Biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt, Germany to a wealthy family. Because of his family's station in life, Goethe had the privileges of affluence and education that allowed him to study all the common subjects of the day and to specialize in languages and literature. Goethe attended the University of Leipzig where he studied law, though he left to go to Strasbourg where he finished his studies. While in Strasbourg, his literary and philosophical talent was allowed to flourish. His first play, Götz von Berlichingen, was an immediate success across Germany.

Goethe epitomized the Renaissance man in his roles of poet, novelist, scientist, administrator, and critic. Some have referred to him as the German Shakespeare, as he was a master of the German language. During his career, he held most of the major posts in the Weimar government, including the Privy Councilor at the Duke of Weimar's court, where he coordinated major mining, road building, and irrigation projects. In addition, Goethe painted, worked on anatomy and botany, created a theory of colors, and directed a theater for 26 years.

Goethe was friends with many important European thinkers and philosophers during his life. As a student, Goethe became close to Johann Gottfried Herder whose theories of aesthetics, especially in the work of Shakespeare, was pivotal for Goethe's early works. It was from Herder and his influence on Goethe that the German Sturm und Drang movement was born. Later in life, Goethe would develop a close friendship with Friedrich Schiller whose work attempted to synthesize Kant's philosophy with other European schools of thought.

The most complete German edition of Goethe's works, letters, and diaries fills 143 volumes. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, completed in 1774, is so powerful that it actually inspired many young men and women to commit suicide; the story of the tragic Werther was found on many of their corpses. Two of his later dramas, Iphigenia in Taurus (1787) and Torquato Tasso (1790), are famous for their classical restraint.

However, Goethe's masterpiece is Faust, which focuses on the search for the meaning of existence and of the soul. The original publication in 1790 was titled Faust: A Fragment. Faust soon became a lifelong obsession for Goethe, who worked on the play for more than 60 years and completed the final draft only months before he died on March 22, 1832. He was 82 at the time. Faust elucidated the ideas that no philosophic system can explain the world, that man is not reducible into individual concepts, and that literature can reflect the arbitrariness of life. Goethe's writings drew upon and inspired poets and philosophers such as Nietzsche, Beckett, and Kafka.

Study Guides on Works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe