Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2637
Schiller was a German historian, essayist, poet, and playwright. During his short life, he wrote more than a dozen plays and a number of translations or adaptations for the stage. He also wrote history books, numerous essays, and a large number of poems. It was once said that if there was ever any hope of a German Shakespeare, Schiller would be that man. Each year, studies of Schiller’s work reveal new essays, monographs, and books. His life, philosophy, and writings have been examined with great intensity. In Germany, he is regarded with intense admiration.
Schiller’s achievements are remarkable because they came at a time when German culture and language were held in ill repute. The country was dominated by the literary examples of foreigners, especially the French, Italians, and English. Even the language was not considered a proper form of literary expression. Schiller changed all of that. Almost single-handedly, he revitalized the language as a means of artistic expression, showing the world the power and importance of German culture. He firmly believed in, and wrote with conviction on, the civilizing, liberating, and cleansing mission of art. No matter which genre he adopted, Germany embraced him as a national hero during his lifetime. Stories are told of how he was lionized and worshiped whenever he appeared in public. His shadow loomed large and influenced such important individuals as Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx.
The key to understanding so complex a figure as Schiller may well rest with his essays on aesthetics and his poetry. He believed that there was a vital connection between art and morality. It was a belief that deepened and changed over the years. In his poem “Die Künstler” (“The Artists”), for example, Schiller exalts art as a unifying force that helps humankind emerge from a bestial existence to a much higher spiritual plane until life itself becomes a work of art. Counter to the prevailing opinion of the time, Schiller refused to compartmentalize life. He believed that intellect, emotions and passions, bodily pleasures and pains, moral values, and the soul’s immortality should be viewed not as separate entities but as unified ones. In some of his essays, Schiller argues that art should be complete and perfect in itself, rivaled only by religion. The basic ingredient is good taste, which Schiller applies not only to art but also to morality. He goes further and suggests that good taste applies even to political and social programs.
Schiller’s philosophy views each person as a member of the community and art as the primary force of civilization. He places large demands on the artist in society, and rather than viewing that individual as a mere entertainer, he exalts him or her as a leader. His poem “Das Eleusische Fest” (“The Festival of Eleusis”) makes it clear that without the cleansing contribution of the artist, all technical, commercial, political, and social advances suffer. In “Der Spaziergang” (“The Walk”), inspired by the tragic events of the French Revolution, he shows how an artificially contrived urban civilization will, in time, be destroyed by its ferocious and vengeful nature. To Schiller, art inspires philosophy and religion; moreover, the artist is closer to nature than other people are because nature remains his or her true inspiration. In one of his philosophical lectures, Schiller postulated that people of the future would come into complete harmony with nature, becoming one with plants and animals, and would develop a high moral and social code of ethics.
Schiller’s philosophy reverberates down through the ages and is still pertinent today. Alfred North Whitehead echoes Schiller’s sentiments in Science and the Modern World (1925):[G]reat art is more than a transient refreshment. It is something which adds to the permanent richness of the soul’s self-attainment. It justifies itself both by its immediate enjoyment, and also by its discipline of the inmost being. Its discipline is not distinct from enjoyment, but by reason of it. It transforms the soul into the permanent realisation of values extending beyond its former self.
Schiller carried these principles of art into his plays, as well. His heroes, for example, are always inspired by the loftiest of ideals. If they fail, it is invariably because of the ignoble means that they employ or because they are betrayed by the very corruption that they are trying to eradicate. Schiller’s quest for idealism in art and life, so well described in his poems and essays, caused serious problems in his dramas. The playwright grossly altered historical events and personages, inventing new characters to suit his purposes. In his play Maria Stuart (pr. 1800, pb. 1801; Mary Stuart, 1801), Schiller builds the play’s conflict around two dominant personalities, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I, meeting in a dramatic confrontation. Critics quickly pointed out that the two avowed enemies never met. Their stage characters were inaccurately portrayed. In addition, the fanatical figure of Mortimer was invented, and important dates and locations were altered.
Schiller took even greater liberties with Die Jungfrau von Orleans (pr. 1801, pb. 1802; The Maid of Orleans, 1835). His St. Joan, called Johanna, is told by the angels that she must never lose sight of her spiritual quest or her powers would vanish. St. Joan inexplicably finds time for a romantic dalliance with a handsome English officer and, therefore, loses her special magic, as prophesied. She is banished from court and imprisoned by the English but eventually escapes. St. Joan dies at the end, not burning at the stake but with sword in hand on the battlefield, as she leads the French to one last battle against the English.
