Friedrich Schiller—dramatist, poet, philosopher, historian—was and remains the greatest playwright in the German language. His idioms have taken root in the way the Germans speak and think about themselves; his memory stands as the very measure of literary greatness. Yet last month, Schiller’s 250th birthday came and went largely unheralded, in Germany and elsewhere. Where one might have expected a flood of biographies and anthologies, there was only a trickle of trivia, faded bouquets of his bonmots on contemporary topics, and a few indolent reviews. No critic seemed prepared to argue for—or even against—Schiller’s import.
This silence is not for lack of relevance. The themes with which Schiller dealt in his plays have self-evident appeal to modern taste, and their core is timeless and true: the self-fulfilment of human beings, and the limits of their potential. Drawing his subject matter from the rancorous history of medieval Europe, Schiller cast na√Øve protagonists against a harsh, uncomprehending world. “The courage to overcome, sooner or later, the resistance of an obtuse Welt” (Jener Mut, der, früher oder später, / Den Widerstand der stumpfen Welt besiegt) was Schiller’s own great virtue, Goethe later wrote in an elegy for his friend. But in Schiller’s plays, the world would usually win.
Schiller was preoccupied most of all with the social and moral responsibilities of human beings, liberated in his time from centuries of political and religious oppression. These are big ideas, explored by a figure who looms larger than most in Europe’s literary history. And it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the lukewarm response to Schiller’s anniversary, and so to his life and work. In short, Schiller’s greatness has made him remote. The veneration of generations within and beyond Germany has assured his place in the history of ideas, but at the same time consigned him to it. His dramatic works, the bedrock of German theater, have been reduced to historical sediment; and the human side of his works, as well as the extraordinary human being behind them, have been dissected to death.
Of course, Schiller was a great man preoccupied with great ideas. But as a dramatist and poet, he explored the intellectual aspirations of the Enlightenment—the Aufklärung—in a way that was deeply practical and psychologically sensitive. According to the consensus which emerged in Schiller’s age, reason is the critical tool by which one overcomes the self-imposed shackles of religious and political oppression. To those who would venerate reason at the expense of the sensual, however, Schiller put the case of Don Carlos, his fourth play.
There, Schiller chronicles the travails of an enlightened Spanish aristocrat, the Marquis de Posa, as he tries to resolve an intrigue surrounding a love affair at court. The failure of reason results in catastrophe: the forces of reaction triumph. But Don Carlos is not just a philosophical or political allegory; Schiller’s characters do not only act rationally or irrationally, but also through genuine feeling. It is this humanity which creates the deepest impression in the audience. As Thomas Mann (who adored the play as a boy) has his protagonist gush in the short story Tonio Kröger, “some passages are so rivetingly beautiful they almost make you see stars”. Don Carlos is a plain case for reading Schiller more broadly, for although an intellectualist lens works, it obscures Schiller’s fundamentally affective point.
The remote, intellectual veneer surrounding Schiller’s work also surrounds the man himself. In seeking the many-sided human being in his plays and poetry, we might then begin with the human being behind them. Schiller’s life, like his life’s work, was classic in the fullest sense. Like his friend Goethe, he strove to emulate the polymath excellence of the great figures of classical antiquity. The results of this effort showed: Schiller’s writings on the theory of art were taken seriously by the likes of Kant, while his ability and fame as a playwright positioned him to tell Goethe that the Iphigenie auf Tauris—Goethe’s adaptation of the Euripidean tragedy—was tedious. And such was Schiller’s earnestness, his perfectionism, that he would anonymously publish sharp critiques of his own plays as soon as they had been produced. Behind Schiller’s philosophical and poetic opus is a man who lived with an inexhaustible wholeheartedness and an irresistible sense of potential.
The ideal actor, Schiller once wrote, must always walk a tightrope between intellectual mannerism and “imitation of nature”. Like this actor, Schiller’s plays traverse a middle road between thought and feeling. In doing so, they offer a vision of how the extremes of mind and heart might be reconciled, on stage and in life. Late in his career, Schiller claimed that all his efforts would be worthwhile if his viewer could recognise a personal reality in the playwright’s fictional world—if that viewer, by contemplating someone else’s fate, realises that he is simultaneously contemplating his own. As he explained it, “A noble and true soul will be enlivened and invigorated by the stage—and as for the rabble, there is surely some lost chord of humanity to be struck in their hearts.”
To Schiller, poetry is both the illustration and the instrument of the perfectibility of man. No sentiment could seem more old-fashioned, nor more appropriate for our times. If we could for a moment abandon the intellectual consensus which banishes the author from his own work, we may find in Friedrich Schiller a man who fulfilled the potential and the optimism of his writings—a man who was truly alive.
Schiller’s physique was not as robust as his intellect. He worked through many years of serious illness and died young, at age 44. After his death, an autopsy revealed that his inner organs, in particular his lungs, had almost completely dissolved. Schiller’s body was not fit for purpose; but then he never did accept that physical necessity or practical purpose (Nutzen) should govern existence. This was an aristocratic ideal, of course, but one that was tempered by his belief in the basic freedom of human beings. Indeed, Schiller’s enduring faith in freedom explains why later generations have felt liberated by reading his poetry and inspired by his life—even today, when man is much freer than Schiller could have dreamed.
Christopher Metcalf is reading for a DPhil in Classical Languages and Literature at Balliol College, Oxford.