Shakespeare and Goethe on Love: from Despair to Hope

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Werther and Lotte

“She had a wildness in her eyes and into it I plunged.”

Goethe, “Sorrows of Young Werther”

In January 1778 Christel von Lassberg drowned herself in the river Ilm, the reason most probably being unrequited love. A copy of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was found in her pocket. Goethe was distraught. He had written the book to purge himself of a period of suffering that a failed romance had cost him. He did achieve his catharsis but a lot of his reading public went “Werther-mad” after the book was published:

“In scores of literary, plastic, and musical forms Werther’s life was extended in Europe and America and even into China (where a porcelain factory reproduced him on tea-sets for the European market). Men dressed like him, in blue coat, buff-yellow waistcoat and knee-breeches, women wore a perfume called ‘Eau de Werther’.”

(from the Introduction by David Constantine, Oxford World’s Classics, Kindle edition)

The beautiful poem “To the Moon” that Goethe wrote shortly after Christel’s demise and possibly to commemorate her, seems to capture one of the main paradoxes of love, which was so eloquently expressed by Werther in one of his letters: “Does it have to be the case that what made a person’s felicity will become the source of his wretchedness?” In the poem Goethe receives solace and a promise of spring rebirth from the river:

River, flow the vale along,
Without rest or ease,
Murmur, whisper to my song
Gentle melodies!

Swelling in the winter night
With thy roaring flood,
Bubbling in the spring’s delight,
Over leaf and bud!

I have recently reread The Sorrows of Young Werther to find that it has not aged; quite the contrary, it is every inch as compelling as it was when I first read it. In the Introduction to the Oxford World Classic’s edition that I read, David Constantine points out an interesting tidbit: the book was written two years before The Declaration of Independence famously proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Werther’s plight stemmed from, among other things, the social mores of the times. Lotte was out of bounds for him. Nowadays, we hold a belief that there should be no barriers to love, and certainly not those erected by social strata; that who and how we love should remain at our own discretion. But the torment in our souls caused by love is just as tumultuous as it was for Werther.

Goethe’s novel abounds in beautiful passages. In a manner of true Romantics, nature plays a pertinent part in Werther’s expressions of his undying love. I particularly enjoyed the letter in which he delineates how from a state of powerful tranquility, serene contemplation and self-contentment (all that prior to meeting Lotte), his psyche was catapulted into torment and despair:

“The full and warm feeling of my heart for living Nature, my wellspring of abundant joy that turned the world to paradise on every side, has now become my unbearable tormentor, a spirit of torture pursuing me wherever I go.”

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Caspar David Friedrich, “The Tree of Crows”

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Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield of Crows”

“And so I reel in fear, the energies of heaven and earth weaving around me. And all I see is an eternally devouring, eternally regurgitating monster,” he concludes. The entire book is so delightfully quotable it is hard to resist one more piece: “I wander the moors in the howling of the storm-wind that marshals ancestral ghosts in a wreathing mist in the unsteady light of the moon.” This tunnel vision drives him to self-destruction; suicide is a natural consequence, a tragic yet logical conclusion.

Lotte, who was married to a stable and predictable Albert, at one point asked Werther whether it was the impossibility of possessing her that made his desire so exciting. A portend question. The Sorrows are written in the form of letters to a friend, whose replies we can never read. This artistic decision of Goethe was acknowledged as masterstroke by the critics, for it highlights Werther’s self-absorption and his self-serving alienation. Is Lotte a woman of flesh and blood or, as Jungians would call it, a rampant anima complex possessing the hero’s psyche? Did he fall in love with a shadow that he mistook for substance, to paraphrase Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

This brings me to Shakespeare and a much more comforting masterpiece of his, namely The Winter’s Tale. This may not be his most famous play, nevertheless it is truly delightful. Neither a tragedy nor a comedy, though it ends happily, it was dubbed “a problem play.”  Yes, the consequences of love can be catastrophic, Shakespeare seems to be saying, but there is a great potential for healing in love; also, from great passion arises great art. In the story, king Leontes becomes irrationally jealous (is jealousy ever rational?) of his pregnant wife Hermione and imprisons her in a tower. Even though the Oracle of Delphi pronounces her innocent, he stubbornly persists in his paranoia. The key words of the play are uttered by Leontes to his wife: “Your actions are my dreams,” and “Affection! Thy intention stabs the centre.” In a moment of self-reflection, he laments “the infection” of his brain. He had dreamt the whole situation. But it is too late. The queen dies, while the infant daughter is abandoned in a wasteland of a foreign land of Bohemia by the king’s servant. Leontes mourns her for years.

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Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, “Perdita”

His lost daughter is raised by a pair of shepherds who name her Perdita (the lost one). Shakespeare lovingly portrays her as a delight of spring that brings and end to the woes of winter’s tale. The servant who abandoned her to die himself dies devoured by a bear. Much can be said about the symbolism of that scene. Bear, being connected with Artemis, goddess of childbirth, exacts revenge in the name of Nature. In addition, the bear’s winter hibernation alludes to the hope of spring and rebirth. But bears also stand for senseless cruelty as epitomized by the tyrant Leontes, who wielded his power in the very wrong cause.

In a very moving ending of the play, the queen Hermione is brought back as a lifelike statue that had stood motionless for years. She is revived in a wonderful spectacle and reunited with her happy and repentant husband. On the one hand, the beautiful statue may well be a symbol artistic expression born out of torment and suffering. On the other, it is an image of frozen emotions, a typical reaction in a face of a major trauma. This passive, frozen immobility, arrested movement, is transformed into a wave of love that washes over the audience watching the final scene of Winter’s Tale. Maybe this is not really Hermione, but only an image revived by Leontes in his imagination. Nevertheless, healing is achieved, and that is all that matters.

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10 Responses to Shakespeare and Goethe on Love: from Despair to Hope

  1. Mozart’s “little g minor” symphony K.183 is speculated to have been inspired from a reading of Goethe’s novella. First movement really sounds like it may have been influenced by. Wasn’t ‘Werther’ temporarily banned in Germany due to a spate of suicides, some frustrated at being unable to achieve any kind of social reform ? ‘a rampant anima complex possessing the hero’s psyche’, i like in imagination, but not in reality !

    • Hello Kevin,
      I had no idea about that symphony being possibly influenced by the novella. It is such a beautiful work – I love it. I just played it and it brought back so many memories. I used to listen to it quite a lot “in the old times.”
      Ditto about the anima complex. Yes, I think the book was banned, as you say. It was also considerably ridiculed in the 18th century for emotional excesses and a lack of classical restraint (haha). Well, yes, I did roll my eyes reading some of the passages… But it is a poor soul, I think, which has never been “Werther struck” by love.
      Monika

  2. Jeff Japp says:

    Great post, Monika. Strange… I have a copy or “Werther” on my shelf and recently considered rereading it too. Also, love “Winter’s Tale.”

  3. How interesting! And I love the images you use to illustrate your post. I’ve not read the Sorrows of Young Werther, not A Winter’s Tale. I’ll have to put both on my to-read list.

  4. I wonder where I can buy a buff-yellow waistcoat. All humour aside, a beautiful and thoughtful posting. Yes, as in your comment above, it is a poor soul who has not been ‘Werther struck’ by love. Hopefully with an, at the very least, ‘neutral’ conclusion.

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