Last reviewed: June 2018
German poet, playwright, and critic.
November 10, 1759
Marbach am Neckar, Duchy of Württemberg (now Marbach am Neckar, Germany)
May 9, 1805
Weimar, Saxe-Weimar (now Weimar, Germany)
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, born on November 10, 1759, in the Duchy of Württemberg, was the son of an officer in the army of the duke of Württemberg. His parents intended for him to enter the ministry of the Lutheran church, and to this end they sent him to the Latin school at Ludwigsburg, then the ducal residence. Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg, in common with other semi-independent German princelings, had delusions of grandeur, and he tried to imitate the “grand style” of the Bourbons by making his court into a kind of Bavarian Versailles; he lived lavishly, if crudely, ruling largely through sycophants and irresponsible adventurers. While at Ludwigsburg, young Schiller saw much of the ways of the world and learned early to hate social and political tyranny. Friedrich Schiller
Among the duke’s many projects was a military school, established to train the sons of his officers for the public service. When he was fourteen Schiller was offered a scholarship at the academy, a princely favor not to be rejected by his parents, even though it meant giving up their plans for his future. He began as a student of law but did badly, and when the school was moved to Stuttgart two years later, he transferred to the study of medicine. In spite of his formal education, young Schiller’s true interests did not seem to lie in divinity, law, or medicine, but in literature. Although the strict discipline of the academy prevented easy access to contemporary writing, contraband works of the revolutionary “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) authors found their way into his hands and were avidly read. Under the influence of this reading, and possibly of his own reaction to the world of Ludwigsburg, Schiller began his first play, Die Räuber (1781; The Robbers, 1792), a wild, romantic melodrama of social injustice and rebellion.
In 1780, Schiller was honorably dismissed from the academy, although without a doctor’s degree, and was assigned as army doctor to a regiment of invalid soldiers at Stuttgart. To augment his meager income, he decided to borrow money and publish his play. As a book, The Robbers was largely ignored, but it came to the attention of Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg, director of a theater at Mannheim. In 1782 he produced a revised version, which was a tremendous success. Dissatisfied with an unpleasant job, and flattered by his sudden notoriety into the conviction that he was born to be a writer of tragedy, Schiller deserted the Württemberg army and fled to Mannheim, in a neighboring principality. Dalberg was at first reluctant to associate himself with a refugee from another state, but by 1783 it was apparent that the duke of Württemberg had ignored the desertion, and Schiller received a one-year contract as playwright. In the following year two new plays were produced at Mannheim, neither of which enjoyed anything like the success of The Robbers, but which were, like that play, characterized by vehement prose and radical sentiments.
Schiller’s contract with Dalberg was not renewed, and in 1784 he moved to Leipzig and then to Dresden, where he published his journal, Die rheinische Thalia, and worked in a desultory manner on a new play, Dom Karlos, Infant von Spanien (1787; Don Carlos, 1798). This tragedy, finished in 1787, represents in many ways the midpoint in Schiller’s development as a dramatist. As is true of the earlier Mannheim plays, the language is often high-pitched and the action confusing; like them, the plot deals with an idealist, the Marquis Posa, who is destroyed by his own fanaticism. As in the later plays, however, the form is poetic and the thought mature.
After the completion of Don Carlos came a ten-year hiatus in Schiller’s dramatic output. In 1787 he went to Weimar, where he made the acquaintance of the poet Johann Gottfried Herder, and finally settled in Jena. In his reading for Don Carlos, Schiller had become interested in the Spanish-Dutch conflict of the sixteenth century, and as a result he decided to devote himself to the writing of history. In 1788 he published a volume on the conflict, and during the next four years he wrote the impressive Geschichte des Dreißigjährigen Krieges (1791–93; History of the Thirty Years War, 1799). Although Schiller’s success as a historian led to his appointment as professor at the University of Jena, his work in that field is notable more for its literary qualities than for its historical accuracy or objectivity. He instinctively sided with the oppressed and rebellious, and his republican sympathies colored his prose as well as his plays.
While at Jena, Schiller divided his time between history and philosophy. His concern was primarily with the study of aesthetics, although that is never, in his thinking, entirely divorced from ethics. His best-known essays in this field are Über Anmuth und Würde (1793; On Grace and Dignity, 1875), Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung (1800; Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, 1966), and Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1801; On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1845).
Schiller first met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Jena, and from 1794 on they were close friends and literary allies. Partly through Goethe’s influence, Schiller’s interest in writing poetry revived. Together they made a study of the epic style, and out of this interest grew a number of ballads and romanzas which are still among Schiller’s most popular works. During this period Schiller also wrote several reflective lyrics expressing the humane idealism and high ethical aspirations which characterized his thought. Goethe was at that time the director of the small theater at Weimar, where Schiller moved in 1799, and the two friends often worked together selecting and adapting plays for production there. The renewed contact with the stage quite naturally reawakened Schiller’s love for the drama, and the remaining years of his life were spent writing poetic plays for the Weimar theater. With a burst of energy he wrote in rapid succession his five greatest plays: the Wallenstein trilogy—composed ofWallensteins Lager (1798; Wallenstein's Camp, 1830), Die Piccolomini (1799; The Piccolominis, 1800), and Wallensteins Tod (1799; The Death of Wallenstein, 1800)—plus Maria Stuart (1800; Mary Stuart, 1801), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801; The Maid of Orleans, 1835), Die Braut von Messina (1803; The Bride of Messina, 1837), and Wilhelm Tell (1804; William Tell, 1825). The last, undoubtedly Schiller’s most popular play, is an intensely human drama dealing with the rebellion of the Swiss people against their Austrian rulers. In the midst of writing still another historical play, Demetrius, which would be published in its unfinished form in 1817, Schiller contracted the illness that would lead to his premature death on May 9, 1805.
Schiller has always been considered among the greatest of German dramatists. Although poetic in form, his last plays are by no means lyrical, their force lying in their sonorous, sometimes rhetorical language, and in the intense sincerity of the playwright’s idealism. His characteristic themes are persecution and tyranny, for Schiller, writing at the height of German romanticism, was in both philosophy and politics the representative dramatist of his age.