German Literature - Woyzeck (2023)

Woyzeck (1836-37; first publ. 1879; first performed in 1913 in Munich)

Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund; es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinabsieht. (H2, 8)

Every person is an abyss; it makes you dizzy when you look down inside.

The theatre director Max Reinhardt called Woyzeck ‘das stärkste Drama der deutschen Literatur’; ‘the most powerful drama of German literature’ (see Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal; Work Journal; 20 May 1942; BFA, vol. 27, p. 99).

The drama shows the murder of Marie by Woyzeck, a man suffering from hallucinations and sexual jealousy. The final scene of draft H1 (H1, 21) shows the authorities preparing the execution (legal murder) of Woyzeck.

Historical Context

(Video) Plot summary, “Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner in 5 Minutes - Book Review

The play is based on the actual case of Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780-1824). After serving in the Prussian army Woyzeck returned to his home city of Leipzig in 1818. There he began a relationship with Johanne Christiane Woost. Woyzeck objected to Woost’s relations with Leipzig city soldiers and in early 1821 Woyzeck was sentenced for physical violence towards Woost. He served a prison sentence lasting eight days. Once released, he was homeless, unemployed, and living as a beggar (this is not the case with Büchner’s character, who has a somewhat more regular income). Woyzeck stabbed Woost to death on the evening of 2 June 1821. He was immediately arrested and confessed to the crime. On 24 August 1821 Dr Johann Christian August Clarus was appointed to write a report on Woyzeck’s mental condition. The report was written after five interviews with Woyzeck and delivered to the court on 16 September 1821. Dr Clarus’s conclusion was that Woyzeck was fully accountable for his actions, despite his hallucinations. Based on this report Woyzeck was sentenced to execution by decapitation. In November 1822 the authorities received a letter from Dr Bergk questioning Woyzeck’s accountability on the basis of his hallucinations, and so Dr Clarus was called to write a second report. He interviewed Woyzeck five more times and delivered the new report on 28 February 1823, which confirmed his earlier findings. Woyzeck was finally executed on 27 August 1824. Dr Clarus’s second report was published in 1825 and the first in 1826; they were used as sources by Büchner [see below, Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch, pp. 104-05]. Excerpts from the two reports are reproduced in Büchner, Werke und Briefe, Münchner Ausgabe, ed. by Karl Pörnbacher et. al., pp. 630-53.

The Four Drafts, H1-H4

When Büchner died on 19 February 1837 Woyzeck was still unfinished. Published versions of Woyzeck are all composite, synthetic versions derived from the three surviving manuscripts, which are written on ‘booklets’, each booklet formed from sheets of paper folded in half to form two leaves and four ‘pages’. Manuscript (1) is a folio set consisting of five booklets, which contain H1 and H2. Manuscript (2) is a single sheet of quarto paper containing H3 (just two scenes). Manuscript (3) is six pages folded to make six quarto-sized booklets; this is H4. H1 is the first version and H4 is the last version.

H1 consists of 21 scenes. In it, the main characters are called Louis and Margreth. Scenes 1-3 are set in the fairground. Scenes 4-13 develop the theme of jealousy. Scenes 14-21 depict the murder and its aftermath.

H2 consists of 9 longer scenes. In it, the main characters are called Woyzeck and Louise (or ‘Louisel’). In H2 the characters of the Doctor and the Hauptmann (Captain) have been introduced. H2 ends with Louise praying alone; the murder is not depicted.

H3 consists of only two scenes. H3, 1 is ‘Der Hof des Professors’; The Professor’s Courtyard’. H3, 2 is ‘Der Idiot. Das Kind. Woyzeck’; ‘The Idiot. The Child. Woyzeck’. In H3, 2 the Idiot, Karl, chants that Woyzeck has fallen into the water, and Woyzeck’s child rejects him. This suggests that Woyzeck does not commit suicide after the murder, in contradiction to the first Karl Emil Franzos edition of 1879. However, H3 1 and 2 are not generally included in published versions, because we do not know if, or where, Büchner planned to insert them.

