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.
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.
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.
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.