The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language
Schiller, Friedrich von, 1759-1805, German dramatist, poet, and historian, one of the greatest of German literary figures, b. Marbach, Württemberg. The poets of German romanticism were strongly influenced by Schiller, and he ranks as one of the founders of modern German literature, second only to Goethe.
The son of an army captain, Schiller attended the duke of Württemberg's military academy, the Karlsschule, and was forced by the domineering duke to study medicine. After graduating in 1780 he became an army surgeon, attached to a military life he abhorred. Turning to writing, he created a striking attack on political tyranny in Die Räuber (1781), one of the great plays of the Sturm und Drang period. Its performance (1782) in Mannheim won him public acclaim as well as the wrath of the duke, who forbade him to write.
Schiller fled from his post in Stuttgart and, after great deprivation, worked as a dramatist (1783-84) for the Mannheim theater. His second youthful success, Don Carlos, appeared in 1785 and was performed in revised form in 1787. While living in the great cultural center of Weimar, Schiller wrote a history (1788) of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. This work, together with the mediation of Goethe, gained him (1789) a professorship of history at the Univ. of Jena (now Friedrich Schiller Univ. of Jena). In 1790 Schiller married the gifted writer Charlotte von Lengefeld. Plagued by poor health, Schiller rejected subsequent offers of positions and from 1793 to the end of his life lived in Weimar, enjoying the friendship of Goethe.
Schiller's great dramas are alike in being tragedies or epics with historical and political backgrounds; they exemplify his idealism, high ethical principles, and insistence on freedom and nobility of spirit. In Die Räuber and other early works his heroes are pure idealists who perish because of the villainy of evil opponents. As Schiller moved from the phase of Sturm und Drang, he saw dangers in rampant individualism and even in fanatic idealism; thus his later Don Carlos has been interpreted both as a cry for political liberty and as a plea against excessive idealistic zealousness.
Under the influence of the philosophy of Kant, Schiller developed his aesthetic theories, which stressed the sublime and emphasized the creative powers of humanity. These views and his concept of historical inevitability are manifest in the outstanding dramatic trilogy Wallenstein (1798-99, tr. of last two parts by S. T. Coleridge, 1800), in which the general, ennobled by Schiller as a great creative statesman, bows before inexorable fate. Wallenstein reflects Schiller's labors on a large historical study (1791-93) of the Thirty Years War. Mary Stuart (1800, tr. by Stephen Spender, 1959), his most popular play, and Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801) deal with guilt and redemption. Wilhelm Tell (1804), which places history and hero in favorable conjunction, shows Schiller's technical mastery at its best.
Schiller's interest in classical antiquity, inspired by Winckelmann, is reflected in the play Die Braut von Messina (1803), essays, and poems. An unfinished novel, Die Geisterseher, and the "Ode to Joy" (1785), used by Beethoven for the finale of his Ninth Symphony, indicate the range of his literary activity. Also noteworthy are his ballades and philosophical lyrics—graceful, compelling, often pathetic in mood. Along with Goethe, he edited the literary periodicals Horen (1795-97) and Musenalmanach (1796-1800). Schiller wrote several significant treatises on aesthetics and created his finest plays and poetry in this period; he also translated Shakespeare's Macbeth (1801), Racine's Phèdre (1805), and other works.