Wednesday, May 31, 2017


J.W. Goethe's play Egmont is probably best known for the overture by Beethoven it inspired, but it's worth reading in its own right.

Goethe finished the play in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution, and Egmont definitely gives the feeling that something momentous is about to happen. It was written in prose during the "storm and stress" period that preceded the advent of German Romanticism.

The story involves the events leading up to the 80-year-long war for Dutch independence. It was the execution of Count Egmont, together with the Count of Horn, that precipitated that war. Goethe begins the action in 1568, the last year of Egmont's life. Margaret of Parma, daughter of the former Holy Roman Emperor, had been governing the Netherlands as regent for her half brother, Phillip II of Spain. The king replaces her, however, with the notorious Duke of Alba.

Margaret appears in Goethe's play as a sympathetic figure. In the first act, she struggles to deal with Dutch iconoclasts who were desecrating cathedrals, while at the same time trying to prevent her brother from introducing the Inquisition to the Lowlands. At one point she laments: "Oh, what are we, then, the great on the crest of humanity's wave? We think that we rule its fury, but it bears us up and down, to and fro."

Egmont does not even appear until the second act, though his name is on everyone's lips. Like the first entrance of Shakespeare's hero in Othello, as soon as Egmont appears, he puts down a potential brawl in the streets. Though a lofty noblemen, he remembers individuals among the commoners and counsels them each to keep the peace in difficult times. In a scene with his secretary, we then see him ruling justly if perhaps a bit naively, unwilling to submit to the world of realpolitik.

In the third act, we get word that Alba is coming with his massive army. Egmont is concerned, but finds comfort in the arms of his mistress, Clare. Goethe gives Clare one of the most strikingly poetic moments in the play. Waiting in her mother's house, she sings:

               And saddened
               And troubled in vain,
               And thronging
               With wavering pain,
               Raised up to heaven,
               The deeper to fall,
               Happy alone
               Is whom love has in thrall.

Act IV has the famous betrayal scene, where the Duke of Alba invites Egmont to his palace only to have him arrested and executed for treason. As a member of the famed Order of the Golden Fleece, Egmont should have been immune to any judgement other than a trial before his peers of the order. Alba does not care, and demands that Egmont immediately surrender his sword, which he does, declaring: "It has served me more often to defend the King's cause than to protect this body."

As Act V descends into darkness, Clare commits suicide and Egmont's remaining hopes of rescue or escape vanish. However, when he falls asleep in the dungeon, Egmont has a vision of his own eternal victory. Goethe gives these stage directions:

Liberty in heavenly raiment, shining, rests upon a cloud. She has Clare's features and bows down towards the sleeping hero. She expresses a feeling of compassion, she seems to commiserate with him. Soon she calms herself and, with an enlivening gesture, shows him the quiver of arrows, then her staff and helmet.

Though Egmont will die, he will live on as a martyr for Liberty.