Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von

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Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von (1759-1805). German, Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, and Historian.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a man of many talents. Able to fill German theaters with enthusiastic audiences, he was also a respected professor of history. While profoundly influencing the thinkers of his time through his extensive writings on aesthetic education and its potential benefits to mankind, he was, at the same time, successful at writing poetry that could be appreciated by people of all social classes.

After having enjoyed a happy childhood, Schiller was forced to enter a school established by Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg for gifted sons of his officers and officials. Schiller detested the school emphasis on discipline, and his years there left him with a strong inclination toward melancholy and a permanent mistrust of people in power. Taking a degree in medicine in 1780, he became an assistant medical officer to a regiment located in Stuttgart.

While still in school, Schiller began The Robbers, one of the best-known revolutionary dramas of German literature, and the play was first performed in 1781. Against the background of a tragedy of two brothers, Schiller launches a protest against political, social, and religious tyranny. Disowned by his father and mistreated by society, Karl Moor, the chief character of the drama, becomes the leader of a band of outlaws and terrorizes the countryside. In the end, he becomes convinced that physical force and anarchy will not reform society, and he surrenders to justice. Regarded as the most important play of the Sturm und Drang movement, Schiller’s work created quite an uproar when it was first performed.

Schiller’s first literary success encouraged him in his efforts as a dramatist. Having angered the Duke by leaving Stuttgart without permission to see his play performed, Schiller fled to Mannheim, where he hoped to receive assistance from Heribert Baron von Dalberg, director of the Mannheim National Theater, which had staged the premiere of The Robbers. At first, Dalberg distanced himself from Schiller, but he later offered the young dramatist a contract with the Mannheim National Theater for three plays.

The first drama that Schiller completed under contract was Fiesco; or, the Genoese Conspiracy (1783). Considered his least effective play, it portrays the rise and fall of Fiesco di Lavagna, who instigates an uprising against the ruler Andrea Doria in sixteenth-century Genoa; Fiesco, who reveals himself to be a tyrant, is ultimately assassinated. Schiller’s drama can be understood as a study of the seductive nature of power and ambition.

His second play for the Mannheim National Theater was Intrigue and Love (1784), a domestic tragedy. It tells the story of Ferdinand and Luise, whose love is hindered by their parents and by differences in social class. Before the two lovers can flee, Ferdinand is tricked into believing that Luise has been unfaithful to him and poisons her. Both Ferdinand and Luise seem powerless to escape the constraints of their respective social classes. Schiller’s play was well received and remains popular to this day. Critics praise its realistic language, its social criticism, and its dramatic characterization.

Schiller began working on the third play, Don Carlos, in 1782. Occupying him for several years and requiring numerous revisions, it was not completed until 1787. Schiller’s drama tells the story of King Philip II of Spain, his third wife, Elizabeth of Valois, and his son by an earlier marriage, Don Carlos, who is infatuated with his stepmother. Transcending the limitations of a family drama, the play condemns the abuse of power and advocates greater political freedom. Considered a turning point in Schiller’s career, Don Carlos, written in blank verse, belongs to the Classical period of German literature.

In 1785, Schiller, who often experienced financial difficulties, received a generous offer of monetary assistance from Christian Gottfried Körner, and he spent the next few years in Dresden and Leipzig. Overjoyed at his good fortune, Schiller penned the hymn “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven, Ludwig van later incorporated into his Ninth Symphony. During this time, Schiller completed his work on Don Carlos and wrote a novella, The Criminal from Lost Honor (1786), and a novel, The Ghost-Seer (1789).

After two productive years in Dresden and Leipzig, Schiller moved to Weimar in 1787 and, except for a few years in Jena, lived there for the rest of his life. Turning his attention to writing history, Schiller, who tended to view the course of history as a series of power struggles, proved to be very astute at detecting motives for people’s actions. His first work was History of the Secession of the United Netherlands from Spanish Sovereignty (1788), which attracted JGoethe, Johann Wolfgang’s attention and led to Schiller’s appointment to the faculty of the University of Jena (1789-91). He also authored History of the Thirty Years’ War (1791-92), which supplied material for his drama Wallenstein (1798-99). In 1790, Schiller married Charlotte von Lengefeld.

The beneficiary of a grant from the Danish court in 1791, Schiller began to study the philosophy of Kant, Immanuel, and between 1793 and 1801, he wrote a series of essays in which he formulated his own views on civilization, culture, human behavior, beauty, art, the artist, and freedom. The essays include On Grace and Dignity (1793), On the Aesthetic Education of Mankind, in a Series of Letters (1795), and On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (1795-96). The philosophical essays have been the subject of much debate, but at the very least, scholars agree that Schiller accepted the eighteenth-century view of humanity as capable of becoming refined and civilized, more moral and more harmonious. A number of Schiller’s poems from this period also express his philosophy, e.g., “The Artists,” “The Walk,” and “Song of the Bell.”

Gradually, Schiller’s interest in philosophical theory faded, and he returned to writing literature. In 1797, he wrote a number of ballads, including “The Diver,” “The Glove,” “The Ring of Polycrates,” and “The Cranes of Ibycus”: they are works that have not lost their dramatic flare and often provide a first introduction to Schiller’s genius.

During the last five years of his life, four of Schiller’s most memorable dramas appeared. In 1799, he completed his Wallenstein trilogy (Wallenstein’s Camp, The Piccolominis, and Wallenstein’s Death), in which he analyzes the attraction and dangers of political power. In Mary Stuart (1800), Mary, Queen of Scots, accepts her punishment at the hands of Elizabeth, though she feels it is unjust, thereby atoning for wrongdoings of the past and experiencing a moral rebirth. The Maiden of Orleans (1801) is a so-called romantic tragedy, and in The Bride of Messina (1803), Schiller strives to equal the greatness of Greek drama. In William Tell (1804), one of his most popular plays, Schiller examines under what circumstances a revolution can be justified. In 1805, during this period of heightened creativity, Schiller died while working on Demetrius, the story of a false pretender to the seventeenth-century Russian throne.

Schiller is regarded as the best playwright of the Sturm und Drang and Classical periods of German literature. His views on tragedy, art and the artist, the sublime, the creative powers of mankind, and spiritual freedom influenced generations of writers and readers throughout the world, including Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Humboldt, Wilhelm von, Carl Gustav Jung, Herbert Marcuse, and Friedrich Schlegel. Audiences today find Schiller’s poetic works as dynamic and thought-provoking as people in his own day.

Further Reading:

Walter Hinderer, Von der Idee des Menschen: Über Friedrich Schiller, 1998.

Steven D. Martinson, Harmonious Tensions: The Writings of Friedrich Schiller, 1996.

Lesley Sharpe, Friedrich Schiller: Drama, Thought, and Politics, 1991.


David Witkosky

Auburn Montgomery

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