Besides his Faust (which is read and hardly performed), most of Goethe’s plays languish. Egmont (for which Beethoven composed the overture), Torquato Tasso, Gotz von Berlichingen, Iphigenia: these are hardly household names like Oedipus rex or Death of a Salesman. It’s a shame, because I rather like Goethe’s plays. They are simple in expression (usually concerned with freedom), forward driving, full of impetuous characters (including powerful female roles), and full of his wit. They read almost like fairy tales. I would cross the road to see a Goethe play. One which I’ve been meaning to read is Gotz von Berlichingen.
Before the bionic man, there was Gotz, the man with the iron hand. Gotz was based on an actual Gottfried (Gotz) von Berlichingen. He lost his right arm to enemy fire and had a prosthetic hand made up which could hold reins, a shield, or even a quill. Considering that he lived from 1480 to 1562, the technology must have been quite amazing! Gotz was a knight, mercenary, and writer. He left behind an autobiography which Goethe used as source material for the play. Gotz is a popular figure who captures people’s imaginations up to the present day. Sartre used him as a character. And there are various German movies starring Gotz. One came out in 2014 and there were also ones in 1955 and 1979. The 1979 movie is available on YouTube. I watched a few minutes and it looks good!
Since the library didn’t have a copy of Gotz, I was able to find a copy online here. It’s a beautiful 1885 translation (unknown translator) published by George Barrie. It’s illustrated by ‘the best German artists’. It is nice. I miss books like that. Usually books are all words. Seeing the pictures reminds me of reading children’s books when I was a child. They should do that more often.
Götz von Berlichingen: The Play
Yes, I can do umlauts: on the Mac an umlaut is made by pressing option+u. For those of you typing in foreign languages, it’s handy to put the character viewer in the menu bar. It looks like this and you can choose to put it in the title bar by selecting the option in keyboard preferences in system preferences:
Once you have the view up, press option, and it will show you all the different characters the keyboard can make!
Back to the play. One of the things I like about Goethe plays is the exuberance of the characters. They are full of living energy. Take this example between Gotz and the grateful monk:
Martin: Let me request your name.
Goetz: Pardon me—Farewell! [Gives his left hand.
Martin: Why do you give the left?—am i unworthy of the knightly right hand?
Goetz: were you the emperor, you must be satisfied with this. My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet—You see, it is iron!
Martin: Then art thou Goetz of Berlichingen. I thank thee, Heaven, who hast shown me the man whom princes hate, but to whom the oppressed throng! (He takes his right hand.) Withdraw not this hand: let me kiss it.
Goetz: You must not!
Martin: Let me, let me—Thou hand, more worthy even than the saintly relic through which the most sacred blood has flowed! lifeless instrument, quickened by the noblest spirit’s faith in God.
Goethe is also the master of coming up with little aphorisms such as:
Goetz: Where there is most light the shades are deepest.
Goetz: If your conscience is free, so are you.
Goetz: Not a word more. I am an enemy to long explanations; the deceive either the maker or the hearer, and generally both.
The last one reminds me of excuses people make for coming late to work. If it is a real excuse, it is short and simple (e.g. ‘oh, traffic was bad’). If they are lying, they make long explanations: the traffic was bad and then the car died and then my kid was sick and then my mom called and the dog barfed and on and on…
Now, have you ever heard of someone accusing a writer that he is rhetorical? I’m thinking of Euripides: he’s often accused of being rhetorical. I’ve never really understood what that really means. Looking up ‘rhetorical’ in my new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary yields this:
- 1 Orig., eloquent, eloquently expressed. Later, expressed in terms to persuade or impress; (freq. derog.) expressed in artificial, insincere, or extravagant language. lME.
- b Designating a rhythm of prose less regular than metrical. rare. e18.Rolling Stone The article lacked description, interpretation and evaluation; in short, rhetorical criticism.
rhetorical question a question, often implicitly assuming a preferred (usu. negative) answer, asked so as to produce an effect rather than to gain information.
- 2 Of, pertaining to, or concerned with the art of rhetoric. lME.G. Phelps The author’s command of the rhetorical devices.
- 3 Of a person: apt to use rhetoric. m17.J. Dennis The rhetorical author…makes use of his tropes and figures…to cheat us.
I used to always think ‘rhetorical’ meant ‘using rhetoric’ or lots of arguing. But then, characters argue in Aeschylus and Sophocles as well but Aeschylus and Sophocles aren’t accused of being ‘rhetorical’. But after reading more and more Goethe, I think I understand. ‘Rhetorical’ means that you can hear the author arguing a point through a character. You never hear Aeschylus or Sophocles or Shakespeare’s own voice in their plays. At least I don’t. But, reading Euripides, sometimes I get the feeling I hear more Euripides than the characters! It is sort of the same in Goethe, though I mind it less because it seems like we share a similar perspective on a lot of things. Take this passage, for example. Is this Gotz speaking or is the Goethe speaking?
Goetz: To the health of the emperor!
All: Long lie the emperor!
Goetz: Be it our last word when we die! I love him, for our fate is similar; but I am happier than he. To please the princes, he must direct his imperial squadrons against mice, while the rats gnaw his possessions. I know he often wishes himself dead, rather than to be any longer the soul of such a crippled body.
I think I hear a bit of Goethe in there. Egmont in another one of his plays talks a similar way too. So, this is what I learned today: when you hear a writer talking in his own voice, he is being ‘rhetorical’. Believe it or not, it’s taken me over ten years to figure this great mystery out!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.