Friedrich Schiller 1759-1805
German dramatist, poet, historian, philosopher, and essayist.
One of the towering figures in German literature, Schiller was a universal genius whose dramatic writings, poetry, philosophy, and historical works give eloquent voice to the themes of justice and human freedom. His early plays, which reflect his affinity with the Sturm und Drang movement, feature the passionate struggles of revolutionaries as they seek to overthrow corruption and tyranny. The later works, characterized by more realistic and Classical subjects and forms, move from the external events that shape the choices and actions of his characters to their inner struggles, as the playwright shows how humans may rise above corruption and attain dignity through non-violent means. As a dramatist of ideas, Schiller is concerned, especially in his later plays, to put on stage those notions which he believes can be morally instructive to his audience. He portrays, especially in his later plays, characters who, after deliberation and sometimes anguish, overcome their desires to make moral choices based on their reason. However, he does this not merely with polemics but appeals to the senses and emotions of his audience, portraying with high drama the tragic conflict that is central to human experience. Although Schiller is no longer widely read in the English-speaking world, he is revered as a national treasure in Germany, and is regarded, along with his contemporary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as one of the pillars of German literary achievement.
Schiller was born in Marbach, Württemberg, the son of an officer and surgeon in the army of the Duke Karl Eugen. At age seven he was enrolled in the Latin School at Ludwigsburg, to prepare for a career in the clergy. However, at age fourteen, at the insistence of the Duke, Schiller was placed in the elite Karlsschule, a military academy, where he would eventually study medicine. Schiller distinguished himself in his technical studies at the rigidly disciplined academy, but found the environment oppressive. He secretly studied literature, including the works of William Shakespeare, and clandestinely began writing his first play. After graduating in 1780, he was assigned a post as a military surgeon in Stuttgart. The following year he completed and self-published his first play, Die Räuber, which drew the attention of Wolfgang von Delberg, director of the Mannheim National Theater. After having to rewrite portions of the manuscript to pass the censors, Schiller saw his work performed at Mannheim to enthusiastic audiences. However, the play caused considerable controversy because of its revolutionary tone and ecstatic poetry, and the Duke forbade his officer to publish anything further except medical research. Schiller thereupon fled Stuttgart and moved to Mannheim, where he lived for a time on the aid of friends. His health had always been poor, and it was further undermined by the the stress of his exile and his financial difficulties.
In Mannheim, he entered into a contract with von Delberg to write plays for the theater, but it was an uneasy relationship and Schiller found himself continuing to live off the kindness friends and was constantly in debt. His second play, Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua received only lukewarm reviews, but the production of Kabale und Liebe in 1784 was a resounding success, and established the young writer as one of the masters of German drama. In 1785 Schiller broke with von Dalberg and moved to Leipzig on the invitation of his friend Christian Gottfried Köner. In Leipzig he edited the theatrical magazine Die Rheinische Thalia, published poetry, and completed his third play, Don Karlos.
For the next ten years Schiller wrote no plays, concentrating instead on historial and philosophical works. In 1787 he moved to Weimar, where he would meet the great poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; the two writers formed a strong personal friendship and literary and intellectual alliance that lasted until Schiller's death. It was at Goethe's recommendation that Schiller was appointed Professor of History at the University of Jena in 1789. Having gained some measure of financial security, in 1790 he married Charlotte von Lengefeld. While at the university he devoted much time to studying philosophy, particularly the writings of the German idealist Immanuel Kant. He published prodigiously at this time, producing works of history and major aesthetic treatises based on Kant's philosophy.
1798 marked the beginning of Schiller's second great period of dramatic composition. In 1799 he completed his Wallenstein trilogy, which was staged by Goethe the following year. Schiller's health by this time was in serious decline, most likely due to tuberculosis. But he continued to write and produce plays at the rate of one or more per year: from 1800 to 1804 he wrote and saw the production of Maria Stuart, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Die Braut von Messina, and Wilhelm Tell. He was working on another play, Demetrius, when he died of pneumonia in 1805.
