The “German Shakespeare,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the most renowned figure of the Classic and Romantic Period in Germany, which some also call the Age of Goethe. Goethe earned this success not only through writing, but also through his contributions to science as a geologist, botanist, anatomist, physicist, and a scientific historian. His legacy encompasses the concerns of his time, intertwining with those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanual Kant, and the French Revolution.
Born in Frankfurt am Main to the Burgermeister's daughter, Elizabeth Textor and Johann Caspar Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of his hometown's favorite sons. Because he was born when his mother was only 18 years old and she was young spirited, Goethe's mother became his best playmate. Her influence on his early life, as related to us through Goethe's autobiography, is immeasurable. Goethe's father encouraged him to study law, like he did, at Leipzig University (1765-68), even though Goethe was more interested in the arts, which he studied privately, during the same period . An unfortunate real-life romance inspired Goethe to write his first play, The Lover's Caprice (1767), but after a prolonged illness, Goethe resumed his studies in Strasbourg (1770-71).
His first big literary success came in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which was inspired by his own broken heart and the heroine was named for the object of his affections. “Werther Fever” spread across Germany, Europe, and even to the United States, with the unfortunate consequence that especially enthusiastic young fans tried to mimic the characters, resulting in an increased number of romantic suicides! The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte claimed to have read Werther seven times. A recent work by Bruce Duncan, Goethe's Werther and the Critics follows the critical reception of Werther over the past 230 years, arguing that the reception of Werther mirrors the history of literary analysis.
Goethe's most famous work is Faust, published in two parts (1808 and 1832). Faust is the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil and squanders the opportunities that such a pact provided him. The term “Faustian” refers to this story, which is widely studied in English language literature courses.
Goethe, himself, felt his masterpiece lie in the theory of color, Zur Farbenlehre (1810). Zur Farbenlehre rejects the mathematical approach of Goethe’s contemporaries to the treatment of color, arguing that colors and light are associated with emotional experiences. This work, Goethe's feelings about it, and other contributions to the sciences make it difficult to place Goethe as either an artist or a scientist and his contributions are celebrated in both fields.