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A-Level German Revision Guide: "Der Besuch der alten Dame"

Updated: Jul 6

"Der Besuch der alten Dame" ("The Visit" in English) is a play written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. First performed in 1956, the play is a tragicomedy that delves into themes of justice, morality, and the corrosive impact of wealth on human values. It is an essential work of literature that has been analysed by generations of A-level German students in England. This revision guide will discuss the key themes, analyse the main characters, theatrical inspirations, delve into the historical context, and give you tips on how to prepare for your exam.

All You Need to Know about Der Besuch der alten Dame

Plot Overview & Summary

The story revolves around Claire Zachanassian, the wealthiest woman in the world who returns to her impoverished and aptly-named hometown of Güllen after many years. Gülle translates as "slurry" or liquid manure into English, which suggests that behind the respectable facade of the town there is a swamp of moral degradation.

The townspeople, desperate for economic revival, eagerly anticipate her visit, hoping she will bring financial relief. However, Claire's return is not a simple homecoming; it is a reckoning. She presents the townspeople with an offer: she will provide them with a substantial amount of money, but in return, they must execute Alfred Ill, a former lover who betrayed her and caused her life to take a tragic turn.

Tip: Write an interpretive summary that covers main points of the plot, focusing on Claire's return to her hometown, her proposal to the townspeople, and the moral dilemma faced by the community.

Key Themes

The key themes of the play are justice and morality, the corruption of wealth, tragedy and comedy, and the power of vengeance. In what follows, I will discuss each of the themes and highlight questions you may want to develop in your essay.

Justice and Morality

The play raises profound questions about justice and morality. Is it justifiable to take a life in exchange for personal gain, even if the person in question has committed a heinous act? The moral dilemma faced by the townspeople becomes a central theme.

Tip: Examine how the play raises questions about justice, morality, and the consequences of compromising principles for personal gain. Here are some points that will help you.

  • One of the central themes of the play is the concept of justice and its transformation into vengeance. Claire Zachanassian's return to Güllen is fueled by a desire for revenge, seeking justice for the wrongs she suffered in the past. However, as the narrative unfolds, the audience is compelled to question whether her pursuit aligns with conventional notions of justice or descends into a more sinister form of retribution.

  • The play explores the moral compromises individuals are willing to make when faced with extreme circumstances. The townspeople, grappling with poverty and the promise of financial prosperity, face a collective moral dilemma. Their decisions to sacrifice justice for personal gain reveal the fragility of moral principles in the face of external pressures.

  • The theme of justice is intimately connected to the corrosive influence of wealth. Claire's immense wealth becomes a tool that she wields to manipulate and test the moral fabric of the town. The townspeople's willingness to abandon their ethical standards for financial gain highlights the seductive power of wealth and its potential to corrupt moral judgment.

  • The play explores the tension between individual moral responsibility and societal values. As the townspeople collectively grapple with Claire's offer, their actions highlight the challenging interplay between personal ethics and societal expectations. The unfolding events underscore the idea that individuals may succumb to collective pressure, compromising their morality for the perceived greater good of the community.

  • "Der Besuch der alten Dame" delves into the consequences of individual and collective choices. The moral decisions made by characters have far-reaching implications, shaping the destiny of the town and its inhabitants. The play serves as a cautionary tale about the enduring impact of moral compromise and the inescapable consequences that follow such choices.

  • Justice and morality become a lens through which the play reflects on human nature. The characters' responses to Claire's offer reveal the depths of human greed, desperation, and vulnerability to external influences. The narrative invites the audience to contemplate the complexities of human behavior and the malleability of moral principles in challenging circumstances.

  • Dürrenmatt employs absurdity and irony to underscore the themes of justice and morality. The absurd nature of Claire's revenge plan and the ironic twists in the townspeople's decisions add layers of complexity to the exploration of these themes, challenging traditional expectations and prompting the audience to reflect on the inherent contradictions in human behavior.

Der Besuch der alten Dame" intricately weaves together themes of justice and morality, inviting the audience to contemplate the complexities of ethical decision-making in the face of external pressures. The play serves as a provocative exploration of human nature, societal values, and the consequences of moral compromise, challenging traditional notions of justice and morality in the context of a morally ambiguous and financially desperate society.

Corruption of Wealth

Dürrenmatt explores the corrosive effects of wealth on individuals and society. Claire's vast wealth becomes a tool of manipulation, exposing the greed and moral compromise of the townspeople as they weigh the value of a human life against financial prosperity.

Tip: Explore how wealth is portrayed as a corrupting force, influencing characters' decisions and the overall moral fabric of the town. To that end, consider the following points.

  • Another important theme in "Der Besuch der alten Dame" is the corrupting influence of wealth. Claire's immense fortune becomes a catalyst for moral decay and societal deterioration in the town of Güllen. The play explores how the promise of financial prosperity can lead individuals and the community as a whole to compromise their moral principles.

