Why Schiller still matters

The great dramatist was an Enlightenment philosopher as well as playwright. His inquiries into humanity had a political dimension

Friedrich Schiller, drawn by Ludovike Simanowiz, c.1793 (©Pictorial Press LTD/ALAMY)

In recent decades, Friedrich Schiller has been a major presence on British stages. Perhaps the high point was Don Carlos, with Derek Jacobi as King Philip II, in 2005 at the Gielgud Theatre. A particular favourite, naturally for British audiences, has been Mary Stuart. The most recent production, at the Almeida in 2018, had Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson playing the rival queens and tossing a coin each night to decide who would play which role. Spectators have been treated to political drama of the highest order. And yet Schiller was much more besides a great dramatist.

He was born in 1759 at Marbach, near Stuttgart, in the principality of Württemberg, where his parents’ very modest house is now open to visitors. The Duke of Württemberg, Karl Eugen, was a reformed libertine, now a social benefactor, but still an authoritarian. Bright boys were sent, irrespective of their or their parents’ wishes, to the newly established Karlsschule, to be trained as servants of the state.

Young Schiller was intended to be an army doctor. Before studying medicine, he received an excellent general education, including philosophy. His gifted teacher, J.F. Abel, encouraged critical thinking by making the boys debate philosophical positions, and allowed them, in a prophylactic spirit, to read even radical works of Enlightenment materialism.

Schiller rebelled against the military discipline of the Karlsschule. After his explosive first play, The Robbers (completed in 1780), had been performed at Mannheim, outside the Duke’s territories, the Duke forbade him to write any more. Thereupon Schiller fled abroad, and for several years scraped a living while writing a series of plays focusing on resistance to tyranny, culminating in Don Carlos (1787). Then for some ten years, partly supported by wealthy admirers, he concentrated on history and philosophy, returning to the theatre with Wallenstein (1799). He died in 1805 while at work on a fascinating but fragmentary play, Demetrius, drawn from Russian history.

Curiously, the diversity of Schiller’s achievements has worked against him. His philosophy has too often been seen mainly as providing an intellectual framework for his plays, while the plays have been treated as dramatised philosophy. Yet his philosophical writings deserve to be valued in their own right as major contributions to aesthetics and to what the Enlightenment called “the science of man” or (especially in Germany) anthropology.

Besides addressing numerous specific aesthetic problems—the dramatic portrayal of undeserved suffering, the enjoyment we derive from villains such as Richard III, the limitations of realism and the value of artifice—Schiller, drawing on his medical training, asks about the desirable balance between the mind and the body, the intellect and the senses. His Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man argue that this balance can be secured by art, which responds to humanity’s innate urge for play—an idea Johan Huizinga would later develop in Homo Ludens (1938).

But the inquiry Schiller conducts into human wholeness also has a political dimension. The Letters were prompted by the spectacle of the French Revolution, with which Schiller had initially sympathised, going disastrously wrong. When the opportunity to establish a just and rational society had arisen, people were not yet fit to seize it. They were one-sided, tilted towards the hyper-rational intellect or towards brutal passions. The Letters suggest the place of art in gradually educating humanity to create and inhabit the just republic of the future.

Schiller was an upholder of the Enlightenment, though he stressed that true enlightenment demanded an expansion of human sympathies if it were not to decline into selfish calculation. He was no cloudy-headed idealist. At the end of his essay On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, one of the masterpieces of German literary criticism, he distinguishes two antithetical human types, the idealist and the realist. The idealist attends only to the supposedly absolute demands of reason and wishes to impose them on humanity. Because actual people fall short of his ideals, he is tempted to despise them, and to sacrifice the present to the future. (Such revolutionary figures as Robespierre come to mind.) The realist accepts people as they are and bows to what he considers the necessary course of events. He will make no heroic sacrifices, but nor will he do any great harm.

This psychological opposition has often been thought to provide a way into Schiller’s dramas. In practice, it is reductive: none of the characters conventionally classified as idealists or realists entirely fits the model. But it can sharpen one’s eye for the human and political problems that the dramas explore.

There is a link, for example, between the idealist type and the character of Karl Moor in The Robbers, written some fifteen years earlier. Karl is an unruly though good-hearted student. Hearing of his excesses, his brother Franz persuades their father, the ruler of a small but independent territory, to disinherit Karl. Franz is an unscrupulous schemer, who confides in the audience, as Richard III does, and reveals himself as a master of psychological manipulation and an expert in the relations between the mind and the body: he knows how to induce emotions that will have the requisite disabling physical effects on his father. He illustrates Schiller’s worries about an Enlightenment that trains the intellect while impoverishing the sympathetic feelings.

The disinherited Karl, after his initial fury, recruits some disreputable associates to form a band of robbers. Such gangs, known as Mordbrenner (“murderous arsonists”), often spread terror in early modern Germany. Karl stands out by his determination to punish oppressors. His victims include villainous politicians, corrupt financiers, and a Catholic priest who lamented the decline of the Inquisition. After a successful robbery, he gives his share of the booty to orphans and impoverished students. Although this generosity baffles his associates, who are intent on plunder, murder, and rape, they submit to Karl’s authority. He for his part is so loyal to them that he leads them in burning an entire town to the ground to release one gang member who is imprisoned there.

