The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich (von)

The Encyclopedia Americana
Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich (von)

Edition of 1920. See also Friedrich Schiller on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SCHILLER, Johann Christoph Friedrich (von), German dramatist, poet, historian and philosophic thinker: b. Marbach in Swabia, 10 Nov. 1759; d. Weimar, 9 May 1805. His father was an officer in the army of the Duke of Württemberg, his mother a pious housewife nowise distinguished above her kind. The parents early decided to fit their son for the priesthood in the Lutheran Church. To this end they sent him to the Latin school at Ludwigsburg, which was then the ducal residence. Duke Karl Eugen was conspicuous among the German princelings who aped the style of the Bourbon kings, Ludwigsburg being his Versailles. Here he maintained a costly opera, spent large sums on building projects and governed through mistresses and adventurers. The boy Schiller had thus a good opportunity to observe the ways of petty autocracy under the old régime, and he used his eyes to good advantage. Presently the duke experienced a change of heart, became an exponent of virtue and went in for works of benevolence. In this spirit he founded a military academy which was to train the sons of his officers for the public service. That he might have the boys under his own eye and mold them to his liking, he assembled them under his own roof in his castle “Solitude,” where for a time he played the schoolmaster with them. His offer of a scholarship to the boy Schiller was a princely favor not to be rejected by the loyal parents, though it involved giving up their plan of making him a pastor. To this school the lad went in 1773 and started in as a student of law, but floundered badly at first. After two years the school was transferred to Stuttgart, where it became virtually a university minus the theological faculty. A medical faculty was now added, and to secure students certain élèves (French was the official language of the school) were allowed to go over to medicine. Schiller, who had been at the foot of his class, eagerly accepted this chance. From this time (1775) on he devoted himself with average assiduity and success to medical studies. In 1780 he was honorably dismissed, but without a doctor's degree.

The discipline of the school was severely military. The students were kept under constant surveillance, their reading was censored and their quarters often searched for contraband books. But they found ways to smuggle in the forbidden literature, which of course tasted the sweeter for the prohibition. It is certain that young Schiller read nearly all the revolutionary productions — works of the so-called “storm and stress,” — that were just then coming out. They soon raised his incipient radicalism to the boiling-point. A friend called his attention to a magazine story by Schubart dealing with a pair of enemy brothers, a theme just then in favor with the literary radicals. The hint was enough. Schiller, who by this time felt sure that the writing of tragedy was to be his vocation, began to pen his ‘Robbers,’ in which a dissolute but soft-hearted young nobleman named Karl von Moor, while leading a wild life as a Leipzig student, receives a harsh letter from his dotard father telling him that he is disinherited. Driven to fury by the missive and not suspecting the machinations of his scoundrel brother, Franz, he puts himself at the head of a band of scapegrace students and leads them to the Bohemian Forest, where they become outlaws and run amuck against society. Moor robs and murders on a terrific scale, yet not for vulgar gain. He tries to correct the inequalities and injustices of the social order, imagining that he is doing a righteous work as the avenger of the poor and oppressed, and fully believing that God is on his side. When he learns the truth he gives himself up to the law which he has outraged. Thus the play is a tragedy of fanaticism, and as such it marks the emergence of a new dramatic type. It has glaring faults of extravagance and overemphasis, but is none the less the work of a born dramatist, all clearly visualized for action and powerfully bodied forth. It was chiefly the fame of this thunderous play that led, in the course of time, to Schiller's being made an honorary citizen of the first French republic. There is an authentic tradition that in reading the scenes of the nascent ‘Robbers’ to his spellbound fellow-students, he would sometimes snort and roar and stamp in the white heat of his indignation.

