The following biography was originally published in European Theories of the Drama. Barrett H.
Clark. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1918.
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE was born at Frankfort-on-Main in 1749. His early education was received at home, first under his father, and then with tutors, though the influence of his mother was strongly marked. In his Dichtung und Wahrheit Goethe tells of his early interest in puppet-plays and theaters, and in the French company of actors which remained in his native city after the Seven Years' War. These early years were devoted to literary effort, though the youth found time for at least one love-affair before reaching the age of sixteen. In 1765 he went to Leipzig and entered the University. There a second love-affair inspired a number of juvenile lyrics. Two minor plays also belong to this period. As a result of illness he was sent home, and during his convalescence he read and studied. When, in 1770, after his recovery, he went to Strassburg to study law, he was completely changed. He took up in earnest his work of criticizing French art and standing for a truly German art. He was greatly influenced by Herder, who showed him the beauty of Shakespeare. Another love-affair went far to inspire him in his first important lyrics, which were to mark a new epoch in German poetry. Götz von Berlichingen was written at Strassburg (though not published until 1773); with this play Shakespeare's art first triumphed on the German stage, and the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang was inaugurated. Goethe received his degree in 1771 and returned to Frankfurt, where he began to practice his profession. Friendships, further love-affairs, and writing, occupied the years previous to his Weimar residence. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) brought Goethe widespread fame. The first studies for Faust also date from this time, and a number of complete plays. His trip to Weimar was made after repeated invitations by the "hereditary prince," Karl August. At Weimar Goethe was entrusted with state affairs. The years between his arrival there and his famous Italian trip are chiefly memorable for some of the poet's best lyrics, a large part of Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung, and Iphigenie auf Tauris. In 1786 he went to Italy. The final version of Iphigenie (1787), Torquato Tasso (1790), Egmont (1788), and the Fragment of Faust (1790), were all influenced by this journey. He returned to Weimar in 1788. There he lived with Christiane Vulpius for many years, finally marrying her in 1806. During the stormy years of the French Revolution Goethe took part in the French Campaign in 1792 and the Siege of Mainz in 1793. The Revolution meant little to him but the unsettling of the government and order. A few very uneven plays of his bear witness to his dissatisfaction. In 1791 he was appointed director of the Ducal theater. At the same time he was occupied with biological, physical, botanical, and chemical research, and many works appeared with the results of his inquiries. The revised and extended version of Wilhelm Meister was included in his Neue Schriften (1792-1800), and exerted great influence. In 1794 he and Schiller became friends, and Goethe collaborated with the latter in his Horen. Schiller stimulated Goethe and encouraged him to further literary efforts. In 1798 Goethe published his epic Hermann und Dorothea and many ballads. Ten years later appeared the first part of Faust, and the next year the novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, which was very popular. Aus meinem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit, part I, was published in 1811. Additional parts appeared in 1812, 1814, and the last, after his death. His wife died in 1816. The next year he retired from his position as theater director. The second part of Faust appeared in 1833. He died at Weimar in 1832.
Throughout a great part of Goethe's work there is a stream of criticism which renders it difficult to re-construct a complete critical theory. The various versions of the Wilhelm Meister novel, even Faust itself, are critical in spirit. But it is in the miscellaneous prefaces, articles, letters, and the Eckermann Gespräche--Conversations--that his critical powers are best seen. Goethe's broad outlook, his sympathy with and his deep knowledge of man and art, gave him a most catholic view, and possibly the best statement of his creed is found in Calvin Thomas' Goethe: . . . "the simple creed that informs Goethe, and gives him his criteria for judging the work of others. It is that the artist as such must have no creed; that is no creed derivable from the intellect or accountable to it. Rules, conventions, theories, principles, inhibitions of any sort not born of his own immediate feeling, are no concern of his. They proceed from an inferior part of human nature, being the work of gapers and babblers."