Friedrich Schiller Schiller, Friedrich - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Friedrich Schiller 1759-1805

German dramatist, poet, historian, philosopher, and essayist.

One of the towering figures in German literature, Schiller was a universal genius whose dramatic writings, poetry, philosophy, and historical works give eloquent voice to the themes of justice and human freedom. His early plays, which reflect his affinity with the Sturm und Drang movement, feature the passionate struggles of revolutionaries as they seek to overthrow corruption and tyranny. The later works, characterized by more realistic and Classical subjects and forms, move from the external events that shape the choices and actions of his characters to their inner struggles, as the playwright shows how humans may rise above corruption and attain dignity through non-violent means. As a dramatist of ideas, Schiller is concerned, especially in his later plays, to put on stage those notions which he believes can be morally instructive to his audience. He portrays, especially in his later plays, characters who, after deliberation and sometimes anguish, overcome their desires to make moral choices based on their reason. However, he does this not merely with polemics but appeals to the senses and emotions of his audience, portraying with high drama the tragic conflict that is central to human experience. Although Schiller is no longer widely read in the English-speaking world, he is revered as a national treasure in Germany, and is regarded, along with his contemporary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as one of the pillars of German literary achievement.

Biographical Information

Schiller was born in Marbach, Württemberg, the son of an officer and surgeon in the army of the Duke Karl Eugen. At age seven he was enrolled in the Latin School at Ludwigsburg, to prepare for a career in the clergy. However, at age fourteen, at the insistence of the Duke, Schiller was placed in the elite Karlsschule, a military academy, where he would eventually study medicine. Schiller distinguished himself in his technical studies at the rigidly disciplined academy, but found the environment oppressive. He secretly studied literature, including the works of William Shakespeare, and clandestinely began writing his first play. After graduating in 1780, he was assigned a post as a military surgeon in Stuttgart. The following year he completed and self-published his first play, Die Räuber, which drew the attention of Wolfgang von Delberg, director of the Mannheim National Theater. After having to rewrite portions of the manuscript to pass the censors, Schiller saw his work performed at Mannheim to enthusiastic audiences. However, the play caused considerable controversy because of its revolutionary tone and ecstatic poetry, and the Duke forbade his officer to publish anything further except medical research. Schiller thereupon fled Stuttgart and moved to Mannheim, where he lived for a time on the aid of friends. His health had always been poor, and it was further undermined by the the stress of his exile and his financial difficulties.

In Mannheim, he entered into a contract with von Delberg to write plays for the theater, but it was an uneasy relationship and Schiller found himself continuing to live off the kindness friends and was constantly in debt. His second play, Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua received only lukewarm reviews, but the production of Kabale und Liebe in 1784 was a resounding success, and established the young writer as one of the masters of German drama. In 1785 Schiller broke with von Dalberg and moved to Leipzig on the invitation of his friend Christian Gottfried Köner. In Leipzig he edited the theatrical magazine Die Rheinische Thalia, published poetry, and completed his third play, Don Karlos.

For the next ten years Schiller wrote no plays, concentrating instead on historial and philosophical works. In 1787 he moved to Weimar, where he would meet the great poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; the two writers formed a strong personal friendship and literary and intellectual alliance that lasted until Schiller's death. It was at Goethe's recommendation that Schiller was appointed Professor of History at the University of Jena in 1789. Having gained some measure of financial security, in 1790 he married Charlotte von Lengefeld. While at the university he devoted much time to studying philosophy, particularly the writings of the German idealist Immanuel Kant. He published prodigiously at this time, producing works of history and major aesthetic treatises based on Kant's philosophy.

1798 marked the beginning of Schiller's second great period of dramatic composition. In 1799 he completed his Wallenstein trilogy, which was staged by Goethe the following year. Schiller's health by this time was in serious decline, most likely due to tuberculosis. But he continued to write and produce plays at the rate of one or more per year: from 1800 to 1804 he wrote and saw the production of Maria Stuart, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Die Braut von Messina, and Wilhelm Tell. He was working on another play, Demetrius, when he died of pneumonia in 1805.