Schiller laughed at the criticism leveled at him. He stated that art must not be circumscribed by history. The artist must show life as it ideally should be lived and not as it really exists. Unlike the historical figures of Mary Stuart and The Maid of Orleans, Schiller’s last play, William Tell, is based on the mythic medieval Swiss hero.
First produced: Wallensteins Lager, 1798 (first published, 1800; The Camp of Wallenstein, 1846); Die Piccolomini, 1799 (first published, 1800; The Piccolominis, 1800); Wallensteins Tod, 1799 (first published, 1800; The Death of Wallenstein, 1800)
Type of work: Play
General Wallenstein seeks to make peace with his enemies during the Thirty Years’ War against the emperor’s wishes. His plans are discovered, and he is assassinated. The war is destined to drag on endlessly.
Wallenstein is a huge historical drama spread over three parts. Schiller began the work in 1796, and it was first drama written after his ten-year period of historical and philosophical writing. It covers an equally huge piece of history, the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought throughout central Europe from 1618 until 1648. The war was fought between the Catholic forces of the Hapsburgs’ Holy Roman Empire, headed at first by Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria, and the various Protestant states of Germany, Sweden, and France. Schiller had studied the period closely and had written a three-volume history of the conflict, Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges (1791-1793; History of the Thirty Years War, 1799). A later German playwright, Berthold Brecht, used the same historical period in Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (pr. 1941, pb. 1949; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941), although Brecht chose to write from the peasants’ point of view.
Schiller takes as his hero Count Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein (1583-1634), a Bohemian Protestant who had converted to Catholicism. (Bohemia is now the western province of the Czech Republic.) In Wallenstein’s youth, the Protestant Czech rulers had been replaced by German-speaking Catholics and incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire again as an Austrian possession. Wallenstein, therefore, has a foot in both camps. Historically, Wallenstein gained power and possessions in an ambitious advance until he was finally put in charge of all of the emperor’s forces in the Holy Roman Empire (mainly Germany and Austria) and the Netherlands (Holland and Belgium).
The first and shortest part of the drama is Wallensteins Lager (pr. 1798, pb. 1800; The Camp of Wallenstein, 1846), which is set in 1633. Its drama mainly lies in the diversity of people and groups within Wallenstein’s standing army of some 150,000 soldiers. They range from landless peasants to well-trained cavalry. As the war drags on, these soldiers have been corrupted by the conflict, so that rape, plunder, and murder seem commonplace. Yet they are fiercely loyal toward Wallenstein himself. Toward the end of the play, a monk, apparently sent by the emperor, denounces their many sins, and playgoers are reminded that this “religious” war is no such thing.
The second part of Wallenstein is a five-act play, Die Piccolomini (pr. 1799, pb. 1800; The Piccolominis, 1800). Max Piccolomini is a general brought in from the Hapsburgs’ Spanish possessions, with a view to replacing Wallenstein. The emperor knows that Wallenstein is thinking of negotiating with the Swedes against his wishes, ostensibly to bring some sort of peace after sixteen years of fighting, and sees this as betrayal. Piccolomini’s son, Octavio, falls in love with Wallenstein’s daughter, Thekla. His father demands that Octavio choose between the treacherous Wallenstein and himself.
In the third part of the drama, Wallensteins Tod (pr. 1799, pb. 1800; The Death of Wallenstein, 1800), the two lovers commit suicide, and Wallenstein is eventually assassinated by some of the small-minded men whom he has trusted. His plans for peace and ambitious dreams for himself come to nothing.
First produced: Wilhelm Tell, 1804 (first published, 1804; English translation, 1841)
Type of work: Play
Legendary Swiss hero William Tell, as chronicled by Schiller, saves his country from the corruption of an evil tyrant and is hailed as a redeemer.
William Tell is considered by most critics to be Schiller’s dramatic masterpiece. It was an immediate success after its premiere at the Weimar Hoftheater on March 17, 1804. Schiller directed the production. It is his most widely translated drama and the one play likeliest to be associated with Schiller outside of Germany. Schiller’s most popular play is also one of his shortest and the only one to have a happy ending.
Most people are acquainted with the William Tell legend without Schiller or his play. The exploits of the legendary Swiss hero who fought against tyranny and shot the apple off his son’s head have now passed into folklore. Tell, as seen through Schiller’s eyes, is depicted as a great hero, a man who exemplified the best in the Swiss people.
William Tell is a powerful blend of Swiss history and popular legend. Schiller rearranges recorded history, as usual, and eliminates or telescopes important events. Since he framed his play around a fictional character, however, the dramatic alterations are less emphatic than those in Mary Stuart or The Maid of Orleans. The focus of the play is on the Swiss people’s oppression by Albert I, a Hapsburg emperor, who reduced Switzerland to an Austrian dominion. Ruling for him in Switzerland is the sadistic Vogt Hermann Gessler, who overstepped his authority and trampled on the people’s rights.
