Schiller and Wilhelm Tell
His brilliance was inspiring to generations of writers, musician and philosophers, his ideas full of life
and light, their magnetism eternal. Swabian Friedrich von Schiller, 1759-1805, was a leading German
18th-century poet, dramatist, and literary theorist. He also wrote an extensive tract on the history of
the Thirty Years War. Sent against his wishes to a military academy as a young man, Schiller studied
law and medicine and was for a time an army surgeon. His first drama was the play 'Die Rauber'
about a rebellious, noble outlaw, Karl Moor. Published in 1781, it had great success and gave Schiller
instant European recognition. When the duke learned that Schiller had, without permission, left his
regiment to see the play performed at Mannheim, he put the young officer under arrest and forbade
him to write anything more.
His 'Wilhelm Tell' was so popular during the time of the Napoleonic occupation that the French
banned the play, but it had created a republican spirit that soon helped lead to Napoleon's defeat. The
German generals sometimes had their soldiers perform the play to inspire their troops who carried
Schiller's poems into battle with them. At the battle of Leipzig where Napoleon was badly beaten, the
soldiers recited "the Rütli oath'' from Wilhelm Tell, a tradition which was commemorated on the very
same battlefield with a performance of Wilhelm Tell for at least fifty years:
Schiller's plays were published in America, in fact, "The Robbers" was the first drama printed in
Philadelphia, and it was performed as a play in 1796 in New York. Friedrich Schiller's work inspired
Frederick Douglass, and in his paper North Star, Douglass called Schiller "The Poet of Freedom''.
One of the most famous translators of Schiller was John Quincy Adams, who was the ambassador to
Prussia from 1797 to 1801 before he became President of the United States in 1824, and his book,
'44 Letters About Germany', created great interest in the German classics and literature.
Schiller, although probably unheard of by the average school child today, was internationally adored
in a way few men have been. It was a Russian nobleman who had participated in the Liberation
Wars against Napoleon in 1812-13 who had the first statue of Schiller on record erected on his estate
on the island of Pucht, off the coast of Estonia, with the inscription: "To the memory of the bard of
Germany, Friedrich Schiller, beloved by the muses. 1813.'' A statue of Schiller by Ernst Rau graces
his hometown of Marbach. Unveiled on May 9, 1876, it is twice life-sized and comprised of 3,200
pounds of bronze donated from the King's captured cannonballs. In 1886, its replica was erected
amid jubilant celebration in Chicago, and another was erected in St. Louis in 1898. Yet another
Schiller statue was erected in Omaha, Nebraska. Copies of the Schiller-Goethe statue in Weimar
were brought to the United States, and San Francisco and Cleveland have full-size copies in their
parks. Johann Heinrich Dannecker created a famous bust of Schiller, as well as one of George
Washington, so there is a Schiller in New York City's Central Park, in Akron,Ohio and also at Johns
Hopkins University. Another was unveiled in New Orleans in 1859. Numerous streets across
America were named Schiller, although most were changed during anti-German WW One hysteria.
Schiller later settled in Leipzig and wrote a great deal more. At first, as an avid supporter of the
French Revolution, he hoped it would lead to the formation of a constitutional republic. Disheartened
when it became a blood bath, he later quipped, "The voice of the majority is no proof of justice." As
a professor of history and philosophy in Jena, he and Goethe founded the Weimar theater. His
inspiration for many years was Charlotte von Kalb, a married woman, but in 1790, Schiller married
Charlotte von Lengefeldt and they had four children.
Although a playwright, historian and poet, some believe that his most lasting contribution was in the
field of philosophy where he delved into aesthetics and, influenced by Immanuel Kant, came up with
a new definition of beauty that would inspire later philosophers and even whole movements. For his
achievements, Schiller was ennobled in 1802 by the Duke of Weimar and his name was enobled with
a von, becoming Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. The choral setting of Nänie by Brahms
was influenced by Schiller, and Verdi admired him greatly and adapted several his stage plays.
Among Schiller's best-known works is 'An Die Freude', or Ode to Joy, later set to music by Ludwig
van Beethoven in his Choral Symphony. Schiller died young, an invalid.
The Rütli is a meadow above Lake Lucerne first mentioned in 1470. The Rütlischwur is the
legendary oath of the Old Swiss Confederacy prominently featured in Schiller's drama Wilhelm Tell
of 1804. According to ancient historians, three oath-takers from Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden met
on the Rütli meadow and promised to meet again on August 1,1307 and to bring with them the
bravest men of their three cantons to formulate a plan for freedom. Historicity, the 1307 date
coincides with a period of similar treaties and pacts as part of a larger movement finally countered by
the imperial Golden Bull of 1356 and culminating in the Battle of Sempach of 1386.