Major Works

Schiller's eleven major dramatic works span two distinct literary periods. His three earliest plays belong to the period of Sturm und Drang, the earliest dramatic manifestation of the romantic movement that was to sweep Europe. Die Räuber, which established his reputation, is a bombastic, sweeping tale of a rebel who, with his band of thieves, attempts to overthrow a corrupt political order. His second play, Fiesko, which deals with a struggle for power in the republic of Genoa, also involves a revolution, but this time the revolutionary becomes more corrupt than the system he endeavors to destroy. In Kabale und Liebe, a story of a pair of lovers who are forced apart because of social barriers, a despotic court not only thwarts romance but forces young German recruits to be sent to fight in America on behalf of the English. All these early plays feature passionate struggles of heroes who pursue freedom and justice in hypocritical societies, but also point out that reaction against tyranny can itself assume the form of oppression.

Don Karlos is seen by most critics as a “transitional” play. It is the first play written in verse, and in many ways anticipates the style of Schiller's later Classical works, but has as its theme the plea for freedom that marks his early efforts. The play, set in sixteenth-century Spain, about the attempt of the heir apparent Don Carlos to assume responsibilty and power from his father, treats political themes with considerable complexity and introduces philosophical ideas that were to figure prominently in the later dramas.

Schiller's later, Classical, plays were written after his ten-year immersion in historical and philosophical study, and they embody his newly developed aesthethic theories—including the idea that tragedy should be an instrument for humans' moral perfection. In his writings on aesthetics, Schiller distinguishes between “naive” works of art, which are the outpourings of genius, and “sentimental” works, which have goals. A naive work of art is moral, while a sentimental work has a moral. His particular brand of classicism, he claimed, was concerned with universal balance, and in his plays he depicts a movement toward this harmony as the soul triumphs over desire. In the trilogy of plays, Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini, and Wallensteins Tod, which depict the downfall of a general suspected of treason during a brief period during the Thirty Years' War, the sentimental qualities of the title character are contrasted to the naive qualities of the young officer who idolizes him. The plays also marks a shift in Schiller's socio-political ideas, as he rejects the notion that freedom can be attained through revolution and seeks to show rather how individual and spiritual freedom may be achieved through moral self-discovery.

The theme of inner victory through moral regeneration is played out in the plays composed during Schiller's last years. In Maria Stuart and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, in which Schiller depicts the lives of the historical figures Mary, Queen of Scots and Joan of Arc, we see how each heroine rises above the corruption of Church and government to attain her own sense of moral victory and spiritual freedom. Die Braut von Messina, which is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy and concerns two brothers who are fated to fall in love with their sister, explores the tension between predestination and free will. Schiller's last finished work, Wilhelm Tell, also concerns the moral autonomy of the main character, the legendary Swiss hero who shoots an apple from his own son's head, but recalls too the theme of revolution that was a concern in the earlier dramas.

Critical Reception

Schiller's reputation as a boldly original thinker and artist was established with his controversial but highly successful first play, Die Räuber. By the age of twenty-four, with the production of Kabale und Liebe, he was recognized as one of the great masters of German drama. During his lifetime he was lauded as one of the figures who raised the stature of German literature, which hitherto had been overshadowed by the achievements of artists in England, France, and Italy. His plays were often met with standing ovations, and audiences and critics alike thrilled at his ability to portray with immediacy and complexity the sufferings and triumph of the human spirit. After his death he became a national icon, with monuments erected in his honor, and his works were and continue to be part of the German literary curriculum. Thinkers such as Carl Gustav Jung, Friederich Nietzche, Friederich Hegel, and Karl Marx were indebted to the ideas he set forth in this philosophical and aesthetical works. The attention paid to his works by German literary critics can be compared to that accorded to Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. In the nineteenth century, British critics such as Thomas Carlyle and the American poet William Cullen Bryant admired his taste and feeling and his concern for human freedom. Schiller's name is not a familiar one among English-speaking readers today, however, and he does not enjoy the same recognition as does his great contemporary Goethe, for example. Contemporary critics have suggested that Schiller's dramas are less accessible to modern readers due to their flamboyant, sometimes bombastic language. However, most agree that there are to be found in the plays themes and concerns—political and individual freedom, the complexity of human endeavor, the struggle between the rational and sensual aspects of the self—that are of remarkably contemporary concern. Twentieth-century commentators writing in English tend to stress the philosophical underpinnings of the plays; the political themes; the impact of Schiller's historical study on his dramatic practice; the shift in concern in the later plays from external to internal events; and the dramas' rootedness in human life.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

