Friedrich Schiller

Steven D. Martinson (University of Arizona)
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Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller was born on 10 November 1759 near Stuttgart, in Marbach am Neckar, duchy of Württemberg, Germany. His father, Johann Kaspar Schiller (1723-1796), was a surgeon, recruiting officer and captain in the Württemberg army. Schiller's mother, Elisabetha Dorothea Schiller, née Kodweiss (1732-1802), was the daughter of the respected keeper of the inn “Zum goldenen Löwen” in Marbach. In 1764 the family moved to Lorch in the Remstal where young Schiller began his formal education. He was taught Latin and classical Greek. His teacher, Pastor Philipp Ulrich Moser, left an indelible impression, as is evident from the character of Pastor Moser in Schiller's first drama, Die Räuber [The Robbers, 1781-82]. In 1766 Schiller's parents moved to Ludwigsburg, the home of the “Swabian Versailles”. Schiller was called upon to be a student at the Duke's newly founded military academy at the “Solitude” outside of Stuttgart where his father served as superintendent of the English and French gardens. Johann Kaspar Schiller's expertise in horticulture kindled his son's interest in natural science. In 1793 Friedrich Schiller published his father's work Von der Baumzucht im Grossen [Concerning the Cultivation of Trees in General].

Schiller excelled in his studies at the Hohe Karlsschule, a military academy and general high school for the sons of Württemberg's premier families. The students were subjected to rigid discipline and under the direct supervision of Duke Karl Eugen. It was at an awards ceremony here that Schiller first saw Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), who later became his friend. The student's favorite professor, Jakob Friedrich Abel, often used examples from literature to illustrate his lectures on philosophy, and introduced Schiller to the works of Shakespeare, most notably Othello. Schiller's studies at the Academy culminated in his dissertation which presented an interactionist theory of physiology, Über den Zusammenhang der tierischen Natur des Menschen mit seiner geistigen [Concerning the Connection between the Animal and Intellectual Nature of Humans, 1780]. Upon graduation, Schiller was appointed as a military physician and stationed in Stuttgart.

Duke Karl Eugen was a tyrant. As he took part in the education of the students, he was their “father” at the Academy. Visits by parents, few and far between, were at his discretion. These and other restrictions became painful for Schiller, even after he left the Academy and held his lowly post as army physician. After he had gone absent without leave to attend the premiere of his first play, Die Räuber, at the Mannheim Theater on 13 January 1782, Schiller was forbidden to write literary texts and incarcerated for nearly two weeks. The drama proclaims the need for civil liberties and freedom at a time of “enlightened” absolutism. Finding the punishment insufferable, he decided to flee his fatherland, and in the evening of 22 September 1782, Schiller stole away from Stuttgart together with his friend Andreas Streicher, who would later write an account of their escape from Württemberg. Schiller's collection of poetry Anthologie auf das Jahr 1782 [Anthology for the Year 1782] is an invaluable source for any understanding of his life and work during this time of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress, q.v.). His early lyrical production and his first three plays are associated with the Sturm und Drang movement. The texts are typical of the epoch in their emphasis on direct emotional expression, their radically innovative aesthetics, their anti-absolutist thrust and their portrayal of the Kraftgenie (the unbound, universal genius) as the idealist rebel.

The first station in Schiller's exile was the tiny estate of Bauerbach in the Thuringian Forest where he lived under the alias of Dr. Ritter. Here he completed his third play, the “bourgeois tragedy” (bürgerliches Trauerspiel) in prose Kabale und Liebe [Cabal and Love, 1784], one of the most powerful dramas in the genre and a ringing indictment of absolutist tyranny. The relationship between the main characters Ferdinand and Luise illustrates the social restraints on lovers from different classes, and the tensions between a corrupt aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie. Before leaving Bauerbach, Schiller finished a draft of his next play, Don Carlos (1787) and sketched scenes of yet another historical drama about Mary Stuart (1800). In Bauerbach he befriended the director of the Meiningen library, Wilhelm Friedrich Hermann Reinwald. Schiller's letter of 14 April 1783 to Reinwald, his future brother-in-law, marks a turning point in his self-awareness as a man of letters, as it is there that Schiller delineates his theory of art and the literary imagination as the key to human self-definition.

