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Wallenstein Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 In Wallenstein’s youth, the Protestant Czech rulers had been replaced by German-speaking Catholics and incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire again as an Austrian possession.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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Wallenstein, the duke of Friedland, was once dismissed from the service of Emperor Ferdinand, but during the Thirty Years’ War, in which the countries of central Europe are battling to prevent their annihilation by the forces of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the emperor recalls Wallenstein and gives him extraordinary powers to create an army to drive the Swedes out of central Europe. Wallenstein raises such a powerful army, but both its leaders and the rank-and-file soldiers feel that they owe allegiance to their commander rather than to the emperor.

Wallenstein’s army achieves many victories, and the situation in central Europe becomes less tense. The threat to his dominions having decreased, the emperor wishes to curtail Wallenstein’s power, lest the conquering hero attempt to dictate to the crown....

(The entire section is 1,552 words.)