William Tell Essay - Wilhelm Tell, Friedrich Schiller

Wilhelm Tell, Friedrich Schiller

Introduction

Wilhelm Tell Friedrich Schiller

The following entry presents criticism of Schiller's drama Wilhelm Tell: Ein Schauspiel (1804; Wilhelm Tell.) For a discussion of Schiller's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 39.

The most widely read play outside Schiller's native Germany and the last of his completed dramas, Wilhelm Tell is considered by many to represent the height of his artistic achievement. Based on the legend of its eponymous folk hero, the play weaves the story of Tell's personal struggle against the tyrant Gessler with that of the Swiss people seeking freedom from Austrian rule. Although the play is generally recognized as a Swiss cause célèbre, critics remain divided in their approach to the work, advancing consideration of the drama in folkloric, political, aesthetic, and moral contexts.

Biographical Information

Writing at a time when German language and literature was struggling to find its place in the cultural sphere, Schiller became a national figure in his own lifetime. Following his initial literary success, he relocated to the German intellectual center of Weimar in 1787 and set drama and poetry aside to pursue a study of history. He received an appointment as a professor of history in 1789 to the nearby University at Jena but was forced to resign two years later when he nearly died of a pulmonary disorder. Permanently housebound by his illness, Schiller ceased all other writing in order to concentrate on the philosophical study of aesthetics and the development of a theoretical foundation that was to support and infuse his later work. He resumed writing poetry in 1795 and returned to dramatic work in 1797, beginning work on the Wallenstein trilogy (published in 1800). Despite the prolonged absence of his work from the stage, Schiller's return was triumphant and he remained both a popular and critical success for the remainder of his career. He completed work on Wilhelm Tell in 1804, less than a year before his death, and while the theme of revolution was reminiscent of his earlier work, many saw the play as the progression of the hero through Schiller's theoretical framework.

Plot and Major Characters

Three independent plots run through through the five acts of Wilhelm Tell. First is the legend itself, in which the Swiss hero Wilhelm Tell, a woodsman and hunter, is brought into conflict with the tyrannical local Austrian governor Hermann Gessler. Gessler has commanded the local citizenry to bow to a hat which he has placed upon a pole and, as his punishment for refusing to do so, Tell is forced to shoot an apple from his son's head with an arrow from his crossbow. Although the shot is successful, Tell is nonetheless arrested. He eventually escapes and later kills Gessler as he rides in the woods. The second plot is that of the Swiss drive for independence from Austria. Representatives of three cantons—Schwyz, led by Werner Stauffacher; Uri, led by Walter Fürst; and Unterwaiden, led by Arnold vom Melechtal—gather at Rütli to plot an armed rebellion against their Austrian rulers. As they gather support for the revolution, they are able to incorporate Tell's struggle into their own, championing him as a hero of the cause. The third story in Wilhelm Tell is that of the Swiss noble Ulrich von Rudenz, who has declared his intention of aligning with Austria because of his love for Berta von Bruneck. When he realizes she will only accept him if embraces his own countrymen, he returns his allegiance to the Swiss, and, following the death of Gessler, joins the Rütli confederacy in their subsequent attack on the last of the Austrian governors. Added to the action of the final act is a controversial scene in which Tell encounters Johannes Parricida, the son of Austrian emperor Ferdinand, who has recently murdered his father for withholding his inheritance. Although Parricida, aware of the Gessler assassination, seeks Tell's absolution, he is repudiated as Tell argues the moral difference between the two killings.

Major Themes

Despite debate over its historical accuracy and the question of the existence of a historical Tell figure, Wilhelm Tell has been repeatedly cited as a champion of Swiss independence. But while the rebellion is central to the structure of the work, critics point to the moral autonomy of Tell as its true center. In his aesthetic and philosophical writings, Schiller eschewed the revolutionary stance he had maintained in his early work and turned instead to the arts and personal moral responsibility as the principal agents of social change. Considering the natural state of human psychology to be driven by the conflict between the Stofftrieb (sensedrive) and the Formtrieb (form-drive), Schiller describes a state of "aesthetic freedom," where either drive ceases to dominate and reason and feeling exist in harmony. Many critics feel that the character of Tell represents the transition of an individual from the natural to aesthetic state of being. Indeed, critic Robert L. Jamison argues that the confrontation between Tell and Parricida is designed not to further justify Tell's action against Gessler, but is to be viewed in contrast to his rescue of Baumgarten in the opening scene: "Tell, the hunter, could save men's lives; Tell the father and husband, can help men save their souls."

