Masks and Metamorphoses: The Transformation of Classical Tradition in Goethe's Römische Elegien



Goethe's Römische Elegien present a theatrical model of imitation, in which the texts of classical antiquity are performed, brought to life again in the present. The performance acknowledges the models, but also transforms them. The notion of “Halbinkognito,” which Goethe, in the Italienische Reise, applies to his own disguise as a German in Rome, also informs the structure of the Elegien, which present recognizable figures and texts from antiquity, but give them new meaning in an eighteenth-century context. In this article, I examine three elegies, the Second, the Twelfth and the 24th, which illustrate the interplay between private and public identities, and which reveal the possibilities inherent in the parallels and disjunctions between ancient and modern texts.