H4 consists of 17 scenes. The main characters are now called Woyzeck and Marie. 6 of the scenes are new. H4, 3 is entitled ‘Buden. Lichter. Volk’; ‘Booths. Light. People’ and is then left blank. The final scene, H4, 17 is a discussion in the Barracks (Kaserne) between Woyzeck and Andres. The murder is not shown.

As a result of the gaps in H4, the most recent ‘Studienausgabe’ (Student Edition) of Woyzeck, edited by Burghard Dedner (see below), offers a composite version based principally on H4, but with H4, 3 filled in with from H1 and H2; and the last seven scenes taken from H1, 14-21.

Some published versions, including the one on Projekt Gutenberg, begin with Woyzeck shaving the Hauptmann (Captain), but none of Büchner’s drafts begin in this way. H2 and H4 begin with Woyzeck and Andres in an open field, and so this should be used as the opening scene.

The four drafts are reproduced in the two critical German editions listed below. The student edition edited by Dedner is particularly recommended. For a detailed analysis of the drafts, see Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch, pp. 98-103 [in German] and John Reddick, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole, pp. 291-302 [in English].


Like Büchner’s short story Lenz, Woyzeck is notable for its use of parataxis. Parataxis is the placing together of sentences, clauses or phrases without using conjunctive words, e.g. ‘Hurry up, it’s getting late’. Here is an example of parataxis from the very beginning of Woyzeck, draft H4:

‘Ja Andres; den Streif da über das Gras hin, da rollt Abends den Kopf, es hob ihn einmal einer auf, er meint es wär ein Igel.’; Yes Andres; the strip over the grass there, the head rolls there in the evenings, someone picked it up, he thought it was a hedgehog.’

(Video) Woyzeck By Georg Buchner Summary,Analysis, Themes & Symbols In Malayalam #upakar

(H4, 1. Source: Woyzeck. Studienausgabe, ed. by Burghard Dedner (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999), p. 145. Not available on

Büchner’s use of parataxis in Woyzeck creates an antilinear, fragmented dramatic form, which anticipates the work of Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett in the 20th century.


The play does not say why Woyzeck murders Marie. Because a clear moral framework is lacking, Woyzeck contravenes the genre of tragedy, which clearly distinguishes between good (noble) and evil (base, villainous) actions. In Woyzeck traditional moral explanations are called into question, for example in Woyzeck’s conversation with the Hauptmann (Captain) in H4, 5.

Büchner’s Woyzeck suffers as a result of his position in society, although he is not quite as destitute and desperate as the historical Johann Christian Woyzeck. Woyzeck murders Marie from sexual jealousy like Shakespeare’s Othello; although Marie’s infidelity, unlike Desdemona’s, is real enough. But Marie is so low down in the social scale that she envies high-class prostitutes (‘Madamen’).

One of the central themes of this play is: to what extent is Woyzeck morally accountable for his actions? Dr Clarus’s report had emphasised Woyzeck’s accountability (Zurechnungsfähigkeit). In Büchner’s play, however, when the Doctor reprimands Woyzeck for urinating against a wall, Woyzeck replies:

Aber, Herr Doktor, wenn einem die Natur kommt.

But Doctor, Sir, if nature comes at you.

Here Woyzeck excuses himself by implying that people are at the mercy of human nature, although when Marie sleeps with the Drum Major (Tambourmajor) Woyzeck fails to excuse her. The question of moral accountability is related to the question of what distinguishes human beings from animals. This problem is implied by the intelligent horse in the fairground scene.

The terse language of the play is perfectly suited to a world where mental imbalance and cruelty seem virtually omnipresent. The Hauptmann (Captain) has depression (he becomes melancholic when he sees a mill wheel); the Doctor seems delusional and sadistic; and the Tambourmajor is a vicious brute. The hopelessness of the play is encapsulated in the Grandmother’s tale to the children. And yet it is hard not to love Woyzeck and Marie.

