William Tell was Schiller’s last complete play before his death in 1805. Ten years earlier, he had succeeded in entering into a close intellectual association with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the leading figure in German literature at the time. At one of their meetings, Goethe gave Schiller a detailed account of his travels to and his particular fascination with Switzerland.
Schiller subsequently suggested that Goethe compose either an epic poem or a play on the William Tell legend. Instead, Goethe presented Schiller with his complete Swiss materials, which stimulated the noted historian Schiller to immerse himself in Swiss history and the work recently published by his contemporary Johann Müller. Schiller learned that the legend, possibly myth, of William Tell did not appear in documents until well after the historical period of the play.
A historical play is, of course, not a historical document. In William Tell, Schiller is able to unite the many disparate historical and personal threads into the signal aesthetic achievement of his play, one that stimulates readers today as it did when published more than two centuries ago.
William Tell brilliantly synthesizes classical and Romantic elements in his play. The setting and the idyll intoned by the rustic voices in iambic quatrameter at the opening of William Tell are archly Romantic. This is immediately followed by one of Schiller’s strongest traits: dramatic, Shakespearean blank verse. Schiller gives masterfully convincing voice both to the large...
(The entire section is 643 words.)