Schiller’s Die Räuber
I am better than my reputation … Schiller
I honor Friedrich Schiller … and possess most of his work in 19th Century translation. His words live in my heart still … and are part of who I am as a person today. And on its way to me now, I’m delighted to say … is a fine new addition to my beloved antique book collection: An earlier copy of “The Robbers.” The 1799 Render translation.
A universal genius generally regarded as the greatest German dramatist, Friedrich Schiller dominates a period of German literary history as no one else before or since. Schiller revealed more vividly than any of his predecessors the power of drama and poetry to convey a philosophy; his works contain the strongest assertions of human freedom and dignity and the worth of the individual in all German literature.
To modern English-speaking people the mystique surrounding Schiller may seem hard to fathom. Yet to study how Germans perceive Schiller is to study how they perceive themselves. He appeared at a time when German literature was dominated by the monumental achievements of England, France, and Italy; there was even serious debate about whether the German language was a fit vehicle for literary expression. Schiller furnished proof of Germany’s high cultural achievement.
Schiller’s first drama was “Die Räuber” (1781; translated as The Robbers, 1792). Little is known about the genesis of the play other than that he had begun work on it when still a teenager. A vital, energetic, and troubling work, it soon caught the eye of Wolfgang Heribert von Dalberg, director of the Mannheim National Theater in the neighboring duchy of Hesse, who decided to bring it to the stage. The play was a sensation. Much of its appeal resides in Schiller’s choice of the archetypal theme of hostile brothers. The jealous and greedy Franz von Moor tricks his father, the ruling count, into disinheriting his elder brother, Karl, who is away at the university. He then imprisons his father and seizes the land and title for himself and tries to terrorize Karl’s beloved, Amalia, into concubinage. Learning of his disinheritance, Karl drops out of school and becomes the leader of a band of robbers. No ordinary hoodlum, he is consumed by a demonic craving for justice; he has the noble but misguided notion that he can right the wrongs of the world by taking the law into his own hands. But the frightening violence that attends each raid begins to plague his conscience. His final catastrophic effort to bring his brother to justice ends in Franz’ suicide and the deaths of the count, Amalia, and Karl’s closest friend. In the end Karl realizes that he has done more harm than good. His last act, turning himself in to the police, amounts to a cry from the heart for lost ideals.
The drama introduces two themes that were to occupy Schiller for the rest of his life. The first is that of the criminal hero, the man inspired by lofty goals who employs immoral methods to achieve them. The second is that of the idealistic reformer betrayed by institutionalized hypocrisy and greed; in his hero’s fall Schiller consistently underscores the futility inherent in the pursuit of ideals. The play also reveals Schiller’s innate grasp of what constitutes drama. As a piece of stagecraft Die Räuber has it all: sibling rivalry, armed robberies, an evil tyrant, a captive maiden, raging battles, tender love, and the conflict between good and evil. The language and the characterization are shamelessly overblown, but they matched the epic proportions of the action and struck a responsive chord in the viewers. The play was one of the most astonishing hits in the annals of the German stage, and the critics were no less enthralled than the public.