  • Claire uses her wealth strategically to manipulate the townspeople. The allure of financial gain seduces the impoverished residents, tempting them to abandon their ethical standards. Claire's ability to exploit their vulnerabilities underscores the corrupting power of wealth, turning individuals against each other and eroding the town's moral fabric.

  • As the townspeople succumb to the promise of Claire's money, the play portrays a gradual moral decay. The once virtuous citizens compromise their values in exchange for material wealth. This corrosion is evident in the decisions made by individuals, including Alfred Ill, who find themselves entangled in a web of moral compromise driven by financial desperation.

  • Claire's offer to the town is a stark illustration of the idea that justice can be commodified. The townspeople, faced with economic hardship, are willing to sacrifice justice for personal gain. The play raises questions about the integrity of justice when it becomes a transaction, emphasising how wealth can distort and pervert the very notion of what is morally right.

  • Claire's wealth is symbolic not only of financial power but also of external influence. Her return to Güllen represents the intrusion of external forces into the lives of the townspeople. The wealth she brings acts as a corrosive agent, exposing the vulnerabilities and moral weaknesses of the community.

  • Dürrenmatt uses the theme to critique materialism and the prioritisation of financial gain over ethical considerations. The play serves as a commentary on a society willing to compromise its values for the pursuit of affluence, highlighting the dangers of placing material wealth above moral integrity.

  • The play employs irony and absurdity to underscore the corrupting nature of wealth. The absurdity of Claire's revenge plan and the irony in the townspeople's actions add layers of complexity to the theme. The very wealth promised as a solution to the town's problems becomes the catalyst for its moral downfall.

  • While set in a specific post-war German context, the theme of the corruption of wealth has universal resonance. Dürrenmatt's exploration of how financial desperation can lead to moral compromise speaks to broader societal issues and the potential pitfalls of prioritising wealth over ethical considerations.

The corruption of wealth in "Der Besuch der alten Dame" serves as a powerful and cautionary theme, highlighting the moral compromises and societal decay that can result from the seductive allure of financial prosperity. Dürrenmatt's exploration of this theme contributes to the play's enduring relevance and its capacity to prompt reflection on the ethical challenges posed by the influence of wealth in various societal contexts.

Tragedy and Comedy

"Der Besuch der alten Dame" skilfully blends tragic elements with comedic undertones. The absurdity of the situation, coupled with the townspeople's reactions, creates a darkly humorous atmosphere. Yet, underlying the laughter is a deep sense of tragedy, especially as the play unfolds and the consequences of the townspeople's decisions become apparent.

Tip: Discuss the blending of tragic and comedic elements in the play, emphasising the absurdity of the situation and its underlying tragic consequences.

Tragic Elements

Fateful Retribution

  • The play exhibits elements of classical tragedy in its portrayal of fateful retribution. Claire's return to the town is marked by a sense of inevitability and impending doom. The townspeople, particularly Alfred Ill, are ensnared in a web of circumstances that lead to tragic consequences.

Moral Dilemmas and Consequences

  • The moral dilemmas faced by the characters contribute to the tragic dimension of the play. The townspeople grapple with the weight of their decisions, and the consequences of their choices unfold in a way that aligns with the inevitability characteristic of tragic narratives.

Societal Critique

  • "Der Besuch der alten Dame" serves as a critique of societal values and the corrosive impact of wealth on morality. This critique, combined with the characters' moral compromises, contributes to the tragic vision of a society grappling with its own ethical decay.

Comic Elements

Dark Humor and Satire

  • The play incorporates dark humour and satire, challenging the traditional seriousness associated with tragedy. The absurdity of the townspeople's decisions, particularly their willingness to sacrifice moral principles for financial gain, elicits moments of comedic reflection.

Exaggeration and Irony

  • The exaggerated nature of Claire's revenge plan and the irony surrounding the townspeople's reactions introduce comedic elements. The play's use of irony prompts the audience to reflect on the absurdity of the situation, creating moments of dark comedy.

Cynical Commentary

  • Dürrenmatt's cynical commentary on human nature, justice, and morality adds a comedic layer. The play invites the audience to laugh at the characters' foibles and the absurdity of their predicament, creating a satirical atmosphere that is characteristic of comedy.

The play occupies a dramatic space that transcends the boundaries of traditional tragedy or comedy. It intertwines tragic elements such as moral dilemmas, fateful retribution, and societal critique with comedic features like dark humor, satire, and irony. The result is a tragicomedy that challenges the audience's expectations, prompting reflection on the complexities of human behavior and the consequences of moral compromise. The play's ambiguity and multi-layered nature contribute to its enduring impact and ability to engage audiences in diverse ways, defying easy classification within the confines of a single dramatic genre.

