Torquato Tasso

Torquato Tasso (completed 1789, published 1790, first performed 1807)

Historical Context

The play is based on the life of the Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), the author of the idyllic pastoral drama Aminta (1573) and Gerusalemme liberata; Jerusalem Delivered (1575), an epic set at the time of the Crusades. In the Renaissance period, artists depended upon an aristocratic patron for their income. Tasso’s patron was Alfons (Alfonso) II d’Este, the duke of Ferrara (1533-1597). After Tasso had completed Gerusalemme liberata, he tried (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a move to the court of Florence, but Alfons did not want to let him go. Goethe’s play is very loosely based on an actual historical incident: in 1577 Tasso drew his knife upon a servant, and Alfons had him arrested. Alfons later had Tasso incarcerated in the madhouse of St Anna for seven years, from 1579-1586.


From 1780 to early 1782 Goethe wrote the first draft of Acts One and Two in prose. However he did not resume work on the play until 1787, during his sea voyage from Naples to Sicily. He reworked it in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters), writing more in Rome in 1788. The play was completed in Weimar in 1789. It was published in 1790 and first performed in Weimar in 1807.

The Play

The play is set in the narrow confines of Belriguardo, the country residence of Tasso’s patron, Alfons II d’Este, the duke of Ferrara. The play shows how Tasso behaves ineptly and is placed under house arrest by orders of the duke. It is a complex, ambivalent psychological drama.

The heroine of Goethe’s previous play Iphiginie auf Tauris pleads successfully with her monarch and he grants her freedom. In contrast, Torquato Tasso’s interventions are badly misjudged: his pleas to the duke fall on deaf ears and he is robbed of his freedom (twice). This shows that Iphigenie is more politically astute: for example, she has a much closer relationship with the reigning monarch than Tasso. Tasso is close to the princess, the duke’s sister, but we later discover that she never intervenes in her brother’s decisions (Act Three, Scene 2, lines 1751-53). Tasso’s boldest interventions in courtly life – drawing his knife on Antonio in Act Two, Scene 3 and embracing the princess in Act Five, Scene 4 – are disastrous. Both incidents result in the duke ordering Tasso’s confinement. Tasso’s only direct plea to the duke himself is also misjudged: in Act Five, Scene 2 he tactlessly asks Alfons to return his manuscript of Gerusalemme liberata; Alfons refuses.

The play contains autobiographical elements. Goethe drew on his own experience as a poet for Tasso and as a civil servant for Antonio. Tasso’s love for the duke’s sister recalls Goethe’s own platonic relationship with Charlotte von Stein; but Goethe, unlike Tasso, was not socially inept and was not declared to be insane. In these respects, Tasso seems closer to Goethe’s former friend J.M.R. Lenz, who was banished from Weimar after ‘behaving like an ass’, as Goethe put it in his diary (November-December 1776; Goethe, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe III.I, p. 28).

It would be a mistake to regard the play as a portrayal of the conflict between artist and society: as David V. Pugh points out (see below, Pugh (2002), p. 79), Tasso and his problems are much too specific to serve as the basis for generalisations of this kind. Tasso is a great artist but he lacks the political tact which is necessary at court. Tasso is aware of this, and at one point he says to the princess: ‘O lehre mich das Mögliche zu thun!’; ‘O teach me to do things that are possible!’ (Act Two, Scene 1, line 1065).

Politics is the art of the possible, and it is Tasso’s lack of political skill which dooms him.

The discussion of the Golden Age in Act Two, Scene 1 is key here. The princess warns Tasso that if he dedicates himself entirely to recreating the Golden Age in his poetry, as Tasso had done in Aminta (1573), then he risks neglecting his own personal relationships (lines 970-977). Tasso replies that in those days the golden rule was ‘erlaubt ist, was gefällt’; ‘it is allowed if it pleases’ (line 994). The princess tells Tasso that the Golden Age is over now, and the new rule is ‘erlaubt ist was sich ziemt’; ‘it is allowed if it is appropriate’ (line 1006).

This almost seems to anticipate the theories of Sigmund Freud and Norbert Elias, who state that civilization is founded on the repression of natural instincts.

The play features five distinct personalities; each one pursues their own ambitions. Tasso falls victim to the ambitions of the other characters. His paranoia and his description of himself as an ‘Opfertier’; ‘sacrificial animal’ (Act Five, Scene 5, line 3314) seem justified. And yet the other characters are convinced that Tasso is misguided and believe that they are the ones who know what is best for him.

Act One opens with the princess (Leonore d’Este, sister of Alfons II, duke of Ferrara) and her friend Leonore Sanvitale. The princess crowns the bust of Virgil with a laurel wreath and Leonore Sanvitale crowns the bust of Ariosto with a garland of flowers. Leonore tells the princess that the court of Ferrara has become great because of all the great men at court. The two women discuss Tasso and are joined by Alfons. Then Tasso himself arrives and gives the manuscript of Gerusalemme liberata to Alfons. The princess takes the laurel wreath from the bust of Virgil and crowns Tasso with it. Then Antonio, the secretary of state, arrives and reports on his negotiations with Pope Gregory XIII in Rome. Antonio makes a speech praising the genius of Ariosto.

