Supplementary Appendix 312c.1

The Character of Klärchen in Goethe’s Egmont [*]


Klärchen is one of Goethe’s most masterly poetic creations, a girl whose charming naiveté and self-sacrificing devotion make her almost a twin sister of Gretchen in Faust. Both characters are creations of Goethe’s youth, and the powerful realism of the Klärchen and Gretchen scenes clearly bear the impress of the Storm and Stress period.

Klärchen is an entirely fictitious creation, the ideal of a girl such as appealed most strongly to the heart and fancy of the young poet. She is not a Flemish girl of the sixteenth century, but distinctly a German girl of Goethe’s time. We do not find in her a single trace of the great religious conflicts that convulsed the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. Though born a Catholic, it does not occur to her even in moments of highest mental agony to appeal to the Holy Virgin or to the Saints for help.

The conception of Klärchen is closely connected with the poet’s experiences with Anna Elisabeth Schonemann (Lili) in 1775. Various family complications and differences and above all the poet’s fear that the marriage tie would hamper him and check the freedom of his development terminated the relation.

To soothe the pain caused by his separation from Lili he turned to poetry and pictured to himself a girl who possessed all the qualities he missed in his former love and who, in her intense devotion and her power of self-surrender, could utterly disregard all considerations of social convention. That he found this heroine in a simple child of the people was due largely to his past love experiences and especially to his relation to Friederike Brion. Naïve women, naturally endowed with delicate and safe instincts, always attracted him very strongly, and his most masterly feminine creations were women of that type. Besides, an intellectual woman of high social rank could never have won the love of Egmont. An essentially naive hero, despising the conventionalities and constraints of the higher social classes, he could find only in a Klärchen his natural counterpart.

In her conduct she has the same faith in the generous instincts of her nature that Egmont has in his. All the warnings of her mother, all the considerations of the future are as meaningless to her as they are to Egmont. She lives entirely in the present and believes that the present will last forever.

The two songs she sings characterize well the two sides of her nature mentioned by her mother viz. her sudden outbursts of exultant enthusiasm and her occasional moments of deep melancholy.


In her love there is not a touch of the wild, consuming flame of violent passion. She first felt drawn to Egmont by her admiration for his chivalrous heroic nature, and her wish to be a man, to follow Egmont everywhere and carry his standard to battle, shows that her love is still animated largely by her enthusiasm for Egmont’s dash and bravery.

Like Friederike Brion, she willingly subordinates herself to her lover, with rapt wonder she looks up to him as to a superior being, and can hardly realize that a hero of Egmont’s fame can be so simple, so human, and can love her. Her idealization of her lover’s heroism well motivates her own heroic conduct in the last act of the drama, when she dares, with entire disregard of her personal safety, to incite her countrymen to rise up in defense of their favorite leader.


The Klärchen scenes are indispensable to the drama, Schiller’s criticism notwithstanding. If the conception of Klärchen served Goethe as a means to assuage the pain consequent upon his separation from Lili, it is clear that he must have regarded her from the very first as a necessary element to Egmont’s whole being. And such is actually the case. Strike out the Klärchen scenes and our insight into Egmont’s character and motives would be impaired, if not lost. The drama is, in fact, inconceivable without the character of Klärchen. Even Schiller, who in his revision of the drama did his best to simplify it and give it a more heroic character, could not omit the Klärchen scenes.

Klärchen’s passionate appeal to the citizens in the last act is not only necessary for the immediate action of the drama, but points also to the future solution of the conflict in which the Netherlander are now engaged. With unerring instinct this child of the people, animated simply by her love for Egmont and her desire to save him, suggests to her countrymen the only possible way of throwing off the tyrannical yoke of Spain. At a time of general despair it seems as if the conscience of the whole people had taken flight into the heart of this simple girl, and inspired her with truly prophetic utterances. The poet also motivates through this scene Egmont’s vision before his death. Through her heroic efforts to rouse her countrymen to vigorous action against tyranny, she is worthy of appearing before her lover in the guise of the goddess of liberty.



[*] Goethe’s Egmont, together with Schiller’s essays “Des Grafen Lamoral von Egmont Leben und Tod” and “Über Egmont, Trauerspiel von Goethe”, ed. Max Winkler (New York 1898), xlii–xlv.

Illustrations: (1) Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen, in Goethe’s Schriften, vol. 5 (Leipzig 1788; also 1791), 1–198, here Egmont and Klärchen in that edition’s frontispiece by Angelika Kauffmann; (2) Goethe-Galerie. Charaktere aus Goethe’s Werken. Gezeichnet von Friedrich Pecht und Arthur von Ramberg, ed. Friedrich Pecht (Leipzig 1864); (3) Clärchen’s appeal being rejected by the crowd; from Rebecca Warren Brown, The Goethe Gallery: From the Original Drawing of Wilhelm von Kaulbach (Boston 1881), plate following p. 46.

Music excerpt: Gedichte von Goethe in Compositionen seiner Zeitgenossen, ed. Max Friedlaender, Schriften der Goethe-Gesellschaft 11, ed. Bernhard Siphon (Weimar 1896), 105. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott