In the Spring of 1790 we again find Goethe in Italy, where he met the duchess Amalia at Venice, and the literary fruit of the journey was the Venetian epigrams, which are still more sensuous than the Roman. In the Autumn of the following year he devoted himself to a task in which he had before been informally engaged at Weimar. The new theatre was completed and Goethe was appointed director. It was in this capacity that he was best known to the citizens; for he had the final decision on every detail, whether of subject, scenery or acting, and in later years a large arm-chair was reserved for him in the middle of the pit, applause being hardly permitted until he gave the signal for it. The German stage owes almost as much to Goethe as to Lessing; for the répertoire of the Weimar and other theatres was stocked with pieces of solid merit, which long held their place. Shakespeare was performed no longer in burlesque, but in serious renditions of his plays, and the actors were instructed in the delivery of blank verse. Stress was laid on the excellence of the ensemble as against the predominance of particular stars, and the theatre was considered as a school not only of wholesome entertainment but of natural culture. Among the pieces which Goethe wrote at this time was the Gross Cophta, founded on the history of Cagliostro and the diamond necklace. He appears to have been fascinated by the story as a foreboding of the coming horrors of the Revolution.
When Goethe returned from Italy he found himself far less popular than he had been after the publication of his Werther. The author's genius was felt everywhere, but it disturbed to a greater extent than it gave delight. He stood almost alone. Klopstock was unfriendly, Herder was jealous and sensitive. Schiller was still shy and doubtful, and Wieland, who never was other than a large-hearted friend, could give him no satisfactory support. Although, fifteen years before, the nerves of all Europe had been thrilled by his Werther, and his name was as well known as that of Rousseau or Voltaire, yet, when the collected edition of his works was published in Leipsic, in 1790, containing Götz, Iphigenie, Tasso, Egmont, much of the first part of Faust, and his exquisite songs and lyrics, the publishers complained that the sale was not sufficient to pay expenses. Those whom he had offended, or who were jealous of his position or fortune, now formed quite a large class, including many authors in the flush of a transient popularity. He never betrayed his feelings in such matters, but it is evident that his devotion to science for some years was partly the consequence of discouragement in regard to his literary work.