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?


10 Answers 10


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.


  • 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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    @Jemus42: not sure I agree with that, since Luther was quite important way before Goethe. We tend to lose sight of earlier contributions whenever we narrow our view to a certain era. Hard to imagine Goethe without Martin Luther and his prior contributions. Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 16:11
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    @0xC0000022L: I guess Luther not that much of a fitting answer, since he translated the bible, but didn't invent the original story. Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 1:09
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    @userunknown: uhm yeah he did. He translated it to German which was a huge contribution as it streamlined the use of written and spoken German in what only much later would become Germany. I didn't say Luther was the fitting answer, but neither is Goethe. That is my point. Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 8:48

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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    +1 Luther has coined so many phrases, but no one realizes they are his. Just a taste from Wikipedia: So ersann er Ausdrücke wie Feuertaufe, Bluthund, Selbstverleugnung, Machtwort, Schandfleck, Lückenbüßer, Gewissensbisse, Lästermaul und Lockvogel. Metaphorische Redewendungen wie „Perlen vor die Säue werfen“, „ein Buch mit sieben Siegeln“, „die Zähne zusammenbeißen“, „etwas ausposaunen“, „im Dunkeln tappen“, „ein Herz und eine Seele“, „auf Sand bauen“, „Wolf im Schafspelz“ und „der große Unbekannte“ gehen auf ihn zurück.
    – fifaltra
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 12:38

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 Phira'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
    Commented Jul 1, 2011 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
    Commented Jul 1, 2011 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
    Commented Jul 1, 2011 at 13:14
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    Thank you for asking, then, so I had the chance to clarify it. :)
    – ladybug
    Commented Jul 1, 2011 at 14:30
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    [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. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 13:29

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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    I´d like to add Frisch Gesellen, seid zur Hand and Von der Stirne heiß Rinnen muß der Schweiß. Hehe and Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan; der Mohr kann (kaum noch) gehen.
    – Titus
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 8:54

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
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 11:02
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    "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. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 19:58
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    It might be my personal experience, but when looking at this answer and Hendrik's answer, as a native speaker I cannot shake the feeling that while the translated Shakespeare quotes you list are certainly well-known in Germany, none of them would sound natural in actual conversation, whereas quite some of Schiller's figures of speech listed by Hendrik are totally fitting utterances in various situations without sounding artificial or forced. Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 19:53
  • Nice answer! Love the German Shakespeare translations. Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 18:01

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
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 11:40
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    +1 very good answer. I'd just want to add Gottfried von Straßburg to the medieval poets, because the prologue to his Tristan is really the closest you can get to Shakespearian mastery of verses (reminded me a great deal of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet).
    – fifaltra
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 12:46

While not a classic poet like Goethe and Schiller, Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz also contributed many idioms.


Most English speakers cannot read for very long before stumbling onto the words of Shakespeare

In this context, You can name Schiller as well as Goethe (see previous posts) ... and I wonder if you can name anyone else.

"Duden Allgemeinbildung. Berühmte Zitate und Redewendungen: Die muss man kennen" (ISBN 3411907681, 9783411907687) may be a good source for further quotes that found a way into german everyday language.

For historical plays, although both of them wrote some (Goethe: Goetz von Berlichingen; Schiller: Don Carlos; Wallenstein; Maria Stuart) no single german writer has that concentration on historical context or this unique position as Shakespeare has. (Is it unique or is he just the only one that we know?)

And: none of them focus on displaying history, but take some artistic license to display general topics in a historical context, as mentioned on http://www.wissen.de/lexikon/historisches-schauspiel (where you can also find a list of other historical plays).


Why does no one mention Jean Paul? He was the same time as Goethe and sold more than him at the time. No one competed with Shakespeare, and since German apparently had such competition, none of them were able to stick out as much. Also it is my impression that Germans would read Shakespeare's works more than the English would of Paul or Goethe.

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    What is your answer to the question then? It did not become clear to me.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 17:05
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    Do you think Shakespear is so well known today, because of the number of works he sold at his time? Or why is that relevant to the question? Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 18:21

As Luther set the foundations of the modern German language with his translation of the Latin/Greek/Hebrew bible texts he is close to the role of Shakespeare for the English language. Otherwise, many comments before have correctly pointed out that with respect to citations or sayings Goethe and Schiller are sort of an equivalent to Shakespeare. Most people, in particular the English, do not know or ignore that Bertold Brecht is the most important playwright worldwide as Shakespeare. In socialist and communist countries he was much more highly regarded than Shakespeare. However, it seems to me that the nationalist and selfish attitude of the English-speaking countries does not allow them to respect anything else that is equal or even better, when it comes from foreign speaking people. For example: Shakespeare is confined to a world of medieval and renaissance class structure and could never deal with a topic like Galileo Galilei since he was unaware or not interested that there existed a scientist in conflict with the society at his time.

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    This answer would be better if you removed the rant about the perceived nationalist/selfish attitude of English-speaking countries. Please remain neutral and do not start debates. Feel free to take a tour of the site.
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 4:03

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