The Power of Vengeance

Claire's pursuit of vengeance is a driving force in the play. The narrative explores the lengths to which an individual might go to seek retribution for past wrongs. Claire's transformation into a figure of revenge highlights the destructive power of harbouring resentment.

  • A prominent theme in the play is the power of wealth to shape decisions and actions. Claire Zachanassian's substantial fortune holds the town of Güllen in its grip, influencing the behavior and choices of its residents. The promise of financial gain becomes a potent force, steering the moral compass of individuals and the collective community.

  • The economic desperation of the town sets the stage for the transformative impact of wealth. Güllen's impoverished state renders its residents vulnerable to the seductive power of Claire's money. The prospect of escaping financial hardship becomes a compelling motivator, overshadowing ethical considerations.

  • Claire masterfully wields her wealth as a tool of manipulation. Her ability to exploit the financial vulnerabilities of the townspeople underscores the immense power that wealth affords. Claire's offer becomes a form of economic coercion, revealing the extent to which financial incentives can override moral principles.

  • The infusion of wealth fundamentally transforms Güllen. Initially portrayed as a struggling community, the town undergoes a radical metamorphosis in response to Claire's offer. The power of wealth reshapes the town's dynamics, leading to moral compromise, betrayal, and a pervading sense of opportunism.

  • The townspeople grapple with a moral dilemma fuelled by the power of wealth. Each individual must weigh the financial benefits against the ethical consequences of their actions. The play highlights the internal conflicts faced by characters like Alfred Ill, torn between financial gain and moral integrity.

  • Claire return symbolises the external influence that wealth can exert on a community. Her arrival is not merely personal but represents a larger force that disrupts the town's equilibrium. The power dynamics shift as Claire's wealth becomes a transformative agent, exposing the town's vulnerability.

  • The theme of the power of wealth extends to its corrupting influence. The once virtuous townspeople succumb to the allure of financial prosperity, abandoning ethical principles in the process. The play underscores how wealth, when wielded strategically, has the potential to corrupt individuals and societal values.

  • Dürrenmatt employs irony and absurdity to emphasise the paradoxical nature of the power of wealth. The very wealth offered as a solution to the town's problems becomes the source of its moral degradation. The absurdity of the townspeople's actions in pursuit of wealth adds layers of complexity to the theme.

  • The play serves as a critique of societal priorities, questioning the values that place financial gain above ethical considerations. Dürrenmatt invites the audience to reflect on the consequences of prioritising wealth at the expense of moral integrity and the potential erosion of communal bonds.

The play explores the transformative and often destructive power of wealth, illustrating how financial incentives can sway individual and collective decisions. It underscores the moral challenges posed by economic desperation and the seductive influence of prosperity, offering a nuanced commentary on the complexities of human behaviour in the face of financial temptation.

Central Characters

Claire Zachanassian

Claire is a complex and enigmatic character. Her return to Güllen is driven by a desire for revenge, and her character embodies the consequences of a life marked by betrayal and loss. Her wealth becomes a symbol of both power and tragedy.

Tip: Explore her motivations, her tragic past, and her transformation into a symbol of justice and vengeance.

Symbol of Vengeance and Justice

  • Claire serves as a powerful symbol of both vengeance and justice in the play. Her return to Güllen is driven by a desire for revenge against Alfred Ill, who wronged her in their youth. However, her pursuit of justice is deeply entangled with a thirst for retribution, challenging conventional notions of right and wrong.

Complexity of Character

  • Claire's character is marked by complexity and ambiguity. While she embodies the victim seeking retribution, her methods and the moral dilemmas she presents to the townspeople raise questions about the nature of her justice. Dürrenmatt presents Claire as a multi-dimensional character, inviting the audience to grapple with the complexities of her motivations.

Wealth as Empowerment

  • Claire's immense wealth becomes a tool of empowerment, both for herself and as a means to manipulate others. Her financial resources enable her to orchestrate a situation where the townspeople must confront their own moral compromises. The play explores the extent to which wealth can grant agency and influence over others.

Tragic Figure

  • Despite her formidable presence and the aura of vengeance surrounding her, Claire is portrayed as a tragic figure. Her past traumas, including her failed relationships and the loss of her child, contribute to a sense of sympathy for her character. The tragedy lies not only in her quest for revenge but in the personal suffering that underlies it.

Catalyst for Moral Dilemma

  • Claire's arrival serves as a catalyst for a profound moral dilemma within the town. The offer of wealth in exchange for Alfred Ill's life forces the townspeople to confront their own values and priorities. Claire's presence exposes the vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the moral fabric of Güllen.

Psychological Depth

  • Dürrenmatt invests Claire with psychological depth, providing insights into her psyche and the lasting impact of her past experiences. Her ill-fated relationships and the emotional scars she carries contribute to a nuanced portrayal. Claire's character invites reflection on the enduring effects of personal tragedy and the complexities of human emotions.

