August Wilhelm von Schlegel Essay - Critical Essays

Schlegel, August Wilhelm von


August Wilhelm von Schlegel 1767-1845

German translator, essayist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Schlegel's life and works. For additional information on his career, see NCLC, Volume 15.

Schlegel was an influential figure of the German Romantic movement and an illustrious nineteenth-century translator of William Shakespeare's plays. As a scholar, Schlegel advanced the philosophy formulated by his brother Friedrich von Schlegel and other members of his circle at Jena, systematizing and eloquently applying their ideas. With his lectures on aesthetics, including those collected as Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur (1809-1811; A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature), he played a significant role in disseminating the principles of Romanticism throughout Europe. Schlegel's synthetic articulation of the division between Romantic and Classical literary forms is recognized as his foremost contribution to the field of literary aesthetics. Likewise, his illustration of the principles of organic form in drama, in connection with his study and acclaimed translations of the works of Shakespeare and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, remains Schlegel's legacy to the history of European dramatic art.

Biographical Information

Born in Hannover in 1767, Schlegel was the son of Johann Adolf Schlegel, a noted hymn writer and fabulist, and the nephew of the dramatist and critic Johann Elias Schlegel. He was educated at Göttingen University, studying under the poet Gottfried August Bürger and the classical philologist Christian Gottlieb Heyne, and subsequently worked in Amsterdam as a private tutor. In approximately 1796, the year of his marriage to Caroline Böhmer, Schlegel moved to Jena, where he was appointed to a professorship in literature and aesthetics and became part of a group of Romantic writers that included his brother Friedrich, Ludwig Tieck, and philosopher Georg Philipp Friedrich (known as Novalis). In 1798, the brothers established Das Athenaeum, a periodical disseminating Romantic thought, and Schlegel also made extensive contributions to such periodicals as the Allegemeine Literatur-Zeitung and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller's Die Horen. Schlegel oversaw the publication of the majority of his Shakespeare translations at this time as well. With some initial resistance from his wife, he issued translations of sixteen Shakespearean dramas between 1797 and 1801; he published his seventeenth and final translation in 1810. The Jena Circle dissolved in about 1800, as did Schlegel's marriage to Caroline, who had fallen in love with the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Shortly thereafter, Schlegel delivered a series of lectures in Berlin (first published posthumously in 1884 as A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst). The lectures served to clarify and popularize Romantic aesthetic theory and fortified Schlegel's position as a spokesperson for the Romantic movement. In 1804, he became the traveling companion of the French writer Madame de Staël, as well as her advisor on German literary matters. It was during the course of their extensive European tour that he delivered in Vienna his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Published in German between 1809 and 1811, and soon thereafter translated into many languages, this Romantic survey of ancient and modern European drama obtained wide circulation and became the cornerstone of Schlegel's influence and reputation as a critic. His fame was far-ranging and likely contributed to his appointment as secretary to the crown prince of Sweden in 1813. Schlegel subsequently rejoined his patron de Staël, staying with her until her death in 1817. He was named professor of art and literature at the University of Bonn the following year and retained this post for the rest of his life. He distinguished himself professionally in his remaining years through his pioneering work in the field of classical Indian (Sanskrit) language and literature. He died in 1845.

Major Works

Schlegel's A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature is generally considered to contain his most representative and influential critical thought. Combining his own extensive philological knowledge and the theories developed by the other German Romantics at Jena, the Lectures comprise an account of the formal development of Western drama from the antique to modern periods. Elaborating such key concepts in Romantic aesthetic theory as the distinction between mechanical and organic form and the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic art, the work presents Schlegel's contention that theological differences between ancient and contemporary cultures had caused significant formal discrepancies between their respective art forms. In particular, he used the concepts of organic form in Romantic drama to defend the artistic integrity of Shakespeare's plays and thus played a crucial role in improving Shakespeare's critical reputation in continental Europe. In the Berlin lectures collected as A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst, Schlegel likewise summarized and expanded the Romantic theoretical doctrines articulated by his younger brother Friedrich and the other members of the Jena group. In addition to his critical acumen, Schlegel was an extraordinarily gifted translator who brought his linguistic skills to bear on his German translations of works by Dante Alighieri, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and other authors. In his line-by-line, verse translations of Shakespearean drama, Schlegel is said to have exceeded all previous German translators in replicating the sense and rhythm of the original plays in English. The majority of Schlegel's purely literary works appeared in the early years of the nineteenth century, after the initial success of his Shakespearean translations. His poetry was originally published in German literary periodicals and later collected in his Gedichte (1800). In 1803, Schlegel adapted a tragic drama based on a work by Euripides entitled Ion: ein Schauspiel. He also wrote numerous essays, many of them polemical and satirical, including his humorous occasional piece Ehrenpforte und Triumphbogen für den Theater-Präsidenten von Kotzebue bey seiner gehofften Rückkehr ins Vaterland (1801).