Critical Reception

Although critics vary in their interpretive approach to the work, praise for Wilhelm Tell is nearly unanimous, and the drama remains frequently read and performed. Since its premiere, the play has been esteemed for its color and warmth, and Schiller is lauded for his handling of the dramatic action, not only in the design of the piece, but in its setting, language, and characterization. Critic H. B. Garland describes Wilhelm Tell as "probably Schiller's most popular play, rich in qualities which no other of his works displays in equal degree." Although consideration of the play, according to critic W. G. Moore, "really rests upon a decision as to whether Schiller was predominantly a thinker, writing to present an argument about freedom, or a dramatist, presenting a case of notable conflict and a revelation of the mystery of life," critics continue to recognize the drama as an important and essential part of Schiller's legacy.

Criticism

Richard Plant (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Gessler and Tell: Psychological Patterns in Schiller's Wilhelm Tell," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, March, 1958, pp. 60-70.

[In the following essay, Plant explores the psychological pattern of Gessler as a jealously competitive arch-villain, and that of Tell as a restless, lone hunter.]

During the last twenty years more and more attempts have been made to reappraise Schiller's contributions to philosophy, poetry, and drama. Because his plays and many of his poems had achieved the dangerous distinction of being considered reading matter fit for the high school level, the reappraisal came close to a rescue.1 In 1955 several valuable studies were published to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death.2 Some continued and elaborated the trends of earlier essays, often defending traditional positions; others ventured to strike out into new territory. As "traditional" we want to define here the many exegeses of the Kantian-transcendental school which, to put it rather crudely, look at Schiller's artistic productions as tests designed to corroborate his philosophical concepts.3 Already in the 1930's and 1940's there had appeared interpretations opposing this traditional viewpoint. We find some influenced by Stefan George's doctrines,4 others examining the theological premises of his work, and several which emphasized its "Germanic" or baroque characteristics.6 Finally, a number of more recent German commentators came near to our "New Critics"—they went back to a close text-reading and rejected any unilateral approach.7 A few, par ticularly Reinhard Buchwald and Thomas Mann, opened new trails: they attempted to disclose the psychological-aesthetic designs governing Schiller's productions.

These "New Critics" from Europe have one thing in common—they do not ignore the tendency to idealization and intellectualization so typical of Schiller. They recognize his peculiar gift for what could be called philosophical dramatizations, yet they do not stop there. They see this as one possible level of meaning and go on to explore other and, perhaps, deeper ones. The result is a novel evaluation that admits different planes of interpretation.

In this study we shall attempt to find a new gateway to Schiller's most popular, least discussed play, by tracing certain patterns in his dramatic works which tie his first drama, Die Räuber, to his last finished play, Wilhelm Tell. The early period of Schiller's dramatic productivity ending with Don Carlos in 1787, and the later one beginning around 1796 with his work on Wallenstein, are connected by a few main currents. Of course, Schiller's immersion in philosophy, aesthetics, and history has wrought considerable change in architecture and style of his later plays. Yet throughout nearly all his plays there is visible a pattern of rebellion, sometimes quite apparent as governing idea, sometimes only in a subplot; we can see it as revolt of courageous citizens against political tyranny or as personal insurrection of a humiliated youngster against an autocratic father.8

