Friedrich Schiller Drama Analysis

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It is not necessary to have studied Friedrich Schiller’s theoretical writings or Immanuel Kant ’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), which influenced him profoundly, to understand Schiller’s works, but it is helpful to understand two concepts that are the source of tragic conflict in most of his plays: the concept of the “naïve” and of the “sentimental.” For each word, a special sense is intended: “Sentimental” means reflective, analytical, conscious of oneself, intellectual; “naïve” means unselfconscious, natural, original, pure, unreflective. There can be sentimental modes of existence as well as sentimental art. In referring to people, Schiller used the terms “dignity” (roughly corresponding to sentimentality) and “grace” (naïveté). Homer’s is an example of naïve art—that is, an outpouring of natural gifts. Eighteenth century art, with its conventions and rules, could only be sentimental. In terms of the artistic process, although the original act of creation is always naïve, it acquires a sentimental aspect as it is analyzed, structured, and contemplated by the artist. A naïve work of art is the outpouring of genius. A sentimental work of art has goals. Where a sentimental work of art has a moral, a naïve work of art is itself moral. Art is to be valued for its own sake and by its own rules. Schiller’s essays Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, 1795 (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1845), Über Anmut und Würde (1793; On Grace and Dignity, 1875), and Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795; On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, 1845), delineate this system of thought exemplified in the plays.

The Robbers

In Schiller’s first play, The Robbers, critic Ilse Graham sees a version of the biblical Jacob and Esau conflict. The younger brother, who by virtue of his talent and charm has unintentionally stolen the father’s affection, is tricked by the cunning, analytical older brother, and is eventually disinherited and disowned. Stunned, the younger brother takes charge of a group of marauders, looking to avenge social and political injustice in a very concrete manner. Meanwhile, the older brother uses the political power of feudalism to ruin the already weak father, while keeping the feared younger brother at bay. Although the robber chieftain makes a considerable effort to disclaim responsibility for his men’s atrocities by holding himself aloof from scenes of carnage, his realization that he has become incurably tainted with moral degeneracy—that there is no way back—forms the central crisis of the play. In this moment of reflection on his actions, the robber chieftain crosses the boundary from naïve to sentimental. Like Hamlet, he contemplates suicide, but decides from pride in his own greatness to live out his bitter choice to the end: “I am my Heaven and my Hell.” “Revenge is my trade.” “Two such as I would bring down the whole structure of the civilized world.”


The masks in Schiller’s next play, Fiesco, are not confined to the operalike costume ball of the first scene. Andreas Doria, illegal dictator of Genua, is about to be toppled by another member of the hereditary oligarchy, a Machiavellian republican leader named Fiesco. Fiesco must be seen as an artist, rather than a politician, for he manipulates people much as a stage director moves actors. As the aesthetic mode of existence in which human genius can reach its full potential is possible only in the perfect freedom of play, Fiesco plays with his opponents, just as Schiller plays with the plot, drawing out the denouement with one complication after another. Fiesco, a sentimental artist in the sense of combining natural genius and reflection, is a charismatic villain with more than a hint of the subsequent century’s Napoleon Bonaparte. If the robber chieftain’s downfall was his naïve reaction—choosing outlawry—to a blow of fate, then Fiesco’s downfall is his excessive commitment to sentimental artistry, playing with his own coup until at last he is murdered by a republican fellow-conspirator. Incredibly, the assassin rushes away from the scene to the side of the previous dictator. This is the last stroke of Schiller’s “republican tragedy.”

Cabal and Love

Cabal and Love includes many features of the comedy. Before Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s bourgeois tragedy Miss Sara Sampson (1755; English translation, 1933) and the subsequent Emilia Galotti (1772; English translation, 1786), only members of the nobility served as protagonists in tragedy. The middle classes were considered more suitable for comedy. Schiller, a lifelong believer in the aristocracy of art and intellect, rather than birth, brought a Shakespearean mixture of comic doings and tragic conflict to the stage in Cabal and Love. In this play, the potential of ideal love cannot be realized. Those who would pursue it are destroyed, on one level by their membership in diverse social classes, on another by their membership in the corrupt human race.

