The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wilhelm Tell

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Edition of 1920. See also William Tell (play) on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

WILHELM TELL. Schiller's most popular play, if not his best, is ‘William Tell,’ of which more copies have been sold than of any other German work of literature. During the years 1899 to 1905 a yearly average of 232 stage performances in German lands was maintained, a record equalled by no other German drama. Many critics condemn its structure, others find Tell's slaying of the tyrant Gessler from ambush morally indefensible; but it has become the national poem of the Swiss people. Read and seen on the stage in Germany's dark days it inspired the revolt against the despotism of the great Napoleon, and again in 1848 and later in 1870 its powerful influence was felt and the Rütli oath became the motto of the new empire. On the 100th anniversary of Schiller's birth in 1859 the ‘Urkantone’ dedicated the immense Mytenstein near the Rütli “To Schiller, Tell's Singer.”

Although every child knows the story of Tell's appleshot, it is not Tell but the Swiss people who are the heroes of the drama, or more exactly the three forest cantons Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, who by their historical defeat of the forces of the duke of Austria at Morgarten in 1315 and by later victories made themselves independent of the House of Habsburg while remaining in the empire down to the Thirty Years' War. Still, the drama is built about the Tell legend, for history knows no Tell, nor any tyrannical Gessler, nor was there any revolt against Kaiser Albrecht as in the drama, which follows the chronicle of Ægidius Tschudi (1505-72). The legend, itself, most probably came we know not how, from the Dane Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote in the 12th century, but long before Goethe's visit to the Forest Cantons in 1797, it had been accepted by the Swiss as fact. Goethe had wished to treat the subject in an epic, but resigned it to Schiller for dramatic treatment, helping him with all his data and knowledge of Swiss customs, topography and local color, for Schiller never saw Switzerland. It was finished and first produced in March 1804, and rapidly made its way over delighted Germany, but was not tolerated in Vienna till 1827.

In their revolt against Habsburg tyranny, representatives of the three original cantons met on the Rütli and swore their “desire to be a united people of brothers, to be separated in no trial and danger; to be free as their fathers were; to suffer death rather than live in servitude; to trust in God on high and not to fear the power of men.” Hence Schiller carried three parallel plots, of which Tell, the yeomanry and the nobles were the protagonists, but all blend into one compact whole, leading from a common revolt against tyranny to common success.

The noble blank verse, the occasional lyrics and the striking scenery conspire to make a drama of irresistible charm, such that amateur actors give the play twice a week during the summer at Altorf to never-diminishing audiences.

Editions: Schiller's ‘Werke,’ ‘Goedeke,’ etc., 1868-76 (Vol. XIV); ‘Säkular-ausgabe’ (Vol. VII); American school editions: E. C. Roedder, 1905; Arthur H. Palmer, 1915, and a dozen others. Consult Bulthaupt, Heinrich, ‘Dramaturgie des Schauspiels’ (Vol. I); Kuenen, E., ‘Schiller's Wilhelm Tell, erläutert und gewürdigt.’ There is an English translation by E. B. Lytton, 1844, and nearly 20 others.

Carl E. Eggert.