(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Tell is considered by most critics to be Schiller’s dramatic masterpiece. It was an immediate success after its premiere at the Weimar Hoftheater on March 17, 1804. Schiller directed the production. It is his most widely translated drama and the one play likeliest to be associated with Schiller outside of Germany. Schiller’s most popular play is also one of his shortest and the only one to have a happy ending.

Most people are acquainted with the William Tell legend without Schiller or his play. The exploits of the legendary Swiss hero who fought against tyranny and shot the apple off his son’s head have now passed into folklore. Tell, as seen through Schiller’s eyes, is depicted as a great hero, a man who exemplified the best in the Swiss people.

William Tell is a powerful blend of Swiss history and popular legend. Schiller rearranges recorded history, as usual, and eliminates or telescopes important events. Since he framed his play around a fictional character, however, the dramatic alterations are less emphatic than those in Mary Stuart or The Maid of Orleans. The focus of the play is on the Swiss people’s oppression by Albert I, a Hapsburg emperor, who reduced Switzerland to an Austrian dominion. Ruling for him in Switzerland is the sadistic Vogt Hermann Gessler, who overstepped his authority and trampled on the people’s rights.

The play opens with great impact. A man is...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

William Tell Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A storm is rising on Lake Lucerne. The ferryman makes his boat fast to the shore as villager Conrad Baumgarten rushes up, pursued by the soldiers of the tyrannous governor, Hermann Gessler. He implores the ferryman to take him across the lake to safety. The crowd asks why he is being pursued. Baumgarten tells them that the seneschal of the castle had entered his house, demanded a bath, and started taking liberties with Baumgarten’s wife. She escaped and ran to her husband in the forest, whereupon Baumgarten returned home and, while the seneschal was in the bath, split his skull with his ax. Baumgarten must now flee the country.

The sympathies of the common people are with Baumgarten, and they beg the ferryman to take him across the now stormy lake. The ferryman, afraid, refuses to do so. The hunter William Tell hears Baumgarten’s story. Tell, the only person in the crowd with the courage to steer the boat in a tempest, makes preparations to take the fugitive across the lake. As they cast off, soldiers thunder up. When the soldiers see their prey escaping, they take revenge on the peasants, killing their sheep and burning their cottages.

The Swiss are greatly troubled because the emperor of Austria has sent Gessler to rule as viceroy over the three cantons around Lake Lucerne. Gessler, a second-born noble son without land or fortune, is envious of the prosperity and the independent bearing of the people. The Swiss hold their lands in direct fief to the emperor, and the rights and duties of the viceroy are strictly limited. Hoping to break the proud spirit of the people, Gessler places a cap on a pole in a public place and requires that each man bow to the cap.

Gessler’s soldiers come to the farm of an upright farmer and attempt to take from him his best team of oxen. Only when Arnold, the farmer’s son, springs on the men and strikes them with his staff do they release the oxen and leave. Arnold thinks it best to go into hiding. While he is away, the soldiers return to torture his old father and put out his eyes. Arnold joins the outraged Swiss against Gessler. Walter Fürst becomes their leader, and it is agreed that ten men from the three cantons will meet and plan the overthrow of the viceroy.

At the mansion of the nobleman Werner, the baron of Attinghausen, the common people and their lord gather for a morning cup of friendship. Old Werner is happy to drink with his men, but his nephew, Ulrich von Rudenz, refuses, for he is drawn to the Austrian rulers and feels no bond to free Switzerland. Werner upbraids Ulrich for being a turncoat and accuses him of turning to Austria because he is in love with the wealthy heir Bertha von Bruneck.

The representatives of the people of the three...

(The entire section is 1124 words.)