Critical Reception

As a central figure of the Jena Circle at the turn of the nineteenth century and subsequently as a renowned scholar and proponent of German Romanticism, Schlegel enjoyed high regard among the European intellectual elite in the early 1800s. By the time of his death in 1845, however, the relative exhaustion of the Romantic movement, combined with Schlegel's lengthy retreat as Madame de Staël's personal literary advisor, had put his reputation into steep decline. Since that time, commentators have reasserted the importance of Schlegel's critical, if not his purely literary, works. Nonetheless, systematic appreciation of his writing and thought has remained elusive. Most contemporary scholars have acknowledged that Schlegel did not necessarily originate the ideas contained in Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature and other works of his dramatic criticism, although they almost universally concede his success in elucidating and applying them. Furthermore, in the view of many commentators, Schlegel's synthesized theories concerning the nature and development of Western literature are thought to have exerted a limiting impact on his later scholarly pursuits. The rigid division he posited between Classical and Romantic aesthetics is generally seen as having prevented him from appreciating formal eclecticism in general and such “hybrid” forms as French Neoclassical drama in particular. Still, Schlegel has been often admired for producing well-realized commentary and for invoking a clearly defined and applicable set of literary standards in his critical writings. Overall, modern critics have focused on Schlegel's role as the popularizer, rather than as the progenitor, of Romantic aesthetic theory. His non-scholarly writings, including his poetry, have for the most part elicited little critical interest, with the exception of his dramatic translations. It is with these works, critics have asserted, that Schlegel exerted his greatest influence over German literature. As a translator of Shakespeare, Schlegel stimulated the acceptance of Shakespearean drama into the core of modern German culture and aesthetics. While advances in linguistic and textual scholarship have made Schlegel's translations themselves vulnerable to obsolescence, modern commentators nevertheless regard them as his finest literary achievement.

Principal Works

Shakspeares dramatische Werke. 9 vols. [translator] (plays) 1797-1810

Gedichte (poetry) 1800

Ehrenpforte und Triumphbogen für den Theater-Präsidenten von Kotzebue bey seiner gehofften Rückkehr ins Vaterland (essay) 1801

Ion: ein Schauspiel (drama) 1803

Blumensträuse italiänischer, spanischer, und portugiesicher Poesie [translator] (poetry) 1804

Comparaison entre la Phèdre de Racine et celle d'Euripide (essay) 1807

Schauspiele von Don P. Calderón de la Barca [translator] (dramas) 1809

Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur. 2 vols. [A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature] (lectures) 1809-11

Poetische Werke. 2 vols. (poetry) 1811

Observations sur la langue et la littérature provençales (essay) 1818

Vorlesungen über Theorie und Geschichte der bildenden Künste (lectures) 1827

Essais littéraires et historiques (essays) 1842

August Wilhelm von Schlegels sämmtliche Werke. 12 vols. (lectures, essays, poetry, and translations) 1846-47

A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst. 3 vols. (lectures) 1884

A. W. Schlegel's Lectures on German Literature from Gottsched to Goethe [translated by George Toynbee] (lectures) 1944

Kritische Schriften und Briefe. 7 vols. (essays and letters) 1962


American Monthly Review (review date July 1833)

SOURCE: Review of A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. American Monthly Review 4, no. 1 (July 1833): 1-14.

[In the following review, prompted by the republication of Schlegel's A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature in the United States, the reviewer praises Schlegel's critical insight and summarizes the content of the Lectures.]

An American reprint of A. W. Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, is in itself a sign that the taste of the public is growing better. We have been of late years so deluged with novels of the robber school, and poems of the satanic school, and worse than both, with romances of the...

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John Black (essay date 1846)

SOURCE: Black, John. “Memoir of the Literary Life of August Wilhelm von Schlegel.” In A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, by August William Schlegel, translated by John Black, pp. 7-15. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846.

[In the following essay, Black surveys Schlegel's life and literary career.]

Augustus William Von Schlegel … was, with his no-less distinguished brother, Frederick, the son of John Adolph Schlegel, a native of Saxony, and descended from a noble family. Holding a high appointment in the Lutheran church, Adolph Schlegel distinguished himself as a religious poet, and was the friend and associate of Rabener, Gellert, and Klopstock....

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Margaret E. Atkinson (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Atkinson, Margaret E. “Introductory.” August Wilhelm Schlegel as a Translator of Shakespeare: A Comparison of Three Plays with the Original, pp. 1-8. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958.

[In the following essay, Atkinson reviews Schlegel's translations of Shakespearean drama.]

There is no doubt that August Wilhelm Schlegel fully realized the magnitude of the task he was undertaking in his translation of Shakespeare's plays. This emerges clearly from statements in his essay, “Etwas über William Shakespeare bei Gelegenheit Wilhelm Meisters,”1 and from scattered remarks in his other theoretical writings and in his letters and reviews.2 On...

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Harold von Hofe (essay date December 1960)

SOURCE: Hofe, Harold von. “August Wilhelm Schlegel and the New World.” Germanic Review 35, no. 4 (December 1960): 279-87.

[In the following essay, Hofe considers Schlegel's diverse and thoughtful treatment of America and American themes in his writing.]

