Friedrich Schiller World Literature Analysis
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,...
(The entire section is 2637 words.)