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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Egmont

EGMONT. Goethe began work on his tragedy of ‘Egmont’ (1788) as early as 1775, in the period of his “storm and stress”; and as in ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ he had represented a champion of liberty and self-reliance doomed to defeat in a time of all-powerful tyranny, so in the revolt of the Netherlands—which he carefully studied—he was especially attracted by another victim of despotism, another prophet of a better age. Goethe's ‘Egmont’ is, however, an historical character in hardly anything but his execution at the hands of the Spaniards. He is, rather, like Goethe himself, young, demoniacal, improvident, trustful—a lover and a patriot, the idol of the people, but in no sense their leader. This character Goethe presents in a setting of popular turmoil and political intrigue, revealing itself in its abhorrence of both, but particularly in its serene self-abandonment to love of an humble maiden. Egmont's Klärchen is, if it be possible, as naive a martyr to purely human impulse as Gretchen in ‘Faust.’ And this play, otherwise quite realistic, ends with an operatic apotheosis of Egmont's beloved: in a dream he sees her as the goddess of liberty, ready to crown him with a wreath.

Schiller rightly defined ‘Egmont’ as a tragedy of character. There is no development of qualities in the hero, there is no dramatic conflict; there is merely a stratagem in which he allows himself to be ensnared. Egmont's very being is fatal, not his conduct; for he does not act. The whole piece is rather potentially than actually dynamic. There are clear-cut figures and popular scenes of truly Shakespearean vividness, but the prevailing quality is picturesqueness—else, perhaps, Beethoven's incidental music would not be so appropriate. Completed in Italy, the play reveals Goethe's later classical tendencies chiefly in the scrupulous finish of its prose style. Translated by F. Boott (Boston 1871), and by Sir Walter Scott (London 1850). Edited by Max Winkler (Boston 1898).