Friedrich von Schiller
BORN: 1759, Marbach, Germany
DIED: 1805, Weimar, Germany
GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction
The Robbers (1781)
Intrigue and Love (1784)
Maria Stuart (1801)
Wilhelm Tell (1804)
Friedrich von Schiller. Schiller, Friedrich von, engraving. The German Information Center.
To this day, many regard Friedrich Schiller as the greatest dramatist in all of German history. More brilliantly than any of his predecessors, he revealed the power of drama and poetry in expressing a philosophy that emphasized both his idealism and his concern for human freedom. Schiller was also esteemed as an adept lyricist and theoretician whose works are informed by his conviction that the writer should strive not only to entertain, but also to instruct and improve his audience.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Birth and Education. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was born on November 10, 1759, in Marbach, Germany, to an army captain and an innkeeper’s daughter. He initially wanted to be a clergyman and enrolled in the Latin School at Ludwigsburg in 1766. Against his parents’ wishes, however, Schiller was drafted into the Karlsschule, an elite military academy, in 1773. Karlsschule was located in Stuttgart (a city in Wurttemberg) and was a rigidly disciplined academy established to train the sons of German army officers for public service. At the time, Germany remained fragmented into more than three hundred principalities, bishoprics, and free cities, including Wurttemberg. By this time, Prussia had emerged to first rank among the German territories, especially through the military brilliance of Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 until 1786.
At the Karlsschule, Schiller was educated in an intensely disciplined atmosphere, and, although he was being trained in medicine, Schiller spent much of his time secretly reading the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Seneca, and William Shakespeare, along with the revolutionary works of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Even before he graduated in 1780 and was appointed a medical officer in the military of Duke Karl Eugen (who ruled Wurttemberg with an iron fist), Schiller had begun writing The Robbers (1781), his first dramatic work.
Poverty and Early Plays. Though Schiller had completed his play, he was unable to find a publisher and eventually self-published despite his pitiful salary, beginning a cycle of debt that would characterize his entire early career. In 1782, Schiller attended the performance of The Robbers at a theater in Mannheim, a production that earned him both public acclaim and the wrath of Duke Eugen, who insisted that he work only on medical texts from then on. This conflict forced Schiller to flee Stuttgart in 1782, launching a period of financial deprivation and uncertainty.
Schiller was financially desperate, but not without acquaintances. A friend gave him a post at the Mannheim Theater in 1783, and he was offered generous financial assistance by patron and friend Christian Gottfried Korner. His appointment at the Mannheim lasted a single year because the management wanted drama that avoided the extravagances of Schiller’s The Robbers and Intrigue and Love (1784), his next major play. Around the same time, Schiller founded the literary journal Rheinland Thalia. Appearing in the publication was his poem ‘‘An die Freude’’ (1786), which would later inspire Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘‘Ode to Joy’’ (from the last movement of his Ninth Symphony).
Literary Friendships. Schiller continued his dramatic pursuits, publishing and producing several plays and completing Don Carlos, Infante of Spain in 1787. With its historical setting and its use of blank verse to explore a theme of love versus duty, this play would prove important to Schiller’s dramatic development. It featured a noblewoman character based on his friend, Charlotte von Kalb. When Schiller visited Frau von Kalb at her Weimar home in 1787 after publishing the play, he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a dramatist and poet of growing importance, who became his close friend and collaborator in classicism. Schiller launched into a period of productivity that ensured his fame and social position. Schiller’s historical work on the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain (the 1568-1648 revolt of seventeen provinces in the Netherlands against the Spanish Empire, which controlled them), as well as Goethe’s support, earned him a professorship in history at the University of Jena in 1789, a position he would hold for the next decade.
Early in 1790, Schiller married Charlotte von Lengefeld, also a gifted writer. He was named a nobleman in 1803. Around this time, he became interested in Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic philosophy. He began to write philosophical treatises and poems, including ‘‘The Artists’’ (1789), a work in which he celebrates art as a power that could create world harmony, overcome human desire, and awaken the artist to the mystery and beauty of the universe. His 1796 essay ‘‘On Naive and Sentimental Poetry’’ is considered the basis for modern poetry criticism. These philosophical musings would affect the remainder of Schiller’s work and have a lasting impact on criticism and literature itself.
