Woyzeck Themes


Although by the time Buchner wrote Woyzeck he had given up on the idea of a political revolution, he makes an explicit connection between poverty and suffering in the play that critic Maurice B. Benn calls, "a profound though by no means sentimental sympathy" for the unfortunate. According to Buchner, the poor are the purest class because they are untainted by pretension and laziness. Even though this also makes them unrefined and animalistic, it is preferable to the kind of stuffy inaction or moral depravity represented by the middle-class figures of the Officer, Doctor, and Drum-Major. Woyzeck's poverty also connects him more deeply to the character of Christ; after all, the latter was a humble carpenter who was still capable of the greatest and holiest things. By being poor, Woyzeck is closer to God. However, his poverty is also the source of his physical and emotional suffering, and his eventual undoing. If Woyzeck did not need money, he would not participate in the Doctor's unethical experiment, which slowly drives him insane. In order to survive, he must sign himself over to a society that wishes to harm him and that gives him no relief. As he tells the Officer, "I think if [poor people] ever got to Heaven we'd have to help with the thunder." Were Woyzeck in a normal physical and mental state when he discovered Marie's affair, he might react in a sane manner instead of murdering her, because he is already hallucinating as a result of his peas-only diet. Like the orphan in the Grandmother's 'black fairy tale,' Woyzeck finds out that as a member of the lower class, life holds no treasures for him--only trash. Buchner's expatiations on poverty in Woyzeck are said by many critics to anticipate Karl Marx's political theories as expounded in The Communist Manifesto, though unlike Marx, Buchner abandoned the ideas of political upheaval and utopian society.


Woyzeck's suffering is inextricable from his social condition. However, it is also universal and raises him up out of anonymity to an archetypal and even Christ-like status. According to Buchner, Woyzeck's suffering--as a symbol of human suffering in general--is undeserved. As Benn points out, "...Little as we are told about him, we can at least recognize that he is free from any mean or contemptible trait." Despite his inherent goodness, Woyzeck is made to suffer by the Officer, Drum-Major, and Doctor in various ways. He presents, "a picture of material distress, of physical and psychical sickness, of degradation and humiliation at the hands of a society which systematically refuses to recognize him as a human being." The Officer pays Woyzeck, but mocks him directly and daily. The Drum-Major makes Woyzeck suffer by wrenching away his love, Marie, and later also makes him bleed when they fight. Woyzeck is subject to the public humiliation in front of the Doctor's students, and unethical medical experiments that amount to physical and mental torture. His body and mind suffer violent and dizzying effects including the hallucinations that cause him to wreak suffering and death on Marie. Although Woyzeck's suffering connects him to Christ, making him what Reddick calls "an archetypal sufferer," he is far from Christ-like in his response to suffering. Instead of seeking to remedy his situation, he, "visit[s] supreme suffering on Marie in a desperate and hubristic mimicry of divine justice." It is, of course, Woyzeck's psychological suffering as well is instinctive humanity that makes him perpetuate this cycle of suffering. As encapsulated in the Grandmother's 'black fairy tale' or 'anti-fairy tale,' Buchner suggests that suffering is an equally senseless and inevitable part of human experience.

The Biblical

In the same way that he uses fairy tales and folk songs, Buchner employs Biblical references to raise the story of Woyzeck from its mundane setting to an archetypal level. Specifically, he uses the figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary to underscore his points about human nature and suffering. Woyzeck is born on the day of the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates Christ's conception. Also, he is the same age Christ was purported to be at the time of his death. Marie's name, although also the name of the historical character Marie, connects her to the Virgin Mary. She is also most often pictured in the archetypal manner of the Virgin, with her innocent child, referred to in some versions as Christian, on her lap. Like Christ and the Virgin Mary, Woyzeck and Marie are inherently good and righteous people put in extraordinary circumstances. However, instead of being visited by Godly power, Woyzeck and Marie are loaded with suffering by society.

Woyzeck is forced to endure physical and psychological torment at the hands of the Doctor, and Marie, to have such a damaged individual as her common-law husband and the father of her child. Just as Christ and the Virgin Mary endure the circumstances with which they are saddled, so do Woyzeck and Marie. However, being subject to society, Buchner's characters fall into ignominy and crime. Buchner suggests that were they not poor and downtrodden, Woyzeck and Marie might be as great as the biblical figures with whom he associates them. His allusions to Christ and Mary only heighten the sense that Woyzeck and Marie's shameful actions are not part of their nature but rather, products of an unjust social structure.


The very first quality Buchner establishes in the character of Woyzeck is madness. The playwright does make clear that Woyzeck is not naturally insane but rather driven to the brink by society's treatment of him. Still, he allows insanity to be the foremost trait we experience in Woyzeck. Throughout the play, Woyzeck hallucinates and spouts madness to his sane foil, Andres, who generally ignores him or tells him to seek medical help. Ironically, it is the medical 'help' Woyzeck endures at the Doctor's hands that makes him mad in the first place. As we learn from the Doctor's observations, Woyzeck's peas-only diet causes him to see and hear visions, tremble, and lose his hair, all stereotypical traits of the deranged. Since Woyzeck's madness is a result of his 'work' for the Doctor, it is also connected to his poverty, which forces him to comply with the commands of those more fortunate and powerful.

