Tragedies of Pregnancy: Representation of Pregnancy in the Plays of German Writer Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863)

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This month we have PoP Director Leanne Calvert talking about men and sexuality in the 18th Century.

Staging a play about illegitimate pregnancy was a huge scandal in the German society of the 1840s as the stories of Friedrich Hebbel’s play Judith and Maria Magdalena show. Before his debut text Judith could even be staged in July 1840, it had to be edited. The defloration scene, which can even be read as a rape, in the third act as well as Judith’s fear of being pregnant with Holoferne’s child at the end of the play were removed for the premiere. A similar situation happened to one of his other plays: Maria Magdalena – which I would like to focus on. Even though the play was finished in 1843, it was not shown on a public stage until March 1846. Again, the scandal of the pregnant heroine prevented the staging, as Auguste Crelinger, actress at the Königliches Hoftheater in Berlin wrote in a letter to Hebbel: “On Sunday I received a letter from Madame Crelinger about Maria Magdalena. There is once again nothing. I am a very talented person, have thoughts, language, what do I know what all else, but, but – – the heroine is pregnant, and this is an insurmountable source of offence.”[1]

In Maria Magdalena the story of the unmarried and – probably – pregnant bourgeois woman Klara stands in the centre. Klara is already sure about her pregnancy, even though the intercourse between Klara and her fiancé Leonhard happened only two weeks ago. After Leonhard calls off the engagement, she decides to commit suicide to save her family and especially her father from the shame of her illegitimate pregnancy. Klara takes her life by jumping into the village water-fountain. Her suicide, which can also be interpreted as child-murder, seems to be the only way for the woman to prevent her family and especially her father from losing their public reputation.

Directly at the beginning of the text, the female body becomes the centre of attention in two ways in: as the dead body and as the pregnant body. Both female figures, – Klara’s dead mother Therese and pregnant Klara herself – represent the double semantics of the female and especially the maternal body, as Elisabeth Bronfen pointed out in her work Over her dead body. The mother gives life, but also announces death at the same time. She becomes a symbol of death because she reminds us of the position before life that is so directly connected to her body.[2] Furthermore, the pregnant body represents the hierarchical structure between the sexes as the following scene in Maria Magdalena shows. When Klara is alone in her family’s house, she thinks about her pregnancy by looking down at her body. “Is it not as if in my lap it’s lifting up hands asking, as if eyes [3] By imagining the gestures of her unborn child, Klara seems to look directly into her body; the scene offers a view into her womb and makes visible that which is invisible: the potential embryo in the maternal body.


Cennet Rüya Voß in Maria Magdalena, Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus (2019). Photograph copyright Sandra Then.

The pregnancy that is illustrated here symbolises the intersection between biography, gendered embodiment and power dynamics. On the one hand, the pregnant body shows the unique connections between mother and child, which opens a dichotomy. The hierarchy between mother and child, but also in general between the sexes, is based on the fact that the mother gives birth to the child and not vice versa. On the other hand, in the context of the 19th century this unity constitutes the unchangeable situation of unmarried and pregnant women. If the father couldn’t be identified or denied his fatherhood, the woman was the only one responsible for the child, including the legal and social situation as Klara’s suicide at the end of the play shows in a radical way. Her suicide takes place off stage and is brought to the attention of the audience and to the other characters by her brother Karl. “karl: (coming back). Klara! Dead! The head shattered terribly at the water-fountain’s edge when she, – father, she didn’t fall in, she jumped in, a maid saw it!”[4]

The fall into the water-fountain is, on the one hand, a fantasy of regression to undo the fall into sin, Klara’s fall – to get back to the title of the play, the biblical sinner Mary Magdalene. On the other hand, the text itself presents an inverted pregnancy and birth. The fall symbolises a return to the maternal body, back into the protective womb. Both processes are connected not to life, but to death. Klara is not born as a living baby, nor does she return to her parent’s home to start her life. With that ending, Maria Magdalena shows us as contemporary readers that the literary presentation of pregnancy offers various perspectives on pregnant bodies, gender and the Germany of the 19th century – which our modern society is still discussing about today in terms of legal and single parenthood or abortion.

Antonia Villinger (M.A.) is a PHD-Student in German Literatures at the University of Mannheim. She holds a scholarship of the “Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes” and works as a research assistant at the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Cologne. She is currently working on her dissertation titled “Dramen der Schwangerschaft. Recht, Religion und Geschlecht bei Friedrich Hebbel” (Dramatic Plays of Pregnany. Law, Religion and Gender in the Plays of Friedrich Hebbel). Her research interests include German Literature of the 18th and 19th century with a focus on plays, Gender Studies, Body Theories especially on pregnancy, literature and religion, literature and law.

[1] All quotes in the text are originally in German, the translations are by me: “Sonntag erhielt ich einen Brief der Madame Crelinger über Maria Magdalena. Es ist wieder nichts. Ich bin ein sehr talentierter Mensch, habe Gedanken, Sprache, was weiß ich, was alles mehr, aber, aber – – die Heldin ist schwanger, und das ist ein unüberwindlicher Stein des Anstoßes” Hebbel, Friedrich: Tagebücher. Band 1. Neue historisch kritische Ausgabe, Band 1, Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter 2017, S. 399.

[2] Vgl. Bronfen, Elisabeth: Nur über ihre Leiche, Tod, Weiblichkeit und Ästhetik, Würzburg 2004 S. 54; for the English version Bronfen, Elisabeth: Over her dead body: death, femininity and the aesthetic, Manchester 1992.

[3] Original quote „Ist’s mir nicht, als ob’s in meinem Schoß bittend Hände aufhöbe, als ob Augen “ Hebbel, Friedrich: Maria Magdalena. Edited by Richard Maria Werner. Friedrich Hebbel. Sämtliche Werke, Historisch- kritische Ausgabe, Berlin 1911, p.65.

[4] Original quote „KARL: (kommt zurück). Klara! Todt! Der Kopf gräßlich am Brunnenrand zerschmettert, als sie, – Vater, sie ist nicht hinein gestürzt, sie ist hineingesprungen, eine Magd hat’s gesehen!“ Hebbel: Maria Magdalena, p. 70.


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