Friedrich Schiller Critical Essays

Friedrich Schiller Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3369 words.)