Toward the end of 1780 he left the academy and was made army doctor to a regiment of invalid soldiers stationed at Stuttgart. The service was disagreeable and poorly paid. To increase his pittance of an income he borrowed money and published the play he had written, letting it appear anonymously as a book for the reader. It made no great stir as mere literature, but caught the attention of Dalberg, director of a theatre at Mannheim, who suggested a revision for the stage. Schiller complied and the new version was played at Mannheim in 1781 with memorable success. The audience went wild over the performance and the obscure army doctor at once emerged into the glare of notoriety, though he had saddled himself with a debt which was destined to afflict him for years. After such a success he was naturally disposed to try again. He wrote a second play, on the abortive conspiracy of Fiesco at Genoa in 1547, conceiving it at first rather vaguely as a “republican tragedy.” Meanwhile he had got into serious trouble with his lord and master, the duke. In the first place, he had left his post without permission in order to attend the first performance of the ‘Robbers’ at Mannheim. Secondly, a passage in the published play had given offense in Switzerland and led to public complaints. The result was that Schiller was given two weeks in the guardhouse and forbidden to write any more “comedies.” This was too much. He decided to quit Württemberg. One evening in September 1782 he stole away clandestinely with a friend named Streicher, a musician who afterward published an account of the episode. Under assumed names the pair went first to Mannheim, where Schiller read his new ‘Fiesco’ to Dalberg's actors and received the humiliating verdict that it was worthless and could not be played. He had ruined its effect by his bad reading, and besides that the politic Dalberg was in no haste to befriend a runaway who had quarreled with the ruler of a neighboring state. Schiller was now technically a deserter and had very good reason to fear that he would be pursued and put under arrest. So he took refuge at Bauerbach, near Meiningen, occupying a house that had been put at his disposal by a friendly lady named Henriette von Wolzogen. At first he went under the name of Dr. Ritter and scattered misleading letters as to his whereabouts, but his friends soon learned where he was and it became evident that the Duke of Württemberg was taking no steps to have him arrested. Being now free for his favorite employment, he wrote a third play, which he at first called ‘Luise Miller,’ afterward ‘Cabal and Love,’ and sketched a fourth, which was to be known as ‘Don Carlos.’


In the summer of 1783 he returned to Mannheim under a year's contract as theatre-poet, Dalberg having become convinced that there was no danger to be feared from Stuttgart and hoping that the new plays would repeat the huge success of the ‘Robbers.’ In due time ‘Fiesco’ was put on the stage with moderate success, but not as a “republican tragedy.” By a stroke of the pen its author had given it a happy ending. Instead of being slain as a selfish usurper by the fanatical republican Verrina, Fiesco is made, in the moment of his triumph, to cast off his ducal robes and bid the Genoese embrace him as their happiest fellow-citizen. This ending clearly supports the republican idea, but we are hardly prepared for such a turn by the preceding trend of the play, which makes Fiesco continually vacillate between republican idealism and the lure of personal aggrandizement. ‘Cabal and Love’ is a tragedy of class-conflict and incidentally a drastic comment on the ways of German courts and courtiers. A high-minded nobleman falls in love with a fiddler's daughter and wishes to marry her in spite of her humble birth. But his father, who has risen by crime to the presidency of the ducal council, will have none of such a misalliance and concocts a vile plot to force his son into a marriage with the duke's mistress. This is the “cabal.” The plotters succeed in making Ferdinand madly jealous, so that he poisons Luise and then commits suicide. In writing the play Schiller had the Württemberg court in mind, and little touches here and there reflect actual history. But the duke himself does not appear and there are no telltale names. ‘Cabal and Love’ has many strong scenes and is the only class-conflict play of that epoch which is still alive on the German stage. But its effect is marred at the last by the fatuous conduct of the tongue-tied heroine, who forfeits sympathy by her seeming lack of common sense.

The three plays just considered, all written in prose and characterized by a vehement, high-keyed diction, are the most important yet not the sole expression of Schiller's youthful radicalism. While still living in Stuttgart he started a magazine called the Württemberg Repertory, for which he wrote a number of minor papers. He also published a so-called Anthology for the Year 1782 containing numerous short poems. The dominant note of Schiller's early verse is a certain high-pitched vehemence which is apt to suggest poetic feigning. He is as far as possible from the simple realistic manner of the young Goethe, having a marked fondness for soaring and sonorous diction.

