Friedrich Schiller holds the same high place in Germany as William Shakespeare does in England: every city seems to have a Schiller Street or place or square—there’s even a university named after him. Although he lived for only forty-five years, Schiller crammed so many activities and experiences into his existence that he might be said to have lived two if not three lives simultaneously.
Although many may never have read or seen a Schiller play before, his 1785 poem, Ode to Joy, whose lyrics are part of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are recognizable to most of the Western World.
Born in southwest Germany in 1759, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller’s first desire was to become a minister. Instead, however, he was sent to military school at the wish of his father’s patron, the Duke Karl Eugen. There he studied the law, and when graduated moved to Stuttgart to study medicine, which became his first career.
Schiller found a love for Shakespeare’s vitality in describing “the passions and secret movements of the heart in the specific expressions of the persons” (Schiller, quoted in Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage vol. 1, p. 4) and incorporated his natural expressions in his own dramatic writings as a rejections of the French stiff neoclassicism which was prevalent in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
In 1780 Schiller became simultaneously a doctor in the army and began the draft of his first play, The Robbers. Nobody at first wanted to publish it or even perform it because of its provocative nature. So Schiller published it anonymously at his own expense in 1781, and it was performed at the Mannheim theatre in 1782.
The play was an instant sensation, and the director offered to produce any plays Schiller might write in the future. The Robbers’ success came from not so much from its plot (the noble brother, falsely disinherited, becomes a self-proclaimed Robin Hood) as the realization of the hero, Karl, that crimes, even when committed for the best of reasons, do not make one a hero: “What a fool I was to think that I could make the world a better place with horror and to uphold the law by breaking it,” (The Robbers, V-2). Karl then turns himself in to the law’s punishment for his crimes.
To the horror of governments, and the delight of those rejecting neoclassicism, the dominant genre in this Age of Enlightenment, young audiences were struck by the new spirit of Romanticism and republicanism which was overtaking the arts, spurred by the American and French revolutions: “The play's critique of social corruption and its affirmation of proto-revolutionary republican ideals astounded its original audience. Schiller became an overnight sensation. Later, Schiller would be made an honorary member of the French Republic because of this play” (Wikipedia.org).
When the duke heard of the play’s success, as well as the fact that Schiller was now taking weeklong trips to Mannheim to work with the theatre there, he put him in jail for two weeks, forbade him to attend any more performances of the play, and limited him to publishing only papers on medical work.
Faced with putting an end to his creative writing, Schiller quit his job and moved to Mannheim, where he continued to write plays, novels, histories, poems, and essays. Between The Robbers and his final complete play, William Tell, in 1804, and taken in his entirety as an author, Schiller’s output is prodigious and varied. He wrote six prominent plays, three histories, some novels and numerous poems, as well as editing two literary journals and co-authoring poems with Goethe and adapting some Shakespeare’s Macbeth for production at Weimar.
Between 1784 and 1805 (the year of his death) Schiller undertook a number of nondramatic endeavors in several German cities. While he lived in Dresden and Leipzig (during 1785) Schiller founded the literary journal Rheinische Thalia, the first issue of which featured Act 1 of his play, Don Carlos, as well as initial observations on the state of art and literature in Germany, which would be transferred to his great philosophical works, the Aesthetic Education of Man, published in 1794, and his essay On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry in 1795.
The year 1794 was the beginning of Schiller’s close and lasting friendship with Goethe, the foremost German poet and dramatist of the period. The two collaborated to produce works which strengthened the practice of Weimar Classicism, which Goethe had established in the 1770s. Briefly stated, they wished to incorporate Greek classic ideals into a new form of literature which included the passion of German romanticism and combined these apparently disparate views into an organic while. To this end, they formed a network of scholars and artists, published a journal the Almanach, and co-wrote poems and a few plays.
At Weimar, Schiller and Goethe joined in mutual expressions of their admiration for Shakespeare, though they were both turning back towards a more classic approach “In November 1797 . . . Schiller [writes] to Goethe “In the last days I have been reading the plays of Shakespeare which deal with the War of the Roses and now that I have finished Richard III, I am filled with true amazement. No Shakespearean play has so much reminded me of Greek tragedy” (Schiller, quoted in Michael Billington, The German Shakespeare [The Guardian, Jan. 29, 2005).
Enriched by such artistic and philosophical companionship and finally financially secure, Schiller completed his great trilogy, Wallenstein, and Goethe produced it at Weimar, in 1799. In quick succession, there followed the publication and production of Mary Stuart and The Maid of Orleans.
His works have been translated many times, most frequently since the bicentenary of his death in 2005. Several of them also have another life in Verdi’s operas: Luisa Miller, I Masnadieri, Giovanni d’Arco, and Don Carlos, and at least a co-credit for Macbeth, which is largely based not on Shakespeare’s original but on Schiller’s adaptation.
Friedrich Schiller died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1805 and is buried next to Goethe in Weimar “guarding the ‘national’ theatre like two military heroes” (David E. John in Paul Kerry, Friedrich Schiller: playwright, poet, historian, 181).
His lasting influence on theatre is perhaps best summed up in his own words: “The theater has the power to punish the thousand vices which justice must patiently tolerate; the thousand virtues which the latter must let pass without comment, on the stage are held up for general admiration. And here, at its side, are wisdom and religion. From their pure fountain it draws its lessons and examples, and clothes stern duty in charming and alluring robes. How it swells our soul with great emotions, resolves, passions—what a divine ideal it sets up for us to emulate!” (Translated by John Sigerson and John Chambless, Theatre considered as a Moral Institution, Schillerinstitute.org).