Friday, March 26, 2010

Goethe's "Wilhelm Tell"

In my last post I mentioned that Goethe re-ascended the Gotthard on his aborted 1797 trip to Italy. The head of the road to the pass is the village of Altdorf, the capital of the canton of Uri and the birthplace of the expert marksman Wilhelm Tell. As Nicholas Boyle writes in his biography of Goethe, this was "the heart of the Swiss national legend," namely, the rebellion of the Swiss against Habsburg tyranny and the formation of the Swiss Confederation in the late 14th century. On his trip Goethe visited the Rütli meadow, where the oath against tyranny was taken, and he stopped at the chapel from which Tell had sprung to freedom. Goethe had recently completed the small epic Hermann und Dorothea, which perhaps inspired him to consider another epic on a "folk" subject. He wrote to Schiller that the story of Tell offered possibilities for an epic handling.

Much later Goethe told Eckermann that the "magnificent and glorious natural setting" of the Vierwaldstätter See (i.e., Lake Lucern, or the Lake of the Four Forested Cantons) had so moved him that he wanted to give it poetic form. In order to endow the setting with more charm and life, he thought of populating it with "significant human figures" (bedeutenden menschlichen Figuren). He also related to Eckermann that he described his impressions to Schiller in whom "my scenery and figures took dramatic shape. ... And since I had other things to do and kept postponing my intention to write about it, I finally handed over the subject to Schiller, who went on to write his admirable poem."

Interestingly, Boyle does not mention any of this in his biography. Rüdiger Safranski, however, in his book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship, discusses it at length, and he also writes that the matter was more complicated than described by Goethe. Schiller was already acquainted with the Tell legend, since several Tell dramas had been staged in the second half of the 18th century. Schiller's fiancé read Johannes von Mueller's History of the Swiss Confederation in March 1789 and recommended the theme to Schiller: "The history of free men is doubly interesting, because it is they who fight with more enthusiasm for their constitution." Schiller didn't follow Charlotte's suggestion, being more occupied, writes Safranski, with his "heroes from the flatland," i.e., his history of the Netherlands.

Schiller, however, was "as if electrified," when Goethe wrote to him. It was as if it was necessary for Goethe to approach the subject for Schiller to recognize its poetic possibilities. He seems to have begun to adapt it mentally, and in March 1802, after completing The Bride of Messina, he began to work on the Tell drama. He informed Goethe in a letter of his new dramatic plan, without, however, mentioning the name of the subject. Thus, exactly when Goethe "handed over" the subject to Schiller is unclear.

Next time I will write a bit about "Schiller's Wilhelm Tell." Stay tuned.

Picture credits: Adventure-Archive; Snak


cantueso said...

I am from there, but haven't been there for a long time and won't go back, but it was nice, if a little painful, to see those photos, that lake, those flowers. And when I was little, at school, the question whether the story of Tell was "all lies" or whether it was "true" or whether it was "only a symbol" -- that question kept me really busy for many years.

You ought to correct "fiancé" in "Schiller's fiancé read Johannes von Mueller's History" about halfway down your text. It should be "fiancée" because without that second "e", it is a bridegroom, not a bride.

rapunzel said...

Thank you Goethe Girl for this interesting article. I am working on a translation of Grimm's Saga No. 517 and 518 and found it very interesting.

Goethe Girl said...

Thanks, Rapunzel and Cantueso.