All references and quotations are from:
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Trans. Eric A. Blackall. 1989. Vol. 9 of Goethe: The Collected Works. Ed. Victor Lange. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, originally published in 1795 or 1796, is known to students of literary history as the first apprentice novel, or bildungsroman. Such works chart the protagonist's development from adolescence to adulthood. This prototypical effort is no exception: we follow Wilhelm Meister from his life as a theater-obsessed young bourgeois through his adventures and misadventures with the stage, and finally to his entry into German society and his impending marriage.
Goethe disliked tropes that called attention to their artifice; his preference was to find them in existing circumstances and develop them as much as he could without exaggeration. Eric A. Blackall, in the afterword to his translation of the Apprenticeship, identifies Wilhelm's interest in the stage from childhood as autobiographical for Goethe, and it's there that Goethe finds the defining trope for the work: the actor is his metaphor for one whose engagement with life culminates in adulthood.
An actor, like an adolescent, begins on the road to realization with unfocused emotion, passion, and drive. A written role and society's functions and structures serve much the same purpose: they provide a focus for that intensity, and the discipline they impose ideally expresses it to it's best advantage. The irony of the Apprenticeship is that Wilhelm, for all his passion for the stage, is a mediocre actor whose true gifts are for entrepeneurship and management. His failure as an actor leads him to an embrace of societal responsibility. He enthusiastically takes up his obligations to relatives and the family business. He also approaches marriage with a commitment to building a stable life, rather than following blind passions. As Goethe writes near the end, "[...] everything he built was to last for several generations. His apprenticeship was therefore completed [...] he acquired the virtues of a solid citizen" (307). As Wilhelm himself says, "Nature turns us, in her own pleasant way, into what we should be" (307).
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Apprenticeship for modern readers is the theory of William Shakespeare's Hamlet that appears in its pages. Goethe depicts Wilhelm as utterly fascinated with the play, and he takes a surprisingly idealistic view of Hamlet as a character:
A fine, pure, noble and highly moral person, but, devoid of that emotional strength that characterizes a hero, goes to pieces beneath a burden that it can neither support nor cast off. Every obligation is sacred to him, but this one is too heavy. The impossible is demanded of him--not the impossible in any absolute sense, but what is impossible to him. How he twists and turns, trembles, advances and retreats, always being reminded, always reminding himself, and finally almost losing sight of his goal, yet without ever regaining happiness! (146)
Harold Bloom, in his chapter on Goethe in The Western Canon, identifies this view with Goethe's own, and he scoffs at it. Noting Hamlet's contemptible conduct with regard to Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he writes, "One hardly knows what play Goethe/Wilhelm Meister was reading; certainly not Shakespeare's tragedy [...]" (199). However, Bloom doesn't offer any support for his assertion that Goethe and Wilhelm's view of the play are the same, and considering it within the larger context of the Apprenticeship, one wonders if Goethe anticipated Bloom's oft-repeated dictum that one doesn't read Shakespeare so much as one is read by him.
Bloom's point is that any interpretation of Shakespeare (and, by extension, Hamlet) provides far more insight into the interpreter than it does into the play(s). Freud's identification of the Oedipus complex as the cause of Hamlet's indecisiveness may seem ridiculously wrongheaded, but it says a great deal about Freud's preoccupations when he posited the theory. (He was working on The Interpretation of Dreams at the time.) T.S. Eliot's view of Hamlet is probably just as ludicrous as Freud's, but criticizing the play as an "artistic failure" because its action lacks an "objective correlative" to Hamlet's state of mind says a great deal about Eliot's concerns (and possibly insecurities) in his own poetry. In person, Bloom may not be able to go fifteen minutes without remarking on how much he hates Eliot, but he all but certainly agrees with Eliot's view that the most we can hope for in writing about Shakespeare is to be wrong about him in a new way. Certainly he would agree that Freud and Eliot lived up to the standard Eliot set.
While Wilhelm Meister may live up to the Eliot standard in commenting on Shakespeare, I don't believe Goethe does, or that he is even directly commenting on the play. He's commenting on Wilhelm, who is projecting his view of himself onto Hamlet. A few chapters before he makes the comments Bloom derides, Wilhelm and the company of actors he's gathered are beset upon by highwaymen, who steal a number of their possessions and leave Wilhelm injured. While recovering, he looks back on the incident with self-disgust:
As he thought over the past, one thing became ever more distasteful and intolerable, the more he pondered and reflected on it. This was his disastrous leadership in battle, the very remembrance of which filled him with dismay. [...] He had inspired confidence in himself and manipulated the will of others; and he had forged ahead, driven by boldness and inexperience. But these were not sufficient to cope with the dangers that had befallen them. (143)
Wilhelm is as insecure of his ability as a man of action as the melancholy Dane ever was. Aurelie, one of the actors in the company, listens to Wilhelm's interpretations of Hamlet and Shakespeare. She comments on how solipsistic the observations seem:
It seems as if some presentiment of the whole world lies within you, and this is brought to life and developed by your contact with poetry. for truly [...] nothing comes into you from the outside world. (153)
Goethe makes clear Wilhelm only reads and hears his own echoes.
However, Goethe also makes clear that the echoes of Shakespeare become Wilhelm's own. Hamlet's melancholy and indecisiveness are spurred by his feelings over the death of his father, and Goethe presents Wilhelm's feelings when confronted with the news of his own father's death as parallel: they "plunged him into even greater confusion about what he now had to do" (171). Goethe presents the similarities, but he also finds the contrast between his protagonist and Shakespeare's: Wilhelm ultimately finds redemption. He embraces the family he'd previously turned his back on, and he takes up the responsibilities he'd previously refused to acknowledge. Hamlet only finds death and damnation for those around him, including himself.
The passion for theatrics is what binds Wilhelm and Hamlet; both see the emotions of the stage as superior to their own. What divides them is the culmination of the roads on which that leads them after they leave that sentiment behind. Wilhelm rises; Hamlet falls. Wilhelm, in the production of Hamlet he puts on, gives the play a happy ending: Hamlet, in his dying breath, names Horatio the king (179). Left to his own devices, happy endings are what Wilhelm sees for all, and they're what he finds for himself.