At the end of his first year in Mannheim the contract with Dalberg was not renewed, so that Schiller found himself in the summer of 1784 without income and without prospects. He was oppressed by debt and generally unhappy. Mannheim had become a prison. He decided to try his fortune by starting a dramatic magazine to be known as the Rhenish Thalia, but hardly had he launched it when he was called away from the Rhine country by a friendly message from Gottfried Körner, a young lawyer just then living in Leipzig. After a short sojourn in the university town Schiller followed his new-found friend to Dresden, where he remained nearly two years in intimate association with the Körner family. He continued to publish his magazine, now called simply Thalia, and at the same time worked in a desultory fashion on his ‘Don Carlos.’ This he had originally planned as a love-tragedy in a king's household, purposing incidentally to scourge the Spanish Inquisition. But the mood of the revolutionist and special pleader gradually gave way to the serener ambition of the poet and he decided to write his new play in verse, as Lessing had lately done in the case of ‘Nathan.’ In the illusory hope of receiving valuable criticism he began to publish it piecemeal in successive numbers of the Thalia. As he worked his mind changed, important characters began to appear in a new light and the centre of gravity shifted. The result was that the very long play completed in 1787 was something very different from the one he had conceived four years before. ‘Don Carlos’ is a tragedy of political idealism wrecked by a passion for intriguing methods and would-be heroic foolhardiness. The weightiest character is not the nominal hero, but the Marquis Posa, who pleads with Philip II of Spain to grant the Netherlanders freedom of thought and to end the Spanish régime of force and terrorism. Posa is a humane idealist of the 18th century and voices Schiller's own convictions as matured by his intercourse with Körner. Viewed in its relation to its author's personal development ‘Don Carlos’ occupies a middle position between the rather crude realism of his early prose plays and the matured art of his later and more famous poetic dramas. In ‘Don Carlos’ his peculiar sonorous diction begins to show itself at its best. But the play as a whole suffers from a lack of simplicity and clearness. It is too long and complicated for the three hours' traffic of the stage.

In the summer of 1787 haying tired of his dependence on Körner, Schiller decided to try his fortune in Weimar, whose duke had previously given him the title of councillor. Goethe was then in Italy, but the visitor soon made the acquaintance of Herder and Wieland. Ere long he decided to settle in Jena and devote himself to the writing of history. He had now lost touch with the stage and his experience with it had been on the whole disappointing. On the other hand, he had become very much enamored of historical study, and his reading for ‘Don Carlos’ had given him a special interest in the great Dutch-Spanish conflict of the 16th century. He planned a bulky treatise of six volumes on the subject, but only wrote one. It was published in 1788 under the title ‘Defection of the Netherlands.’ The book is brilliantly written, the author's sympathies being obviously with the Dutch in their struggle for freedom, and contains a number of splendid literary portraits. But Schiller got his information rather easily and made no very careful study of the sources. His merit as a historian has been often attacked and as often defended. At any rate he made literature out of history, the first achievement of that kind in the German language. His success as a historian led to his appointment, through Goethe's influence, to a professorship at the University of Jena. But hardly had he entered on his academic duties when a dangerous illness shattered his health. He never fully recovered, but led henceforth the circumspect life of a semi-invalid. A gift by the Duke of Augustenburg freed him temporarily from pecuniary anxieties — he was now married to the dowerless Charlotte von Lengefeld — and he resolved to devote his freedom to the study of Kant. He felt that critical thinking had largely destroyed his imaginative spontaneity and that the only possible cure lay in a further study of fundamentals: the “rules” must repair the damage they had wrought. So for several years he devoted himself about equally to history and philosophy, writing rather copiously in both fields. In the former we have his ‘History of the Thirty Years' War,’ which he conceived as a revolt of the Protestant princes of Germany against the centralizing despotism of the house of Hapsburg. It is eminently readable, especially where it treats of the great Swedish king who is Schiller's hero. He also wrote a number of minor historical papers. To enliven the columns of his Thalia he published in it his one attempt at prose fiction, the ‘Ghostseer,’ a fragmentary yarn which exploits various phases of contemporary interest in the supernatural. It is fair to call it a yarn because he himself never took it seriously and even called it a “Sudelei.” In general, this period of Schiller's life is rather barren of poetic production. To it belong, however, the ‘Gods of Greece’ and the ‘Artists,’ two of his weightiest and most famous poems. The former is an elegy on the lost beauty of Greek polytheism, the latter a glowing tribute to the influence of art in the upward evolution of human kind. In the philosophic domain Schiller devoted himself mainly to the theory of beauty and its relation, on the one hand to art, on the other to conduct. Setting out from Kant's analysis of beauty in the ‘Critique of Practical Judgment,’ Schiller reached the conclusion that beauty is fundamentally freedom-in-the-appearance. He set forth his doctrine and its implications in a number of rather forbiddingly abstruse essays, of which the most interesting one, perhaps, is that entitled ‘Uber Anmut und Würde’ (‘On Winsomeness and Dignity’). In a more popular and readable form his philosophy of art is expounded in his ‘Letters on Esthetic Education’ and his famous essay on ‘Naive and Sentimental Poetry.’