Naturally, the Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung is a historical account. But we can hardly call it accidental that Schiller selected this chronicle of a successful insurgence. And his Wilhelm Tell, published sixteen years later, presenting the revolt of the Swiss cantons, could be titled: "Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Schweizer Kantone von der österreichischen Regierung." The fire that burned in Die Räuber and in Don Carlos had not died.9 We can trace certain types of mutinous behavior throughout the fragments of Die Malteser, where the political and the personal are fused in a manner which is uniquely Schiller's. In Don Carlos, as in Die Malteser, the hero's insurgent instincts are nourished by personal passions, and vice versa; we find the pattern in Fiesco and in Kabale und Liebe. In Fiesco, among the innumerable subplots that accompany and obscure the main line, Schiller gives us a revealing clue to the character of the rebel per se. Bourgognino, when learning he may join the older conspirators, cries out: "Ich habe schon längst ein Etwas in meiner Brust gefühlt, das sich von nichts wollte ersättigen lassen —Was es war, weiss ich jetzt plötzlich. Ich hab' einen Tyrannen!" (I, xiii).10

It is, then, the restless impulse to insurgence that comes first; the rational aim is chosen afterwards: Schiller's rebels are rebels by instinct. Schiller, one might venture to say, exposed here not only the nucleus of the rebel-phenomenon but in a "trance of intuition"11 revealed a secret of his own inner most processes. A compelling urge to shape, to project, certain configurations drove him all his life—he yielded to it with the inventiveness of a genius which succeeded in masking but not in hiding them.12 And just as he always treated of rebellions, he was forever fascinated by conspiracies and conspirators.13 Even in the classical Wilhelm Tell we find the familiar elements of plot and counterplot, of surprise move, of secret meeting and radical turnabout. A "Lust am höheren Indianerspiel,"14 a "penchant for playing a sublimated Cowboy-and-Indian game," a pleasure in complication and intrigue, maintained a hold on him.

This zest for the conspiratorial cabal led Schiller to occasional overplotting. An abundance of labyrinthine subplots veils Fiesco and Don Carlos, hampers even Wallenstein, 15 and is eventually brought under tighter control in Maria Stuart and Wilhelm Tell. In Maria Stuart Schiller presents a conspiratorial pattern he has utilized before and afterwards: the intrigue that defeats itself. The well-meant stratagem of Maria's friends to bring the two cousins together causes the very disaster it was conceived to prevent, just as Gessler's measures to purge the cantons into submission kindles the flames of rebellion.16 In addition, we can track down major and minor conspiracies in many guises through Die Räuber, Kabale und Liebe, Die Braut von Messina, and such projects and fragments as Demetrius, Die Polizei, Warbeck, Narbonne.17

In Maria Stuart we also encounter a prime sample of the type which carries the conspiratorial scheme. Logically, conspiratorial plots need conspiratorial minds, and in the figure of Leicester, Schiller has created the Machiavellian deceiver as such, a species we might call the perfect "double-crosser." Not only does Leicester deceive Elisabeth; he betrays Mortimer, his former ally. Mortimer himself, though at least an honest partisan of one side, is an intrigant working underground for Maria.

Mortimer, by the way, is less of a "double-crosser" than Leicester: one might say each belongs to a different set of transgressors. Both sets are widely represented throughout Schiller's plays. The family tree of the first (Leicester) group begins with the "Kanaille" Franz and ends with Gessler. The second (Mortimer) group of sometimes seditious, definitely equivocal characters, is larger. Its personalities are more enigmatic, more glittering—from Fiesco, Posa, and Philipp, to Wallenstein, Octavio, Maria, and Elisabeth. In Wallenstein Schiller reaches the epitome of ambiguity,18 a daemonic strategist, a spellbinding genius, a far-seeing statesman centuries ahead of the religious fanatics of his era, and a traitor against his will—the toying with the idea of treason brings about the act of treason.19 To the monochromatic landscape of Schiller's plays, the ambiguous characters lend profile and color, and later on we shall try to show how even Tell is more than the naïve hero of tradition.