In Act Two Tasso tells the princess he loves her and wants to serve her in any way he can. The princess tells him to trust her brother and Antonio, and to be more intimate with Leonore. Tasso refuses. He gets the false impression that the princess may one day return his love. The princess rebukes him and leaves; Tasso does not realise that he has been rebuffed. Then Antonio arrives and Tasso offers his hand to him in friendship. Antonio refuses to shake his hand, saying he will have to consider first. Tasso gets more and more offended, and challenges Antonio to a duel. When Antonio refuses, Tasso draws his dagger. Duke Alfons arrives and reprimands Tasso. Antonio reminds them that duelling at the duke’s residence has been strictly forbidden. Alfons tells Tasso he must stay in his room until further notice. Tasso is mortified and obeys. Alfons orders Antonio to go to Tasso and tell him that he is free, and to make peace with him.

In Act Three Tasso does not appear, but he remains the focus of conversation. Leonore tells the princess it would be best if Tasso were to go to Rome for a while: she, Leonore, would go and look after him there. The princess says she will miss Tasso if he goes. She recalls the sufferings of her childhood, how the doctor forbade her to sing. She says that she loves Tasso in her own way but accepts Leonore’s advice. Antonio complains about Tasso to Leonore, and shows that he is jealous. But Antonio does not want Tasso to leave: it will look as if Antonio drove him away, and Alfons will be displeased. Antonio asks Leonore to persuade Tasso to stay, but she wants Tasso to leave the court so that she can have him to herself.

Act Four opens with a monologue from Tasso, confined in his room. He feels disgusted and close to the abyss. Leonore arrives and tries to reassure him, but Tasso is convinced that Antonio hates and envies him. Leonore tells Tasso he should go away for a while, and says that the princess has consented to his departure. Tasso becomes convinced that Leonore has betrayed him. Antonio comes to Tasso and tells him that he is no longer bound to his room. Tasso tells him he wants to leave for Rome; Antonio tries to dissuade him. Tasso asks Antonio to respect his decision and to justify it to Alfons. Antonio says he will. Once alone, Tasso bitterly regrets the fact that the princess seems to have abandoned him – this is the cruellest betrayal of all.

In Act Five Antonio reports Tasso’s request back to Alfons, who replies that he does not want Tasso to go to Rome in case he enters the service of his political rivals. Antonio persuades Alfons to let Tasso go, saying that it will teach Tasso to appreciate Ferrara all the more. Tasso appears and asks Alfons to return his manuscript at once; Alfons refuses, saying that he will have a copy made first. Tasso thinks he is learning how to disguise his feelings, but then the princess appears. Tasso tells her he is going to Naples to see his sister. When he sees the princess’s dismay, he adds that he would be content to tend one of her royal gardens. The princess proclaims her affection for Tasso (lines 3220-21), and, as in Act Two, Tasso reads too much into her words. He declares his love for her and embraces her. The princess pushes him away and runs off. The other characters arrive just in time to witness the scene. Once again, Alfons wants Tasso to be kept under house arrest: this time he tells Antonio to hold Tasso fast. Then Alfons drives off in a coach with his sister and Leonore. Tasso is left with Antonio, now effectively his jailor. And yet Antonio gives Tasso some friendly advice: ‘Vergleiche dich! Erkenne was du bist!’; ‘Compare yourself! Recognise who you are!’ (line 3420).

The play ends as Tasso embraces Antonio.

Further Reading

Jeremy Adler, ‘Modelling the Renaissance: Intertextuality and the Politics of Goethe’s Tasso’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 63 (1992), 1-48

K. F. Hilliard, Freethinkers, Libertines and Schwärmer: Heterodoxy in German Literature, 1750-1800 (London: igrs, 2011), pp. 137-44

F. J. Lamport, ‘Tasso: The Poet and the Golden Age’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 63 (1994), 97-106

R. C. Ockenden, ‘On Bringing Statues to Life: Reading Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and Torquato Tasso’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 55 (1986), 69-108

David V. Pugh, ‘Goethe the Dramatist’, in The Cambridge Companion to Goethe, ed. by Lesley Sharpe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 66-83

Hans Reiss, ‘Goethe’s Torquato Tasso: Poetry and Political Power’, Modern Language Review 87 (1992), 102-11

Avital Ronell, ‘Taking it Philosophically: Torquato Tasso’s Women as Theorists’, in Avital Ronell, Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millenium (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), pp. 129-58

E. L. Stahl, ‘Tasso’s Tragedy and Salvation’, in German Studies. Presented to Leonard Ashley Willoughby by his Pupils, Colleagues and Friends on his Retirement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1952), pp. 191-203

Irmgard Wagner, Critical Approaches to Goethe’s Classical Dramas: ‘Iphigenie’, ‘Torquato Tasso’, and ‘Die natürliche Tochter’ (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995)

Marie-Luise Waldeck, ‘The Princess in Torquato Tasso: Further Reflections on an Enigma’, Oxford German Studies 5 (1970), 14-27

Elizabeth M. Wilkinson, ‘“Tasso – ein gesteigerter Werther” in the Light of Goethe’s Principle of “Steigerung”’, Modern Language Review 44 (1949), 305-28

J. R. Williams, ‘Reflections in Tasso’s Final Speech’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 47 (1977), 47-67

John R. Williams, The Life of Goethe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 161-66

Further Reading in German

Olaf Kramer, Goethe und die Rhetorik (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010)

Wolfdietrich Rasch, Goethe’s “Torquato Tasso”. Die Tragödie des Künstlers (Munich: Beck, 1979)

Thorsten Valk, Melancholie im Werk Goethes. Genese – Symptomatik – Therapie (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2002)