August Wilhelm von Schlegel Introduction - Essay


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.