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Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). Wilhelm Tell.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

JOHANN CHRISTOPH FRIEDRICH VON SCHILLER was born at Marbach, Wurtemberg, Germany, November 10, 1759. His father had served both as surgeon and soldier in the War of the Austrian Succession, and at the time of the poet’s birth held an appointment under the Duke of Wurtemberg. Friedrich’s education was begun with a view to holy orders, but this idea was given up when he was placed in a military academy established by the Duke. He tried the study of law and then of medicine, but his tastes were literary; and, while holding a position as regimental surgeon, he wrote his revolutionary drama, “The Robbers,” which brought down on him the displeasure of his ducal master. Finding the interference with his personal liberty intolerable, he finally fled from the Duchy, and in various retreats went on with his dramatic work. Later he turned to philosophy and history and through his book on “The Revolt of the Netherlands” he was appointed professor extraordinarius at Jena, in 1789. His “History of the Thirty Years’ War” appeared in 1790–93, and in 1794 began his intimate relation with Goethe, beside whom he lived in Weimar from 1799 till his death in 1805. His lyrical poems were produced throughout his career, but his last period was most prolific both in these and in dramatic composition, and includes such great works as his “Wallenstein,” “Marie Stuart,” “The Maid of Orleans,” “The Bride of Messina,” and “William Tell” (1804). His life was a continual struggle against ill-health and unfavorable circumstances; but he maintained to the end the spirit of independence and love of liberty which are the characteristic mark of his writings.

This enthusiasm for freedom is well illustrated in “William Tell,” the most widely popular of his plays. Based upon a world-wide legend which became localized in Switzerland in the fifteenth century and was incorporated into the history of the struggle of the Forest Cantons for deliverance from Austrian domination, it unites with the theme of liberty that of the beauty of life in primitive natural conditions, and both in its likenesses and differences illustrates Schiller’s attitude toward the principles of the French Revolution.