In the sixteenth century, Nürnberg, the eye and ear of Germany, as Luther termed it, set the fashion for other towns, and was regarded as the classic home of the Carnival-play. But from the days of Hans Sachs, whose first piece was written in 1516, Nürnberg dramatists ranged far beyond the old farces. Sachs surpassed all his contemporaries in fertility and artistic power; for there was no province in which he did not try his hand, no interest of the time which did not find an echo in his writings; yet in his versification he persistently adhered to the worst traditions of the close of the middle ages. He had no idea that there could be any fixed relation between matter and form, and in no writer of the sixteenth century is the want of aesthetic culture which characterizes the epoch so apparent. At the same time, he is not incapable of artistic composition, and we may even say that he is the greatest poetical genius that had appeared in Germany since the Minnesingers. Although a Protestant, he had not the combative temperament of Hutten or a Manuel; his poetry was not inspired by indignation, and he retained his poetical composure in the midst of the troublous times in which he wrote. His power of easy creation resulted from the peacefulness of his nature; he looked on the world with an untroubled glance, and could enter into his life with a sympathy free from all egotism. What he himself observed he was able to reproduce in words; but he endeavored to represent many things which had never fallen under his observation, and he made the mistake of thinking that every form of poetry was suitable for every theme. He treated many of his subjects in lyrics and in epic rhymed couplets, as well as in dramatic form. It is a pity that he did not likewise treat them in prose, for his Reformation pamphlets show us that in prose writing he commands a clear and flexible style.
Hans Sachs made use of all forms of literature in his efforts to diffuse information on various subjects; he was a real teacher of the people, and his teaching was of a comforting and conciliatory character, springing from his own kind and gentle nature. He always unites description and reflection; he is a master of description, and makes use of it on every possible occasion, but his reflections are for the most part trivial. He pictures graphically to himself all the scenes which are within his power of imagination. As an instance of this may be mentioned his story of the peddler who goes to sleep in a wood, and has his wares plundered and his clothes damaged by apes. The heat, the weary peddler, the quiet of the wood, the shade, the cool spring inviting to rest, the dream which conjures up before his eyes a vision of the village festival and of large receipts; the devastation caused by the apes, and the exact contents of the basket ransacked by them--all this is most vividly described. He does not think of telling us at the outset what the peddler's pack contained; we only learn it when the things themselves come to light, action thus taking the place of mere description. In other cases, too, we notice that he tries to give his story a poetic form. Thus, when wishing to describe the latest victories of Charles V, he pictures himself as coming one day into Nürnberg from the country to make purchases, as seeing with astonishment many signs of festal rejoicing, and at length asking an explanation from an old man, who then gives him a short narrative of the events.
In his tales and dramas Sachs frequently endeavors to connect action with motive and to develop character; but he as frequently neglects this altogether, or attempts it only in the most superficial manner. He does not go so far as summarily to dismiss his characters from the stage when he no longer requires them there, but the reasons for their exit are often very insufficient. He divided his comedies and tragedies into acts, but the number of acts is quite capricious, and the division is often made at a most unfitting place. He twice dramatized the pretty story of Eve's good and bad children being examined by God in the doctrines of faith, and some of them answering badly in their examination. Each version has its special merits, but in the second the close of the act is made in the midst of the examination, where it is utterly out of place. With regard to his character-drawing, it is in treating serious subjects that Hans Sachs furnishes us with truly individual personalities, for then he draws them from his own experience. He represents in a touching manner the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and effectually enlists our sympathies on the side of our first parents, whom affliction only binds more closely together. Specially charming is his description of Eve's naive fear of God, whose visits alarm her; and of Adam as a father, instructing his boys how to behave before the good God, how to take off their caps, to bow and to give their hand. In Cain, the poet has given us an excellent picture of a naughty boy. The impetuousity and imprudence of the porter of Heaven, St. Peter, are drawn with inimitable humor in all Sach's farces and dramas. Frequently he paints not individuals, but types, like the masks of Italian comedy; in this he was influenced by the German poetry of the day, whose strength lay in satirical caricature. One or more of these typical figures regularly appears in every farce--the Catholic priest and his housefkeeper, the cheating landlord, the wicked and quarrelsome old dame, the sharp-witted wandering scholar, the unfaithful wife, the jealous husband and many others. In his invention of dramatic situations, striking speeches and comic scenes, as in his creation of characters, the poet has certain fixed models at his disposal, which he further embellishes by traits drawn from his own observation.
Sach's literary activity extended from 1514 to 1569. According to his own reckoning he had by the year 1567 written 4,275 master-songs, 208 dramas, 1,558 comic stories, fables, histories, figures, comparisons, allegories, dreams, visions, lamentations, controversial dialogues, psalms and religious songs, street and tavern songs, and a few prose dialogues--all in all, 6,048 pieces, large or small. It is in his farces and fables that he best satisfies the requirements of art; he is less happy in his Carnival-plays, and still less in his other dramas. His first tragedies, Lucretia and Virginia, dealt with stories of Roman liberty. It was not till 1533 that he turned his attention to the Scriptural drama, and not till 1545 that he began dramatizing tragic subjects drawn from tales, especially Boccaccio. The period of his greatest dramatic activity falls between 1550 and 1560; in these years he wrote plays in bulk, seizing alike on Scriptural, classical or romantic subjects. He represents throughout the sketchy style of drama; he only gives slight outlines, and does not develop, but compresses.
Hans Sachs died in 1576, in the eighty-first year of his age. Through his influence the Nürnberg school of dramatic art became the example not only for the towns in the immediate neighborhood, but also for Magdeburg, Augsburg, Breslau and Strassburg. And even in the present-day, relics of his dramas may still be found in the plays acted by the German peasants of upper Bavaria, as far as Hungary and Silesia. In those districts they have survived like popular songs.