The German dramatist, poet, and historian Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) ranks as one of the greatest of German literary figures. He was a founder of modern German literature.
Friedrich von Schiller was born at Marbach, Württemberg, on Nov. 10, 1759. His father, Johann Kaspar Schiller, was an army captain in the service of Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg. His mother, Elisabeth Dorothea, the daughter of a Marbach innkeeper, was a gentle and religious person. Schiller had four sisters, one older and three younger.
As a boy, Schiller, under the influence of Philipp Ulrich Moser, a parson, wanted to become a preacher. He attended the duke's military academy, the Karlsschule, near Stuttgart for two years. After the academy was moved to Stuttgart, Schiller endured five more years of harsh discipline there. He studied medicine because that was the domineering duke's will. In spite of frequent illnesses, fevers, stomach upsets, and headaches, he wrote his final dissertation on the interrelationship between man's spiritual and physical natures. At the same time he was writing his first play, Die Räuber, which was published in 1781. It ranks as one of the literary monuments of the German Sturm und Drang period.
In December 1780 Schiller was appointed medical officer to a regiment stationed in Stuttgart at a pitiably low salary. A loan toward the publication of Die Räuber marked the beginning of a succession of agonizing debts that characterized Schiller's early career. In 1782 Die Räuber received its first stage performance, in Mannheim. It brought him both public acclaim and the wrath of the duke, who forbade him to write anything except medical treatises. That same year Schiller published the Laura-Odenin his Anthologie auf das Jahr 1782. The inspiration for these poems was a 30-year-old widow, Dorothea Vischer, who had three children. She had rented a simple ground-floor room to Schiller and another lieutenant.
Meantime, Schiller's conflict with the Duke of Württemberg forced him to flee Stuttgart in September 1782. A period of great deprivation and uncertainty followed until Schiller became dramatist at the Mannheim theater in September 1783. During this time he composed Die Verschwörung des Fiesko zu Genua (1783) and Kabale und Liebe (1784). He also began work on Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien, which appeared in 1785 and in its revised form in 1787.
In 1784 Schiller completed Die Schaubühne als moralische Anstalt betrachtet, which appeared in his Rheinische Thalia, a literary journal, in 1785. The second issue of Thaliacontained Schiller's hymn An die Freude, which later inspired Ludwig van Beethoven to create his magnificent Ninth Symphony in D Minor. In the third issue of Thalia Schiller published part of Don Carlos. During this period Christian Gottfried Körner generously offered Schiller financial help and hospitality, becoming his patron and friend.
Don Carlos was important in Schiller's dramatic development not only for its use of a historical setting but also for its employment of blank verse. For the first time, too, Schiller accomplished the presentation of a perfectly drawn and perfectly convincing noblewoman. The character of Queen Elisabeth of Valois was to some extent based on that of Charlotte von Kalb, an intimate friend.
Schiller occupied himself for many years afterward with the themes he employed in this drama. In Don Carlos the conflict between love and the demands of the state was exalted into the idea of the dignity and freedom of man. The struggle against love is a struggle for a high goal, and it is not the love of Don Carlos for the Queen or his friendship for the Marquis of Posa that forms the crux of the play but the ideal of spiritual and national freedom.
In all of Schiller's earliest tragedies—Die Räuber, Die Verschwörung des Fiesko, and Kabale und Liebe—he presents either a great criminal, a great adventurer, or a great enthusiast. All of his characters speak in the grand style. Schiller captures the secret of great passion even in his earliest dramas. The robber chieftain Karl Moor of Die Räuber judges himself when he admits that two men like him would destroy the organic structure of the civilized world. Fiesko contemplates the idea that it is great to win a crown but that it is divine to be able to cast it off.
In 1787 Schiller paid a visit to his friend Frau von Kalb in Weimar, the residence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who at that time was traveling in Italy. The two great German poets met the following year in the house of Frau von Lengefeld (later to be Schiller's mother-in-law) in Rudolstadt. They had met once before, in December 1779, when Duke Karl August of Weimar and Goethe had come to the Karlsschule in Stuttgart to award the annual student prizes. Schiller had received three silver medals.