The play, retitled by the actor August Wilhelm Iffland, had been named after the main character, Luise Millerin, the first figure in Schiller’s dramas to exemplify the schöne Seele (beautiful soul). Just as a naïve work of art is beautiful in and of itself, so the beautiful soul is the epitome of the naïve in a human life, a naturally pure and unspoiled being.

Cabal and Love contains some of Schiller’s harshest social criticism. A despotic court conspires to deprive the lovers of any vestige of hope, seeking to destroy their vision of love and each other as well as to deprive them of the opportunity to marry. In another abuse of courtly power, the prince manages to pay for his latest gift of jewels to his mistress by selling many hundreds of young recruits to the English to be sent to fight in America. After the first few who protest are shot, their brains splashing on the pavement, the rest cheer, “Off to America! Hurrah!”

Don Carlos, Infante of Spain

The transitional play Don Carlos, Infante of Spain has an uneven plot, but is one of Schiller’s most popular plays. “Geben Sie Gedankenfreiheit!” (give freedom of thought) a character demands of the startled King Philip of Spain in perhaps the most famous single line in all of German literature. As the scene develops, however, it becomes obvious that such a change would bring about the inevitable end of absolutism, and that on the other hand, anyone who became king would of necessity become a Philip.

It was not until the Wallenstein trilogy that Schiller showed that the unwillingness to act is a fateful action in itself. Thought by many to be Schiller’s greatest work, the trilogy covers four days in the life of Wallenstein, duke of Friedland and supreme commander of the Imperial armies, during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Having started his career as a naïve, naturally gifted military genius, Wallenstein was deposed as general for a period of time as a result of political conniving by the emperor and others. As things began to go badly for the Imperial armies in the so-called religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, Wallenstein was recalled. At the time of his fall from power, however, the general became aware of the treachery and ungratefulness of the emperor in contrast to his own loyalty and incomparable achievements for the Catholic side. All of this has taken place before the action of the trilogy: Wallenstein has already made the transition from naïve to sentimental. As Schiller depicts him in the drama, he relies on the counsel of the stars, broods on destiny, and negotiates with the Swedes (Protestants) to change his and his armies’ allegiance, thus forcing the emperor to accept a compromised peace.

The Camp of Wallenstein

The calculating realist Wallenstein never appears in the first play, The Camp of Wallenstein, which shows the bright color and comedy of the military universe solely subject to, and dependent on, Wallenstein. In legends and anecdotes, the troops pay homage to their general, the charismatic god of the camp. Neither language, patriotism, nor religion can serve as a common point of allegiance for the camp, only Wallenstein.

Although Wallenstein’s greatness is obvious, he is not a virtuous man. The intellectual, sentimental characteristics of the general come into sharp contrast with the naïve qualities of Max Piccolomini, a young officer who idolizes Wallenstein. For Max, the final judge of any matter is the heart, which in Schiller’s works is the organ of religion as well as love, a direct connection with a divine realm.

The Piccolominis

In the second play, The Piccolominis, Wallenstein’s downfall has been planned and ordered by the emperor. All that remains is to determine the manner of execution. At the same time Wallenstein, ignorant of approaching doom, is fully prepared to sacrifice the ideal love between two young people very dear to him, his daughter Thekla and Max Piccolomini, in order to arrange a politically propitious marriage for her. Max and Thekla, two beautiful souls, speak with the voice of the playwright in sadly prophesying the general’s downfall at the end of the play. If The Camp of Wallenstein is a comedy, then The Piccolominis, with its plot exposition lacking fulfillment, is reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s historical plays.

The Death of Wallenstein

The Death of Wallenstein is a tragedy. At the time he was working on the Wallenstein trilogy, Schiller translated a play by Jean Racine. He seems to have taken seriously literary journal editor Christoph Martin Wieland’s call for German drama to adhere more closely to Aristotelian unities of time and place. Also, by this time Schiller and Goethe, with Egmont (1788; English translation, 1841) and Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, had established iambic pentameter as the meter of classical German tragedy.

Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart, containing a face-to-face confrontation never recorded in history between Elizabeth I and the Scottish queen, is also restricted in time and place, as in classical French tragedy. Schiller portrays the two queens as young women, Mary basically naïve—guilty of sexual transgressions and sins of impulsiveness—Elizabeth conniving and sentimental. Both love and are wooed by the same man, Leicester. Where enough humility and docility from Mary toward Elizabeth might have saved Mary from her death sentence, the Scottish queen seizes the freedom to assert her integrity and pride. Some critics, including Ilse Graham, see the two queens as two halves of the same being or personality, neither able to function without the other.

The Maid of Orleans

“This play flowed from my heart,” Schiller wrote in 1802 about The Maid of Orleans, “and it ought to speak to the hearts of the audience. It is not always true, unfortunately, that others have a heart.” Where The Death of Wallenstein and Mary Stuart had demanded intellectual discipline from the playwright, the material concerning Joan of Arc also enjoyed his affection and sympathy. Goethe considered it Schiller’s best play.

Although Schiller wrote The Maid of Orleans in Weimar, it opened in Leipzig, Berlin, and Hamburg. Duke Karl August of Saxony-Weimar thought the play ridiculous in comparison to Voltaire’s satiric mock-epic poem La Pucelle d’Orleans (1755; La Pucelle: Or, the Maid of Orleans, 1785-1786). In addition, the only actress in Weimar suitable for playing the lead was the duke’s mistress. The duke did not want her lack of qualifications for the role of a holy maiden to become the subject of gossip.

Schiller did not strive for an episodic style and frequent changes of scene, as did the romantic Ludwig Tieck in his Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva (pb. 1800, pr. 1807). Actually, Schiller missed the simplicity and structural unity of the Mary Stuart material. To convey the Joan of Arc material, Schiller had to let the demands of the plot determine the structure of the play, a procedure bringing him closer again to Shakespearean than to French models. Even so, Schiller felt free to let the Joan of his play differ from the historical Joan, probably most markedly in the manner of her death.

Instead of a witchcraft trial and a heretic’s death at the stake, Schiller’s Joan dies a victorious, glorious death from the wounds of battle. Schiller’s Joan speaks more words of prophecy than the historical Joan, taking on some of the qualities of a heathen seeress. Saints Catharine and Margaret, who appeared to the historical Joan, are replaced by the repeated dream of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. Where the historical Joan, although garbed in battle dress, limited herself to carrying a banner at the head of her troops, Schiller’s Joan is commanded by God to kill the enemy mercilessly, and she does so with supernatural efficiency and cold-bloodedness. The English, typified by Montgomery, call her “terrible, dreadful.”

Some critics saw in the play Schiller’s intention to let the ideal qualities of form triumph over the violence of the plot in order to propel the audience into a sudden insight about the nature of beauty. Schiller used some techniques of the romantics in orchestrating the spoken voice, moving from dramatic speeches to lyric arias with their additional musical element, rhyme. There are iambic and folk-song stanzas, but also lines reminiscent of the classical hexameter and trimeter. Schiller must have called his tragedy “romantic” because of the presence of miracles and the story’s proximity to medieval Christian mythology. The play also contains the motif of national liberation dear to the romantics.

Although Schiller’s Joan is a heroic figure, she is not a sympathetic protagonist. She is characterized by a kind of inhuman heartlessness, required of her by God, but also proclaimed by her repeatedly. The pure and obedient shepherdess soon becomes an amazon, who even calls herself a pitiless spirit of terror. In the heat of battle she says, “My armor does not cover a heart. . . . Defend yourself; death is calling you. . . . Don’t appeal to my sex; don’t call me woman.” She is in the human world, but not of it, her allegiance and activities forming a direct conduit from a supernatural realm. Indeed, The Maid of Orleans, according to some critics, shows the fate of the transcendent in the midst of a vain, impure, degrading world; its reconciliation with and return to its origin forms the culmination.

Schiller himself stated explicitly that the Joan of the last act and the shepherdess Joan of the prologue reflect each other. In 1801, he wrote in a letter to Goethe:I predict a good and proper effect for my last act; it explains the first act, and so the snake bites itself on the tail. Because my hero stands alone, quite deserted by the gods in her misfortune, quite free and independent, her worthiness for the role of prophet is demonstrated. The end of the fourth act is very theatrical, and the thundering deus ex machina will bring about the desired result.