Wallenstein's vacillating attitude toward the Viennese court and its representative, Octavio, and the equally dubious policy of the court and Octavio toward him, reveal a further archetypal pattern of Schiller: that of rivalry. In countless mutations and variations he puts before us two men, competing yet tied to one another by blood or affection.20 Two inimical brothers dominated Die Räuber, two inimical brothers are locked in deadly rivalry in Die Braut von Messina, the play preceding Wilhelm Tell.21 Often Schiller constructs a triangle: two men competing for the love of a woman or the loyalty of a younger man.22 And even where rivalry for a woman seems the prime motive for fraternal contention, Schiller's instincts make him go much further. In the case of Karl vs. Franz, of Cesar vs. Manuel, the burning hatred of the brothers antedates the struggle for Amalia or Beatrice.

Schiller makes clear the true character of this fraternal relationship when Isabella, mother of the two feuding brothers in Die Braut von Messina, declares:

Doch eures Haders Ursprung steight hinauf
In unverständ'ger Kindheit frühe Zeit . . .
Und dennoch ist's der erste Kinderstreit,
Der, fortgezeugt in unglücksel'ger Kette,
Die neuste Unbill dieses Tags geboren.
Denn alle schweren Taten, die bis jetzt geschahn,
Sind nur des Argwohns und der Rache Kinder.

(I, iv)

Manuel and Cesar are rivals, as it were, by instinct; the reasons they seek are rationalizations. Schiller reveals here a genuine insight into the nature of fraternal rivalry, and we will see this insight at work in Wilhelm Tell, where few investigators so far seem to have suspected it.

For it may not be accidental that Schiller started his Tell project while still busy with Die Braut von Messina. As is so often true, something of the substance of one enterprise has infiltrated the other. Thus, the Gessler-Tell relationship appears as a new variant of the configuration of rivalry. Gessler, as Gertrud Stauffacher remarks early in the drama, is a poor younger son, without fief, nothing but an Both appointed governor—we Kommissar.23 might say sons, Cesar and Franz are younger a envious of the older brother's privileges; and so Gessler is linked to the earlier prototypes of sheer evil by one of those odd subterranean relationships which tie figures across his various plays.24 Gessler not Schiller's only begrudges and hates Stauffacher's freedom and wealth; he hates the independence and efficiency of all the Swiss, and his envy repeatedly singles out Tell:

Du kannst ja alles, Tell, an nichts verzagst du:
Das Steuerruder fuhrst du wie den Bogen,
Dich schreckt kein Sturm, wenn es zu retten gilt.

(III, iii)

Thus, Gessler's competitive jealousy precedes the appleshooting incident; it dates back to the encounter on the narrow mountain pass where Tell's presence frightens the Governor into speechlessness; before in the it exists, so speak, the play begins.25 As to and case of Cesar Manuel, Schiller accepted the pre-rational nature of the antagonists' rivalry as one of the foundations on which to build the play's structure. And he did it deliberately: in the notes and excerpts he made from his sources he mentions: "Gesslern verdriesst's dass er von Tell gross reden hört."26

In the topography of Schiller's plays Gessler's location is set—he belongs to the family of archvillains, together with Franz, Gianettino, Präsident Walter, Leicester, etc. Like most of his ancestors, Gessler is a "gewaltiger Verbrecher," one of the villains of awe-inspiring proportions who always fascinated Schiller. Gessler's threats before Tell's arrow fells him, to mention only the most dramatic example, are reminiscent of one of Franz's outrageous hymns to power and violence (II, ii). This outburst with its roll call of sadistic imagery reveals the unmistakable melody of the daydream, and Fiesco and Wallenstein, for instance, frequently indulge in phantasies of almightiness. Beginning with Franz and ending with Gessler, Schiller exposed the ruthless and power-crazy; yet though he loathed them, they exerted a particular spell, and in their visions we recognize the dreams of the meek and the persecuted.27 Then, after such a figure has been elevated into a prototype of tyranny, he is annihilated before the onlookers' eyes—another element of wish-fulfillment which, especially in our century of dictators and secret police chiefs, helps to ensure the play's appeal on a pre-intellectual level.