Late Work and Death. After completing a tragic trilogy based on the Thirty Years War (the 1618-1648) war of religion between Protestants and Catholics fought mainly in Germany but involving most of the major powers in Europe) that critics have compared with the dramas of Shakespeare, Schiller’s correspondence with Goethe flourished, and Schiller eventually joined Goethe in Weimar, which was known as the ‘‘German Athens’’ because its ruler, Karl August, had succeeded in making it a center of art and culture. Schiller’s most popular play, Maria Stuart, was completed in 1800, and he wrote several other important plays during this time. In 1804, Schiller published his greatest literary achievement, Wilhelm Tell, a powerful blend of history and heroic fiction. Although he completed other works before his death, Schiller’s literary output was interrupted by illness, and he died in Weimar on May 9, 1805.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Schiller's famous contemporaries include:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): This German poet and philosopher was Schiller's close friend. It was Schiller who encouraged Goethe to continue with his work on Faust (1808, 1832) after he had abandoned the future masterpiece.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): This Austrian composer was hailed for his large musical output as well as his musical genius. His compositions include the ''Paris'' Symphony (1778) and the opera The Marriage of Figaro (1786).
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): A founding father of the United States, Franklin was also a prolific writer and inventor. His publications include Poor Richard's Almanack (1733-1758).
Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813): The German author wrote both the educational novel Geschichte des Agathon (1766-1767) and the romantic poem Oberon (1780). He also collaborated with both Goethe and Schiller in Weimar.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799): This Italian mathematician was known for her solution to an algebraic equation and wrote the first book that discussed both differential calculus and integral calculus. Her books include Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana (1748).
Denmark Vesey (1767-1822): This West Indian slave plotted a rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina, and along the Carolina coast, which was supposed to happen on July 14, 1822. The plan failed, and he was convicted and hanged for his role in the conspiracy.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Schiller's plays often drew on historical events for both content and emotion. Here are a few examples of other writings based on historical events:
A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a novel by Charles Dickens. This well-known classic portrays human involvement in the events leading up to the bloody French Revolution.
Kristin Lavransdatter (1920), a novel by Sigrid Undset. Filled with dramatic events, romantic intrigue, and political conspiracy, this work helped win its author the 1928 Nobel Prize.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2003), a novel by Philippa Gregory. This work of historical fiction is told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn's sister Mary, who was King Henry VIII's mistress before he married Anne.
Braveheart (1995), a film directed by Mel Gibson. This movie depicts life and war in thirteenth-century Scotland.
Works in Literary Context
German Significance. Though the reverence Germany has bestowed upon Schiller might seem excessive, the cultural, artistic, and historical opinion of the country that influenced his writing during the eighteenth century helps provide an explanation. Schiller’s work surfaced at a time when art and literature were dominated by the immense accomplishments of English, French, and Italian artists and writers. Even the German language itself was the cause of considerable debate, as some scholars asserted that the German tongue was not fit to be an agent of literary expression. Schiller, however, proved that Germany could compete with—and in some ways surpass—the creative and intellectual achievements of any other country. He was greatly influenced in his work by the writers he favored while in school (Rousseau, Seneca, Shakespeare, and Klopstock), the German theater, history, and ideas of natural philosophy as well as his friendship with Goethe.
Sturm und Drang. The overemphasis on reason in the Age of Enlightenment led to a reaction in favor of the emotional and imaginative aspects of human personality and personal freedom. The result was the Sturm und Drang, or ‘‘Storm and Stress,’’ movement that swept German literature in the late eighteenth century. This literary tendency, characterized by passion, turbulence, and melodrama, was embraced by both Schiller and Goethe early in their writing careers.
Central to Schiller’s first three dramas is the question of freedom: The Robbers, in which the play’s hero escapes corrupt society by fleeing to the Bohemian forests and becomes a type of German Robin Hood; Fiesco; or, The Genoese Conspiracy (1783), a tragedy with the theme of struggle against oppression; and Intrigue and Love, another tragedy that calls for freedom of the individual amidst political and social opposition. Schiller’s Sturm und Drang work, however, mellowed with age, and his later pieces are well-planned, reasoned, and articulate expressions of neoclassical ideals and philosophical exploration.