Die Raüber: Ein Schauspiel [The Robbers] 1781

Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua: Ein republikanisches Trauerspiel [Fiesco; or, The Genoese Conspiracy] 1783

Kabale und Liebe: Ein bügerliches Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen [Intrigue and Love: A Tragedy in Five Acts] 1784

Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien [Don Carlos, Infant of Spain ] 1798

Wallensteins Lager [The Camp of Wallenstein] 1800

Die Piccolomini [The Piccolominis] 1800

Wallensteins Tod [The Death of Wallenstein] 1800

Maria Stuart: Ein...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

William Witte (essay date 1949)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ideal Freedom,” in Schiller, Basil Blackwell, 1949, pp. 165-86.

[In the following essay, Witte argues that Maria Stuart, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, and Die Braut von Messina embody and illustrate Schiller's idea of the tragically sublime: the triumph of the moral self over the human being's material existence, emotional impulses, and physical nature, or the victory of spiritual freedom over the bondage of the flesh.]

The years that remained to Schiller after the completion of Wallenstein were devoted almost entirely to the drama. After the self-imposed discipline of historical study and philosophical reflection, after the tardy growth...

(The entire section is 9449 words.)

E. L. Stahl (essay date 1954)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Necessity and Freedom,” in Friedrich Schiller's Drama: Theory and Practice, The Clarendon Press, 1954, pp. 126-54.

[In the following essay, Stahl discusses Schiller's last plays, Die Braut von Messina, Wilhelm Tell, and the fragment Demetrius, and finds in them several new features—notably the exploration of the tension between necessity and free will, the external rather than the internal compulsion of characters, and tragic action based on the transformation of the hero's character—that indicate a shift in style and emphasis in Schiller's dramatic works and a development in his notion of tragedy.]

The new features of Schiller's last...

(The entire section is 10295 words.)

Oskar Seidlin (essay date 1960)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Schiller: Poet of Politics,” in A Schiller Symposium: In Observance of the Bicentenary of Schiller's Birth, University of Texas Department of Germanic Languages, 1960, pp. 31-48.

[In the following essay, Seidlin asserts that the “complexities and perplexities of political man” is one of Schiller's most persistent themes, and claims that in his works the dramatist brings to life the ironies and paradoxes of political action—for example, that political ideals, however lofty, must be bound up with humans' particular desires and ambitions in order to be put into practice, but in being so bound lose their purity as ideals.]

A Quarter of a century ago,...

(The entire section is 7289 words.)

G. A. Wells (essay date 1965)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry and Politics: An Aspect of Schiller's Diction,” in German Life and Letters, Vol. 18, No. 2, January 1965, pp. 101-10.

[In the following essay, Wells claims that Schiller deliberately employs poetical language and a declamatory style in his plays when dealing with facts he considers prosaic, and particularly when he presents legal and political details.]

When Schiller was writing Wallenstein he was consciously trying to avoid both the declamatory style of his Don Carlos and also the dullness which he felt was inherent in a subject full of political detail and intrigue. He was trying to steer clear of ‘beide Abwege, das Prosaische und...

(The entire section is 4608 words.)

G. A. Wells (essay date 1973)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Villainy and Guilt in Schiller's Wallenstein and Maria Stuart,” in Deutung und Bedeuntung: Studies in German and Comparative Literature Presented to Karl Werner Maurer, edited by Brigitte Schuldermann, Victor G. Doerksen, Robert J. Glendinning, and Evelyn Scherabon Firchow, Mouton and Co., 1973, pp. 100-17.

[In the following essay, Wells discusses the problem of how we are to understand the guilt and villainy of the heroes and antagonists in Wallenstein and Maria Stuart, and notes that Schiller places less and less emphasis on villainy as a source of tragic catastrophe in his later works.]