In 1794 began the famous friendship of Schiller and Goethe. For seven years the two men had lived as mutually indifferent neighbors, each acquainted with the other's work but neither caring for a closer relation. A casual meeting at a scientific lecture put an end to this mutual aloofness, explanations and visits ensued and ere long they were close friends and literary allies. Goethe became a frequent contributor to Schiller's magazine Die Horen and took a keen interest in its success. But it did not succeed and after three years was discontinued. It was largely their irritation over this failure that led the two men to unite in the literary campaign of the ‘Xenia,’ a collection of epigrams in the ancient distich form, wherein they paid their respects to men and tendencies they did not like. Nearly a thousand of the distichs were written and about half that number were published in 1797 in Schiller's Musenalmanach, where they caused great excitement. There was a shower of ‘Anti-Xenia,’ to which the perpetrators of the original “Teufelei” (as they called it) paid no mention. They agreed that the published ‘Xenia’ should be included in the works of both, and that they would give no information as to their separate authorship. Some of the epigrams are sharply censorious, others without any sting at all. The majority, relating as they do to men and matters of ephemeral interest, now seem rather pointless. Their chief historical importance is that they caused Schiller and Goethe to be generally regarded as militant allies fighting the same battle. The two men came to be known as the Dioscuri.

Schiller had now definitely returned to poetry. In conjunction with Goethe he made a study of the epic style and out of this study grew a number of ballads and romanzas which are among the most popular of his works. Special favorites of those who enjoy this phase of Schiller's art are the ‘Diver,’ the ‘Pledge,’ the ‘Glove’ and the ‘Cranes of Ibycus.’ To this period belong also a group of reflective poems in which he gave expression to the humane idealism and high ethical aspiration which characterize his mature thinking. In this domain he is at his best in the ‘Ideal and Life,’ the ‘Walk’ and the ‘Song of the Bell.’ But his fame rests mainly on his poetic dramas. As director of the little Weimar theatre Goethe was glad to avail himself of his friend's insight and experience in matters of the stage. Schiller, who became a resident of Weimar in 1799, gave assistance in selecting and adapting plays and gradually enriched the local repertory with five creations of his own which are the pride of the German classic drama. He began ‘Wallenstein’ in 1796, at first purposing to make it a play of ordinary length. The material proved refractory since it dealt only with what Schiller called the cold passions (ambition, hate, malice, vindictiveness), and also because it involved idealizing and creating dramatic sympathy for a traitor. Schiller met the first difficulty by inventing a pair of romantic lovers and managing the plot in such a way that the spectator is forced to see Wallenstein through their partial eyes; the second by giving to Wallenstein a certain loftiness of soul, making much of all the extenuating circumstances and surrounding him with inferior men among whom he towers like a giant among pigmies. The result is that a rather repellant character becomes grand in his final isolation and pitiful downfall. On the whole Wallenstein is the most impressive tragic hero created by any German dramatist. As Schiller's interest in the man and his times deepened the material grew on his hands until he decided to present it in three parts called ‘Wallenstein's Camp,’ the ‘Piccolomini’ and ‘Wallenstein's Death.’ It is, however, no trilogy in the Greek sense, but a portentously long tragedy in 10 acts, preceded by a dramatic prologue.

