Egmont (play)

Egmont (play)

Egmont is a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which he completed in 1788. Its dramaturgical structure, like that of his earlier 'Storm and Stress' play Götz von Berlichingen (1773), is heavily influenced by Shakespearean tragedy; in contrast, however, to the earlier work, the portrait in Egmont of the downfall of a man who trusts in the goodness of those around him appears to mark a shift away from 'Storm and Stress' values.[1]



In Egmont, Goethe relates the fight of Count Egmont (1522-1568) against the despotic Duke of Alba. Egmont is a famous Flemish warrior and the Duke of Alba represents the Spanish invader. Though under threat of arrest, Egmont refuses to run away and give up his ideal of liberty. Imprisoned and abandoned because of the cowardice of his people, and despite the desperate efforts of his mistress Klärchen, he is sentenced to death.

Thus, faced with her failure and despair, Klärchen puts an end to her life. The play ends on the hero's last call to fight for independence. His death as a martyr appears as a victory against oppression.

Egmont is a political manifesto in which Egmont's craving for justice and national liberty is opposed to the despotic authority of the Duke of Alba. It is also a drama of destiny in which the Flemish nobleman, with fatalism, accepts the dire consequences of his straightforwardness and honesty.


The phrase "Himmelhoch jauchzend, zu(m) Tode betrübt" (heavenly joy, deadly sorrow) from Klärchen's song in the third act has become a proverb often quoted by European intellectuals as characteristic of the Romantic soul:

Freudvoll und leidvoll, gedankenvoll sein;
Langen und bangen in schwebender Pein;
Himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt;
Glücklich allein ist die Seele, die liebt.


When in 1809 the Burgtheater asked Ludwig van Beethoven, a great admirer of Goethe, to compose incidental music for a revival of the play, he accepted with enthusiasm. It recalled themes close to his own political preoccupations, already expressed in his opera Leonore (renamed Fidelio in the definitive 1814 version) and in his Coriolan Overture (in 1807). Besides the Overture, he wrote nine pieces of incidental music, of great quality but a little disconnected, culminating with the beautiful Klärchen's Death. Beethoven's music, particularly his overture, has been used in various modern-day cultural output, a famous United Nations film being one of them. The overture was played at the memorial service commemorating the kidnapping and murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.[2]



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