Schiller's eleven major dramatic works span two distinct literary periods. His three earliest plays belong to the period of Sturm und Drang, the earliest dramatic manifestation of the romantic movement that was to sweep Europe. Die Räuber, which established his reputation, is a bombastic, sweeping tale of a rebel who, with his band of thieves, attempts to overthrow a corrupt political order. His second play, Fiesko, which deals with a struggle for power in the republic of Genoa, also involves a revolution, but this time the revolutionary becomes more corrupt than the system he endeavors to destroy. In Kabale und Liebe, a story of a pair of lovers who are forced apart because of social barriers, a despotic court not only thwarts romance but forces young German recruits to be sent to fight in America on behalf of the English. All these early plays feature passionate struggles of heroes who pursue freedom and justice in hypocritical societies, but also point out that reaction against tyranny can itself assume the form of oppression.
Don Karlos is seen by most critics as a “transitional” play. It is the first play written in verse, and in many ways anticipates the style of Schiller's later Classical works, but has as its theme the plea for freedom that marks his early efforts. The play, set in sixteenth-century Spain, about the attempt of the heir apparent Don Carlos to assume responsibilty and power from his father, treats political themes with considerable complexity and introduces philosophical ideas that were to figure prominently in the later dramas.
Schiller's later, Classical, plays were written after his ten-year immersion in historical and philosophical study, and they embody his newly developed aesthethic theories—including the idea that tragedy should be an instrument for humans' moral perfection. In his writings on aesthetics, Schiller distinguishes between “naive” works of art, which are the outpourings of genius, and “sentimental” works, which have goals. A naive work of art is moral, while a sentimental work has a moral. His particular brand of classicism, he claimed, was concerned with universal balance, and in his plays he depicts a movement toward this harmony as the soul triumphs over desire. In the trilogy of plays, Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini, and Wallensteins Tod, which depict the downfall of a general suspected of treason during a brief period during the Thirty Years' War, the sentimental qualities of the title character are contrasted to the naive qualities of the young officer who idolizes him. The plays also marks a shift in Schiller's socio-political ideas, as he rejects the notion that freedom can be attained through revolution and seeks to show rather how individual and spiritual freedom may be achieved through moral self-discovery.
The theme of inner victory through moral regeneration is played out in the plays composed during Schiller's last years. In Maria Stuart and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, in which Schiller depicts the lives of the historical figures Mary, Queen of Scots and Joan of Arc, we see how each heroine rises above the corruption of Church and government to attain her own sense of moral victory and spiritual freedom. Die Braut von Messina, which is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy and concerns two brothers who are fated to fall in love with their sister, explores the tension between predestination and free will. Schiller's last finished work, Wilhelm Tell, also concerns the moral autonomy of the main character, the legendary Swiss hero who shoots an apple from his own son's head, but recalls too the theme of revolution that was a concern in the earlier dramas.
Schiller's reputation as a boldly original thinker and artist was established with his controversial but highly successful first play, Die Räuber. By the age of twenty-four, with the production of Kabale und Liebe, he was recognized as one of the great masters of German drama. During his lifetime he was lauded as one of the figures who raised the stature of German literature, which hitherto had been overshadowed by the achievements of artists in England, France, and Italy. His plays were often met with standing ovations, and audiences and critics alike thrilled at his ability to portray with immediacy and complexity the sufferings and triumph of the human spirit. After his death he became a national icon, with monuments erected in his honor, and his works were and continue to be part of the German literary curriculum. Thinkers such as Carl Gustav Jung, Friederich Nietzche, Friederich Hegel, and Karl Marx were indebted to the ideas he set forth in this philosophical and aesthetical works. The attention paid to his works by German literary critics can be compared to that accorded to Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. In the nineteenth century, British critics such as Thomas Carlyle and the American poet William Cullen Bryant admired his taste and feeling and his concern for human freedom. Schiller's name is not a familiar one among English-speaking readers today, however, and he does not enjoy the same recognition as does his great contemporary Goethe, for example. Contemporary critics have suggested that Schiller's dramas are less accessible to modern readers due to their flamboyant, sometimes bombastic language. However, most agree that there are to be found in the plays themes and concerns—political and individual freedom, the complexity of human endeavor, the struggle between the rational and sensual aspects of the self—that are of remarkably contemporary concern. Twentieth-century commentators writing in English tend to stress the philosophical underpinnings of the plays; the political themes; the impact of Schiller's historical study on his dramatic practice; the shift in concern in the later plays from external to internal events; and the dramas' rootedness in human life.
