Stein, Charlotte von (1742–1827)
Stein, Charlotte von (1742–1827)
German playwright and lady-in-waiting who was the beloved of Johann Goethe. Name variations: Charlotte von Schardt; Baroness von Stein. Born Charlotte Albertine Ernestine von Schardt on December 25, 1742, in the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, Germany; died on January 6, 1827, near Weimar; eldest daughter of Johann Wilhelm von Schardt (hofmarschall or master of ceremonies) and Concordia (Irving) von Schardt; married Baron Josias von Stein, on May 8, 1764 (died 1793); children: Karl (b. 1765); Ernst (b. 1767); Fritz (b. 1772); and four daughters who did not survive infancy.
Charlotte von Stein is remembered for her long friendship with the German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose letters to her have made her almost mythical. Few people know that she was also a dramatist and intellectual figure at the Weimar court.
Born Charlotte von Schardt in 1742 into the minor nobility of Saxe-Weimar, part of the German Empire, she received a good education in philosophy and languages. At age 15, she was sent to the ducal household in Weimar to serve as lady-in-waiting to Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar (1739–1807), a position commonly held by unmarried aristocratic women at the time. In 1764, the duchess arranged a marriage for Charlotte with Baron Josias von Stein, seven years her senior. He was the duke of Saxe-Weimar's chief equerry, an important administrative figure of considerable wealth.
The couple moved to the von Stein family castle at Kochberg, outside Weimar. Charlotte, now Baroness von Stein, spent most of the next ten years there in relative isolation from her friends and family, and from the cultural life of Weimar. She gave birth to seven children between 1765 and 1775; none of her four daughters survived infancy. She had three surviving sons, although the second, Ernst, was an invalid and would die of cancer at age 20. Seven pregnancies in a decade and the deaths of her daughters took a serious toll on von Stein's physical and mental health; her husband was unaffectionate and distant, and by her own account she suffered from constant loneliness and depression.
But in November 1775, she was introduced to a young though already celebrated poet, Johann Goethe, who seems to have fallen in love with her immediately. An emotional and sensitive intellectual, Goethe was attracted to the baroness' beauty as well as to her artistic sensibility and interest in the new Enlightenment learning. Thus began an intimate relationship which was to influence much of Goethe's later writing. He visited von Stein often at Kochberg, where they spent hours discussing poetry, literature, philosophy, art, and science. Goethe wrote many lyrical poems in her honor, and characters clearly based on von Stein—or on his idealized vision of her—appeared in his plays Iphigenia and Tasso, in the form of wise and benevolent women who have a healing effect on the male characters and help them overcome their conflicts.
As the friendship deepened, they also began a lengthy correspondence. Only Goethe's side of the epistolary relationship survives, however, as von Stein demanded the return of her letters at the end of their affiliation and destroyed them. Still, almost 1,800 notes and letters by Goethe to von Stein, full of intense emotion and worshipful praise of her virtues, testify to his devotion and ardor. One letter alone from von Stein to Goethe is known to exist, from the early months of the friendship, but it is quite revealing; in it, she expresses her renewed joy in life, her interest in the world around her due to Goethe's adoration. It is uncertain whether they were ever involved in a physical relationship; his letters show that von Stein was concerned with protecting her family's honor. Yet after 1781, the tone of Goethe's letters became overtly erotic and occasionally mention the possibility of marriage, which would seem to indicate that their relationship had become sexual, although historians still debate the question.
Physical or not, their friendship lasted until 1786 when Goethe left Weimar for Italy. He continued to write every day, but when he returned in 1788, they agreed to end the relationship. Goethe soon moved in with another woman, Christiane von Vulpius , whom he later married. However, von Stein and he remained acquaintances, still seeing one another often at court functions and sharing the same circle of friends among the Weimar elite, including the famed German writers Johann Herder and Friedrich Schiller and their families. Although some of von Stein's correspondence after 1788 indicate that she regretted the end of the affair, by 1793 they had reconciled.
In 1793, Josias von Stein died, though his widow had little reason to mourn him much. She continued to be an active figure in the intellectual life at the Weimar ducal court, and took up writing as well. Her first drama, Dido, features a poet clearly modeled on Goethe. Other plays followed, including Rino: A Play in Five Acts and Die Zwey Emilien. Although all of her works are tragedies and were previously interpreted as stemming from anger over the end of Goethe's love for her, they have lately been reevaluated by feminist literary scholars who note the strong and fully developed female characters in von Stein's plays. The women are intellectually and politically active, and are shown as better leaders than the male politicians they come to replace. This re-evaluation has gained for von Stein a legitimate place among the female literary figures of what is now called the "Age of Goethe."
Charlotte von Stein did not remarry but remained a social figure at court until her death at her country home outside of Weimar in 1827, at age 85.
Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Cocalis, Susan L., and Rose Ferrel, eds. Thalia's Daughters: German Women Dramatists from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Tübingen, Germany: Francke, 1996.
Goethe, Johann. Selections from Goethe's Letters to Frau von Stein 1776–89. Edited and translated by Robert M. Browning. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1990.
Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California