Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882
Article abstract: Schiller’s main contribution to German literature was in the field of drama, especially historical drama. In philosophy, his contributions were mainly in the areas of ethics and aesthetics. Belonging to the school of German classicism, he was one of the leading contributors to German Idealism in literature and philosophy.
Born at Marbach in Württemberg, the son of an army surgeon, Friedrich Schiller went to school in Ludwigsburg, the residence of the Dukes of Württemberg. Though Schiller wanted to become a Protestant minister, his father was ordered by Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg to send his son to the Hohe Karlsschule, the newly established military academy, located near Ludwigsburg. At this academy, young men at an early age were prepared for the civil and military service of the state of Württemberg. Schiller studied first law and then medicine from 1773 until 1780. He was graduated with a degree in medicine and became regimental surgeon of a regiment stationed in Stuttgart. During his time at the academy, Schiller wrote poetry and his first drama, Die Räuber ( The Robbers, 1792), written in 1777-1780 and published in 1781. This play is rightly regarded as the most representative drama of his Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period. When Schiller attended the first performance of his play at the Mannheim National Theater in 1782 without leave of absence from his regiment in Stuttgart, he was reprimanded by Karl Eugen, his commander in chief, and forbidden to engage in any further writing with the exception of medical treatises. Rebelling against this punishment and the strict discipline of military life, Schiller deserted in 1782 and fled to Mannheim, where his first drama had been performed with great success, in order to pursue a career as a dramatist. For almost a year, the fugitive stayed in hiding in the small village of Bauerbach in Thuringia. In 1783, Schiller was appointed Theaterdichter (stage dramatist) of the Mannheim National Theater. During his stay in Mannheim, both his dramas Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua (1783; Fiesco: Or, The Genoese Conspiracy, 1796) and Kabale und Liebe (1784; Cabal and Love, 1795) were performed on the Mannheim stage. His drama Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (1787; Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, 1798) remained a fragment during those years. In 1784, however, his contract in Mannheim was not renewed, so Schiller followed an invitation from his friend Christian Gottfried Körner to come to Leipzig and later to Dresden.
In 1787, Schiller went to Weimar, which had become the intellectual center of Germany, where he met Johann Gottfried Herder and Christoph Martin Wieland, while Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was in Italy. During the next year, Schiller stayed in the towns of Volksstädt and Rudolstadt, where he met Charlotte von Lengefeld, his future wife. During this time, he began his career as a historian and philosopher, concentrating in his philosophical studies on the major works of Immanuel Kant. These philosophical and historical preoccupations mark Schiller’s transition from his Sturm und Drang subjectivity to the objective idealism of his classical period. His dramatic production came almost to a standstill during this time.
On the basis of his Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung (1788; The History of the Defection of the United Netherlands from the Spanish Empire, 1844), Schiller was appointed professor of history at the University of Jena in 1789 upon the recommendation of Goethe. He was married to Charlotte von Lengefeld in 1790. After a serious illness in 1791, from which he never completely recovered and which led to his early death in 1805, Schiller visited Körner in Dresden and his homeland, Württemberg, in 1793. His friendship with Goethe, which began in 1794, led to a working relationship that became the basis of German classicism. Although their relationship was not without tensions, it proved to be stimulating and rewarding for both writers and gave direction to the course and development of German literature for the next ten years. Schiller continued to live in Jena until 1799. His correspondence with Goethe records their literary activities and their opinions and projections for the future of German and European culture. From 1795 to 1797, Schiller edited Die Horen, a literary journal, to which Goethe contributed a number of his writings. During his stay in Jena, Schiller returned to creative writing with his dramatic Wallenstein trilogy. In December, 1799, Schiller moved to Weimar, where he wrote the dramas Maria Stuart (1800; English translation, 1801), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801; The Maid of Orleans, 1835), Die Braut von Messina: Oder, Die feindlichen Brüder (1803; The Bride of Messina, 1837), and Wilhelm Tell (1804; William Tell, 1841). The work of this most productive period of his life, from 1794 to 1804, during which Schiller wrote his best dramas and poems, was largely a result of the stimulus of his relationship with Goethe. In 1802, Schiller was raised to the nobility, adding “von” to his last name.
During these years, most of Schiller’s creative energies were devoted to the field of drama, especially historical drama. He succeeded in becoming the most important German dramatist second to Goethe at the end of the eighteenth century, and one of the most important of all European dramatists. All of his dramas deal with the concept of freedom. While in his early dramas of the Sturm und Drang period freedom is perceived mostly in terms of physical freedom, his dramas of the classical period center on ethical freedom. For his later plays, Schiller selected mostly historical plots, because he considered world history an ideal proving ground for the conflict between individual freedom and political necessity. His protagonists usually decide in favor of physical annihilation in order to preserve their moral freedom and integrity.