Next came ‘Mary Stuart,’ indubitably the best for the stage of all the many plays in divers languages dealing with the famous Queen of Scots. Here the problem, as Schiller saw it, was to create genuine tragic sympathy for his heroine, but without extenuating her conduct and so making a distinctly Catholicizing play. He solved the problem by concentrating the plot into the last few days of Queen Mary's life and introducing her as a woman whose conscience is heavily burdened by the admitted crimes of long ago, but who feels that in her present plight she is the victim of rank injustice. As she is helpless to avert her impending fate, her situation, according to Schiller's conception of dramative art, is pathetic rather than tragic. It was necessary to make her in some sense visibly responsible for her calamity. To meet this dramaturgic difficulty Schiller resorted to two unhistoric inventions: first, Queen Mary's attempt to escape at the instigation of the Catholic renegade, Mortimer, this attempt endangering the life of Queen Elizabeth; secondly, a meeting of the two queens at which Mary loses control of herself and puts a deadly insult on her rival. This scene is the stage-climax of the play, but its psychological climax comes in the fifth act, when Queen Mary humbly accepts her ignominious death as a divinely appointed expiation for the sins of long ago. While the play's appeal is thus shifted from politics to religion and made to rest on a purely human basis that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, there is much in it that indicates Schiller's artistic sympathy with the Catholicizzing tendency of the new romantic movement just then acquiring momentum. The portrait of Elizabeth is little better than a caricature.

Still more marked is the Catholicizing drift in the ‘Maid of Orleans,’ which was given the subtitle of “romantic tragedy” tor the very reason that it requires us to accept the supernaturalism of the legend at its face value. Schiller follows the tradition rather closely except that he makes Joan's “voices” enjoin virginity as a condition of success in her patriotic mission, and that he departs radically from history in respect to the manner of her death. In his view of the matter tragic guilt of some kind was indispensable to tragedy; so he makes Joan fall strangely in love with the English general Lionel just as she is about to take his life on the battle-field. From that instant, feeling that she has violated the spirit of the divine command, she loses her self-confidence and with it her supernatural power. After great suffering and humiliation, which supposedly expiate her offense, she recovers her power by a miracle and dies in glory on the field of battle fighting for France. In this bold romanticization of the Maid's character it was Schiller's deliberate intention to idealize her and rescue her from the obloquy cast upon her by Voltaire's ‘La Pucelle.’

His next play was the ‘Bride of Messina,’ in which he attempted to find a substitute for the Greek chorus. He invented a mediæval plot in which two brothers fall in love with the same girl, who is in reality their sister. She has been brought up in seclusion, her existence unknown to them, in order to defeat the dire prediction of soothsayers. Jealousy and mutual antipathy lead on to the death of both. Schiller provides each brother with a band of retainers who take part in the action and also function as semi-choruses, each speaking through a chosen leader. In what they say an attempt is made to imitate the detached attitude and lofty moralizing of the Sophoclean chorus. Schiller's noble poetic diction is at its very best in the ‘Bride of Messina’ and especially in the so-called choral passages; but it is evident that words spoken by one person, without group-singing or group-dancing, could convey hardly more than a dim suggestion of the old Greek chorus. Schiller's example has not been imitated and the ‘Bride of Messina’ is but rarely played.

Last came ‘William Tell,’ the most popular of all Schiller's plays. It is this stirring and intensely human drama dealing with the revolt of the Swiss farmers against the tyranny of their Austrian governors that has led to the idealization of its author as poet of freedom. It has no hero but the Swiss people, it lacks unity, it violates several of the most approved rules of dramaturgy. Yet there is an appealing charm about it which seldom fails to please, whether it is read as literature or seen upon the stage. After the completion of ‘William Tell’ in 1804 Schiller addressed himself to a new play on the story of the false Demetrius, reputed son of Ivan the Terrible. He made careful studies of Russian history, sketched numerous scenes and completed the better part of two acts. In the midst of this work on ‘Demetrius’ he contracted the illness which led to his premature death.