Die Raüber: Ein Schauspiel [The Robbers] 1781
Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua: Ein republikanisches Trauerspiel [Fiesco; or, The Genoese Conspiracy] 1783
Kabale und Liebe: Ein bügerliches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen [Intrigue and Love: A Tragedy in Five Acts] 1784
Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien [Don Carlos, Infant of Spain ] 1798
Wallensteins Lager [The Camp of Wallenstein] 1800
Die Piccolomini [The Piccolominis] 1800
Wallensteins Tod [The Death of Wallenstein] 1800
Maria Stuart: Ein Trauerspiel [Mary Stuart: A Tragedy ] 1801
Die Jungfrau von Orleans: Ein romantische Tragödie [The Maid of Orleans: A Romantic Tragedy] 1802
Die Braut von Messina, oder feindlichen Brüder: Ein Trauerspiel mit Chören [The Bride of Messina] 1803
Wilhelm Tell: Ein Schuspiel [William Tell] 1804
Demetrius (fragment) 1815
Anthologie auf das Jahr 1782 (poetry) 1782
An die Freude ein Rundgesang für freye Männer. Mit Muzik (poetry) 1786
Der Geisterseher: Eine interessante Geschichte aus den Papieren des Grafen von O*** herausgegeben aus Herrn...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Ideal Freedom,” in Schiller, Basil Blackwell, 1949, pp. 165-86.
[In the following essay, Witte argues that Maria Stuart, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, and Die Braut von Messina embody and illustrate Schiller's idea of the tragically sublime: the triumph of the moral self over the human being's material existence, emotional impulses, and physical nature, or the victory of spiritual freedom over the bondage of the flesh.]
The years that remained to Schiller after the completion of Wallenstein were devoted almost entirely to the drama. After the self-imposed discipline of historical study and philosophical reflection, after the tardy growth of Wallenstein, the tempo of his dramatic production suddenly increased in a spectacular way: from now on, plays poured from his pen at the remarkable rate of one a year. This spate of creative work came at a time when Schiller was once again in close contact with the practical affairs of the stage; having moved to Weimar in December, 1799, he was able to assist Goethe in the management of the Weimar Court Theatre. With patient enthusiasm the two friends pursued their aims, seeking to improve the actors' performances (and the taste of the public) by insisting on careful rehearsal, proper delivery, and a uniform style of acting in a well-balanced ensemble. In order to add good plays to the repertoire, Schiller busied himself with...
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SOURCE: “Necessity and Freedom,” in Friedrich Schiller's Drama: Theory and Practice, The Clarendon Press, 1954, pp. 126-54.
[In the following essay, Stahl discusses Schiller's last plays, Die Braut von Messina, Wilhelm Tell, and the fragment Demetrius, and finds in them several new features—notably the exploration of the tension between necessity and free will, the external rather than the internal compulsion of characters, and tragic action based on the transformation of the hero's character—that indicate a shift in style and emphasis in Schiller's dramatic works and a development in his notion of tragedy.]
The new features of Schiller's last plays are striking enough to make us question once more how far his theory of tragedy may assist in the interpretation of his creative work. Whereas the theory is unthinkable without the notion of a single hero, neither Die Braut von Messina nor Wilhelm Tell possesses an individual protagonist. Moreover, these dramas portray human beings acting under compulsion far more strongly than the earlier plays. The tragic problem no longer appears to hinge on the interaction of character and circumstance; it seems to embrace a wider question involving the relation between necessity and free will in wholegroups of characters as well as individual persons.