Schiller believed that the effect of...

(The entire section is 8100 words.)

Lesley Sharpe (essay date 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. vii-xxvi.

[In the following essay, Sharpe presents a critical overview of the historical dramas Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, and maintains that the hope evident in Don Carlos disappears in the later play and is replaced by a bleaker vision of human integrity in the world of action.]

At first sight Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, with Wallenstein Friedrich Schiller's greatest historical dramas, are striking in their similarity. Both are blank-verse plays, set against the background of religious strife in sixteenth-century Europe. Both...

(The entire section is 7463 words.)

F. J. Lamport (essay date 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Schiller and the “European Community”: “Universal History” in Theory and Practice,” in The Modern Language Review Vol. 93, No 2, April 1998, pp. 428-40.

[In the following essay, Lamport argues that Schiller's interest in history and his study of people in action on the historical stage contributed to his fuller treatment of the complex relationship of character and event in his dramatic works.]

‘Die europäische Staatengesellschaft scheint in eine große Familie verwandelt. Die Hausgenossen können einander anfeinden, aber hoffentlich nicht mehr zerfleischer.’ So declared Schiller, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Jena, in his...

(The entire section is 7616 words.)

Criticism: Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Stage Considered as a Moral Institution,” in Friedrich Schiller: An Anthology for our Time, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1959, pp. 263-83.

[In the following essay, which was first delivered as a lecture in 1784, Schiller asserts that theater serves a crucial moral function in society, and sets out in detail its sphere of influence and range of effects on human life, calling it “a school of practical wisdom, a guide through social life, an infallible key to the most secret passages of the soul.”]

The stage owes its origin to the irresistible attraction of things new and extraordinary, to man's desire for passionate experience, as Sulzer has observed....

(The entire section is 3762 words.)

Criticism: Die RäUber

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Karl Moor's Charisma,” in Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 57-61.

[In the following essay, Leidner notes that Die Räuber, Schiller's hugely successful first play, was and is so popular because of the charisma of the protagonist, Karl Moor, and because of the emotional ritual created in a work where the audience takes vicarious pleasure in identifying with a murderer.]

When Friedrich von Schiller, a twenty-two year old cadet at the Hohe Karlsschule in Stuttgart, went A.W.O.L. to attend the first performance of Die Räuber (1781), he could hardly have been...

(The entire section is 2556 words.)

Criticism: Wallenstein

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: ‘“Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual”: Philosophy and Poetry in Schiller's Wallenstein”, in Publications of the English Goethe Society Vol. 65, 1995, pp. 136-60.

[In the following essay, Harrison explores the central theme of Wallenstein, “the agony of choice between the demands of the senses and those of reason,” which he notes is central to Schiller's vision of life.]

Popular proverbs express in a concise and memorable form a commonplace fact of experience. ‘Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual’ is a fine example. With its alliteration and assonance it pleases the ear, and it describes an experience so widespread that it needs no illustration....

(The entire section is 10659 words.)

Criticism: Wilhelm Tell

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Silence of Wilhelm Tell,” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 4, Summer 1983, pp. 857-68.

[In the following essay, Lamport argues that Tell, a simple and humble man, undergoes a profound change after his confrontation with and triumph over Gessler: he moves out of his simple world and gains historical significance, and he finds a new eloquence as result of the important moral decision he makes in silence.]

Schiller's Wilhelm Tell seems at first sight a fairly simple play. The action is, of course, a complex one, with four separate strands (the conspiracy of Stauffacher and his associates; the love of Rudenz for Berta; the assassination...

(The entire section is 6985 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Blunden, Alan G. “Nature and Politics in Schiller's Don Carlos.Educational Theater Journal 27 (August 1975): 504-07.

Notes the importance of the organic metaphors underlying the political themes in the play.

Garland, H. B. Schiller. New York: Medill McBridge, 1950. 280 p.

General introduction emphasizing “the human character of the writer which is the foundation of the literary works”; includes detailed analyses of individual plays.

Graf, Günter. “Criticism of Power: A Strategic Device in Kabald und Liebe.” In Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of...

(The entire section is 783 words.)