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Most English speakers cannot read for very long before stumbling onto the words of Shakespeare, one of the language's greatest playwrights, who left an indelible mark on it. A great many of his turns of phrase, from "there's a method in his madness" to "all that glitters is not gold" survive and are current to this day. It's safe to say that his effect on English can scarcely be exaggerated.

Now, when I was reading the book, The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy, which goes on about the harrowing effect the devastation of the Thirty Years War had on the German psyche, I came across this intriguing tidbit:

Friedrich Schiller, the leading Storm and Stress writer, found an eager audeince when he published his history of the war in 1791, followed by his Wallenstein trilogy in 1797-9, which remains the equivalent of Shakespeare's history plays for the German-speaking world."

My questions are pretty simple: Does in fact Schiller hold this reputation as the German-language Shakespeare? If not, who is most able to take his place, and can someone give examples of what that author/playwright/poet bequeathed to German?

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I second Goethe in terms of common phrases, but in terms of general literary importance/greatness, Schiller and Goethe are usually considered equal, and take the place of Shakespeare as a pair. –  Stefan Walter Jul 1 '11 at 9:05
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I would have rather asked: Does the English language have a Goethe? –  markus Jul 22 '11 at 7:31
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No, we must admit that we do not have a Shakespeare. Schiller is the only one that comes near. But the most influence on the language had IMHO Martin Luther. –  Ingo Sep 8 '11 at 11:14
    
I think everyone missed the real (or the one who wanted to be the) German Shakespeare. It´s Richard Wagner. He didn´t revolution the German language the way Shakespeare (almost the first English writer) did and he came after an long period of genial Sturm und Drang and together with the construction of the modern German identity. Schiller is a philosoph and aesthetician more than a writer. I would add that Schiller´s plays are mostly boring compared with Shakespeare´s. However the Goethe-Schiller tandem defined the modern German language and a whole lot of the German thinking. –  Yves Aug 21 '13 at 11:38
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6 Answers

up vote 39 down vote accepted

I would call Goethe the legitimate equivalent to Shakespeare in this regard. A lot of the words and pictures he used in Faust are common in German today.

Examples:

  • des Pudels Kern
  • Die Botschaft hör ich wohl, allein, mir fehlt der Glaube
  • "da steh' ich nun, ich armer Tor, und bin so klug als wie zuvor."
  • was die Welt - im Innersten zusammenhält
  • Der Worte sind genug gewechselt
  • ... and many, many more.

I guess you will find one common saying per page in Faust, but common saying since Faust, not before. ;)

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+1 for Goethe. My former German teacher could not emphasize enough how utterly importan Goethe was to the German language and cultural development. Plus, when I read the questions, Goethe was the first writer to pop in my head alongside with Faust. –  Jemus42 Jul 1 '11 at 5:17
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Also +1 for Goethe. He was, by the way, not only a writer, but also a polymath - physics, biology, painting... And there is no doubt that he actually did it all himself ;) –  OregonGhost Jul 1 '11 at 9:30
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never forget Schiller when you mention Goethe - for me they belong together. –  Tobias Langner Jul 12 '11 at 9:28
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Well, apparently the authorship of Shakespeare's plays is debated. Or is it? Let's ignore it for the moment and assume that it can rightfully be discounted (which seems at least likely from the facts).

There is no single German writer's opus that comes close to Shakespeare's. So while the statement in your quote could be considered correct, as it is qualified by (emphasis mine):

remains the equivalent of Shakespeare's history plays for the German-speaking world

a generalized statement about such figure as insinuated by the title of your question ("Does the German language have a Shakespeare?" at the time of this writing) cannot be made.

That said, the combined works of Goethe and Schiller can probably be considered the closest match to Shakespeare's. Goethe was not only writer but also polymath. Both are also considered philosophers.

Much of the language of the two has made it into modern German. For example "Die Glocke" or "Der Zauberlehrling" have made a lasting impression on generations of German pupils. Examples have been given in other answers.

However, several other people, most prominently Martin Luther. But earlier also medieval Minnesingers, minstrels and poets (Walter von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach) or again around Luther's time poets like Martin Opitz left their mark on the language and the culture.

Decades after Shakespeare, the works of the Brothers Grimm have to be mentioned in such a context. Not only the collected folk tales, but also their "Deutsches Wörterbuch" (German Dictionary).


However, I think it is moot to attempt to compare Shakespeare's many abilities and skills with a single German writer of (or around) the time when these - assuming the authorship debate can be discounted - were created by pretty unique circumstances: the Elizabethan era. While Shakespeare's Britain saw the beginning of the First British Empire, "Germany" was a patchwork of small competing and warring states.

And we haven't even touched the topic of how the English and the German language developed before, during and after the Elizabethan era.

All in all it means that beyond the scope of the history plays mentioned in your quote we're comparing apples and oranges.

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Richard Wagner... –  Yves Aug 21 '13 at 11:40
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My experience in Germany is that Shakespeare is almost considered to be a German author. His works are all translated (in quite good quality) to German. Most Germans have heard utterances such as:

  • Sein oder Nichtsein; das ist hier die Frage ....