Here Über das Erhabene, first written between 1793 and 1795...
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SOURCE: “Schiller: Poet of Politics,” in A Schiller Symposium: In Observance of the Bicentenary of Schiller's Birth, University of Texas Department of Germanic Languages, 1960, pp. 31-48.
[In the following essay, Seidlin asserts that the “complexities and perplexities of political man” is one of Schiller's most persistent themes, and claims that in his works the dramatist brings to life the ironies and paradoxes of political action—for example, that political ideals, however lofty, must be bound up with humans' particular desires and ambitions in order to be put into practice, but in being so bound lose their purity as ideals.]
A Quarter of a century ago, when darkness descended upon Schiller's native country, a darkness that was to engulf all of mankind in the shortest possible time, a theater in Hamburg produced one of Schiller's great dramatic works, Don Carlos. It is the play which culminates in the stirring climax of its third act, the confrontation scene between King Philip of Spain and the Marquis Posa, the powerful verbal and intellectual battle between the rigid and autocratic monarch, contemptuous of mankind and gloomily convinced that only harsh and tyrannical suppression can preserve peace and order in his vast empire, and the young, enthusiastic advocate of revolutionary principles, who demands for his fellow citizens the untrammeled right to happiness, the possibility of...
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SOURCE: “Poetry and Politics: An Aspect of Schiller's Diction,” in German Life and Letters, Vol. 18, No. 2, January 1965, pp. 101-10.
[In the following essay, Wells claims that Schiller deliberately employs poetical language and a declamatory style in his plays when dealing with facts he considers prosaic, and particularly when he presents legal and political details.]
When Schiller was writing Wallenstein he was consciously trying to avoid both the declamatory style of his Don Carlos and also the dullness which he felt was inherent in a subject full of political detail and intrigue. He was trying to steer clear of ‘beide Abwege, das Prosaische und das Rhetorische’ (to Goethe, October 2nd, 1797). By rhetoric he means, among other things, a certain diffuseness—what E. T. A. Hoffmann called ‘eine gewisse Schwatzhaftigkeit, eine gewisse Prägnanz, in der jede einzelne Strophe immer die zehn folgenden zu gebären scheint’. Hoffmann wrote this with both Don Carlos and Wallenstein in mind.1 The tendency is one that Schiller never altogether eliminated. In Demetrius, his last work, we find the hero making a point he needs for his argument in one line, which then ‘gives birth’ to two more:
In der Gefangenschaft wardst du geboren, (341)
In einem Kerker kamest...
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SOURCE: “Villainy and Guilt in Schiller's Wallenstein and Maria Stuart,” in Deutung und Bedeuntung: Studies in German and Comparative Literature Presented to Karl Werner Maurer, edited by Brigitte Schuldermann, Victor G. Doerksen, Robert J. Glendinning, and Evelyn Scherabon Firchow, Mouton and Co., 1973, pp. 100-17.
[In the following essay, Wells discusses the problem of how we are to understand the guilt and villainy of the heroes and antagonists in Wallenstein and Maria Stuart, and notes that Schiller places less and less emphasis on villainy as a source of tragic catastrophe in his later works.]
Schiller believed that the effect of tragedy is greatest when both the hero and his opponent have an arguable moral case.1 This paper sets out to ascertain to what extent he succeeded in Wallenstein and Maria Stuart in fulfilling this requirement. Scholars still disagree concerning the apportionment of guilt between hero (or heroine) and antagonist in these two plays—a remarkable state of affairs in view of the fact that Schiller was concerned to present characters actuated by ideas and emotions intelligible to all people at all times.2 Many writers have, like Walter Scott, gone to great lengths to present their characters in local dress, speaking the proper dialect and harbouring the correct superstitions. Schiller had no desire to follow...
