Tuesday, November 03, 2015

German Literature Month


Wilhelm Tell

by Friedrich Schiller

When on Alpine heights
The beacons all are kindled and shine forth
And tyrants' strongholds fall in smoking ruins,
Then shall the Switzers to your cottage come
And bear the joyous tidings to your ear:
So, bright in your dark night, shall freedom dawn.

- Wilhelm Tell, Schiller (lines 745-750)

Physical freedom and liberty of the soul are central ideas of Schiller’s literature. In his very first play The Robbers (1781), Schiller spoke of the ideas of liberty. His famous play Wilhelm Tell, on which Rossini’s famous opera is based, was also a tribute to freedom. The Romantic influence is apparent in Wilhelm Tell: “The mountain cannot frighten one who was born on it.” Indeed, this play was also a tribute to men living close to nature—the Romantic ideal of the harmony between nature and mankind. Don Carlos, another play by Schiller on the issue of liberty, inspired the famous Italian Romantic opera composer Giuseppe Verdi to write one of his greatest operas.

Seldom does a play include fewer scenes or lines for the title character, yet Wilhelm Tell is in few scenes and has relatively little to say in this great play, the last completed, by Friedrich Schiller. Nature looms as the play begins during a tempest on Lake Lucerne when Tell braves the angry waves to row to safety a peasant who is pursued by the Governor's horsemen. "The lake may take pity on him; but the Governor, never," says Tell. And yes, there is the famous scene where Tell refuses to bow to the "hat", the symbol of repressive Habsburg power, and is in turn forced to shoot the apple off his son's head. And there is the ultimate act which makes him a patriotic hero when he kills the Governor Gessler, the imperial representative hated by Tell's fellow countrymen and women. Beyond that the scenes in this play demonstrate the importance of those countrymen and their closeness to the land and traditions of their forefathers.

This is a powerful romantic drama about the desire for freedom, but it is also an Arcadian idyll that presents the best of nature. It seems almost Rousseauian in the opening scenes that are set in a seeming "state of nature". Eden like as the country may be it is also beset by tyranny from the dreaded imperial Hapsburg empire. We see the attraction this life has for Ulrich von Rudenz, the nephew of Baron von Attinghausen. While Attinghausen is a patriot his nephew is attracted to the other side and is brought back to support his countrymen only through the intervention of his love for young Berta. The importance of Berta and Lady Gertrud in their influence over the men closest to them is worth noting.

Schiller's play, the culmination of his dramatic art, is a joy to read. Over the years it, along with other plays by Schiller, has found its way to the operatic stage, in this case through the pen of Rossini, while Verdi was attracted to other of Schiller's works. While the large cast and number of different scenic locations make this a difficult work to stage I could not help thinking that we are overdue for a cinematic traversal of this tremendous literary resource.

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Lizzy Siddal said...

Welcome to German Literature Month! This is the play I wanted to reread but don't have time to do so (at least not during Schiller week). So thanks for this.

Brian Joseph said...

I am only familiar with Rossini's Opera. Previous to reading your commentary I barely gave the original much thought.

As with most works that you post commentary on this sounds like something that I would get a lot out of.

Have you ever seen it performed live?

RT said...

Thanks for your great posting. My knowledge of German literature is woeful, and your posting helps a lot. Perhaps I should join the November challenge. I think I will use Rilke. But tell me more about the challenge. Where do I find the "rules" and other details? Forgive my blogging ignorance.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad to participate in German Literature Month.

James said...

Thanks for your question. I have not seen Wilhelm Tell performed live, but several years ago I did see a performance of Schiller's Mary Stuart about the last days of Mary, Queen of the Scots.

John Enright said...

Great review.

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. Schiller is one of my favorites.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. If you are interested in the German Literature Month you should go to this website:

Happy Reading!

Marina Sofia said...

I remember reading this a long time ago - and of course Schiller was the one who contributed most to the creation of the William Tell legend (plus the opera). Just don't tell the Swiss that it is not a very plausible story and that the character was probably based on several people who lived around that time, but were almost certainly apple-less!

James said...


Thanks for your observation. Schiller's play is certainly a rousing romantic depiction of a no doubt somewhat mythical history.