Buchner uses setting to reflect the state of Woyzeck's mind. Unlike the mapped, solid structure of society with its buildings and streets, Woyzeck can be found hallucinating just outside civilization in an open field that reflects the wildness of his thoughts. It is to just such an isolated, unstructured setting that he brings Marie in order to murder her. In the murder scene, the darkness, cold, mist, and "cracked" chirping of insects heighten our sense that Woyzeck's mind is just as cold, strange, and deadly. Although once Woyzeck has resolved to kill Marie his madness becomes chilly and calculating, until that point, madness is associated with intense heat and a dizzying circular motion. These sensations are established when Woyzeck spies Marie and the Drum-Major dancing up a sweat at the inn. Woyzeck internalizes the heat of their passion and the circular rhythm of the dance so that he feels physically hot and the voice in his head repeats "Stab, stab the bitch dead" like a mad refrain. The heat and dizzying cycles end only when Woyzeck has succumbed to his demon and fatally stabbed Marie.

Animal Nature

Because Buchner was disillusioned with society, which he viewed as faultily structured and harmful to the human spirit, he casts animals in a noble light in Woyzeck. At the same time, he sympathizes with the animal's plight, acknowledging that an animal is pure in its instincts but also limited in the scope of its opportunities. At the fair, the Showman uses his show animals to poke fun at human existence. He claims that the dancing monkey is at the same level as a soldier, for neither requires much skill to do his job. Comparing the monkey to a soldier specifically connects him to Woyzeck, who is just as innocent and harmless as a trained show animal, just as simple-minded because of his lack of education, and just as subject to the commands of his superiors. In a later scene, the Doctor commands Woyzeck to "waggle" his ears for the medical students in remarkably the same way that the Showman makes the monkey blow a trumpet for the crowd's entertainment. Woyzeck is no more than a lab rat or guinea pig to the Doctor, who, for instance, scolds him for urinating in the street because he is 'wasting' a urine sample the Doctor could have used for his research. He completely ignores that Woyzeck is a human being who may urinate whenever he pleases. Similarly, the Officer mocks Woyzeck to his face as though the latter does not understand his insults. As Benn affirms, "... Both the captain and the doctor, like the class of society which they represent, are basically unwilling to recognize any bond of common humanity in their relationship to Woyzeck. They see him as belonging to quite a different and immeasurably lower grade in the scale of living creatures."

By the same token, Buchner portrays the "astronomical horse" with sympathy and makes it seem noble even though it defecates freely while the show is going on. Better to be an uninhibited animal and "put society to shame," with one's "unspoilt nature," he suggests, than a "pig-stupid individual" like the egotistical Officer or Doctor. Buchner keeps the "animalistic" traits typically reserved for actual beasts for the Drum-Major, who sees Marie solely as a sexual object and refers to wanting to use her to "spawn" or "breed."


In Woyzeck, sexuality is illicit and connected with madness and violence. Woyzeck seems to lack sexual desire, although on select occasions, he refers to having once desired Marie. Presumably he has lost his sex drive as a side-effect of his peas-only diet and Marie, sexually unsatisfied, is primed to accept the stalwart, cocky Drum-Major's seduction. Even though Buchner deals with the theme of animals and animal nature, he reserves a traditionally "animalistic" portrayal for the Drum-Major. With his strutting, his plumed hat, and his chauvanistic attitude towards Marie, the Drum-Major seems like a rooster, interested in nothing more than copulating and propagating. He uses the words "breed" and "spawn" when referring to Marie, and also calls her a "hot bitch." Society pens up sexuality so that when it emerges, as in the case of Marie and the Drum-Major's affair, it is explosive. Again, Buchner blames society for the way that emotions are expressed; it is the Doctor who suppresses Woyzeck's sexuality, indirectly causing Marie's affair. In the short scene before they consummate their attraction, their sexual tension is connected to the wild and demonic; the Drum-Major calls Marie a "wild animal" and says he sees the devil in her eye. When Woyzeck witnesses the "heat" between them, he internalizes it as madness and rage. Thus, Buchner connects sex to insanity to violence. He reaffirms this just before killing Marie when he says: "How hot your lips are! Hot, hot, breath of a whore." This connection is especially strong in contrast to the simple innocence of the child and little girls.


From the very first scene, Buchner introduces the pervading theme of violence, which culminates when Woyzeck fatally stabs Marie. When we first come upon Woyzeck and Andres, the former is spouting nonsense about decapitation and death. He points to a spot in the grass and claims that is where "the head rolls in the evenings" when prisoners are decapitated. He claims that someone picked up a head once and was cursed, dying days later. Woyzeck is not frightened by the violence, but rather fascinated. His hallucinations are violent and demonic, and even apocalyptic, like the vision he sees in they sky recalling the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Woyzeck experiences violent hallucinations as a result of the violence inflicted upon him by the Doctor under the guise of medical experimentation. By forcing Woyzeck to subsist on only peas, the Doctor sets him up for extensive physical and mental torment; he adds another layer of violence by failing to treat these symptoms and letting them ravage his 'patient.' Violence can also be taken lightheartedly or seen as inconsequential. When the Jew sells Woyzeck the knife, he jokes that Woyzeck is buying himself an "economical death" because the weapon is so inexpensive. When the Drum-Major beats up Woyzeck, he does so more in the name of bravado than actual anger. Woyzeck acts insubordinately towards him by whistling, so the Drum-Major makes him bleed. Yet even before Woyzeck whistles, the Drum-Major is looking for a fight; he craves violence (as long as he wins) in order to assert his importance and make him feel more manly.

The main act of violence, of course, is at the play's end. Woyzeck stabs Marie to death as revenge for her affair with the Drum-Major. Although Woyzeck cannot beat the Drum-Major in a fight, he wields enough power (and a knife) over Marie to end her life. As we know from Buchner's portrayal of Woyzeck as a victim, he is inherently good and driven to violence by the violence inflicted upon him.