Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Goethe's Historical Particularism and the "Right Hand" of History: Early Modern State Building, Nobility, and the Feud in Götz Von Berlichingen

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Goethe's Historical Particularism and the "Right Hand" of History: Early Modern State Building, Nobility, and the Feud in Götz Von Berlichingen

Article excerpt

In what sense can we say that Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen is an historical drama? How do the historical and poetic dimensions of the play fit together? Until recently, questions of this sort found less than satisfactory answers in scholarship on Goethe's 1773 play. For much of the twentieth century, critics viewed Goethe's treatment of history in the play as secondary, anachronistic, or even false. To the extent that history came into focus, it was seen as a backdrop for the Charakterdrama that pitted a natural, authentic hero against an inauthentic courtly culture.1 However, once critics began to develop a more nuanced understanding of the play's hero, revealing that the idealized image of Götz foundered on his "verstümmelte" subjectivity, it was no longer possible to read the play in such straightforward terms. Yet critics who spearheaded this revaluation of Götz continued to approach history in the play as either secondary to the Charakterdrama2 or as a reflection of Goethe's eighteenth-century class concerns.3 Only in the mid-1980s did scholars begin to undertake a serious revaluation of history as a dimension of the play itself,4 showing how the dramatic conflict and the hero's downfall are rooted in the historical transformations of the period the play depicts. In two of the most notable interpretations to date, Mariane Willems and Horst Lange have argued that Götz depicts the tragedy of a character who clings to a premodern feudal order that is being displaced by the modern state.5 Both have shown that the historical situation of early modem Europe is indispensible to interpreting the play. As such,Willems and Lange have succeeded in placing front and center questions about the play's representation of history, as well as the relation of this history to the play's poetics. My reading of the play will unfold in part as a dialogue with their work. At stake in this discussion are larger questions about how the young Goethe understood the relation between individual persons and historical processes, answers to which bear on what I will call Goethe's historical particularism.6

A major goal of the new historical interpretations has been to reconcile the insights of scholars such as Graham and Nägele with an understanding of the historical transformations depicted in the play. As Lange points out, these scholars recognized that Weislingen, and not Götz, is the "pivotal" character in the plot, the person on whom everyone else's success or failure depends.7 Nägele (following Graham) shows that Weislingen's position in the plot is underscored by the symbolism of the right hand. Weislingen is the Bishop's "right-hand" man and the missing right hand under Götz's "iron hand," which becomes a "detachable prop" that gets traded back and forth between the Bishop and Götz in a manner that mirrors Weislingen's vacillations.8 Lange has recognized that the success of the new historical interpretations rests on making sense of this dimension of the play's plot and symbolism.9 His interpretive question is, as I see it, the central one of the play: "Why does the entire plot have Weislingen as its fulcrum, or in other words, why is he singled out as the one who engineers the triumph of the modem state?"10 Lange's answer is that Weislingen represents the modern individual "for whom the existence of the sovereign fulfills an inner need." Weislingen's ego displays a "quasi-Freudian" tripartite structure that is "intimately tied to the modern state" (187). Lange attempts to link up this psychological reading to his historical account of the play by arguing that this tripartite self is an essential psychic feature of the kind of person upon whom the modern state depends: the administrator (187).

While Lange poses the crucial question of the play, I find his answer dissatisfying because his "diachronic" reading of the play's historical narrative is at odds with his "synchronic" reading of Weislingen's psyche. Recognizing this incongruity, Lange concludes that the play's design has a "fundamental flaw" (190). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.