Wilhelm Tell Friedrich Schiller
The following entry presents criticism of Schiller's drama Wilhelm Tell: Ein Schauspiel (1804; Wilhelm Tell.) For a discussion of Schiller's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 39.
The most widely read play outside Schiller's native Germany and the last of his completed dramas, Wilhelm Tell is considered by many to represent the height of his artistic achievement. Based on the legend of its eponymous folk hero, the play weaves the story of Tell's personal struggle against the tyrant Gessler with that of the Swiss people seeking freedom from Austrian rule. Although the play is generally recognized as a Swiss cause célèbre, critics remain divided in their approach to the work, advancing consideration of the drama in folkloric, political, aesthetic, and moral contexts.
Writing at a time when German language and literature was struggling to find its place in the cultural sphere, Schiller became a national figure in his own lifetime. Following his initial literary success, he relocated to the German intellectual center of Weimar in 1787 and set drama and poetry aside to pursue a study of history. He received an appointment as a professor of history in 1789 to the nearby University at Jena but was forced to resign two years later when he nearly died of a pulmonary disorder. Permanently housebound by his illness, Schiller ceased all other writing in order to concentrate on the philosophical study of aesthetics and the development of a theoretical foundation that was to support and infuse his later work. He resumed writing poetry in 1795 and returned to dramatic work in 1797, beginning work on the Wallenstein trilogy (published in 1800). Despite the prolonged absence of his work from the stage, Schiller's return was triumphant and he remained both a popular and critical success for the remainder of his career. He completed work on Wilhelm Tell in 1804, less than a year before his death, and while the theme of revolution was reminiscent of his earlier work, many saw the play as the progression of the hero through Schiller's theoretical framework.
Plot and Major Characters
Three independent plots run through through the five acts of Wilhelm Tell. First is the legend itself, in which the Swiss hero Wilhelm Tell, a woodsman and hunter, is brought into conflict with the tyrannical local Austrian governor Hermann Gessler. Gessler has commanded the local citizenry to bow to a hat which he has placed upon a pole and, as his punishment for refusing to do so, Tell is forced to shoot an apple from his son's head with an arrow from his crossbow. Although the shot is successful, Tell is nonetheless arrested. He eventually escapes and later kills Gessler as he rides in the woods. The second plot is that of the Swiss drive for independence from Austria. Representatives of three cantons—Schwyz, led by Werner Stauffacher; Uri, led by Walter Fürst; and Unterwaiden, led by Arnold vom Melechtal—gather at Rütli to plot an armed rebellion against their Austrian rulers. As they gather support for the revolution, they are able to incorporate Tell's struggle into their own, championing him as a hero of the cause. The third story in Wilhelm Tell is that of the Swiss noble Ulrich von Rudenz, who has declared his intention of aligning with Austria because of his love for Berta von Bruneck. When he realizes she will only accept him if embraces his own countrymen, he returns his allegiance to the Swiss, and, following the death of Gessler, joins the Rütli confederacy in their subsequent attack on the last of the Austrian governors. Added to the action of the final act is a controversial scene in which Tell encounters Johannes Parricida, the son of Austrian emperor Ferdinand, who has recently murdered his father for withholding his inheritance. Although Parricida, aware of the Gessler assassination, seeks Tell's absolution, he is repudiated as Tell argues the moral difference between the two killings.
Despite debate over its historical accuracy and the question of the existence of a historical Tell figure, Wilhelm Tell has been repeatedly cited as a champion of Swiss independence. But while the rebellion is central to the structure of the work, critics point to the moral autonomy of Tell as its true center. In his aesthetic and philosophical writings, Schiller eschewed the revolutionary stance he had maintained in his early work and turned instead to the arts and personal moral responsibility as the principal agents of social change. Considering the natural state of human psychology to be driven by the conflict between the Stofftrieb (sensedrive) and the Formtrieb (form-drive), Schiller describes a state of "aesthetic freedom," where either drive ceases to dominate and reason and feeling exist in harmony. Many critics feel that the character of Tell represents the transition of an individual from the natural to aesthetic state of being. Indeed, critic Robert L. Jamison argues that the confrontation between Tell and Parricida is designed not to further justify Tell's action against Gessler, but is to be viewed in contrast to his rescue of Baumgarten in the opening scene: "Tell, the hunter, could save men's lives; Tell the father and husband, can help men save their souls."
Although critics vary in their interpretive approach to the work, praise for Wilhelm Tell is nearly unanimous, and the drama remains frequently read and performed. Since its premiere, the play has been esteemed for its color and warmth, and Schiller is lauded for his handling of the dramatic action, not only in the design of the piece, but in its setting, language, and characterization. Critic H. B. Garland describes Wilhelm Tell as "probably Schiller's most popular play, rich in qualities which no other of his works displays in equal degree." Although consideration of the play, according to critic W. G. Moore, "really rests upon a decision as to whether Schiller was predominantly a thinker, writing to present an argument about freedom, or a dramatist, presenting a case of notable conflict and a revelation of the mystery of life," critics continue to recognize the drama as an important and essential part of Schiller's legacy.