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Unit information: 'Talking to Tyrants' Politics, Thought and Drama in 1780s Germany in 2014/15

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Unit name 'Talking to Tyrants' Politics, Thought and Drama in 1780s Germany
Unit code GERM20030
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Davies
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of German
Faculty Faculty of Arts


“Geben Sie Gedankenfreiheit!” Marquis Posa’s challenge to King Philipp in the central scene of Schiller’s Don Karlos exposes one of the fundamental tensions in late eighteenth-century German history and culture: the challenges to traditional authority stated by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the politics of American Independence (and later, of the French Revolution) and the aesthetic rebellion of the ‘Sturm und Drang’. This unit studies three major dramas with a dialogue between subject and ruler at their centre: Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (published 1779, first performed 1783), Schiller’s Don Karlos (1787) and Goethe’s Egmont (1788/89).

Kant’s Was ist Aufklärung? (1784) famously challenged its readers to think for themselves, but to keep at the same time within the limits of obedience to the state: indeed, Kant praised the absolutism of King Frederick ‘the Great’ of Prussia as the prerequisite, not the enemy, of Enlightenment. This unit will trace comparable tensions in the dramas, where the clash of ruler and subject is never a straightforward meeting of bad versus good. Rather, these texts let us ask what is the nature of idealism and reality, and whether concepts such as ‘tyranny’, ‘rebellion’, ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ can really be categorically defined. Crucially, they let us ask how effectively creative art can “speak truth to power” in the politics of its day. Why – if at all – is the stage the right place to reflect, and seek influence, in turbulent times? Students will be expected to be proficient in German as source material will be in German.

The unit aims: - to develop knowledge of a key period in modern German literature, thought and history - to ask how literature relates to the world around it - to show the range of interpretations to which literary texts and characters are subject - to develop German language skills by the detailed reading of literary texts - to model a critical approach to literature and develop confidence in engaging with literary criticism - to enable students to develop critical interpretations of their own - to inspire students to work further, and independently, in this and other fields

Intended learning outcomes

(Numbers in brackets refer to the Programme ILOs for BA German)

By the end of the unit students will be able to: 1. Describe the relationship between politics and literature at this particular time. 2. describe the contexts and contents of significant texts in German literary history, read in the original language (A1-3) 3. use contemporary and later critical writings to enhance their understanding of literary works (A5, B2, B4-5, C6) 4. differentiate face-value readings from nuanced interpretation (B1, B4, B8) 5. derive their own interpretation of a literary text from detailed reading and consideration of secondary literature ((B1-2, B6, B8, C6-7) 6. develop an independent written evaluation of a literary work

Teaching details

Weekly seminars, to consist of informal lectures and seminar presentations and discussions.

Assessment Details

2 x 2,000-word essays, weighted equally (ILOs 1-6)

Reading and References

Texts for study: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan der Weise Friedrich Schiller, Don Karlos Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Egmont

Introductory reading: T.J. Reed, ‘Talking to Tyrants: Dialogues with Power in Eighteenth-Century Germany’, The Historical Journal, 33 (1990), 63-79 F.J. Lamport, German Classical Drama: Theatre, Humanity and Nation, 1750-1870 (Cambridge, 1990) James J. Sheehan, German History 1770-1866 (Oxford, 1989), esp. chapter 3