Es ist eine Wollust, einen großen Mann zu sehn.
It is a delight to behold a great man.
Gottfried von Berlichingen (1480-1562) was known as ‘Götz of the iron hand’ because of the prosthetic arm he wore after he lost his arm at the battle of Landshut in 1504. Having fought against the Swabian League he was imprisoned in the town of Heilbronn from 1519-22. In 1525 Berlichingen reluctantly became one of the commanders of the German Peasants’ War (Deutscher Bauernkrieg) (1524-26), together with the peasant Georg Metzler and the Anabaptist preacher Thomas Müntzer. The revolt was condemned by the Protestant leader Martin Luther in his pamphlet Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern; Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525). Berlichingen soon found himself unable to control the rebels and deserted his command after one month. He sat out the rest of the Peasant’s War on his estate, and was afterwards imprisoned in Augsburg (1528-30) and then released. He later fought for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58; reigned from 1516-56) against the Turks and the French in the 1640s.
The action of Goethe’s play compresses the decade from 1518-28 into the space of a few months. Goethe’s main source was the autobiography of Gottfried von Berlichingen, first published in 1731 almost two centuries after its author’s death. Goethe’s Götz is a typical Sturm und Drang figure, a man of action and instinctive feeling. Goethe, influenced by Herder, had read an essay by the historian Justus Möser (1720-94) entitled Von dem Faustrecht; Of the Right to Private Warfare (1770), which celebrated the autonomy of feudal lords whose nominal loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor gave them legal autonomy in their own domains. Möser saw the sixteenth century as the last age of spontaneity in which great individuals could express themselves. At this time the Holy Roman Empire was gradually becoming more centralised and bureaucratic in response to the threat of Turkish invasion. In consequence, knights like Götz found their autonomy under threat. Whereas the historical Götz lived to a ripe old age, in Goethe’s play he dies because he has become historically obsolete (see Martin Swales and Erika Swales, reading list below, p. 90).
Götz, like Goethe’s Egmont, is doomed by his inability to adapt to the absolutist power politics of the modern age. Goethe’s play explores the opposition between the instinctive Götz with his medieval code of honour, and his modern rival, the scheming intellectual and womaniser Weislingen.
Goethe’s play depicts revolution in a negative light: Götz only joins the rebellion under the pressure of events and because he hopes to prevent violence. The rebel leader Metzler is portrayed as a murderous sadist.
The play had a big impact when it was staged in 1774 because of its defiance of French theatrical conventions. Like a Shakespeare play, the play does not conform to the classical unities of time, space and action, and violence is shown on stage. The play also features several lower-class characters including peasants and gypsies.
In Act One, two peasants, Sievers and Metzler, get in a fight with the Bishop of Bamberg’s men. Two of Götz’s men arrive and learn that Weislingen is about to leave Bamberg. Götz lies in wait for Weislingen together with his squire Georg, who is too young to fight. Brother Martin (Martin Luther) arrives and denounces the privations of a monk’s life. Götz returns home with the captured Weislingen, and is greeted by his wife Elisabeth, her sister Maria, and his studious, pampered son Karl, who is a disappointment to him. At Bamberg, the Bishop learns of Weislingen’s capture. Götz reminds Weislingen of their youthful friendship; Weislingen becomes engaged to Maria and promises to avoid Bamberg and to stop intriguing against Götz. But then his squire Franz tells him that the beautiful Adelheid von Walldorf has arrived in Bamberg.
In Act Two, Liebetraut persuades Weislingen to return to Bamberg. Under the influence of Adelheid, Weislingen soon forgets his promises to Götz. Götz sends Georg to Bamberg to talk to Weislingen. Georg returns and confirms that Weislingen has betrayed Götz. Götz and Selbitz go to a country wedding before leaving to rob some Nuremberg merchants.
In Act Three, Weislingen visits Emperor Maximilian I in Augsburg and urges him to deal severely with Götz. The Emperor reluctantly outlaws Götz and sends troops to arrest him. Sickingen marries Maria, and Götz persuades him not to get involved in the fighting. Lerse, a brave fighter, offers his services to Götz. Götz chases away the imperial troops, but Selbitz is wounded. Götz’s castle is surrounded by imperial troops, but Götz leans out of the window and (famously) tells them they can kiss his arse. Shots are exchanged; Götz and his men drink to the Emperor and to freedom.
In Act Four, Götz is tried by imperial officers in Heilbronn. His men have been captured and the officers order Götz to sign a confession that he has rebelled against the Emperor. Götz refuses. A sentry arrives with the news that Sickingen’s troops are approaching the town. Götz is freed on condition that he keeps to his estate. Weislingen is furious but Adelheid tells him that Maximilian will die soon and that the new Emperor, Charles V, will be more severe; in fact, she hopes to marry Charles, and she has also seduced Weislingen’s squire Franz. Elisabeth persuades Götz to write his autobiography, and Lerse announces the outbreak of the Peasants’ War.
In Act Five, the peasant leaders Kohl and Wild persuade Götz to be their leader. Götz agrees to command them for four weeks in order to prevent further bloodshed, but Metzler and Link plan to mutiny. They set fire to Miltenberg despite his orders, and Götz realises that he has made a mistake. Metzler challenges Götz, who knocks him down. They are scattered by Weislingen and his troops. Götz, wounded, seeks shelter at a gypsy camp but is captured. Adelheid persuades Franz to poison his master. He does so. Weislingen, dying of the poison, is visited by Maria, who persuades him to tear up Götz’s death warrant. Franz confesses and jumps into the river Main. A Vehmic court meets in secret and condemns Adelheid to death. Götz, now in prison, is visited by Elisabeth and Lerse. He learns that Georg died heroically at Miltenberg. Götz dies exclaiming ‘Freiheit!’; ‘Freedom!’, after having predicted the dawn of a new and treacherous age:
Schließt eure Herzen sorgfältiger als eure Tore. Es kommen die Zeiten des Betrugs, es ist ihm Freiheit gegeben. Die Nichtswürdigen werden regieren mit List, und der Edle wird in ihre Netze fallen.
Lock your hearts more carefully than you do your gates. The time of betrayal is coming, it will have no limits. The unworthy will govern with deceit; and he who is noble will be caught in their nets.
Benjamin Bennett, ‘Prometheus and Saturn: Three Versions of Götz von Berlichingen’, German Quarterly 58:3 (1985), 335-47
Steffan Davies, ‘Goethe, Theatre and Politics: Götz von Berlichingen from 1771 to 1804’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 70 (2001), 29-45
Christa Fell, ‘Justus Möser’s Social Ideas as Measured in Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen’, Germanic Review 54 (1979), 98-103
Susan E. Gustafson, ‘Male Desire in Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen’, in Outing Goethe and his Age, ed. by Alice A. Kuzniar (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 111-24
Horst Lange, ‘Wolves, Sheep, and the Shepherd: Legality, Legitimacy, and Hobbesian Political Theory in Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen’, Goethe Yearbook 10 (2001), 1-30
Martin Swales and Erika Swales, Reading Goethe: A Critical Introduction to the Literary Work (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)
Kenneth D. Weisinger, ‘Götz von Berlichingen: History Writing Itself’, German Studies Review 9:2 (1986), 211-32
G. A. Wells, ‘Götz von Berlichingen: History, Drama, and Dramatic Effectiveness’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 56 (1987), 74-96
W. Daniel Wilson, ‘Hunger/Artist: Goethe’s Revolutionary Agitators in Götz, Satyros, Egmont, and Der Bürgergeneral’, Monatshefte 86 (1994), 80-94