On 27 July of the same year, Schiller returned to Mannheim. After only one year as poet in residence of the national theater, he was dismissed by the director, Wolfgang Herbert Freiherr von Dalberg. A prolonged illness, gossip concerning his relationship with the actress Katharina Baumann, the poor reception of his second drama, the “republican tragedy” Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua [The Rebellion of Fiesco of Genoa, 1783] and his failure to produce an additional play contributed to the dismissal. To Schiller's credit, however, Kabale und Liebe met with nearly as much acclaim as had Die Räuber. While in Mannheim, Schiller wrote the first installments of his theater journal, Rheinische Thalia (later Thalia) and became acquainted with Sophie von La Roche (1731-1807), one of the celebrated women writers of the time. He also met his future wife, Charlotte von Lengefeld, and his sister-in-law, Caroline von Wolzogen, Schiller's first major biographer.

When he realized that he could not be happy in Mannheim, he abandoned his plan to secure a doctorate in medicine in Heidelberg. Schiller decided to travel to Leipzig where he intended to study law. Here he met the poet Christian Felix Weisse, the painter Adam Friedrich Oeser, the composer Johann Adam Hiller and the writers Sophie Albrecht (1757-1840) and Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793). Schiller and Moritz became friends. One of the notable developments was his friendship with Christian Gottfried Körner (1756-1831). On 11 September 1785, at Körner's invitation, Schiller traveled to Dresden. There he completed his masterpiece Don Carlos, a “dramatic poem” in iambic meter about the ideas of freedom and enlightened humanism, which marks the transition of Schiller's aesthetics from Sturm und Drang to classicism. The play was published in June 1787. Noting that he had never been happier than in Dresden, he wrote the poem “An die Freude” [“Ode to Joy”, 1785]. Schiller's democratic and deeply humanistic ode later provided the text for the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven's (q.v.) Ninth Symphony. While in Dresden, Schiller also met his future publisher Georg Joachim Göschen. A lecture he presented in Mannheim, “Vom Wirken der Schaubühne auf das Volk” [“Concerning the Effect of the Stage on the People”], was printed in his Rheinische Thalia. A revised version appeared in 1802 as “Die Schaubühne als moralische Anstalt betrachtet” [“The Stage Considered as a Moral Institution”] in the first volume of his Kleinere prosaische Schriften [Shorter Prosaic Writings]. The theater is here seen as an institution for the ennoblement of the character of the public in the interest of humanity, morality, and social harmony. Schiller's conception of the stage lent itself well to the ascendancy of the German bourgeoisie, especially in the emphasis on practical wisdom and knowledge. His view of the theater as a “tribunal” underscores the writer's engagement in contemporary political affairs.

In the summer of 1787 Schiller traveled to Weimar in hopes of meeting Goethe, who was in Italy at the time. Nonetheless Weimar was a turning point in Schiller's life as he became acquainted with Goethe's mentor, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), and befriended the writer and editor of Der Deutsche Merkur (The German Mercury), Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813). Although adverse to courtly life, Schiller much enjoyed his conversations with the Duke's mother, Duchess Anna Amalia. In Weimar he also met the most influential woman at the court, Charlotte von Stein. Schiller began to write his first major historical work, the Geschichte des Abfalls der Niederlande von der Spanischen Regierung [History of the Defection of the United Netherlands from the Spanish Empire, 1788]. The thematics of this text reflect some of the author's personal positions, specifically his respect for the noble rights of humankind in its struggle against tyranny. The work ends with the inhumanity of Spain's victory over a people who fought for freedom and independence. The text remained unfinished. In March 1788 Schiller composed one of his celebrated poems, “Die Götter Griechenlands” [“The Gods of Greece”], a “philosophical poem” which holds Christian monotheism responsible for the decline of classical mythology and contends that Christian spirituality is too vast and sublime for mere mortals.

Also in 1788 Schiller found an intimate relationship with Charlotte von Lengefeld. He enlarged his circle of acquaintances, among whom was the noted poet Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-1803). Schiller was in Rudolstadt, the hometown of Charlotte von Lengefeld, in May 1788, and spent the summer with her in nearby Volkstedt. It was one of the most productive times in his life. He worked on his unfinished novel Der Geisterseher [The Ghostseer], the Menschenfeind [Misanthropist] – a project he soon dropped, the Geschichte des Abfalls der Niederlande, and his Zwölf Briefe über den Don Carlos [Letters Concerning Don Carlos]. He studied classical Greek literature, including Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, and translated parts of Euripides' Iphigenia. By mid-August 1788 Schiller was back in Rudolstadt. The composition of his ballad “Das Lied von der Glocke” [“The Song of the Bell”] was inspired in part by visits to the city's bell foundry. On 7 September he met Goethe at a dinner party, and two weeks later his review of Goethe's Egmont appeared in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung. During this time Schiller was battling various illnesses yet he remained productive, in part because for him the act of writing was a source of healing.

