Wilhelm Tell, Friedrich Schiller
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.
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.
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."
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.
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"...
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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 pertinent to our unsettled times as they were to the Napoleonic days which fathered them.1 Though it is only too obvious that Schiller's voice of rational idealism becomes increasingly muted by the growing clamor of the present, the same cannot be said of the sound of battle among Schiller scholars, especially with reference to the poet's last completed play, William Tell (1804), and its enigmatic Alpine hero.
One can state with assurance that the alchemy of time has not transmuted critical dissent into either silence or accord. Indeed, as one samples the many scholarly assessments of William Tell, he realizes that in the last half-century the contenders in the Tell Problem seem to have...
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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 other work of his has suffered so much critically from its popularity; the Volksstück seemed to lend itself all too readily to nationalistic, even Nazi, interpretation, and even its dire quotability has made it to such a degree a part of popular culture that it is now difficult to see it, or indeed its author, with unprejudiced eyes. This point is strongly made by Muschg in his article 'Schiller—die Tragödie der Freiheit'.1 Muschg rightly insists that 'Schiller ist interessanter und aktueller als die Legende, die das neunzehnte Jahrhundert um ihn gewoben hat', and seeking to sketch the new image of Schiller which has been appearing in recent years, he finds it necessary to define this image 'gleichsam einen Schiller...
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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 crescent rolls because marbles started to dance on a toy drum in a baker's cellar, and the attempt of the invading Turks to undermine the city was foiled.
.. . On a day late in the fall of 1307 a little Swiss boy stood by a linden tree with an apple on his head while his father took aim with a crossbow . . .
Such bric-à-brac has remarkable staying power. From childhood it is retained with affection in the memory of countless people for whom it has become a token of great events in some past age, sometimes perhaps the only token. The rest—circumstance and policy, causes, occasions, and complications which provide the serious historian with material to work on—may have been learnt in part and jettisoned, or...
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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 offers in its first two and a half acts a paradigm of the abuse of vested power and a model of individual and collective resistance. Committed or imminent, the injustices of the civil authority range from confiscation of property (the oxen) or its destruction (Ruodi's hut), through deprivation of livelihood (Kuoni's herd) to rape (the threat against Baumgarten's wife), and culminate in savage mutilation. Yet the portrayal of oppression is neither distorted nor strident. Only the violence done to Melchthal's father may seem gratuitous or provocatively overstated, and even this brutality is not without historical parallel. Nor is it unrivalled in Schiller's own canon of fictional enormities, witness Robber Spiegelberg in the cloister or...
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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, does wander through homeless. One might also wonder why precautions are taken to cleanse even the suggestion of guilt from the celebrants. However, there are the more positive values of Tell having come back to his family, of Berta being given back to Rudenz and to a new homeland, and of all countrymen regrouping in Altdorf. Return and retrospect are most noticeable here, for the political action was completed by the beginning of Act V. In turn, perpetuation of the status quo is based on precisely this collective consciousness of where one has arrived. This consciousness protects itself in Act V by avoiding anything conducive to further action. The model of action, the hunter Tell, laid his bow forever to rest between Act IV and V. To...
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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. Schiller's defence of his play, and especially the Parricida episode, against Iffland's theatrical predations has indeed been seen to justify and absolve Tell,1 and yet the masterly ambivalence of Schiller's formulation and his attested preoccupation with the theme of guilt and moral freedom cannot be ignored. Schiller emphasized the central role of Parricida:
Parricidas Erscheinung ist der Schlussstein des Ganzen. Tells Mordthat wird durch ihn allein poetisch und moralisch aufgelösst. Neben dem ruchlosen Mord aus Impietät und Ehrsucht steht nunmehr Tells nothgedrungene That, sie erscheint schuldlos in der Zusammenstellung mit einem ihr so ganz unähnlichen Gegenstück, und die Hauptidee des ganzen...
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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 liegt gerade alles in der Anordnung und die Ausführung ist dann die leichtere Arbeit."1 Since Iffland had been promised that Wilhelm Tell would premiere on his Berlin stage and was eagerly awaiting the completed work, Schiller's assessment of the task that lay before him was probably intended to reassure and placate his correspondent,2 but it proved nevertheless to be realistic: he was to spend the next four months on researching and organizing his material and then—after beginning the actual composition of the text toward the end of October—require less than that amount of time to complete the drama. But regardless of Schiller's purpose, his statement also documents his conviction that the solution to...
