[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Daniel Casper von Lohenstein (1635-1683)

Alongside Gryphius, Lohenstein is one of the most eminent German baroque dramatists. His posthumous influence stretched into the eighteenth century and he was ‘rediscovered’ in the late nineteenth century. His works invariably combine rhetorical artistry and deeply intellectual thought with characters that are psychologically unusually complex. Lohenstein is also known as a novelist (Großmüthiger Feldherr Arminius; Noble General Arminius, 1689-90) and poet.

Further Reading on Lohenstein

Judith P. Aikin, German baroque drama (Boston: Twayne, 1982)

Thomas Best, ‘On Lohenstein’s concept of tragedy’, Euphorion 80 (1986), 278-96

Gerald Gillespie, Daniel Casper von Lohenstein’s historical tragedies (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966)

Gerald Gillespie, ‘Cosmic Vision in Lohenstein’s Poetry’, Neophilologus 53 (1969), 413-22

Jane O. Newman, The intervention of philology: gender, learning, and power in Lohenstein’s Roman plays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

Hans-Jürgen Schings, 'Gryphius, Lohenstein und das Trauerspiel des 17. Jahrhunderts', in Handbuch des deutschen Dramas, ed. by Walter Hinck (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1980), pp. 48-60

Cleopatra (1661)

This play was first performed by the students of the Elisabethanum school in Breslau and deals – like many baroque dramas – with the popular topic of the virtue of stoicism, in this case, stoicism in the face of inevitable historical fate, and with political virtue. Lohenstein’s story, which owes much to Plutarch’s version of events, is that of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and her lover Marcus Antonius in their final days, facing defeat in Alexandria by the Romans under Octavius Augustus.

In Act 1 Antonius discusses with his generals how to deal with Octavius Augustus, the Roman Emperor, whose forces are besieging Alexandria. Cleopatra tells Antonius that the gods refuse to accept her offerings and Augustus sends two envoys to try to persuade Antonius to side with the Romans: in exchange for a third share of the Roman Empire, he must, however, betray Cleopatra. Antonius’s love for her means he is unwilling to do this, especially as he does not trust Augustus, but his advisors argue that he should secure his power.

In Act 2 Cleopatra overhears Antonius’s conversation with the envoys and believes he will betray her. She is not reassured by his protestations and decides to fake her own death in order to provoke his, hoping in this way to maintain her own rule in Egypt. The chorus at the end of the act depicts an allegorical scene of the judgement of Paris, who chooses Venus (beauty) over Pallas (wisdom) and Juno (power) as the most beautiful goddess.

In Act 3 Cleopatra commits apparent suicide in the presence of her ladies-in-waiting by drinking poison. The ghosts of the two kings Antigonus and Artabazes appear to Antonius in a dream prophesying his downfall. The news of Cleopatra’s death is broken to Antonius and he kills himself by falling on his own sword. The dying Antonius is brought to Cleopatra’s side. Regretting her trick, Cleopatra declares that now her lord and love is dead, throne and power mean nothing to her. As he dies, Antonius requests that she try to appease Augustus. The chorus at the end of Act 3 comprises the three Fates, who declare that it is impossible for humans to have control over their lives, but that ‘Wenn edle Freiheit sol in knechtsche Ketten gehn / Muß euch der Todt beim Sturm für einen Hafen stehn’ (When noble freedom is to go in servile chains / then in that storm shall death be your port). https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/lohenstn/cleopatr/cleopa33.html

In Act 4, August declares his regret for the manner of Antonius’ death, ‘Uns tauret / daß der Mann durch ein solch Weib sol fallen. Der Libe Gifft ist doch das giftigst’ unter allen [...]’ (‘We are aggrieved that the man should have fallen through such a woman. Love’s poison is yet the most poisonous of all [...]’)


Augustus requests an audience with Cleopatra and plots to trick her and bring her to Rome. Cleopatra mistrusts Augustus sudden overtures, but agrees to a meeting. The chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses comment on false love which seeks only to serve itself, and praise the purity of true love.

In Act 5, Cleopatra prefers death to being paraded through Rome, ‘Ein Fürst stirbt muttig / der sein Reich nicht überlebt’ (‘The prince who does not survive his empire dies bravely’) https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/lohenstn/cleopatr/cleopa51.html – and dies of a snake bite to the arm. Her handmaidens also commit suicide. Augustus finds that his desire to parade the Egyptian queen as a prisoner is thwarted, and expresses a grudging respect for her. The closing chorus of the rivers Tiber, Nile, Rhine and Danube, representing the two great antique empires on the one hand and the Holy Roman Empire on the other, say that each great empire will rise but must make way for the next, greater empire, culminating – so it is implied – in the greatest of all – the Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg rule.