Thanks to the enormous range of his imagination, Schiller rarely repeated himself: Wallenstein's visions of the highest office are not those of Franz Moor or Gessler. Schiller knew the "verruchte Wollust" of possessing boundless power, and the fire with which he imbued his authoritarians still burns today in episodes and speeches projecting the thrill of supreme mastery over people.28 Of course, Gessler as a human being is not as problematic as Wallenstein, but we can feel the antithetic forces of attraction and...

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Roger E. Mitchell and Joyce P. Mitchell (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Schiller's 'William Tell': A Folkloristic Perspective," in Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 83, No. 327, January-March, 1970, pp. 44-52.

[In the following essay, the critics suggest that Wilhelm Tell remains part of the oral tradition from which it emerged, arguing that Schiller's intent was for Tell's character to be developed through adversity and for this development to be judged according to the morality of the oral tradition.]

In a recent work on Friedrich Schiller, Frederick Ungar laments the dimming glory of a German Golden Age and the inexorable decline in popularity of Friedrich Schiller's greatest dramas, whose messages are as...

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G. W. McKay (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Three Scenes from Wilhelm Tell," in The Discontinuous Tradition: Studies in German Literature in Honour of Ernest Ludwig Stahl, edited by P. F. Ganz, Clarendon Press, 1971, pp. 99-112.

[In the following essay, McKay discusses three scenes from the play-the opening scene, the Rütli scene, and the Parricida scene-examining the development of Tell's character and his subsequent evolution into a mythic hero.]

The ambiguities and difficulties of Wilhelm Tell continue to exercise the minds of critics and producers alike. Perhaps no play of Schiller's is at one and the same time so theatrically effective and so dramatically puzzling. Perhaps no...

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William F. Mainland (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Introduction to Wilhelm Tell, by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, translated and edited by William F. Mainland, University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. xi-xxxiii.

[In the following essay, Mainland places Wilhelm Tell in its historic context and claims that its importance lies not in the play's message, but in Schiller's portrayal of the Tell legend as a Swiss story of national liberation.]

. . . Once again the North Netherlands were threatened with inundation, but a little boy crouching in the chilly night hours kept his thumb in the hole in the dyke and warded off disaster.

. . . Morning coffee in Vienna is accompanied by...

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Frank G. Ryder (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Schiller's Tell and the Cause of Freedom," in German Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, November, 1975, pp. 487-504.

[In the following essay, Ryder argues that Wilhelm Tell is about two things: the development of a revolutionary movement and the violent crisis of an individual existing within the same social and historical setting.]

No one will deny that Schiller's Tell is a classical document of individual liberty, a vademecum for the enemies of tyranny, "a great event in the process of educating Germans to think politically." Or—in the spirit of the 17th Literaturbrief—almost no one.1

The play in fact...

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Lawrence O. Frye (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Schiller: Juggler of Freedoms in Wilhelm Teli;' in Monatshefte, Vol. LXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 73-88.

[In the following essay, Frye asserts that Schiller's theoretical thinking dominates Wilhelm Tell, and appears especially in Schiller's effort to synthesize the "esthetically defined freedom of the 'Idylle'" with the "ethically defined freedom of the sublime."]

Act V of Wilhelm Tell is a celebration of peculiar form and function. A tragedy would use this act to bid farewell to a hero departing the arena of action. But, of course, this drama was not meant to be a tragedy, although one figure, the non-hero Johannes Parricida,...

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Alan Best (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Alpine Ambivalence in Schiller's Wilhelm Tell," in German Life and Letters, Vol. 37, No. 4, July, 1984, pp. 297-306.

[In the following essay, Best suggests that Schiller presents an ambivalent picture of Tell. This ambivalent picture is seen in the contrast between the nobility of Tell's motives in killing Gessler and the celebration of freedom for Tell's family and the Swiss on the one hand, and the reduction of Tell from moral certainty to doubt and despair on the other hand.]

Interpretations of Schiller's Wilhelm Tell differ most markedly in their assessment of Tell himself and the moral consequences, if any, of his murder of Gessler....

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Robert L. Jamison (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "From Edelmann to Eidgenosse: The Nobles in Wilhelm Tell," in The German Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 554-65.