The year 1789 was a momentous one for Schiller: the French Revolution inspired him, as it did many other German writers and intellectuals. His elation over the establishment of democracy in France, however, was later displaced by horror at the Reign of Terror (1792/94). He began intensive studies of history, sparked by the promise of the Weimar Court to grant him a professorship at the university in Jena. Schiller's review of Goethe's Iphigenie auf Tauris appeared. He also revised his poem “Die Künstler” [“The Artists”], and in Dresden his Don Carlos was premiered. On 26 May Schiller held his tremendously acclaimed inaugural lecture as Professor of History at the university in Jena which later was titled “Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte?” [“What is, and to what end does one study universal history?”]. In mid-October the writer worked on his essay “Universalhistorische Übersicht der vornehmsten an den Kreuzzügen teilnehmenden Nationen” [“Universal-Historical Overview of the Most Notable Nations which Participated in the Crusades”] to be published in the first volume of the Sammlung historischer Memoiren [Collection of Historical Memoirs]. Charlotte von Lengefeld now expressed her hope to be betrothed to Schiller.

In 1789 the academic year began on 26 October. Schiller offered courses on the history of the Frankish dynasty and on Roman history. He was well liked by his students, who poked fun at his Swabian accent. Both the inaugural lecture and the novel Der Geisterseher appeared early in the semester. Schiller became friends with Wilhelm von Humboldt, the brother of Alexander von Humboldt, who was also a friend of Goethe. Schiller began the year 1790 with yet another battle with illness which led to the onset of tuberculosis in the following year. On 22 February 1790 Schiller and Charlotte von Lengefeld were wed in a small church in Weningenjena and went on to have a happy marriage, blessed with four children: Karl Friedrich Ludwig, Ernst Friedrich Wilhelm, Karoline Luise Friederike and Emilie Henriette Luise. Emilie's grandson Alexander Freiherr von Gleich-Russwurm, who died in 1901, was the last of Schiller's descendants.

Schiller was especially prolific in the last decade of the century. His interest in history was coupled with intensive work in the area of philosophy. One of his notable works of the time is the Geschichte des Dreissigjährigen Kriegs [History of the Thirty Years' War, 1791], a masterpiece of pre-modern historiography. He studied the works of the eminent contemporary philosopher Immanuel Kant, in particular his Kritik der Urteilskraft [Critique of Judgment, 1790] and engaged in conversations with his colleague Professor Karl Leonhard Reinhold, the foremost Kantian thinker of his day. Although fascinated with Kant's philosophy, Reinhold maintained his critical distance. Under the sway of Kant, Schiller wrote a series of influential philosophical essays including Über Anmut und Würde [On Grace and Dignity, 1793], an aesthetic theory which was well received by Kant himself and in which he deals with grace, the expression of the “beautiful soul” (schöne Seele) as opposed to dignity, which is the result of a noble state of mind. He completed essays on the sublime (Über das Erhabene [Concerning the Sublime, 1793]) and Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung [Concerning Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, 1795/96]. Schiller wrote the latter at the very same time as Friedrich Schlegel composed his essay Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie [Concerning the Study of Greek Poetry, 1795], and we find that Schiller and Schlegel, independent of each other, developed a similar paradigm concerning the nature of, and differences between ancient and modern poetry. In brief: the tension and fragmentation that characterized modern poetry contrasted with the harmony and oneness of humans with nature suggested by ancient Greek culture.

It was this difference between ancient and modern poetry that Schiller enlisted in a letter of 23 August 1794 to describe his relationship with Goethe. Projecting the naïve, that is, the harmonious relationship with nature, onto the modern writer, Goethe, and casting himself as the (necessary) sentimental counterpart, Schiller succeeded in sealing his friendship with Goethe. He also became acquainted with Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the philosopher of romanticism, who at the time was working on his Wissenschaftslehre [Theory of Knowledge], and he was also in contact with Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling , another prominent romantic philosopher.

In 1795 Schiller solicited contributions from Goethe, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin and others to his literary journal, Die Horen (The Horae). The journal is a cornucopia of works by outstanding contemporary German writers. Schiller's seminal work Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen [Concerning the Aesthetic Education of the Human Being in a Series of Letters, 1793/95] appeared in installments in Die Horen. In this text Schiller defines his ideal of morality, which harmonizes duty and inclination. Only in the realm of art – through the “play-drive” (Spieltrieb) of artistic creativity – can the intellectual and the sensual apparatus, as well as the various other drives in human nature, be reconciled: “There is no other way to instill reason in the sensual human beings but to make them sensitive to art”. The essay marks a paradigm shift in German cultural history as it delivers a critique of the cognitive emphasis in contemporary philosophy. It is Schiller's response to the failure of the French Revolution to achieve its goals, and his project of the aesthetic and moral emancipation of humanity. At this time Schiller embarked on the editorship of a Musen-Almanach [Almanac of the Muses, 1796-1800]. In 1795 Schiller composed much of his “classical” lyric poetry, including “Die Poesie des Lebens” [“The Poetry of Life”], “Das Ideal und das Leben” [“The Ideal and Life”] and “Der Spaziergang” [“The Walk”], the latter of which appeared in Schiller's Horen under the title “Elegie” [“Elegy”].