Woyzeck had a decisive influence on modern German drama in the 20th century, and especially on the work of Georg Kaiser, Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller.

The Austrian composer Alban Berg composed an opera inspired by the play: Wozzeck (first performed 1925).

(Video) 12 Th- Woyzeck (Part 1)

The director Werner Herzog made a film version of Woyzeck in 1979 starring Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Whores and Hetairas. Sexual Politics in the Works of Büchner and Wedekind’, in Tradition and Innovation: 14 Essays, ed. by Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1990), pp. 161-81

James Crighton, Büchner and Madness: Schizophrenia in Georg Büchner’s Lenz and Woyzeck (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1998)

Kerry Dunne, ‘Woyzeck’s Marie “Ein schlecht Mensch”? The Construction of Female Sexuality in Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Seminar 26:4 (1990), 294-308

Robert Gillett, ‘Ave Marie: Büchner’s Woyzeck and the Problem of the Tragic Female’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 92-102

Richard T. Gray, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment in Büchner’s Woyzeck’, German Quarterly 61:1 (1988), 78-96

Richard T. Gray, Stations of the Divided Subject (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), Chapter 5 on Woyzeck

James M. Harding, ‘The Preclusions of Progress: Woyzeck's Challenge to Materialism and Social Change’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 29:1 (1993), 28-42

Dorothy James, ‘The “Interesting Case” of Büchner’s Woyzeck’, in Patterns of Change: German Drama and the European Tradition: Essays in Honour of Ronald Peacock, ed. by Dorothy James and Sylvia Ranawake (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), pp. 103-19

Svend Erik Larsen, ‘The Symbol of the Knife in Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Orbis Litterarum 40 (1985), 258-81

Laura Martin, ‘“Schlechtes Mensch/Gutes Opfer”: The Role of Marie in Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck’, German Life and Letters 50:4 (1997), 429-44

John A. McCarthy, ‘Some Aspects of Imagery in Büchner's Woyzeck’, Modern Language Notes 91:3 (1976) 543-51

(Video) Woyzeck as Vines

Ken Mills, ‘Moon, Madness and Murder: The Motivation of Woyzeck’s Killing of Marie’, German Life and Letters 41:4 (1988), 430-36

Paul Peters, ‘Wozzeck/Woyzeck: Büchner versus Berg’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 38:3 (2002), 241-60

John Reddick, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

David G. Richards, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck: A History of its Criticism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)

Peter Schwartz, ‘“Guckt euch selbst an!” Büchner’s Woyzeck and the Pericope Adulterae’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 79-91

Peter D. Smith, Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780-1955 (Oxford: Legenda, 2000), Chapter on Woyzeck

Joseph H. Stodder, ‘Influences of Othello on Büchner’s Woyzeck’, Modern Language Review 69 (1974), 115-20

Andrew Webber, ‘Büchner, Woyzeck’, in Landmarks in German Drama, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2002)

Recommended German Editions of Woyzeck

Georg Büchner, Woyzeck. Studienausgabe, ed. by Burghard Dedner (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999)

Georg Büchner, Werke und Briefe. Münchner Ausgabe, ed. by Karl Pörnbacher, Gerhard Schaub, Hans-Joachim Simm and Edda Ziegler (Munich: Carl Hanser / Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988)

Further Reading in German

Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch. Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2009)

(Video) Woyzeck Part 1 of 3

Web Link

Woyzeck in German; click on a word for the English translation


What is the significance of Woyzeck? ›

Woyzeck is at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, a simple soldier who is unskilled. The range of social status is clearly shown through the authority of the Doctor, the Captain and the Drum Major. They all consider themselves as important and use their authority in cruel and egotistical ways.