The Legend of Wilhelm Tell
At the end of the 13th century, the folks living in the hills and mountains of today's Switzerland had
to bear the presence of various Habsburg sheriffs, some of whom were cruel and hated. Soon after
the opening of the Gotthard Pass, the Habsburg emperors sought to control the canton of Uri.
In legend, one of the worst of the bailiffs they appointed was a nasty little man named Hermann
Gessler who enjoyed humiliating the peasants in Uri because they had joined with their Schwyzer
and Nidwaldner neighbors in pledging to resist Austrian oppression. It is told that Gessler placed his
hat, sported with large feathers, on a pole at the market place of the hamlet of Altdorf and dictated
that every man who passed by kneel before it as a token of respect and submission. One day, a
hunter by the name of Wilhelm Tell who lived in the Canton of Uri, in the valley of Schächen near
Bürglen, happened to pass the market place with his son Walter and either failed to heed the hat or
purposely ignored it. For this offense, the ever vigilant Gessler had him arrested.
Hearing gossip about Tell's prowess as a hunter and his reputation as an expert marksman, Gessler
had Tell informed that his only chance to remain alive was to hit an apple, placed by Gessler himself,
on the head of Tell's son Walter with his bow. Indeed, Tell accepted the challenge. The boy’s hands
were tied and an apple was placed on his small head. Tell put one arrow in his quiver and another in
his crossbow and squarely hit the apple. But, of course, this was not the end of things.
A humiliated Gessler, noticing that Tell had brought a second arrow, asked him why, and when Tell
mockingly replied that had he hit his son instead of the apple, the second arrow was intended for
Gessler. This cockiness made even more of a fool of Gessler, and in his fury he had Tell sentenced
to lifelong imprisonment in the dungeons of Gessler’s castle at Küssnacht, northeast of Luzern.
When the time came to depart, Gessler boarded the boat in Lake Lucerne along with Tell.
Suddenly, there was a raging storm during the boat journey and the oarsmen convinced Gessler to
release Tell because his strength was needed to steer them to safety. Tell helped maneuver the boat
close enough to the shoreline that he was able to leap to freedom, landing on a flat rock called the
Tellsplatte, and off through the woods he sped. Knowing he was a dead man if the others lived, Tell
hurried ahead to Küssnacht and waited.
As Gessler and his party later walked along the dark lane called Hohlegasse in the gorge that led to
the castle, Tell, who had hidden in the bushes, leaped out and shot a bolt straight into the tyrant’s
heart and then vanished back into the woods and returned to Uri to retrieve his son. His comrades
and the people were so inspired by Tell’s act of bravery, that they threw off the yoke of Habsburg
oppression in their homeland to embrace freedom. This defiance is said to have sparked the rebellion
which led to the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy of Helvetica, today call Switzerland or  
"Land of the Schwyzers". Schwyz, along with Uri and Unterwalden, was one of the three original
cantons that swore the oath and formed the confederation in 1291 on the Rütli.
Alas, as is the case with other Germanic folk heroes, there is a bitterly vocal, humorless and insistent  
minority who for some dull, politically correct reason are bent on "debunking" the Tell myth.
Apparently, while belief in King Arthur, Camelot or the Sheriff of Nottingham is acceptable, belief in
the villain Hermann Gessler is not, and while a Robin Hood is just plain fun, a dreaded Wilhelm Tell
is something "we must take very seriously." Despite the party-poopers, the Wilhelm Tell's saga, left
the world beautiful poetry, drama, art and song, and for doing might deserves more respect.
"By this fair light which greeteth us, before
Those other nations, that, beneath us far,
In noisome cities pent, draw painful breath,
Swear we the oath of our confederacy!
A band of brothers true we swear to be,
Never to part in danger or in death!
We swear we will be free as were our sires,
And sooner die than live in slavery!
We swear, to put our trust in God Most High,
And not to quail before the might of man! "
The small community of New Glarus,
Wisconsin has attracted Swiss settlers for over
150 years. New Glarus was originally settled in
1845 by 108 Swiss pioneers who left the
Canton of Glarus in Switzerland during an
economic crisis, and ever since has welcomed
succeeding generations and even some new
Swiss immigrants, keeping the community's
Swiss-German language, folk traditions, and
music alive.
The legend of Wilhelm Tell first appeared in the 15th century in two versions, one in a ballad from
about 1470, and the other from the chronicles of a Melchior Russ of Berne written a few years later.
There are several Norse, Germanic, Danish and English tales and myths of other cultures carrying
similar themes. Friedrich von Schiller, Franz Lizst, Gioacchino Rossini and countless other writers,
artists and musicians were inspired by the legend of Wilhelm Tell, and a majority of the Swiss believe
that Tell really lived. In recent times, historians have, through research, uncovered possible figures
who could indeed have been the real live Wilhelm Tell.