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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 harmony which is the basis of the moral and religious faith of the Swiss people. Here it is appropriate to refer to the idea of the "idyllic", which Schiller explains as follows. "Der Begriff dieser Idylle ist der Begriff eines völlig aufgelösten Kampfes sowohl in dem einzelnen Menschen, als in der Gesellschaft, einer freien Vereinigung der Neigungen mit dem Gesetze, einer zur höchsten sittlichen Würde hinaufgeläuterten Natur . . ." ([Schillers Werke, Nationalausgabe, Weimer, vol. 20, p. 472. Line references to Wilhelm Tell are cited from this edition.]).
"The idea of the idyll, whether in the individual or in society, is that of a struggle which has been completely resolved, the...
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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 is obvious that some illusionary mechanical device must be employed—as Schiller clearly realized,1 if there are not to be intolerable casualties among child actors—and the audience's attention must be distracted from it. Gessler has set up the situation as a calculated political move, for it does not suit him that independent farmers not under his military command are skilled in weapons, and he rightly sees Tell's reputation in this regard as a danger. But the young nobleman Rudenz in Gessler's entourage protests angrily against this act of despotism, and just as the audience is beginning to concentrate on their dispute—thwangl—the apple falls. The solution is psychologically right also. Tell, far from being...
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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 wider historical stage the achieving of power by that class in the French Revolution, should have seen the tentative beginnings of political drama. There are two ways, I believe, in which Schiller's Wilhelm Tell is of interest in this development. The first lies in its staging of democratic deliberations, notably in the Rütli scene, and I should like to begin by illustrating how that scene differs from representations of political action in earlier plays, and by considering its place in Schiller's own dramaturgy. The other is the emergence in the play of a new kind of political figure, who is neither a ruler/statesman, nor an intriguer, nor a professional civil servant. This is Stauffacher, whose role I shall examine in the...
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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 great theatrical appeal. Wilhelm Tell combined the popularity of the family drama and the Volksstück and took up one of the most popular themes of the decade following the French Revolution, for Tell dramas abounded in the 1790s. Spectacle was also provided. Even more than Die Jungfrau von Orleans and Die Braut von Messing the play moves in the direction of opera, with its opening songs, carefully orchestrated crowd scenes, set-piece encounters and vivid Swiss backcloth.
Schiller himself had never been to Switzerland. He relied on Goethe's descriptions, and on maps and histories to project himself into this unfamiliar setting. When commenting in 1797 on Goethe's plan for an...
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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 was determined to familiarise himself with the landscape and people of a country he had never visited. He pinned up maps of Switzerland on the walls of his study45 and read very widely in works giving factual accounts of the history, geography, customs and language of Switzerland. In his correspondence he repeatedly stressed the importance of local colour in his play and how essential it was that the historical Tell legend should grow organically out of the sublime landscape setting of the Swiss Alps.46 He even planned to visit Switzerland to check that his depiction of the Swiss landscape was a faithful imitation of reality. Largely due to his ill health, this plan was never brought to fruition, but his lack of contact...
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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, respectively. Music is an intimate part of the seemingly idyllic, poetic-dramatic setting.1 Yet, as the stage directions indicate, music is audible even before the dramatic events begin. "Even before the curtain rises, one hears the cowherd's tune and the harmonious ringing of the herd-bells, which even continues a while yet after the scene has begun" (Schillers Werke. Nationalausgabe, vol. 10, 131. Referred to hereafter as NA).2 Hermann Fähnrich has observed that the song of the fisher-boy is a symbol of untouched, peaceful Nature which, however, also signals demonic perils.3 Music performs a practical function, since, by stirring the soul, it is capable of influencing sensuous nature...
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Deering, Robert Waller. Introduction to Schiller's Wilhelm Tell. Translated by Robert Waller Deering. Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1894, pp. v-xxxix.
Outlines both Schiller's career and the Tell legend before discussing the themes, characters, and construction of the drama itself.
Dundes, Alan. "The 1991 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture. The Apple-Shot: Interpreting the Legend of William Tell." Western Folklore 50 (October 1991): 327-60.
Analyzes specific elements of the Tell legend and how they emerge in various cultural readings and interpretations.
Garland, H. B. " Wilhelm Tell. " In Schiller: The Dramatic Writer: A Study of Style in the Plays. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1969, pp. 261-86.
Examines the descriptions of landscape and nuances of language employed by Schiller in imparting realism and characterization in Wilhelm Tell.
Lamport, F. J. "The Silence of Wilhelm Tell." The Modern Language Review 76, Part 1 (October 1981): 857-68.
Argues that Tell is able to remain a simple and humble man, although he moves out of his simple world and gains historical significance in his confrontation with and triumph over Gessler....
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