  • Die ganze Welt ist eine Bühne, Und alle Fraun und Männer bloße Spieler.

  • Brutus, auch du?

And more complicated and lengthy stuff as well. But I do not know enough German to write all that down here. Germans seem quite well-versed in Shakespeare, as much as they know about other German poets.

I do not know how this came to be; but it is a fact. I do not know any other English poet so highly regarded among Germans. Also, I do not think even a single non-English poet is so well-known among English speakers. It seems safe to say that Shakespeare is made an honorary member of the German poets club, i.e., the answer to your question would be that Shakespeare himself is the German equivalent of Shakespeare.

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+1 Very good point - this German whouldn't have thought of it :) (Although we're not as bad as the Klingons - we realize he's not really ours) –  Mac Sep 27 '11 at 11:02
    
"I do not know how this came to be": The authors of classical German literature (Goethe, Schiller and so on) greatly admired Shakespeare and and would reference him quite a bit. –  Johannes Kloos Apr 7 '13 at 19:58
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I wouldn't call Schiller a "German-language Shakespeare", but he did coin a lot of figures of speech in the German language. (While I do agree with user unknown that the same applies to Goethe, I don't know if any of the two has a priority in this respect.)

Here's a sample:

  • Bis hierher und nicht weiter!
  • Bretter, die die Welt bedeuten
  • Da werden Weiber zu Hyänen
  • Da liegt der Hase im Pfeffer
  • Daran erkenn ich meine Pappenheimer
  • Das Auge des Gesetzes
  • Das ging aus wie das Hornberger Schießen.
  • Der Dritte im Bunde
  • Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan
  • Die Axt im Haus erspart den Zimmermann
  • Drum prüfe, wer sich ewig bindet ...
  • Durch diese hohle Gasse muss er kommen
  • Es kann der Frömmste nicht in Frieden leben, wenn es dem bösen Nachbar nicht gefällt.
  • Früh übt sich, wer ein Meister werden will.
  • Leben und leben lassen
  • Raum ist in der kleinsten Hütte.
  • Was da kreucht und fleucht
  • Wehe, wenn sie losgelassen!
  • Wo rohe Kräfte sinnlos walten
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Personally, I think the answer is not as easy and depends on which quality of "Shakespeare" you want to have equaled in a German poet.

Schiller and Goethe were very much pushed into the position of German "classics", simply because there was no German classic literature at their time. No Shakespeare, no Dante; only bits and pieces. So this German "Klassik" was kinda forced and built up on purpose.

Of course, every major city has its "Goethestraße" and "Schillerstraße", and those two stand for the German literature in commom perception, but you could easily put other writers (e.g. Kleist) at their side. Also, if you really have a close look at their work, I would say it doesn't reach Shakespeare's mastery at all, but that may be an arguable point.

However, the quote may be partly right. If you look again, the quote doesn't just mention Shakespeare, but Shakespeare's history plays. And yes, if you have a look at classic German history plays, you hardly can avoid Schiller. His drama work definitively is very alive on German stages (more alive than Goethe's, I would say). This is something not only true for Wallenstein, but almost all of his plays, though.

In regards to quotes and common sayings, as was posted before, Goethe is probably the main source - also, because almost everybody learns about "Faust" and poems like "Der Zauberlehrling" at school.

Edit: For the language impact, please see thei's answer on Martin Luther.

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You mean for every quality of Shakespeare there is one in German language? when the OP is asking for "who is most able to take his place". –  user508 Jul 1 '11 at 12:06
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Yeah, but the correct answer would be "none". I mean, while it can be fun playing the "who's the German [Rolling Stones, Jamie Oliver, Mahatma Ghandi, J.K. Rowling, Mother Teresa, Britney Spears] ...?", I don't think it always makes sense. Shakespeare is very outstanding in English literature, as is Dante Alighieri in the Italian. There is not "one" such poet in German literature so imho all you can do is compare aspects. –  ladybug Jul 1 '11 at 12:42
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Aha, nice point. agreed about this part of your comment: "I mean, while it can be fun playing the "who's the German [Rolling Stones, Jamie Oliver, Mahatma Ghandi, J.K. Rowling, Mother Teresa, Britney Spears] ...?", I don't think it always makes sense. " +1 (I didn't get the impression from your answer!) –  user508 Jul 1 '11 at 13:14
    
Thank you for asking, then, so I had the chance to clarify it. :) –  ladybug Jul 1 '11 at 14:30
    
[Die Toten Hosen, Maelzer, Ottfried Preussler, Lena] for [Rolling Stones, Oliver, Rowling, Spears] may sound like more or less good replies, but it much depends on what aspect you are after. If for Ghandi you take "had a very firm opinion on the subject of violence and tried to bring up his nation with as-before unseen methods" you might come up with very unexpected results. –  Hagen von Eitzen Apr 7 '13 at 13:29
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There is not one German writer that played the role of Shakespeare.

The aspect that one also sees with Dante - namely standardizing a language - is much more the work of the bible translation of Luther than of Goethe and Schiller.

In particular, if you look at the biographical data, you will see that Goethe and Schiller were rather late to have the same language impact.

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