The play opens with great impact. A man is fleeing for his life from imperial troops. Tell steps in and rescues him. Soon, the peaceful Tell is embroiled in his country’s fight for freedom, which reaches a high point during the apple shoot in act 3, culminating one act later when he slays Gessler with an arrow. In act 5, there is a joyous festival, the arrival of the imperial assassin seeking refuge, and the celebration of Tell as a national hero and liberator.
William Tell is a fairy-tale play about a folk hero who triumphs over tyranny. As in any good fairy tale, the hero must do battle and defeat an evil figure, in this play Gessler, to free his people. Schiller uses the mythic legend, however, to advance his concept of political liberation. He takes the exciting conflict between good and evil, the commanding appearance of a likable hero, and a dozen spectacular outdoor settings and fuses them together with a people’s struggle to overthrow a dictator. The heady mix makes for a compelling and visually exciting drama.
Schiller began a new dramatic work, “Demetrius,” before he died, but only fragments survive; William Tell remains his last completed play. Throughout the years, it has received numerous productions. Some critics suggest that it may be the longest-running play in dramatic history. Schiller’s success on the stage is rivaled worldwide by the continuing popularity of his poetic works.
“The Conqueror,” “The Gods of Greece,” and “The Song of the Bell”
First published: “Der Eroberer,” 1777 (collected in The Poems of Schiller, 1851); “Die Götter Griechenlands,” 1788 (collected in The Poems of Schiller, 1851); “Das Lied von der Glocke,” 1800 (collected in The Poems of Schiller, 1902)
Type of work: Poems
Schiller’s poetry is on a grand and lofty scale, full of philosophical ideas touching on art and morality, while extolling the best in humankind.
“Der Eroberer” (“The Conqueror”), “Die Götter Griechenlands” (“The Gods of Greece”), and “Das Lied von der Glocke” (“The Song of the Bell”) are representative works belonging to three distinct creative periods in Schiller’s life. The first period of his youth to 1784 is full of vigor, enthusiasm, and a certain self-righteous attitude. The poetry is supercharged with passion and reflects his influence by the Storm and Stress tradition that also fueled his early drama. The second period, dating from 1785 to 1789, demonstrates a growing maturity. The poems are still flamboyant, but there is greater concern for philosophical ideas. From 1790 to 1795, Schiller stopped writing poetry altogether, concentrating his energies on historical works and essays. When he resumed in 1795, he had fully matured as a poet. His compositions are confident and dynamic. His style is simple, yet powerful. He draws on a wide range of interests, including history, literature, and philosophy.
Schiller’s first important poem, “The Conqueror,” was first published in 1777 in Schwäbischers Magazin. The poet was energetic and full of revolutionary ardor. He takes aim at despots and their ruthless ambitions. His protagonist is an evil conqueror who has devastated the land with a sword dipped in blood. The warrior dies and ascends to Heaven, where he is judged before God. With arrogance, he sits on the scales of justice, and his deeds are piled opposite him. They balance evenly until the poet invokes a curse that tips the scales, sending the conqueror to Hell. “The Conqueror” is an attack on the despised duke of Württemberg. Schiller soon learned to sublimate his fury.
Schiller’s second period witnessed a number of fine poems, of which “The Gods of Greece” is typical. It was first published in the March, 1788, issue of Der Teutsche Merkur. Schiller at this time was still full of rebellious spirit. He looked back to ancient Greece, idealizing the past. He contrasted its attempt to help humanity find peace with itself to the soulless concept of Christianity. Schiller later revised the poem in 1793, after its critical reception, by eliminating the passages on Christianity.
Schiller’s best-known poetic work, “The Song of the Bell,” is in the form of a ballad. The poem’s genesis occurred when Schiller visited a bell foundry at Rudolstadt. The poem has a narrator, the master bell maker, who shows his apprentices how casting a bell is similar to living the various phases of life. Schiller’s bell stands for harmony, peace, and the possibility of creating a better society.
Schiller’s poetry usually coalesced around a central tenet or idea. His aim was to appeal to the ear and the mind. Like the ancient Greek thinkers whom he admired, Schiller posed philosophical questions in his poetry about what is good, beautiful, and true in life and proceeded to answer them. The poet believed fully in humanity and anticipated a better future. Schiller grew as a poet, and his style changed from passionate and lyrical exultations to a classical mastery of simplicity and clarity.
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