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SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. vii-xxvi.
[In the following essay, Sharpe presents a critical overview of the historical dramas Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, and maintains that the hope evident in Don Carlos disappears in the later play and is replaced by a bleaker vision of human integrity in the world of action.]
At first sight Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, with Wallenstein Friedrich Schiller's greatest historical dramas, are striking in their similarity. Both are blank-verse plays, set against the background of religious strife in sixteenth-century Europe. Both explore the private emotions of the great and powerful as they confront the insoluble dilemmas of the political world. Both also display the hallmarks of Schiller's style and technique—swift-moving action, great set-piece encounters, impassioned rhetorical speeches, strongly contrasting characters, an unabashed theatricality. In both plays the historical setting is used not as a backdrop for a costume drama but to provide an opportunity to explore problems of Schiller's own age. The later eighteenth century was also a time of violent upheaval and ideological conflict, of the clash of tradition with experiment. His plays are concerned with freedom and tyranny, the relation of power and responsibility, of ends and means in political life and with...
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SOURCE: “Schiller and the “European Community”: “Universal History” in Theory and Practice,” in The Modern Language Review Vol. 93, No 2, April 1998, pp. 428-40.
[In the following essay, Lamport argues that Schiller's interest in history and his study of people in action on the historical stage contributed to his fuller treatment of the complex relationship of character and event in his dramatic works.]
‘Die europäische Staatengesellschaft scheint in eine große Familie verwandelt. Die Hausgenossen können einander anfeinden, aber hoffentlich nicht mehr zerfleischer.’ So declared Schiller, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Jena, in his inaugural lecture, ‘Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universal-geschichte?’,1 delivered on 21 May 1789, eight weeks before the storming of the Bastille and six months before his thirtieth birthday. The young Schiller had already made the acquintance of Universal History as a student at the Karlsschule: his medical dissertation Über den Zusammenhang der tierischen Natur des Menschen mit seiner geistigen quotes from Schlözer's Universalhistorie (SW, v, 304) and it is in terms derived from Schlözer that Schiller speaks in the inaugural lecture of the brute facts of history as an ‘Aggregat von Bruchstücken’ that it is the task of ‘der philosophische Verstand’ to turn into a ‘System’...
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Criticism: Author Commentary
SOURCE: “The Stage Considered as a Moral Institution,” in Friedrich Schiller: An Anthology for our Time, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1959, pp. 263-83.
[In the following essay, which was first delivered as a lecture in 1784, Schiller asserts that theater serves a crucial moral function in society, and sets out in detail its sphere of influence and range of effects on human life, calling it “a school of practical wisdom, a guide through social life, an infallible key to the most secret passages of the soul.”]
The stage owes its origin to the irresistible attraction of things new and extraordinary, to man's desire for passionate experience, as Sulzer has observed. Exhausted by the higher efforts of the mind, wearied by the monotonous and frequently depressing duties of his profession, satiated with sensuality, man must have felt an emptiness in his nature that was at odds with his desire for constant activity. Human nature, incapable either of remaining forever in an animal state or of devoting itself exclusively to the more subtle work of the intellect, demanded a middle condition which would unite these two contradictory extremes; a condition that would ease the hard tension between them and produce a gentle harmony, thereby facilitating the mutual transition from one to the other. This function is performed by the aesthetic sense or the appreciation of beauty.
Since it must be...
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Criticism: Die RäUber
SOURCE: “Karl Moor's Charisma,” in Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 57-61.
[In the following essay, Leidner notes that Die Räuber, Schiller's hugely successful first play, was and is so popular because of the charisma of the protagonist, Karl Moor, and because of the emotional ritual created in a work where the audience takes vicarious pleasure in identifying with a murderer.]