Symbol of External Influence

  • Claire's return to Güllen represents the intrusion of external forces into the town's insular existence. Her wealth and vendetta represent broader societal issues and the potential consequences of actions that transcend individual lives. Claire becomes a metaphor for the external pressures that can shape the destiny of a community.

Irony and Absurdity

  • The irony and absurdity surrounding Claire's revenge plan add layers of complexity to her character. The extravagant nature of her offer and the theatricality of her presence contribute to the play's tragicomic tone. Claire's actions challenge traditional expectations, underscoring the unpredictability of human behaviour.

Reflection on Morality

  • Claire's character prompts a profound reflection on morality, justice, and the limits of revenge. Her role in the play invites the audience to question the fine line between justice and vengeance and consider the moral compromises individuals may make in the pursuit of personal vindication.

Dürrenmatt's portrayal of Claire transcends simplistic categorisations, presenting her as a tragic figure whose presence challenges the moral fabric of the town and prompts deep introspection on the nature of justice and morality.

Alfred Ill

Alfred Ill is the tragic figure at the center of Claire's vendetta. His moral decline and the revelation of his past actions contribute to the play's exploration of guilt and accountability. As the townspeople grapple with Claire's offer, Alfred becomes a representation of the human capacity for self-deception.

Tip: Analyse his character, his role in Claire's past, and his moral dilemma.

Tragic Hero

  • Alfred Ill functions as a tragic hero in the play. His past actions, specifically his betrayal of Claire, come back to haunt him, leading to his tragic downfall. Ill's character embodies the classical archetype of a flawed protagonist whose actions contribute to his own undoing.

Moral Dilemma

  • Ill is thrust into a profound moral dilemma when faced with Claire's offer. The prospect of immense wealth in exchange for his own moral compromise forces him to confront the consequences of his past actions. His internal struggle becomes a focal point of the play, highlighting the complexities of ethical decision-making.

Corruption by Wealth

  • Alfred Ill's character illustrates the corrupting influence of wealth. As the promise of financial prosperity dangles before him, Ill succumbs to the temptation, abandoning his moral principles. The transformation of Ill from a respected figure to a morally compromised individual serves as a cautionary tale about the corrupting power of financial incentives.

Symbol of the Town's Moral Decay

  • Ill becomes a symbol of the town's moral decay as he leads the community into a collective compromise. His actions and decisions, particularly in his role as the mayor, contribute to the erosion of ethical standards within Güllen. Ill's personal downfall mirrors the broader societal consequences of prioritising wealth over morality.

Irony in Ill's Fate

  • The irony in Ill's fate is a significant aspect of his role. As the town's respected figure, Ill is initially oblivious to the consequences of his past actions. However, the ironic twists of the plot reveal the tragic inevitability of his downfall. The very qualities that once elevated him in the eyes of the community become the catalysts for his undoing.

Reflection of Societal Values

  • Ill's character reflects the societal values of Güllen. His initial status as a well-regarded figure represents the town's collective identity. However, as he succumbs to the allure of wealth, Ill mirrors the moral compromises made by the community at large. His journey becomes emblematic of broader societal tendencies and vulnerabilities.

Psychological Complexity

  • Dürrenmatt endows Ill with psychological complexity. The internal conflict and emotional turmoil experienced by Ill as he grapples with Claire's offer add depth to his character. Ill's psychological journey becomes a microcosm of the town's struggles with morality, justice, and the corrupting influence of wealth.

Tragicomic Element

  • The character of Ill contributes to the tragicomic element of the play. His predicament, while tragic, is marked by absurdity and irony. The audience is compelled to both sympathise with his internal struggles and acknowledge the humour inherent in the absurdity of the situation.

Symbol of Human Frailty

  • Alfred Ill depicts the inherent frailty of human nature. His moral lapses and vulnerability to external pressures underscore the universal theme of the potential for individuals to compromise their principles when faced with personal gain. Ill's character transcends the specific context of Güllen, offering a broader commentary on human fallibility.

Ill plays a pivotal role as the tragic hero whose actions and moral compromises contribute to the play's exploration of justice, morality, and the corrupting influence of wealth. His character serves as a lens through which the audience witnesses the internal and external struggles emblematic of broader societal challenges and human vulnerabilities.


The townspeople collectively represent the moral dilemma faced by society when confronted with the allure of wealth. Their willingness to compromise their values for financial gain exposes the vulnerability of communities in the face of external influences. Their collective actions and responses serve as a microcosm, reflecting broader themes related to morality, justice, and the corrupting influence of wealth. Here are some key aspects of the townspeople in the play.