Schiller’s principal contributions to lyric poetry consisted of philosophical poems and of historical ballads which demonstrate his talent for dramatic action and his awareness of philosophical problems. His poems include the philosophical poem “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy,” well known in its musical setting by Ludwig van Beethoven in his ninth symphony), “Die Götter Griechenlands,” and the elegy “Der Spaziergang”; among his most famous ballads are “Der Ring des Polykrates,” “Die Kraniche des Ibykus,” and “Die Bürgschaft.”
Schiller was not only a dramatist and poet but also a historian. The History of the Defection of the United Netherlands from the Spanish Empire and Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges (1791-1793; History of the Thirty Years’ War, 1799) are examples of his work in this area. Schiller’s historical research influenced his dramatic works, supplying him with plots and background material for his dramas.
Schiller’s philosophical essays fall mainly under the headings of ethics and aesthetics. His essays on dramatic theory deal with the function of tragic emotions and the use of the pathetic as well as the sublime in dramatic art. In his aesthetics as well as his ethics, Schiller was strongly influenced by Kant, whose moral rigidity Schiller tried to counterbalance by his concept of the schöne Seele (beautiful soul), in which duty and inclination are in harmony. In his poetics, Schiller established the so-called naïve attitude and sentimental, or reflective, attitude as two legitimate approaches to literature, while in his philosophical anthropology he projected a dialectic development beyond Enlightenment philosophy.
Together with Goethe, Friedrich Schiller is regarded as one of the representative national dramatists and poets of Germany. Historical drama, as he fashioned it at the end of the eighteenth century, became the dominant model for this genre during the nineteenth century. History was conceived in terms of Schillerian drama. Schiller’s plays furnished the librettos for many of the operas from Gioacchino Rossini to Giuseppe Verdi. Only with the advent of naturalist drama did the predominance of Schiller’s model of the historical drama come to an end.
In the nineteenth century, Schiller was celebrated in Germany as a liberal idealist until 1848, and, after the revolution had failed, as a German nationalist and a representative of German Idealism. This idealism became suspect after World War I and World War II, especially because of its lack of practical experience and its disregard of the realities of political life. Expressionist drama and the non-Aristotelian drama of Bertolt Brecht finally replaced the Schillerian model. Yet even in the 1960’s, Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial historical drama Der Stellvertreter (1963; The Deputy, 1963) followed the Schillerian model and became one of the outstanding works of the postwar years. Schiller’s idealism is now considered as more complex and problematical than nineteenth century German ideology would admit. After William Shakespeare, Schiller is still one of the most widely performed dramatists on the German stage.
In the relationship of Jews and Germans, Schiller played an important role. Many Jews considered Schiller to be the speaker of pure humanitarianism and the representative of the highest ideals of mankind. Before the Holocaust of World War II, Schiller personified to the Jews what they considered to be German. For many Austrian, German, Polish, and Russian Jews, the encounter with Schiller was much more real than with the actual Germany. Although Schiller had never addressed himself to the Jews or to Jewish problems, this fact did not affect the Jewish passion for his dramas and poetry. An example of this passion was the adoption of Schiller’s name by many Russian Jews, among them famous Zionist leaders.
In Great Britain and the United States, Schiller was received as a representative of German Romanticism. While Thomas Carlyle, who wrote The Life of Schiller (1825), and the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau were highly appreciative of Schiller’s achievements, George Bernard Shaw was negative in his criticism of Schiller’s Romanticism in the preface to Saint Joan, his own Joan of Arc drama of 1923.
Garland, H. G. Schiller, the Dramatic Writer: A Study of Style in the Plays. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969. A study of individual dramas. Includes a two-page bibliography.
Graham, Ilse. Schiller’s Drama: Talent and Integrity. London: Methuen, 1974. Includes individual readings of Schiller’s dramas as well as some chapters on special issues raised by the plays as a whole. Includes extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Mainland, William F. Schiller and the Changing Past. London: Heinemann, 1957. A study of Schiller’s dramas in comparison to some of their sources. Not a systematic study. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Miller, R. D. Schiller and the Ideal of Freedom: A Study of Schiller’s Philosophical Works with Chapters on Kant. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. A study of Kant’s concepts of moral and aesthetic freedom and Schiller’s concept of freedom through harmony. Includes an index.
Simons, John D. Friedrich Schiller. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A later study of Schiller’s life and work. Includes notes and references, a selected bibliography, and an index.
Stahl, Ernst L. Friedrich Schiller’s Dramas: Theory and Practice. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1954. A discussion of Schiller’s dramas as well as his aesthetic doctrine and theory of tragedy. Includes a chronological table, a selected bibliography, and an index.
Thomas, Calvin. The Life and Works of Friedrich Schiller. New York: Henry Holt, 1901. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1970. A traditional but reliable biography which includes a brief summary of secondary literature, a general index, and an index of writings.
Witte, William. Schiller. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1949. A study of Schiller as letter-writer, poet, and playwright. Includes a bibliography and an index.