In 1775, when Goethe was twenty-six, and before he went to Weimar, he began to write “Egmont” After working on it at intervals for twelve years, he finished it at Rome in 1787.
The scene of the drama is laid in the Low Countries at the beginning of the revolt against Spain. In the fifteenth century Philip of Burgundy had usurped dominion over several of the provinces of the Netherlands, and through him they had passed into the power of his descendant, the Emperor Charles V. This powerful ruler abolished the constitutional rights of the provinces, and introduced the Inquisition in order to stamp out Protestantism. Prominent among his officers was the Fleming, Lamoral, Count Egmont, upon whom he lavished honors and opportunities of service—opportunities so well improved that, by his victories over the French at Saint-Quentin (1557) and Gravelines (1558) Egmont made a reputation as one of the most brilliant generals in Europe, and became the idol of his countrymen. When in 1559 a new Regent of the Netherlands was to be created, the people hoped that Philip II, who had succeeded Charles, would choose Egmont; but instead he appointed his half-sister Margaret, Duchess of Parma. Under the new Regent the persecution of the Protestants was rigorously pressed, and in 1565 Egmont, though a Catholic, was sent to Madrid to plead for clemency. He was received by the King with every appearance of cordiality, but shortly after his return home the Duke of Alva was sent to the Netherlands with instructions to put down with an iron hand all resistance to his master’s will. How terribly he carried out his orders has been told by Prescott and Motley. Egmont was an early victim, but his martyrdom, with that of Count Horn, and later the assassination of William of Orange, roused the Netherlands to a resistance that ended only with the complete throwing off of the Spanish yoke.
Such in outline is the background chosen by Goethe for his tragedy. With many changes in detail, the dramatist has still preserved a picture of a historical situation of absorbing interest, and has painted a group of admirable portraits. The drama has long been a favorite on the stage, where it enjoys the advantage of Beethoven’s musical setting.
Margaret of Parma, (Daughter of Charles V., and Regent
Count Egmont, (Prince of Gaure)
The Duke of Alva
William of Orange
Ferdinand, (his natural Son)
Machiavel, in the service of the Regent
Richard, (Egmont’s Private Secretary)
Silva, Gomez, (in the service of Alva)
Clara, (the Beloved of Egmont)
Brackenburg, (a Citizen’s Son), and Vansen, (a Clerk)
Soest, (a Shopkeeper), Jetter, (a Tailor), A Carpenter, A Soapboiler
(Citizens of Brussels)
Buyck, (a Hollander), a Soldier under Egmont
Ruysum, (a Frieslander), an invalid Soldier, and deaf
People, Attendants, Guards, &c.