What is the story of the play Woyzeck? ›

It is loosely based on the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker who later became a soldier. In 1821, Woyzeck, in a fit of jealousy, murdered Christiane Woost, a 46-year-old widow with whom he had been living; he was later publicly beheaded.

Is Woyzeck based on a true story? ›

The play was directly based on the miserable life of Johan Christian Woyzeck, who was beheaded in Leipzig in 1824 for the murder of his mistress in a fit of jealous rage.

What is the genre of the play Woyzeck? ›

Woyzeck is considered the seminal and foremost social drama in German literature and altogether Büchner's most influential work. It had an enormous impact on Naturalism, Expressionism and on many modernist and post-modernist authors, and it inspired, next to Alban Berg's o…

What is the power in Woyzeck? ›

In the Georg Büchner's play 'Woyzeck,' power is the basis of relationships of the main characters, and people in positions of authority in those relationships seek to control 'the Other' -- here that is Woyzeck -- without concern for the negative effects, and, sometimes, the Other rebels.

What were Buchner's intentions in Woyzeck? ›

What was Buchner's authorial intention? > Show political and social messages that reflect his beliefs and his own oppression.

What mental illness did Woyzeck have? ›

A public execution took place in the main square of Leipzig on August 27, 1824. This same year Dr. J.A Clarus published his findings which medically suggested that Woyzeck was borderline schizophrenic.

Is Woyzeck a tragic hero? ›

Woyzeck is the first modern tragedy both in form and content. It is written in episodes and for the first time the tragic hero is not a king or aristocrat but a poor man.

Who is the working class protagonist in Woyzeck? ›

Franz Woyzeck is a soldier of the lowest rank, oppressed almost beyond endurance by his Captain. Woyzeck achieves some kind of affirmation of his human autonomy only by savagely murdering Marie, the unfaithful mother of his little son. She has betrayed Woyzeck with a soldier of Officer rank.

What happens at the end of Woyzeck? ›

While his body deteriorates, Woyzeck's mind and soul are broken by his captain's psychological torture, culminating in the murder of Marie and his own subsequent suicide.

What is the diet of Woyzeck? ›

His captain, played by Philipp Hochmair bellows his name like he's a dog, while the doctor (Tilo Werner) has Woyzeck on a cruel mono-diet of peas that has led to ominous hallucinations.

Was Woyzeck a true crime? ›

Johann Christian Woyzeck, a key figure in a murder case that took place on June 3, 1821 in Leipzig, Germany. Johann Christian Woyzeck was titled as a criminal after he confessed to stabbing his 46 year old wife to death. In a state of jealous rage he stabbed her a total of seven times.

How was Woyzeck originally performed? ›

First performances of Woyzeck would have looked high stylised and quite 'music hall' in nature. There were no microphones so voices had to be well developed. The songs in the play would have been sung with or without accompaniment.

Is Wozzeck a twelve tone opera? ›

Wozzeck is an opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). It was composed between 1914 and 1922 and first performed in 1925. Berg wrote this opera before the period when he used serialism in his works. His teacher Schoenberg had not yet developed the twelve tone system.

When was Woyzeck written? ›

Büchner probably began writing the play between June and September 1836. It remained in a fragmentary state at the time of his early death in 1837. Woyzeck was first published in 1879 in a heavily reworked version by Karl Emil Franzos.

What does Woyzeck do with the knife? ›

After being beaten by the Drum Major, Woyzeck buys a knife, takes Marie into the woods, and stabs her to death. Returning to the tavern, he dances wildly and is questioned about the blood on his hand. He tries to hide the knife in the waters of a pond. A character comments on the quality of the murder.

What did Georg Büchner believe in? ›

In Strasbourg, he immersed himself in French literature and political thought. While not officially a member of Young Germany, he became involved in the students' movement, attacking the ruling class. Buchner embodied both the radicalism of the time with a fervent Christianity.