In the final showdown, Franz strangles himself with his hat-band just as Karl’s gang are storming the Moor family castle. But Karl does not triumph. He realises, not only that he cannot shake off the robbers, but also that his efforts to amend violence by violence were an impious attempt to correct providence, and that “two men such as I would destroy the whole moral order of creation”. This statement is opaque, but I would interpret it as follows. Franz was obviously a villain. He deserved his fate, and his example will not corrupt anyone. Karl, however, performed and promoted villainous actions in the name of good. To rectify social injustice, he committed murder and arson. Thus he made good look like evil, and evil like good. In this sense, he risked destroying the moral order.

Insofar as Karl is an idealist, therefore, his idealism is infinitely more dangerous than Franz’s naked wickedness. This message looks even more compelling with hindsight. For the tragedy of the French Revolution was that in trying to realise the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, the revolutionaries stumbled into the Reign of Terror. Terror was explicitly used to promote “virtue”. Schiller already anticipated this dynamic in 1780.

Unlike Goethe in The Natural Daughter (1803), Schiller did not try to deal with the French Revolution in drama. His last completed play, however, Wilhelm Tell (1804), can be read as a demonstration of how a revolution should happen. Schiller had supported the American Revolution, and in 1783 had even contemplated emigrating to America. In Tell, where Schiller is not afraid of anachronism, the leaders of the three Forest Cantons hold a democratic discussion on how to break free from Austrian rule, and conduct a successful rebellion which neatly coincides with the abolition of the feudal system.

Compared to the earlier political plays, Wallenstein and Mary Stuart (1800), Tell is a little too much like a textbook of democracy. Even if these two plays presuppose a moral order, it is remote, and the foreground is filled with conflicts arising from what Schiller and his contemporaries called Staatskunst or “reason of state”.

The action of the trilogy Wallenstein covers a few days in February 1634, just over half-way through the Thirty Years’ War.
Wallenstein, the general whom the Imperial side finds indispensable, is secretly negotiating with their Swedish antagonists. His purposes are unclear even to himself. To impose peace on Europe? To become King of Bohemia? Or is he just playing with possibilities? Meanwhile, one of his officers, Octavio Piccolomini, is secretly an agent of the Imperial court, and is plotting to detach Wallenstein’s other officers from his cause and, if necessary, to have Wallenstein outlawed. Yet Wallenstein has insisted on regarding Octavio as a special friend and therefore confided his intentions to him. Is Octavio right in letting his duty to the Emperor override personal loyalty? Or are his actions a base betrayal—especially as he may well be relying on a forged letter to alienate one of Wallenstein’s staunchest supporters?

Octavio may seem close to Schiller’s definition of a realist. He pleads necessity to justify his actions. But, depending on how severely you judge his deception of Wallenstein, he may also seem like a dangerous idealist, stooping to treachery in pursuit of a supposedly noble cause. Wallenstein may be seen—as he is by Octavio’s son Max—as a charismatic, heroic figure, not to be judged by everyday standards, and brought low by a petty manipulator—or by what Wallenstein himself calls “life’s ambiguity”.

The ambiguities of politics dominate Schiller’s next play, Mary Stuart. Mary is held in English captivity, and has been found guilty of plotting Elizabeth’s death. In the great council scene in Act II, where Burleigh, the Lord Chancellor, demands that Mary be executed, and Shrewsbury, her guardian, urges clemency, we may seem to have a conflict between pragmatism and humanity. But it is more complicated than that. Pragmatism may dictate Mary’s death: Burleigh is perfectly right to claim that as long as she is held captive, she will attract ruthless Catholic terrorists determined to free her. Schiller has invented such a figure, Mortimer, a secret Catholic convert with access to Mary’s cell and a plot to liberate her at whatever cost in lives. On the other hand, Elizabeth knows that Mary’s execution, on legally dubious grounds, will damage her reputation for justice, undermine her shaky position as a monarch whose legitimacy is imperfect, and alienate the public which she despises but has to conciliate. So pragmatism also dictates humanity.

These options, of course, are not laid out on a drawing-board but voiced by three-dimensional dramatic characters. Burleigh’s vindictive fury makes his “reason of state” even less acceptable; Shrewsbury’s defence of Mary makes Elizabeth suspect he is half in love with her; and Elizabeth’s favourite, Leicester, is playing a double game, since Schiller has also invented a love-relationship with Mary for him. Personal antagonism to Mary proves decisive in making Elizabeth decide on her execution. Schiller has often been blamed for thus making women seem irrational, but the charge is unjust: all the characters in the play are swayed by emotion. The least so is Shrewsbury, who finally deplores Elizabeth’s decision with the words “I have failed to save / Your better part.” Politically, Elizabeth has won; morally, she has taken an irreversible step downwards.

Schiller thus introduces a recurrent theme in German political drama: the necessary crime. In Büchner’s Danton’s Death (1834), Danton agonises over the necessity of the September Massacres. Duke Ernst, in Hebbel’s Agnes Bernauer (1851), orders the heroine’s execution on pragmatic grounds; Hebbel (without disapproval) described the Duke as a Machiavelli figure. And in Brecht’s The Measures Taken (1929), set among undercover communist agitators in China, the idealistic Young Comrade who shows compassion to coolies and refuses to eat with an exploiter has, however reluctantly, to be killed, because his humanity endangers their mission and thus the greater good. Schiller, the first in this series, is also the last to appeal to a moral order.