[In the following essay, Jamison discusses the dramatic structure of play in terms of the function of the noble class, which is to portray the "ennobling effect of nature" on the nobles and on Tell in producing compassion for others.]

"Der Tell," Schiller wrote to Iffland on August 5, 1803, "ist ein solches Volksstück, wie Sie es wünschen," but, he hastened to add, "an die wirkliche Ausführung hat mich der verzweifelte Kampf mit dem Stoff bis jetzt noch nicht kommen lassen. Bei diesem Stücke aber...

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R. D. Miller (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Wilhelm Tell," in Interpreting Schiller: A Study of Four Plays, The Duchy Press, 1986, pp. 1-37.

[In the following essay, Miller explores the tension in the play between the peaceful idyll and use of force to obtain freedom from oppression, and he defends the idealist Tell against criticisms from an anti-idealist/ existential reading of the play.]

There is in [Wilhelm Tell] a certain underlying tension between two ideals. The curtain rises to the peaceful call of Alpine cowherds and the "harmonious" tinkling of cow-bells, and there is a similar peaceful atmosphere at the end of the play. This tranquil mood reflects the ideal of peace and...

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Jeffrey L. Sammons (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Apple-Shot and the Politics of Wilhelm Tell," in Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 81-8.

[ In the following essay, Sammons argues that Schiller's representation of Gessler as stupid sets aside the political questions typically associated with the play and points to the counter-revolutionary theme that success in revolution comes about by accident rather than by pursuing an ideology.]

Everyone knows that Wilhelm Tell with his crossbow split an apple that had been set upon his son's head. But not everyone recalls the skill with which Schiller managed this difficult scene. It...

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R. C. Ockenden (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: " Wilhelm Tell as Political Drama," in Oxford German Studies, Vol. 18-19, 1989-1990, pp. 23-44.

[ In the following essay, Ockenden discusses the place of Wilhelm Tell in the development of political drama following the French Revolution and argues for the importance of the Stauffacher character"a new kind of political figure who is neither a ruler/statesman, nor an intriguer, nor a professional civil servant. "]

It is not surprising that the later eighteenth century, which witnessed on the German stage the introduction of middle-class figures to drama as the potential arbiters (if often unsuccessful) of their own destinies, and on a...

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Lesley Sharpe (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Weimar: The Later Dramas: Wilhelm Tell," in Friedrich Schiller: Drama, Thought, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 293-309.

[ In the following excerpt, Sharpe describes Schiller's attempt to balance the concepts of idealism, pessimism, and tragedy in Wilhelm Tell.]

Schiller described his last finished play, Wilhelm Tell, as something of a 'Seitenschritt' ('diversion').62 This comment, in a letter to Wilhelm von Humboldt, probably arose from a certain embarrassment at the play's popular success, and from an awareness that he had taken a theme with immediate topical relevance and developed it in a manner that had...

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Sheila Margaret Benn (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Schiller and the Sublime 1801-1805: Wilhelm Tell" in Pre-Romantic Attitudes to Landscape in the Writings of Friedrich Schiller, Walter de Gruyter, 1991, pp. 186-201.

[ In the following excerpt, Benn argues that the Swiss landscape acts not only as a setting for the action of Wilhelm Tell but also plays an essential role in the plot, theme, and characterization of the drama.]

There is no evidence that Schiller studied any source material before depicting the Sicilian landscape setting in Die Braut von Messina. However, in the case of the Swiss landscape setting in Wilhelm Tell, quite the opposite is true, for Schiller...

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Steven D. Martinson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "William Tell, or Natural Justice," in Harmonious Tensions: The Writings of Friedrich Schiller, University of Delaware Press, 1996, pp. 254-67.

[ In the following essay, Martinson explores the concept of natural justice in Wilhelm Tell, arguing that the drama resolves the traditional split between art and nature and that Tell himself is the naive and beautiful hero representative of the natural order.]

In view of Schiller's interest in music, it is neither coincidental, nor unique that in William Tell the writer should have the fisher-boy, the herdsman, and the alpine hunter sing from the lake, the mountains and the cliffs,...

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