Innovations in Drama. Published in 1787, Don Carlos marks Schiller’s break with his youthful rebellion and his movement toward German classicism. During this shift, Schiller established the tradition of a new type of drama, the Ideendrama, or drama of ideas. Don Carlos also set a precedent for the verse form of the German classical drama: Shakespearean blank verse. Schiller’s intent in the play was to concentrate his passion for morality in a more theatrically dramatic—as opposed to reactive—fashion in order to present the tragic defeat of idealism by conspiracy and deception. While Don Carlos does contain Sturm und Drang subject matter, it is overshadowed by the play’s elements of classical tragedy.
Legacy. Though Schiller has tended to fall under the shadow of Goethe, his famous friend, he continues to hold an important place in German literature. Schiller’s intellectual superiority and creative passion were cause for national pride; for instance, his birthday was declared a national holiday, streets and schools were named after him, and his works were adopted as part of Germany’s educational curriculum. Schiller’s appeal has continued in part because of his association with great music, having inspired Beethoven’s ‘‘Ode to Joy’’ and operas by Rossini and Verdi. Thinkers such as Carl Gustav Jung, Friederich Nietzsche, Friederich Hegel, and Karl Marx were also indebted to the ideas Schiller set forth in his philosophical and aesthetical works.
Works in Critical Context
National Icon. Schiller’s reputation as a boldly original thinker and artist was established with his controversial but highly successful first play, The Robbers. With the production of The Minister, 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. Critics marveled at his ability to portray with immediacy and complexity human suffering and the triumph of the human spirit. He was regarded as a national icon on his death, and the attention paid to his works by German literary critics is comparable to Shakespeare in the English-speaking world.
In the nineteenth century, critics admired Schiller’s taste and feeling and his concern for human freedom. Contemporary critics have suggested that Schiller’s dramas are less accessible to modern readers due to their flamboyant, sometimes bombastic language. Nevertheless, most commentators agree that Schiller’s themes and concerns, including political and individual freedom, the complexity of human endeavor, and the struggle between the rational and sensual aspects of the self are remarkably prescient of twentieth- and twenty-first-century concerns. Contemporary critics also tend to stress the philosophical underpinnings of Schiller’s plays and poetry as well as the political themes in his works.
Wilhelm Tell. Since its debut in 1804, Wilhelm Tell has remained a work that is frequently performed and read. Critic H. B. Garland believes that Wilhelm Tell is ‘‘probably Schiller’s most popular play, rich in qualities which no other of his works displays in equal degree,’’ although, according to W. G. Moore, evaluation of the work ‘‘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.’’ Whatever their approach, critics continue to praise Schiller’s ability to control the dramatic action of Wilhelm Tell through characterization, setting, and language.
Responses to Literature
1. Though Schiller’s importance is now widely recognized, he was better known as Goethe’s contemporary for many years. Select another famous literary friendship and analyze in an essay how the relationship affected each writer’s work, as well as how each other’s work affected their relationship.
2. Schiller’s work inspired important pieces of music, from Beethoven’s ‘‘Ode to Joy’’ to Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Find at least three other pieces of music—any style, any time period—that were inspired by literature and create a presentation of your findings. Do you think adapting an existing text to song form makes for a successful piece of music?
3. Schiller’s discovery of Immanuel Kant greatly influenced his later work. What were Kant’s primary beliefs? How might these have influenced Schiller’s writings? Write an essay that outlines your conclusions.
4. Schiller moved from romantic poetry to a quieter and more measured style as he grew older. Compare the early and later works of one of your favorite authors in a paper. What criteria would you use to assess the different bodies of work?
5. Schiller was rescued from poverty by the patronage of a friend. In a paper, address these questions: How would the lack of a patron affect an author’s literary output? What benefits does patronage provide? What solutions would you suggest for an aspiring artist who does not have a patron?
Carlyle, Thomas. The Life of Friedrich Schiller. London: Camden House, 1992.
Garland, H. B. Schiller: The Dramatic Writer. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.
Stahl, Ernst L. Friedrich Schiller’s Drama: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954.
Witte, W. Schiller. Oxford: Blackwell, 1949.