In 1788 Schiller's poems Die Götter Griechenlands and Die Künstler appeared, and that same year he published Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande, a history of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. These works assured Schiller's fame and social position. Together with Goethe's support they gained him a professorship of history at the University of Jena in 1789. He held this position for 10 years. Schiller's inaugural, Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte, caused a sensation. Afterward more than 500 students paid homage to the poet, but at later lectures the number of students in attendance dwindled considerably. Early in 1790 Schiller married Charlotte von Lengefeld, a gifted writer. In February 1803 he was created a nobleman.
After 1790 Schiller became intensely interested in the philosophy and esthetics of Immanuel Kant. His Geschichte des Dreissigjährigen Krieges, a history of the Thirty Years War, appeared in 1791-1792. His studies in esthetics accompanied his historical researches. Schiller strove to capture the essence of "freedom and art." He determined not to read the works of any modern writer for 2 years. In his poem Die Götter Griechenlands Schiller had looked upon Greece with the eyes of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the classical archeologist and historian of ancient art. Under the influence of Winckelmann's conception of the "schöne Antike," Schiller became convinced that only art can ennoble the barbarian and bring him culture. Art became, for Schiller, in the Platonic sense a basis of education. In 1795 he wrote in his Ü ber die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen, "There is no other way to make the sensuous man rational and reasonable than by first making him esthetic." The iron necessity of man's daily existence degraded him, said Schiller, and utility became the idol of the masses. But by means of the esthetic form man can "annihilate" the material aspects of life and triumph over transient matter. Man thus becomes the creator of a pure and permanent world.
In his grandiose philosophic poem Die Künstler, Schiller venerated art as the ennobling power that can create a higher culture and disclose a world harmony. In the opening strophe of this work, man, standing on the threshold of a new century, is depicted as the master of nature. He is shown as free, enlightened, strong through laws, great in his gentleness, matured through time, proud, and manly. Art, said Schiller, teaches man how to overcome his desires. Art is the first step away from the bondage of the flesh into a realm where the nobility of the soul reigns. The artist frees form from material in the same manner that waves separate a reflection from its source. In nature the artist discovers the laws of beauty. For example, in a tree he perceives the form of a pillar, and in the crescent moon the artist becomes aware of the mystery of the universe. For Schiller reality was merely illusion; only in the higher, spiritual realm was truth to be found. Just as the stage had changed into a tribunal in his famous poem Die Kraniche des Ibykus, so to him true art changes into higher reality.
Schiller wrote his important essay in esthetics, Ü ber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, in 1795-1796. It forms the basis of modern poetry criticism. In it Schiller points out that the "naive" poet has an advantage over other poets in his powerful, sensitive, and inherent clarity, while the "sentimentalische" poet has an advantage in his power of moral enthusiasm. By now Schiller had reached an artistic maturity incompatible with moralizing. In his philosophical poem Das Ideal und das Leben (1795) the poet presents no clumsy didactic lesson. No mention of reward or recompense for the sufferer, or of moral striving after inner freedom, is made. The subject of this poem is purely the growth of a powerful personality beyond the confines of the self into a higher world.
In 1798-1799 Schiller completed his great trilogy on Albrecht von Wallenstein, the condottiere of the Thirty Years War. These three plays—Wallensteins Lager, Piccolomini, and Wallensteins Tod—represent Schiller's most powerful tragedy. In them he comes nearest to the tragic grandeur of William Shakespeare and Heinrich von Kleist. The Wallenstein plays stress Schiller's view of man as a creative force, and they exhibit his concept of historical inevitability. Schiller ennobles Wallenstein as a great creative statesman who bows before inexorable fate. Wallenstein recognizes his guilt and acknowledges the justice of his end because he realizes that every evil deed brings with it its angel of revenge.