The end of the fourth act, when the unprotesting Joan is cast out from the French army, is indeed theatrical, but also provides the point of departure for the process of tragedy: previous worldly adoration and internally, a steep fall. On the one side is the sumptuous coronation parade led by Joan with her banner of the Holy Virgin, on the other, the subsequent bitter accusations. Joan’s speechlessness gives rise to the belief by all that the accusations are true, but Joan cannot deny that the enemy is in her heart—not the Devil, of course, but the Englishman Lionel. She is deeply conscious of her transgression against God, not in the form of witchcraft but in the form of love.

Seldom are Schiller’s characters completely silent. Luise Miller in Cabal and Love is an example. Her silence might be seen as powerlessness at the beginning of the play, later the result of a forced oath to deny her love, and finally as an expression of helplessness. Joan is intransigent in her silence, which is emphasized by the clap of thunder from on high. Unfortunately, this sign from Heaven is just as subject to misinterpretation as Joan’s speechlessness. Joan is mute as a sign of the fissure in her soul: She belongs neither in this world nor in the next. That is the tragic moment in this play, Joan’s total isolation; not even those who love her and believe in her are able to break through it. Everyone believes that she is guilty of witchcraft, including her infatuated companion-in-exile. Thus, Joan remains uncanny—whether in love or hate—and inaccessible to other people, a figure from an alien world, yet human enough to awaken passion in others and succumb to it herself.

Joan’s silence is also an indication that she accepts her downfall and humiliation as a just punishment for her transgression, although the nature of her sin is completely misunderstood by her human judges. The process of reflection by which she arrives at this point shows that the faculty of sentimentality is added to her previous naïveté, much the same as the sentimentality of Mary Stuart. Although not guilty of the crime with which she is charged, like Mary, Joan accepts the punishment to expiate another sin. Just as Mary Stuart receives absolution in the religious rites of the execution scene, so Joan, the outcast, finds her way back to God. By honoring and accepting her just punishment Joan again becomes God’s prophet and messenger. Her love for Lionel cannot distract her from the immediacy of France’s peril and her mission.

The final scene of the play is not one of martyrdom but of resplendence. Joan is not seen as a figure of Christian charity, but rather as a warrior as fierce and deadly as was Achilles. Schiller created her from many sources, not only from the historical Joan but also from Shakespeare, Greek antiquity, German classicism and romanticism, the Christian Middle Ages, and the Old Testament. Through Joan of Arc’s glorious death, Schiller exalted the tragedy to a religious rite. Joan is immortal because art triumphs with her over earthly restrictions and imperfections, because humanity sees in her its own potential for transcendence.

Schiller’s morality, like his characteristic victories over illness in order to create, had a Promethean cast. He was consistently moral to the point of impetuosity, trying to transform his bourgeois era into an age receptive to the demanding aesthetic values and radical idealism of his work. It seemed to him the duty of human beings surrounded by a materialist and rationalist environment, on an earth haunted by evil and lacking in religion, to rediscover divine values and concepts that had lain hidden, and to bring them out and to make them visible in a new way. The tragedy as religious celebration would serve this purpose. In tragedy, Schiller believed, ideals celebrate their purest triumph over the material world.

William Tell

If William Tell seems like a collection of clichés to people in the German-speaking world, it is because this greatly beloved last play of Schiller’s is perhaps the most quoted work of German literature. Schiller’s lines have been repeated so often for so many decades and generations that they have become part of the German language, just as many lines of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) might hardly seem original to a speaker of English. Schiller’s William Tell was originally performed March 17, 1804, under the personal direction of Schiller’s great collaborator and friend, Goethe. So beloved did the play become that in a performance at the court of William II, emperor of Germany, the emperor and the entire audience stood during the oath-taking scene, repeating from memory with the actors the words of the pledge of allegiance of republican Switzerland. In this, Schiller’s own favorite play, one sees that his realization of ideal humanity is the unity of nature and the psyche. Where the conflict of a natural drive (love) with heroic ideals nearly destroyed Joan of Arc in The Maid of Orleans, the unity of naïve and sentimental forces in the hero moves William Tell away from tragedy and into the realm of pageantry or ritual.


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