Schiller has always been regarded as the greatest of German dramatists. He had but little of the lyric gift and wrote no songs that have become highly popular. Fastidious critics have often taxed him with being a rhetorician rather than a poet, but anything like posing or insincerity was quite foreign to his nature. His personal character endeared him to all who knew him and he lived his life on a high plane of thought and feeling. His aspiring idealism has always appealed particularly to the young; so that his writings, popularized by school and theatre, are, or at least were, for the Germans a great educative force. His name, linked habitually with Goethe's, stands for all that is best in the best epoch of German letters. See Song of the Bell; Wallenstein; William Tell.

Bibliography.— There is a vast quantity of literature pertaining to Schiller; consult Vol. V of Goedeke's ‘Grundriss zur Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung’ and the survey in the Appendix to Thomas's ‘Life of Schiller.’ Only a few outstanding titles can be mentioned here, and these, owing to blockade conditions created by the Great War, must be restricted to works that were published prior to its beginning.

The first complete edition of Schiller's works was that of his friend Körner, 12 vols., 1812-15. This formed the basis of the later Cotta editions which appeared in different forms and different degrees of completeness. Down to about 1868 these were rather uncritically edited. Between 1868 and 1872 appeared the Historisch-kritische Ausgabe, 15 vols., edited by Goedeke and others. To the same period belongs the cheap popular edition issued by Hempel, in Berlin — well edited but unsightly. Good later editions are those of Boxberger and Birlinger, forming part of Kürschner's Deutsche National-Literatur, 12 vols., and of Bellermann, 14 vols., 1895 ff. Of special merit is the Säkular-Ausgabe, 16 vols., 1904. The numerous letters of Schiller, where his style was at its best in Goethe's opinion, have been well edited by Jonas, 7 vols., 1892 ff. Editions of the separate plays, issued by competing publishers for school and college use, are numerous but cannot be listed here.

Biographies short and long are almost legion. Of the early ones those by Carlyle (1825) and by Karoline von Wolzogen, the poet's sister-in-law (1830), are still interesting, as is also the booklet ‘Schiller's Flucht von Stuttgart’ (1836) by his friend and fellow-traveler, Streicher. Between 1838 and 1842 Hoffmeister brought out his monumental treatise in five volumes, which was followed by the shorter work of Viehoff (1846) and Schaefer (1853). The centenary jubilee of 1859, at which Schiller was glorified as the poet of freedom by Germans all over the world, brought forth a mass of more or less eulogistic literature. Of the longer biographies dating from this epoch of Schiller enthusiasm the best is that of Palleske (1858-59), of which an English translation by Lady Wallace was published in 1860. Less fervid and also less readable are the biographies by Duntzer (1881) and Hepp (1885). Highly learned biographies, going deep into all sorts of minutiæ, were begun by Minor (2 vols., Berlin 1890) and by Weltrich (three instalments in one volume, 1899), but have remained unfinished. The same is true of the less exhaustive work of Brahm (Vol. I, 1892). An excellent illustrated life of Schiller is that of Wychgram (1891). Of solid merit also is the little book of Harnack (1898), the larger one by Kühnemann (5th ed., Munich 1914) and the two-volume treatise by Berger (8th ed., Munich 1914). In English, aside from translations, there are short biographies by Boyesen (New York 1882), Sime (Edinburgh 1882) and Nevinson (New York 1889); also a longer one by Thomas (New York 1901). The best translations of the poems are those of Bulwer Lytton (London 1844) and Arnold Foster (1902).

Noteworthy special studies (but the list is far from complete) are the following: Bellermann, ‘Schiller's Dramen’ (2 vols., 1898-99; 3d ed., 3 vols., Berlin 1905-08); Köster, ‘Schiller als Dramaturg’ (Leipzig 1891); Tomaschek, ‘Schiller in seinem Verhältnisse zur Wissenschaft’ (1862; which won a prize offered by the Vienna Academy); Harnack, ‘Die klassische Aesthetik der Deutschen’ (Berlin 1892); Rieger, ‘Schillers Verhältnis zur französischen Revolution’ (Berlin 1885); Wilm, ‘The Philosophy of Schiller in its Historical Relations’ (Boston 1913), and Ludwig, ‘Schiller und die deutsche Nachwelt’ (Berlin 1909).

Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University.