The famous literary friendship between Goethe and Schiller began in earnest in 1794. On July 20, 1794, after a meeting in Jena of a nature society of which both were honorary members, Goethe went to Schiller's house to continue a discussion on the interpretation of natural phenomena, the metamorphosis of plants, and the interrelationship or separation between idea and experience. Goethe believed he had "observed with his own eyes" tangible truths of nature that Schiller, however, called "ideas." An important correspondence between the two poets followed. Schiller enjoyed the friendship of Goethe, with whom he began editing the literary journals Horen (1795-1797) and Musenalmanach (1796-1800). Goethe's residence in Weimar was a main reason for Schiller's move there, from Jena with his family, in 1799. During his Weimar years Schiller created many of his finest plays and poems.
Schiller wrote his most popular play, Maria Stuart, in 1800. He employed tragic irony as an artistic means in the memorable scene between the two queens in which Mary speaks daggers to Elizabeth but is hoist with her own petard. Mary remains a noble and tragic character right up to the scaffold. As with Elizabeth, the decisive factor in her fate lies in her personality and not in politics. Mary's death is subject not to "poetic justice" but to the justice of human conscience. By her death she atones for a previous guilt.
Schiller's next play, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801), is his poetically richest drama. Its theme is again guilt and redemption. Compared to Maria Stuart, it is loosely constructed, diffuse, and romantic not only in regard to the material itself but also in regard to the poetic character of the heroine. On the other hand, Die Braut von Messina (1803) is compact and stylized. Artistry dominates it at the cost of poetry. This play reflects Schiller's interest in classical antiquity. Its chorus has passages of lyrical and rhetorical magnificence.
In the preface to the first edition of this play, Schiller explained his views on the function of the chorus. The chorus, he wrote, should not be an accompaniment to the drama as in some ancient plays. Rather it should bring out the poetry of the play, thereby converting the modern world into a poetic one. The chorus should express the depth of mankind, and it should be a judging and clarifying witness of the actions in that it reflects them and endows them with spiritual power.
Schiller revealed his technical mastery at its most supreme in Wilhelm Tell (1804). Although this play is stylized, its artistry is less obvious than that of Die Braut von Messina. Schiller created the character of Wilhelm Tell as a manly hero without making him into a leader. When Gessler, the governor, brutally interferes with life and nature, the Swiss, and with them Wilhelm Tell, fight for family and freedom. In this play Schiller for once placed history and hero in favorable conjunction.
In the fragmentary drama Demetrius, Schiller unfolds a mysterious fate, revealing through his analytical dramatic technique a past crime more terrible to contemplate than any dread of the future. Whereas Oedipus in the hands of Sophocles subjects himself to divine command, Schiller's Demetrius defies his fate in order to perish.
Schiller's final tragedies are concerned with man's profoundest experience, the assertion and attainment of free will despite bodily claims or passion. After months of intermittent illness, Schiller died in Weimar on May 9, 1805.
Further Reading on Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller
An early biography of Schiller is Thomas Carlyle, The Life of Friedrich Schiller (1825; 2d ed. 1845). Of the many critical biographies see William Witte, Schiller (1949) and Schiller and Burns (1959). Other useful studies include Henry B. Garland's three works, Schiller (1949), Schiller Revisited (1959), and Schiller: The Dramatic Writer (1969); Ernst L. Stahl, Friedrich Schiller's Drama: Theory and Practice (1954); William F. Mainland, Schiller and the Changing Past (1957); and the essay on Schiller in Thomas Mann, Last Essays (trans. 1959). Other useful studies are Stanley S. Kerry, Schiller's Writings on Aesthetics (1961); Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, eds., Schiller: On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters (trans. 1967), which has an extensive introduction about Schiller along with some of his works; and John Martin Ellis, Schiller's Kalliasbriefe and the Study of His Aesthetic Theory (1969). For a discussion of Sturm and Drang and Weimar classicism see the relevant chapters in Ernst L. Stahl and W. E. Yuill, Introductions to German Literature, vol. 3: German Literature of the 18th and 19th Centuries, edited by August Closs (1970).