The frank sexuality and sexual experimentation depicted in Spring Awakening immediately positioned it as an extremely controversial work and led to the decades-long censorship of certain scenes and lines in the play. One might argue that Wedekind used sexuality to provoke thought and raise questions rather than merely to shock viewers. However, even today some critics of the play disagree with this evaluation. One possible purpose for these scenes is to explore whether ideas about sex arise naturally in human beings or are taught by outside forces. Another possibility is that Wedekind uses children rather than adults because adults may have an easier time seeing their own flaws and mistakes when they are represented in youthful forms.
One of the most controversial aspects of this topic is Wedekind's inclusion of homosexuality, especially in light of the fact that Hanschen and Ernst's relationship carries none of the tragic consequences of Wendla and Melchior's. The most immediate interpretation of this choice may be that Wedekind strove to represent adolescent sexuality in a true light. To him, that meant providing the audience with alternative possibilities for sexual development, be it Hanschen and Ernst, or Ilse and her artists.
ReligionOrganized religion is depicted in an extremely negative light in Spring Awakening. The town's religious leader, Pastor Skinnytum, lacks sympathy for Moritz's plight. Melchior, in some ways the most positive figure of the play, is an atheist, and his difficulties with religious belief are expressed in a believable and open manner. At the same time, it is interesting to note that Wedekind actually seems to uphold the tenets of this form of Christianity; Moritz, having committed suicide, cannot go to Heaven, or even to rest. He is wholly excluded from the afterlife.
EducationDifferent characters in the play represent different theories about education. The teachers exemplify the theories of Rousseau, who believed that children are born as "blank slates," and that external authorities must teach them everything from mathematics to the proper way to live. Mrs. Gabor represents the other extreme - she puts her trust in Melchior's instincts and is determined to let him find his own way, even if he becomes exposed to ideas and knowledge she doesn't think that he is ready for. Moritz has been overly influenced by his teachers - he doesn't trust his own knowledge or instincts, but rather looks to encyclopedias or more intelligent students. Melchior, however, trusts his own instincts far too much. If he had respected authority figures more, he might not have given in to his urges and raped Wendla. Spring Awakening seems to caution against extremes and to point the reader towards a balance of nature versus nurture.
Parents and ChildrenIn Spring Awakening, relationships between parents and children seem fraught with danger. Almost no parent seems to be successful at bringing up their children to live as they did. Moritz kills himself, Wendla dies, Melchior must displace his parents with the man in the mask, Martha's parents abuse her to the point where it seems she wants to kill them, and Ilse's parents seem to be entirely absent. These examples suggest that Wedekind sees the relationship between parents and children as difficult and contentious. Many of the children in the play have their own ideas about how they will raise their children - ideas they believe are better than their parents'. Wedekind's examples, however, suggest that their theories are no more foolproof than Mrs. Gabor's were.
ShameSpring Awakening explores the idea of shame and the effects it can have on a person. Moritz asks Melchior whether he thinks "the sense of shame is simply a product of upbringing." He says he will try to raise his children so that they will feel less shame then he does. At the same time, Moritz's decisions - to push himself hard in school and then to kill himself when he fails - are clearly motivated by shame. Even when dead, Moritz is ashamed of himself. Wedekind utilizes the various mistakes and misdeeds in the play to further explore the idea of shame. Wendla's lack of shame reveals that knowledge is in some way necessary for the emotion to arise. Melchior feels shame when he stands in the graveyard, but unlike Moritz, he is able to overcome it. Spring Awakening does not question the reality of shame; instead, it raises questions about its uses, effects, and place in a community or family.
GenderThe similarities and differences between women and men are explored throughout the play. When the girls discuss whether they'd rather have boy or girl children, when Melchior and Moritz wonder whether girls feel the same urges they do, or when Mr. Gabor blames Mrs. Gabor's parenting for Melchior's ruin, Wedekind explores the differences between the sexes, but offers no clear answers. The girls agree that they'd rather have boy children, but only Wendla would rather be a girl. Melchior says that women have the same urges men do, but he doesn't seem to believe it, and Mr. Gabor proves no better at molding Melchior's mind or morals. Overall, the theme of gender in Spring Awakening explores how differences are perceived through the lens of gender, and how divisive these ideas of difference can become.
AuthoritySeveral different kinds of authority figures are represented throughout the play: religious authority, state authority, parental authority, medical authority, and personal authority. Most of these authority figures are undermined, shown either to be corrupt or at least incompetent. However, personal authority often leads to no better - and indeed, often even worse - results. Melchior and Moritz go wrong when they attempt to act completely independently. Just as Spring Awakening challenges its audience to rethink their assumptions, it also cautions against the dangers of giving too much authority to anyone...even oneself.
Spring Awakening Essays and Related Content
- Spring Awakening: Major Themes
- Spring Awakening: Questions
- Spring Awakening: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Frank Wedekind: Biography
- Spring Awakening Summary
- About Spring Awakening
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of I, i - I, ii
- Summary and Analysis of I, iii - I, v
- Summary and Analysis of II, i - II, ii
- Summary and Analysis of II, iii - II, vi
- Summary and Analysis of II, vii
- Summary and Analysis of III, i - III, iv
- Summary and Analysis of III, v - III, vi
- Summary and Analysis of III, vii
- 19th Century German Drama
- Related Links on Spring Awakening
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 5
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources