Friedrich Schiller

Portrait of Friedrich Schiller, almost half-length, facing front, wearing double-breasted jacket and cravat
Portrait of Friedrich Schiller. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Biography

Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, physician, historian, and playwright, remembered especially as the author of the ode An die Freude (‘Ode to Joy’), which was famously set to music by Beethoven in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.

Early life

Schiller was born in the German town of Marbach am Neckar in 1759. His father served the army of Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg, who took an interest in the young Friedrich and in 1773 had the boy enrolled in his newly-founded military academy. Schiller hated the school’s rigid and authoritarian ethos, but quietly rebelled by reading forbidden literature and writing his own poems and plays.

Although he successfully graduated as a military doctor and took up a regimental post, Schiller was never happy in this work. When in 1782 his first completed play, Die Räuber, was premiered in Mannheim, it brought him instant acclaim, but the melodramatic tale of rival brothers, disinheritance, banditry and murder, with its strong anti-authoritarian streak further strained his already difficult relationship with Karl Eugen and the military. In September 1782, Schiller left Württemberg and his regiment, in effect deserting from the army.

Literary and personal development

The following years were financially precarious and personally difficult, but Schiller continued to build a literary reputation with his next plays Fiesco and Kabale und Liebe, and in 1785 he was invited to stay in Leipzig by friends and admirers who also offered financial support. During this time he wrote his ‘Ode to Joy’ (An die Freude) in their honour, and started work on the play Don Karlos, set in 16th-century Spain. He also wrote a study of the 16th-century conflict between Spain and the Netherlands which forms the background to the play, and this earned him a professorship of history at the University of Jena in 1789. In 1790 he married Charlotte von Lengenfeld, and his life at last appeared settled personally, financially and in terms of literary recognition. However, in early 1791 he became seriously ill, probably with tuberculosis. Although he recovered, the disease never fully left him.

Friendship with Goethe

Spending his time between Jena and nearby Weimar, where he had settled in 1787, Schiller came into contact with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Their relationship was initially distant: Goethe was unimpressed by Schiller’s early works, while at their first formal meeting in 1788 Schiller found Goethe arrogant and condescending. However, in 1794 Schiller wrote to Goethe proposing a collaboration on a new literary journal, Die Horen. The following correspondence and further personal meetings cemented a friendship that became personally and creatively vital to both men, and was a key driver in the cultural movement that came to be known as Weimar Classicism.

Last years and legacy

In the following decade Schiller produced major historical dramas on subjects including the Habsburg General Albrecht von Wallenstein (Wallenstein trilogy, 1788–89), Mary Queen of Scots (Maria Stuart, 1800) and Joan of Arc (Die Jungfrau von Orleans, 1801). He also wrote on aesthetic and philosophical topics, influenced in part by his friendship with Goethe and his study of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Schiller died in May 1805, aged only 45, but his works remain much loved and admired. His plays are among the most frequently performed in Germany, and their exploration of individual freedom and of how to live by one’s ideals in world governed by pragmatism has always appealed to audiences. His aesthetic theories have also had a long influence on German philosophy.

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