Collective Morality

  • The townspeople collectively embody a particular moral code that is initially presented as upright and virtuous. However, this collective morality is tested when faced with the tempting offer of wealth from Claire. The town's initial moral stance undergoes a transformation, revealing the fragility of collective ethics in the face of personal gain.

Economic Desperation

  • The economic struggles of the town contribute to the townspeople's vulnerability to Claire's offer. Güllen is depicted as a financially struggling community, and the prospect of Claire's wealth becomes a seductive solution to their economic woes. The townspeople's desperation becomes a driving force behind their moral compromise.

Reception of Claire's Offer

  • Initially, the townspeople reject Claire Zachanassian's offer, reflecting a semblance of moral integrity. However, as the play progresses, the townspeople gradually succumb to the allure of wealth. The transformation in their attitudes highlights the malleability of collective morality and the impact of external pressures.

Betrayal and Compromise

  • The townspeople ultimately betray their own moral principles. The willingness to compromise ethical values for personal gain becomes a collective decision, illustrating the corrosive effects of wealth on the town's moral fabric. The betrayal is both individual, as seen in Ill's actions, and collective, as the townspeople unite in their choice.

Social Commentary

  • Dürrenmatt uses the townspeople as a vehicle for social commentary, critiquing societal values and the impact of economic disparities on collective morality. The play suggests that in the face of financial temptation, even a seemingly virtuous community can succumb to moral compromise, revealing underlying flaws in the social fabric.

Symbol of Human Frailty

  • The townspeople collectively symbolise the frailty of human nature. The play explores the inherent vulnerability of individuals and communities when confronted with external pressures, especially those related to wealth and prosperity. The townspeople's actions serve as a cautionary tale about the potential erosion of moral principles.

Tragicomic Elements

  • The townspeople contribute to the tragicomic elements of the play. The absurdity and irony arise from the stark contrast between the townspeople's initial rejection of Claire's offer and their eventual capitulation. The play's tone is both tragic, as it explores the consequences of moral compromise, and comic, as it highlights the absurdity of the human condition.

Role in the Town's Transformation

  • The townspeople play a pivotal role in the transformation of Güllen. As they collectively embrace Claire's wealth, the town undergoes a radical change, both economically and morally. The townspeople's decisions drive the narrative toward its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

In the play, the townspeople collectively represent the moral conscience of the community. Their actions and choices underscore the play's exploration of justice, revenge, and the moral complexities that arise when faced with the seductive power of wealth.

Symbolism and Imagery

Throughout the play, Dürrenmatt masterfully deploys symbolism and imagery to convey his messages. Here are some prime examples and tips for your analysis.

The Clock

  • Analyse the symbolic significance of the clock in the town square, representing the countdown to moral judgment and the irreversible nature of time.

Claire's Artificial Limbs

  • Explore the symbolism of Claire's artificial limbs as a physical manifestation of her past suffering and a reminder of the consequences of the townspeople's actions.

The Panther

The panther serves as a powerful metaphor, adding depth to the themes of vengeance, justice, and the corrupting influence of wealth.

Symbol of Claire

  • The panther is closely associated with Claire Zachanassian, the wealthy and vengeful protagonist of the play. It serves as a living symbol of Claire's formidable and predatory presence. The panther represents Claire's power, both in terms of her immense wealth and her capacity for revenge.

Metaphor for Vengeance

  • The panther is introduced as a gift from Claire to Güllen. This gesture is symbolic of Claire's predatory intent to hunt down and seek vengeance on Alfred Ill, the man who wronged her in the past. The panther becomes an instrument of her retribution, embodying the predatory nature of her quest for justice.

The Town's Acceptance of the Panther

  • The fact that the townspeople accept the panther is indicative of their willingness to embrace Claire's wealth, regardless of the potential consequences. It reflects how the allure of financial gain can blind individuals to the moral implications of their actions. The panther becomes a tangible manifestation of the town's moral compromise.

The Corrupting Influence of Wealth

  • The presence of the panther symbolises the corrupting influence of wealth on Güllen. Claire's offer of prosperity is accompanied by the introduction of the panther, and the town's embrace of both underscores the extent to which financial incentives can lead to moral decay. The panther becomes a living metaphor for the erosion of ethical standards.

Metaphysical Element

  • The panther also introduces a metaphysical and surreal element into the narrative. Its presence in the town square, along with Claire's calculated revenge plan, adds to the overall absurdity of the situation. This blending of the real and the symbolic contributes to the tragicomic tone of the play.

Irony in the Panther's Role

  • The irony lies in the dual nature of the panther – simultaneously a symbol of power and revenge, and a creature that can be manipulated. The townspeople initially view the panther as a status symbol, unaware of its true significance. This irony highlights the unsuspecting nature of the characters in the face of impending tragedy.

