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.