The eponymous figure of Lohenstein’s Cleopatra is a difficult character to interpret, not least because in 1680 the dramatist published a revised version of the 1661 original (which is the version cited here). Is she the self-serving seductress the Romans believe her to be or is she simply fighting for her freedom? She certainly uses her feminine charms to attempt to seduce Augustus in Act 4 so that she might preserve her own political power. She is also characterised as a siren, blamed for making Antonius love her so blindly that he would rather kill himself than accept as life-saving the politically profitable offer from Augustus. Her power over men is unseemly in a woman, and her ambitions are even more outrageous because, as an Egyptian woman and symbol of pagan religion, she sets herself against the Roman Empire, the perceived direct precursor to the ‘most Christian’ Holy Roman Empire. Aikin points out that Antonius and Cleopatra’s ‘escape’ through suicide is no escape at all, for they are still ‘enslaved by error and vice’, and their deaths are not generally approved by the Romans. Gallus, a Roman general, admonishes Cleopatra’s dying handmaiden in Act 5: ‘[...] auch der Todt sol euch vom Schimpf nicht retten. Ihr selbst befleckt di Seel’ / ihr selbst verstellt den Leib.’ (‘[…] even death shall not save you from dishonour. You have sullied your own soul, you have desecrated your own body’) https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/lohenstn/cleopatr/cleopa52.html (see below, Aikin (1978), p. 168). However, Best argues that Cleopatra is a more nuanced character than that, particularly in death (see above, Best, p. 287). Both versions of the play are, Best notes, prefaced by a Latin quotation from Tacitus: ‘Moriendum victis, moriendum deditis: id solum referre, novissimum Spiritum per Ludibrium & Contumelias effundant, an per virtutem.’ (‘Whether we are conquered or surrender, we must die. All that matters is whether we do so ignominiously or with courage’ – as translated in Best).


This must colour the way we read Cleopatra: she is guilty of going against the implicit Christian order as well as the patriarchal hegemony of politics, society, and history, but her death is not the same as that of Antonius. He dies because of his decision to prioritize emotion over political sense and his death is all the more to be condemned because, as a Roman, he was offered a way out; Cleopatra, on the other hand, seeks death only when she has tried all other methods available to her to preserve her position. As a woman and a non-Roman, it is not conceivable that she would be offered the same conditions in defeat as Antonius. Cleopatra is right: she can die ignominiously or with courage – and for all his vilification of the Egyptian queen, Augustus reluctantly agrees that her guilt can only go so far: ‘Jedoch / was sinnen wir auf Schimpf der edlen Frauen / Di wir auch itzt schon todt verwundernd müssen schauen?’ (‘But why think to vilify this noble woman, upon whom even now we must look admiringly?’).


Lohenstein’s concept of tragedy was one that sought not simply to stir the emotions, but that sought also to impart wisdom (see above, Best). Arguably, Augustus, as the representative of the Roman Empire, the antecedent of the Holy Roman Empire, and as the only significant character still standing at the end of the play, is the conduit for imparting this wisdom.

Further Reading on Cleopatra

Judith P. Aikin, The mission of Rome in the dramas of Daniel Casper von Lohenstein: historical tragedy as prophecy and polemic (Stuttgart: Heins, 1976)

Judith P. Aikin, ‘Egyptian Captivity and the Theme of Freedom in Lohenstein’s Cleopatra’, Argenis 2 (1978), 159-86

Gerald Gillespie, ‘Lohenstein’s protagonists’, The Germanic Review 39 (1964), 101-19

Jane O. Newman, ‘Almost White, but Not Quite: ‘Race,’ Gender, and the Disarticulation of the Imperial Subject in Lohenstein’s Cleopatra (1680)’, in Signs of the Early Modern 2: 17th Century and Beyond, ed. by David Lee Rubin (Charlottesville, VA: Rookwood, 1997), pp. 94-120

Cornelia Plume, Heroinen in der Geschlechterordnung: Weiblichkeitsprojektionen bei Daniel Casper von Lohenstein und die Querelle des Femmes (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1996)

P. Skrine, ‘A Flemish model for the tragedies of Lohenstein’, Modern Language Review 61 (1966), 64-70