Foreshadowing and Inevitability

  • The panther serves as a foreshadowing device, hinting at the inevitable consequences of Claire's visit. Its presence suggests that something predatory and destructive is unleashed upon the town. The panther becomes a harbinger of the moral reckoning that Güllen will face as a result of Claire's vengeance.

Claire's Transformation

  • As the panther is symbolic of Claire's power, its presence mirrors Claire's own transformation from a victim of injustice to a powerful and vengeful force. Just as the panther embodies strength and predatory instincts, Claire emerges as a formidable figure capable of reshaping the destiny of the town.

The panther serves as a potent and multi-layered symbol that enriches the play's exploration of vengeance, justice, and the consequences of moral compromise. Its inclusion adds a surreal and metaphysical dimension to the narrative, contributing to the overall complexity and impact of Dürrenmatt's tragicomic examination of human behaviour and societal values.

Theatrical Influences

While Dürrenmatt drew inspiration from various sources, the play exhibits a unique synthesis of dramatic elements, philosophical themes, and historical context that contribute to its enduring significance.

Greek Tragedy

  • Dürrenmatt's engagement with Greek tragedy is evident in "Der Besuch der alten Dame." The play echoes the classical structure of tragedy, featuring a tragic hero (Alfred Ill) and a pervasive sense of inevitability. The presence of a vengeful figure, Claire Zachanassian, resonates with the Greek motif of divine retribution, reminiscent of tragic figures seeking justice for perceived wrongs.

  • The use of theatrical elements, such as the symbolic clock in the town square, reflects a nod to traditional theatrical devices. The clock acts as a ticking countdown, heightening tension and creating a sense of impending doom, a technique reminiscent of classical dramatic conventions.

Klotho- The Spinner of Fate

Reference in the Play

  • Klotho is one of the three Moirai or Fates in Greek mythology, responsible for spinning the thread of human destiny. In the play, Claire Zachanassian is referred to as "Klotho," linking her character to the idea of controlling fate.


  • The reference to Klotho highlights Claire's role as a manipulator of destinies. Claire, with her immense wealth and vengeful agenda, holds the power to shape the fate of individuals in Güllen. The townspeople become entangled in the metaphorical threads she spins, and their destinies are inexorably altered by her presence.


  • The symbolism of Klotho underscores the deterministic nature of the unfolding events. The townspeople, much like characters in Greek tragedy, find themselves caught in a web of fate, manipulated by external forces beyond their control.

Medea -The Tragic Vengeful Figure

Reference in the Play

  • Medea, a character from Greek mythology, is known for her vengeful acts, particularly the murder of her own children as an act of revenge against her unfaithful husband. In the play, Claire Zachanassian is likened to Medea, drawing parallels between the two figures.


  • The reference to Medea serves to deepen the understanding of Claire's character. Just as Medea sought vengeance for personal betrayal, Claire's quest for justice is intertwined with a desire for retribution. This comparison adds a layer of tragic inevitability to Claire's actions, emphasising the destructive consequences of unresolved grievances.

Tragic Elements

  • Medea's story is a classic tragedy, and by aligning Claire with this archetype, Dürrenmatt underscores the tragic dimensions of her character. The play becomes a modern-day tragedy in which the consequences of past actions come to fruition, echoing the themes of vengeance and tragedy found in Greek drama.

The Intersection of Myth and Reality

  • The references to Klotho and Medea contribute to the blending of myth and reality in the play. Dürrenmatt creates a theatrical landscape where classical mythology intersects with the post-war, small-town setting. This blending enhances the play's universal themes, emphasizing the timeless nature of human struggles with justice, revenge, and morality.

Irony and Tragicomedy

  • The use of these classical references introduces irony and tragicomic elements into the narrative. While the allusions to Klotho and Medea evoke a sense of classical tragedy, the absurd and ironic twists in the plot bring a contemporary and comedic dimension to the play. This juxtaposition reinforces Dürrenmatt's exploration of the absurdity inherent in human behaviour and societal values.

The references to Klotho and Medea in "Der Besuch der alten Dame" serve as literary devices that enrich the play's thematic depth. These allusions provide insight into Claire Zachanassian's character, framing her as a figure with the power to control fate and drawing parallels with classical tragic figures. The interplay between myth and reality adds complexity to the narrative, contributing to the overall tragicomic tone of the play.

Existentialist Philosophical Influence

Dürrenmatt's exploration of existentialist themes aligns with the works of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The characters in "Der Besuch der alten Dame" grapple with the consequences of their actions, embodying existentialist notions of personal responsibility and the search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe.Claire Zachanassian, with her wealth and pursuit of justice, mirrors existentialist themes of individual agency and the consequences of choice. The play challenges the characters and the audience to confront the existential dilemma of navigating moral choices in the face of external pressures.