In the monographs and articles on America in German literature and thought August Wilhelm Schlegel is either misrepresented or not mentioned;1 in the critical and biographical studies of Schlegel, America is ignored. A revaluation of the part which the New World played in his life and works is needed, for abundant pertinent material is contained in his verse, critiques, essays, and letters.


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Edgar W. Hirschberg (essay date spring-summer 1967)

SOURCE: Hirschberg, Edgar W. “G. H. Lewes and A. W. Schlegel: An Important Critical Relationship.” University of South Florida Language Quarterly 5, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1967): 37-40.

[In the following essay, Hirschberg compares the critical methods of Schlegel and G. W. Lewes, arguing for the influence of the former on the latter.]

Bernard Shaw once termed George Henry Lewes “the most able and brilliant critic between Hazlitt and our own contemporaries.”1 Certainly at the time he wrote most of his dramatic criticism, during the 1840's and 1850's, he was better equipped by way of background, education and experience for the task of criticism than...

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Marianne Thalmann (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Thalmann, Marianne. “August William von Schlegel.” In August William von Schlegel, pp. 5-30. Bad Godesberg: Inter Nationes, 1967.

[In the following essay, Thalmann details Schlegel's career as an eminent literary critic and scholar in the Europe of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.]

On April 1st, 1804, Madame de Staël1 wrote to her friend Albertine Necker de Saussure: “In the whole of this Berlin, who is it that has engaged my interest? The famous Prince Louis? No. A few from among those ‘grands seigneurs’ who abound here? No. A professor, a German professor! … If you are thinking of a flirtation, there is no question...

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Ralph W. Ewton, Jr. (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Ewton, Jr., Ralph W. “The Speculative History of Poetic Origins.” In The Literary Theories of August Wilhelm Schlegel, pp. 22-38. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

[In the following essay, Ewton analyzes Schlegel's theory of poetic language.]

In his “Briefe über Poesie, Sylbenmaß und Sprache” (1795-96) Schlegel observes, “indem man erklärt, wie die Kunst wurde, zeigt man zugleich auf das einleuchtendste, was sie sein soll” [Sämtliche Werke, ed. Ednard Böcking, 12 vols. (Leipzing, 1846-47). Hereafter SW, VII, 107]. Herder is Schlegel's model in this approach to the nature of art. It should be noted, however, that Schlegel had some...

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Margaret Stoljar (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Stoljar, Margaret. “The Art of Criticism.” In Athenaeum: A Critical Commentary, pp. 111-33. Bern: Herbert Lang & Co., 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Stoljar discusses Schlegel's contributions to the journal Athenaeum, including his numerous polemical pieces and his study of Ludwig Tieck's Volksmärchen.]


The importance of the Athenäum in the definition of romantic attitudes to the art of literary criticism is greater than the proportion of critical articles in the strict sense would indicate. So great is the originality and fecundity of the journal in respect of aesthetic and literary theory that its purely...

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Glyn Tegai Hughes (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Hughes, Glyn Tegai. “Profusion and Order: The Brothers Schlegel.” In Romantic German Literature, pp. 41-60. London: Edward Arnold, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Hughes summarizes Schlegel's literary criticism, principally concentrating on the writer's influential formulation of Romantic theory, and notes his accomplishments as a translator of Shakespeare.]

August Wilhelm studied at Göttingen, where he came into close and fruitful contact with the great classical scholar Heyne and with the poet Bürger, both of whom thought highly of him. After four years as tutor to a Dutch family he married Caroline as a kind of rescue operation and moved with her to...

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Nancy M. Goslee (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Goslee, Nancy M. “Plastic to Picturesque: Schlegel's Analogy and Keats's Hyperion Poems.” Keats-Shelley Journal 30 (1981): 118-51.

[In the following excerpt, Goslee considers the insight that Schlegel's A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature provides into the poetry of John Keats.]

In a series of lectures on literature from 1811 through 1818, Coleridge drew upon the attempts of Schiller, Schelling, and most extensively A. W. Schlegel to define the relationship of ancient to modern culture through analogy to the plastic and visual arts. “The spirit of ancient art and poetry is plastic, and that of the moderns...

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Ernst Behler (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Behler, Ernst. “Lyric Poetry in the Early Romantic Theory of the Schlegel Brothers.” In Romantic Poetry, edited by Angela Esterhammer, pp. 115-41. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Behler studies Schlegel's ideas regarding the mythic origins and the formal, metrical, and aesthetic features of lyric poetry.]

Considering the prominent rank of lyric poetry in European Romantic literature, we would expect an equally important position of the lyric genre in the thought of the Romantic critics about poetry. Indeed, this expectation is met by rich and diversified reflections on the nature of the lyric in essays,...

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Further Reading


Behler, Ernst. “The Reception of Calderón among the German Romantics.” Studies in Romanticism 67, no. 4 (winter 1981): 437-60.

Includes discussion of Schlegel's translations of three plays by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, as well as his critical appraisal of the Spanish dramatist's work.

———. “The Impact of Classical Antiquity on the Formation of the Romantic Literary Theory of the Schlegel Brothers.” In Classical Models in Literature, edited by Zoran Konstantinovic, pp. 139-43. Innsbruck: Verlag des Instituts für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1981.

Centers on the...

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