The collaboration between Schiller and Goethe was highly fruitful. By the time Schiller and his family moved to Weimar in 1799, a splendid literary culture had emerged, which in retrospect has been defined as the “classical” period of German literature or “Weimar Classicism”. Although this designation has been challenged, there is no question that the quality and range of the collective work of Schiller and Goethe forms an unprecedented chapter in German cultural history yet to be equaled. Together they wrote 414 pieces of satirical poetry for their Xenien (Xenia), and some of their finest ballads, among them Schiller's “Der Kampf mit dem Drachen” [“Battle with the Dragon”] and “Die Kraniche des Ibykus” [“The Cranes of Ibycus”]. They also co-directed the Weimar Court Theater in many productions, including several of their own dramas. Schiller and Goethe critiqued each other's work, and this mutual inspiration was especially intense from 1798 on.

Near the end of the 1790s, Schiller rekindled his interest in poetry and drama. The trilogy Wallensteins Lager [Wallenstein's Camp, 1798], Die Piccolomini [The Piccolominis, 1799] and Wallensteins Tod [Wallenstein's Death, 1799] marks the high point of his work as a playwright and ranks among the most impressive and innovative dramas in German literature. In the Wallenstein-trilogy Schiller combines the form of the historical drama with that of the character play. His focus is on an ambivalent protagonist and on the question of freedom of will, self-delusion and the inability to act. As much as his central character, Wallenstein, loses his idealism at the drama's end (“Trust, faith, hope are lost, as everything I held in high esteem was but a lie”), Schiller himself gradually seems to transcend his aesthetic idealism in the play, moving toward a new, yet unexplored realm of realism.

The Wallenstein-trilogy was followed by Maria Stuart [Mary Stuart, 1800/01], an historical play about Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I; a “romantic tragedy” Die Jungfrau von Orleans [The Maiden of Orleans (Joan of Arc), 1803]; the classicist tragedy about inimical brothers Die Braut von Messina [The Bride of Messina, 1803] and Schiller's last completed play, Wilhelm Tell [William Tell, 1804]. A final tragedy, Demetrius (1804/05), about the pretender to the Russian throne, remained a fragment when Schiller died. Demetrius is an intriguing text. Not unlike Wallenstein, it seems to signal a new direction in its aesthetics which Schiller might have pursued, had he lived. In his historical plays Schiller critiqued various aspects of the history of England, France and Switzerland and presented issues of the historical past as analogies to the present time. In December 1803 Madame de Staël was in Weimar and visited both Goethe and Schiller. She was impressed especially by Schiller's dramas. In the spring of 1804 Schiller undertook a journey to Leipzig, Wittenberg and Potsdam and was honored for his accomplishments in Berlin.

Throughout his career, Friedrich Schiller explored humanity's desire and need for freedom. The idealism so often attributed to him is tempered by the fact that his works pinpoint problems associated with the attainment of freedom, by the qualitative differences between his own literary-philosophical positions and German Idealism and Romanticism, and by his conscious, self-critical recognition of the limits of his own thinking. Wilhelm Tell is the most triumphant expression of freedom among Schiller's works. It was also his last.

In the course of his life, Schiller suffered from a variety of illnesses. One of the most serious occurred in 1791 when, while he attended a concert, his right lung collapsed. Although his medical problems weakened him almost constantly, they were a driving force of his creative work. This is apparent in his steadily increasing productivity from the time of the dissertation to Maria Stuart and beyond. When he was already afflicted with a number of other health problems, Schiller died from pneumonia in his remaining lung on 9 May 1805. His last words attest to his fortitude: “Immer besser, immer heiterer” [“Always better, always more cheerful”]. Schiller is buried alongside Goethe in the mausoleum in the Weimar city cemetery.

Friedrich Schiller ranks among the most talented and influential German writers. He is regarded as the German dramatist par excellence. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to other facets of his work, specifically his aesthetic theory and his historiography. His impact on German cultural history and literary theory has been enormous and the ongoing international reception of his works attests to their continuing relevance.

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Citation: Martinson, Steven D.. "Friedrich Schiller". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 October 2003; last revised 05 June 2006. [, accessed 18 July 2024.]

3956 Friedrich Schiller 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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