Shakespearean Tragedy and Moral Complexity

The moral complexity in "Der Besuch der alten Dame" reflects a Shakespearean influence. Like Shakespearean tragedies, Dürrenmatt presents characters with moral dilemmas that transcend simple categorisations of right or wrong. The townspeople, torn between financial gain and moral integrity, embody the intricate moral landscapes found in Shakespeare's works. The play's exploration of revenge and its consequences echoes themes from Shakespearean tragedies such as "Hamlet" or "Othello," where characters grapple with the repercussions of their actions and the blurred lines between justice and vengeance.

Expressionist and Modernist Elements

Dürrenmatt incorporates expressionist and modernist elements into his play, aligning with the broader artistic movements of the 20th century. The play's symbolic and surreal aspects, such as Claire's artificial limbs and the town's transformation, reflect the influence of expressionism, a movement characterised by distorted reality and symbolic representation. The play's critique of societal values and the impact of external forces on individual lives aligns with modernist concerns. Dürrenmatt engages with the disillusionment and skepticism characteristic of modernist literature, challenging conventional notions of justice and morality.

Language and Style

Dürrenmatt employs a distinct style and language choices that contribute to the play's dramatic impact and its engagement with existential and absurd elements.

Tips: Discuss the use of theatrical techniques such as irony, dialogue, and monologues to convey the play's themes and engage the audience. Analyse how the setting, particularly the small town atmosphere, contributes to the play's mood and impact on the characters' decisions.

Here are key aspects of the language and style in "Der Besuch der alten Dame":

Theatrical Structure

  • Dürrenmatt employs a well-crafted theatrical structure that enhances the play's dramatic impact. The use of three acts, each with its own developments and revelations, contributes to the pacing of the narrative and the building of tension.

Concise and Poetic Dialogue

  • The dialogue in the play is concise and often takes on a poetic quality. Dürrenmatt uses language to convey deep emotions, complex moral dilemmas, and existential reflections. The dialogue serves as a vehicle for exploring profound themes while maintaining a sense of theatricality.

Tragicomic Tone

  • The language and style contribute to the play's tragicomic tone. Dürrenmatt blends elements of tragedy and comedy to create a unique atmosphere. The absurdity of the townspeople's actions, the irony of their decisions, and the overall sense of inevitability are communicated through a style that balances seriousness and humour.

Existential Elements

  • Dürrenmatt's language incorporates existentialist elements, reflecting the philosophical concerns of the time. The characters grapple with questions of individual responsibility, the consequences of past actions, and the nature of justice. The existential undertones add depth to the language and contribute to the intellectual complexity of the play.

Symbolism and Metaphor

  • The language is rich in symbolism and metaphor. The panther, for example, serves as a powerful metaphor for Claire Zachanassian's revenge and the corrupting influence of wealth. Symbolic elements are woven into the dialogue, enhancing the play's allegorical dimensions.

Irony and Satire

  • Dürrenmatt employs irony and satire to critique societal values, morality, and the impact of external pressures. The townspeople's initial rejection of Claire's offer and subsequent moral compromise are tinged with irony, highlighting the absurdity of human behaviour.

Economic and Social Commentary

  • Language is used to provide economic and social commentary. The economic struggles of Güllen, the impact of Claire's wealth on the town, and the townspeople's willingness to sacrifice morality for prosperity are conveyed through the characters' interactions and the dialogue.

Monologues and Reflections

  • The play includes monologues and reflective moments that allow characters to express their inner thoughts and conflicts. These soliloquies contribute to the psychological depth of the characters and provide insights into their motivations, adding layers to the narrative.

Satirical Elements

  • Dürrenmatt's satirical style is evident in the portrayal of the townspeople and their collective decision-making. The exaggerated reactions, the absurdity of their choices, and the ultimate tragic consequences are presented with a satirical lens that prompts reflection on human folly.

Repetition as a Stylistic Device

  • Repetition is used as a stylistic device, emphasising key themes and motifs. The recurring motif of Claire's offer and the townspeople's responses adds a rhythmic quality to the play, reinforcing the inevitability of the unfolding events.

In summary, the language and style in "Der Besuch der alten Dame" contribute to its theatrical impact and thematic richness. Dürrenmatt's use of concise yet poetic dialogue, existential elements, symbolism, and satirical tones creates a layered and thought-provoking theatrical experience. The play's linguistic choices enhance its exploration of profound philosophical questions within the framework of a tragicomic narrative.

Historical and Cultural Context

The play was written and premiered in the mid-1950s, a period marked by significant historical and social developments. Understanding the historical context helps illuminate some of the themes and motivations in the play.

Tips: Understand the historical context of post-war Germany and how it influences the characters' behaviours and attitudes. Explore the Cold War symbolism in the play, considering Claire's wealth as a representation of external influence and the town as a microcosm of broader societal issues.