Where was Woyzeck performed? ›

The play Woyzeck was first performed in 1913 in Munich, Germany. It was staged at the Residenztheater and was produced by Max Reinhardt Woyzeck was written in 1836 but was left unfinished due to the playwright's death in 1937.

What are the symptoms of histrionic personality? ›

These personality disorders are commonly described as dramatic, excitable, erratic, or volatile. Specifically, people with histrionic personality disorder are typically characterized as flirtatious, seductive, charming, manipulative, impulsive, and lively.

What disease does Joe Goldberg have? ›

In later seasons, currently being season 4, Joe is a murderer on the run and it was revealed that he has erotomania although it was obvious in the earlier seasons that the character is troubled, more so for his troubled childhood and his need for affection.

What is an erotomaniac? ›

Erotomania is a form of delusional disorder in which an individual believes that another person, usually of higher status, is in love with him. It is a relatively rare condition, and while the incidence is unknown, the lifetime prevalence of delusional disorder is 0.2% [1].

What is the hero's tragic flaws? ›

hamartia, also called tragic flaw, (hamartia from Greek hamartanein, “to err”), inherent defect or shortcoming in the hero of a tragedy, who is in other respects a superior being favoured by fortune.

What are the four characteristics of ideal tragic hero? ›

Hamartia – It is the tragic flaw that causes downfall of a hero. Hubris – It is excessive pride and disrespect of hero for natural order. Peripeteia – The reversal of fate that the hero experiences. Anagnorisis – This moment happens when hero makes an important discovery in the story.

Who is the tragic hero of the Iliad? ›

The character I have learned the most from is Achilles from various sources, most prominently Homer's The Iliad. Achilles, the tragic hero of Trojan War, known as “the greatest of all Greeks” for his power in war and his invulnerability.

Who was the real Woyzeck? ›

Johann Christian Woyzeck, a key figure in a murder case that took place on June 3, 1821 in Leipzig, Germany. Johann Christian Woyzeck was titled as a criminal after he confessed to stabbing his 46 year old wife to death. In a state of jealous rage he stabbed her a total of seven times.

Is Woyzeck an expressionist? ›

Woyzeck is probably the most modern early 19th-century play you will read. It's almost proto-Brechtian. As a play, it's a compelling mixture of naturalism and expressionism, with surreal elements and dark humour.

Is Skin an adaptation of Buchner's Woyzeck by Naomi Iizuka? ›

Play directed by Roxie Perkins. Written by Naomi Iizuka

skin is a modern re-telling of Georg Buchner's classic play, "Woyzeck". Set in Los Angeles in the mid-1990's, it tells the story of a young man who is desperately searching for something to believe in as his world is torn apart by the infidelity of his girlfriend.

What does Woyzeck discuss with his captain while shaving him? ›

The soldier Wozzeck is shaving the Captain. The officer urges him to work more slowly, then tells him that he is a good man but lacks morality because he has an illegitimate child. Wozzeck replies that virtue is a luxury the poor cannot afford.

Which 3 famous artists are from the expressionist era? ›

Which painters are associated with expressionism? Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse.

Who is the father of expressionist? ›

Van Gogh is the artist who almost single-handedly brought a greater sense of emotional depth to painting. In that way, he can truly be called the father of Expressionism.”

What time period is Woyzeck set? ›

Based on a real-life murder trial that took place in Germany in the 1820s, Woyzeck was written in 1837 but not staged until 1913. This English translation by Gregory Motton is published in the Nick Hern Books Drama Classics series.

What year is Woyzeck set in? ›

Because Woyzeck is based on real events, it is most likely set in 1821. That was the year that Johann Christian Woyzeck murdered Christiane Woost, with whom he lived. The real Woyzeck was beheaded for his crimes, but the ending of the play is ambiguous as it was incomplete when Buchner died in 1837.


1. Woyzeck | Georg Büchner | Plays | Talking Book | German
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