When Friedrich von Schiller, a twenty-two year old cadet at the Hohe Karlsschule in Stuttgart, went A.W.O.L. to attend the first performance of Die Räuber (1781), he could hardly have been disappointed with the response. “No play,” wrote one reviewer, “has ever had such an effect in the German theatre”1; and another: “The theatre was like a madhouse, full of rolling eyes, clenched fists, stomping feet, and hoarse cries!”2 There were, of course, also negative reactions, but his first drama was a sensation, and further productions—as well as imitations—in the 1780s testified to the fact that the work had hit a responsive chord with the German public. Surprisingly, the theme for Die Räuber was not very different from a number of other plays of the previous decade, often with violent protagonists who, like Schiller's Karl Moor, wildly expressed their frustrations with society. What, then, made...
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SOURCE: ‘“Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual”: Philosophy and Poetry in Schiller's Wallenstein”, in Publications of the English Goethe Society Vol. 65, 1995, pp. 136-60.
[In the following essay, Harrison explores the central theme of Wallenstein, “the agony of choice between the demands of the senses and those of reason,” which he notes is central to Schiller's vision of life.]
Popular proverbs express in a concise and memorable form a commonplace fact of experience. ‘Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual’ is a fine example. With its alliteration and assonance it pleases the ear, and it describes an experience so widespread that it needs no illustration. But it states a truth which can be applied not just to a wide range of particular situations in life, but also to life as a whole. It is the pain of being simultaneously drawn in opposite directions that Goethe's Faust expresses in the lines:
Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,
Die eine will sich von der andern trennen.
(Faust I, 1112 f.; HA, III, 41)
And it is the agony of choice, seen as the dilemma of human life itself, that is, I wish to suggest, the central theme of Schiller's Wallenstein.
But let me begin at the beginning. In his 1994 Bithell Memorial...
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Criticism: Wilhelm Tell
SOURCE: “The Silence of Wilhelm Tell,” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 4, Summer 1983, pp. 857-68.
[In the following essay, Lamport argues that Tell, a simple and humble man, undergoes a profound change after his confrontation with and triumph over Gessler: he moves out of his simple world and gains historical significance, and he finds a new eloquence as result of the important moral decision he makes in silence.]
Schiller's Wilhelm Tell seems at first sight a fairly simple play. The action is, of course, a complex one, with four separate strands (the conspiracy of Stauffacher and his associates; the love of Rudenz for Berta; the assassination of the Emperor by Duke John; and Tell's ordeal and the killing of Gessler), but these all converge in a single point, all are gathered together to assert a single, simple meaning—the defence by the Swiss of their traditional liberties, their successful rebellion against Habsburg tyranny. A tale of epic simplicity, with an appropriately epic quality in the telling—indeed, Schiller has taken over the main lines of his story very largely from the epic chronicler of Swiss history, Ägidius Tschudi. It is customary to point out Schiller's divergences from Tschudi, but it is remarkable how much of Schiller's play is taken directly from this source: sometimes whole scenes or sequences of action, sometimes phrases reproduced verbatim; sometimes,...
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Blunden, Alan G. “Nature and Politics in Schiller's Don Carlos.” Educational Theater Journal 27 (August 1975): 504-07.
Notes the importance of the organic metaphors underlying the political themes in the play.
Garland, H. B. Schiller. New York: Medill McBridge, 1950. 280 p.
General introduction emphasizing “the human character of the writer which is the foundation of the literary works”; includes detailed analyses of individual plays.
Graf, Günter. “Criticism of Power: A Strategic Device in Kabald und Liebe.” In Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 43-8.
Examines Schiller's poetical adaptation of his criticism of power as exemplified in Kabald und Liebe.
Graham, Ilse. “The Structure of the Personality in Schiller's Tragic Poetry.”Schiller: Bicentary Lectures, edited by F. Norman. London: University of London Institute of Germanic Studies, 1960. pp. 104-44.
Considers Schiller's work as rooted deeply in the reality of human life.
Graham, Ilse. Schiller's Drama: Talent and Integrity. London: Methuen, 1974. 406 p.
Comprehensive survey of the plays, containing readings of...
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