Here are some key aspects worth considering:

Post-World War II Europe

  • The play is set in a small, economically struggling town in post-World War II Europe. The aftermath of the war had profound effects on European societies, with many facing economic hardship, reconstruction challenges, and a reevaluation of societal values. The town's desperation for financial relief reflects the broader context of post-war recovery.

Switzerland in the 1950s

  • Dürrenmatt, a Swiss playwright, wrote the play against the backdrop of Switzerland in the 1950s. Switzerland remained neutral during World War II, but the war's impact on neighbouring countries influenced Swiss society. The play critiques aspects of Swiss neutrality, societal norms, and economic disparities, using the fictional town of Güllen as a microcosm.

Cold War Tensions

  • The 1950s were characterised by Cold War tensions between the Western bloc, led by the United States, and the Eastern bloc, led by the Soviet Union. While Switzerland was not directly involved in the Cold War conflicts, the global geopolitical atmosphere may have influenced Dürrenmatt's exploration of power dynamics, justice, and moral compromise.

Reevaluation of Values

  • In the aftermath of World War II, there was a widespread reevaluation of societal values. The devastation of the war prompted reflections on morality, justice, and the consequences of unchecked power. "Der Besuch der alten Dame" engages with these themes, portraying a town forced to confront its own moral compromises in the face of financial temptation.

Economic Inequality and Corruption

  • Economic inequality and corruption are central themes in the play. The post-war period witnessed economic disparities and a rebuilding phase that led to ethical dilemmas. Güllen's willingness to sacrifice morality for financial gain reflects broader societal challenges related to economic disparity and the pursuit of prosperity at any cost.

Understanding the historical context in which Dürrenmatt wrote "Der Besuch der alten Dame" provides insight into the societal and philosophical currents that influenced the play's themes and characters. The post-war era, with its economic challenges, moral reflections, and shifting geopolitical landscape, forms a backdrop against which the play's exploration of justice, revenge, and the corrupting influence of wealth unfolds.

Revision Exercises

Character Quotes

  • Compile a list of key quotes for each major character and analyse their significance.

Theme Analysis

  • Analyse the key themes and their development throughout the play.

Sample Essay Questions

  • Würden Sie dieses Stück eher als eine Tragödie oder eine Komödie beschreiben? Begründen Sie Ihre Antwort.

  • Wie behandelt Dürrenmatt das Thema der Gerechtigkeit in diesem Stück? Finden Sie diese Behandlung effektiv?

  • Welche Bedeutung spielen Symbole im Stück?

  • War der Tod von Ill unvermeidlich?

  • Was macht das Stück so erfolgreich?

Essay Writing Tips

  • Develop a clear but balanced answer to the essay question.

  • To ensure that your essay is well-structured and argued write a clear introduction that highlights your answer to the essay question and briefly explains how you will make your case paragraph by paragraph.

  • Emphasise the importance of supporting arguments with textual evidence, quoting relevant passages from the play.

  • Summarise the main points in support of your argument in your conclusion.

  • More tips on how to write an excellent A-level German essay can be found in my other post.

Typical A-level Questions on Der Besuch der alten Dame

  1. Würden Sie dieses Stück eher als eine Tragödie oder eine Komödie beschreiben? Begründen Sie Ihre Antwort.

  2. Inwiefern ist Ihrer Meinung nach der Tod von Alfred Ill unvermeidlich?

  3. Auf welche Faktoren ist der Erfolg dieses Theaterstücks zurückzuführen? Begründen Sie Ihre Antwort.

  4. Wie behandelt Dürrenmatt das Thema Gerechtigkeit in diesem Stück? Finden Sie diese Behandlung effektiv?

  5. ”Ich wollte das Publikum unterhalten, nicht belehren.” Inwiefern ist es Ihrer Meinung nach Dürrenmatt gelungen, dieses Ziel zu erreichen?

  6. Welche Aspekte der Gesellschaft kritisiert Dürrenmatt in diesem Theaterstück? Begründen Sie Ihre Antwort.

  7. Welche Rolle spielen Symbole in diesem Stück? Geben Sie Ihre Gründe an.

Dürrenmatt's skilful blending of tragedy and comedy, along with the exploration of characters caught in a web of revenge and moral compromise, contributes to the enduring relevance and impact of the play in the realm of dramatic literature. If you found this #revisionguide useful, please leave a like. All the best with your #AlevelGerman exam!

If you found this post helpful, please like and share it with others so that many students can benefit from it. Thank you.



Mar 24

Hallo, would you say exploring the themes in your revision guide for DBdaD would be sufficient when aiming for the higher marks or that talking about other themes and analysis that is found in the official study guides for MFL is also necessary? Vielen Dank.

Replying to

Thank you very much for your comment. I would say that the MFL and my revision guide complement each other well. Definitely use both!


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