faust, however, that best known of Goethe's
works, extended over practically the whole of Goethe's literary
life, a period of 57 years. It was finally finished when Goethe
was 81. Faust is in reality a dramatic poem rather than
a piece for the stage. While based on the same legend as Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, it far transcends
both its legendary source and the English play. The latter is
little more than a Morality illustrating the punishment of sin;
Goethe's work is a drama of redemption.
Others of Goethe's works which have stood the test of time
include: Clavigo, Egmont, Stella, Iphigenia in Tauris
and Torquato Tasso.
This article was originally published
in Minute History of the Drama. ed. Alice B. Fort &
Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 70.