Wilhelm Tell, a five-act drama in verse, was Friedrich Schiller’s last major work. It tells the story of the start of the Swiss Confederation as the people of four inner cantons — Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and Luzern — joined forces, swearing an oath to drive out a Habsburg ruler who is intent on limiting traditional Swiss freedoms. This oath, and the rebellion attending it, are so central to Swiss self-conception that even today, more than 700 years since the event (the timing of its closest historical analog is disputed), Swiss are often known in German as Eidgenossen, “oath swearers” or “oath comrades” and many Swiss institutions bear the adjective form, eidgenossische, as part of their names.
Schiller opens his telling of the events with a depiction of Wilhelm Tell as an incarnation of Swiss virtues. The first speakers, a fisherman, a shepherd, and an Alpine hunter, stand for the traditional ways in which rustic Swiss have made their livings. A storm is brewing over the lake when a young man lurches onto the stage, fleeing from Habsburg horsemen who will kill him for not showing proper reverence to a hat that their lord has set in the town square as a representative of the sovereign. The fisherman says it is too dangerous to set out on the lake. As the young man begs for help, Wilhelm Tell arrives, holding his crossbow. He says that he will take the risk, and in a show of skill, courage, and divine favor, navigates the stormy waters, rescuing the independent young Swiss and showing his own disdain for arbitrary power.
The events of the play all flow from that initial confrontation. The Habsburgs want to extend their domain at the expense of the Holy Roman Emperor, and so they are tightening their grip on the Swiss territories over which they had been nominal sovereigns. The Emperor will not come to the aid of the Swiss, although he has been a traditional guarantor of their rights. Later in the play, Schiller reveals that the Emperor has been killed by one of his sons, who believed he was being kept from his rightful inheritance. The Swiss of the four cantons wish to uphold their traditions, rights, and independence, but separately they lack the power to prevail against Habsburg soldiery. Tell does not initially think too hard about rescuing his young countryman, but over time the act leads him further into rebellion, and propels him into leadership. There is also a subplot with a young Swiss noble who thinks the Habsburg side will be the winning one, and at first casts his lot with the foreign oppressor.
I found that there was a surprising amount of tension for a 200-year-old play about events that even then were roughly half a millennium past. Tell survives, his son survives, the men of the cantons swear their oath; that much a reader probably knows going in. But how does the rest of the story play out? In contrast to the Wallenstein plays, in Wilhelm Tell Schiller uses a small number of longer scenes to tell his stories. The characters come and go in settings whose stage directions — descriptions of cliffs, lakes, storms and more — read as if they are better suited to a movie than to a theater production. I was particularly impressed by how Schiller handles the one scene that everyone in the audience knows is coming: when Tell shoots an apple off his son’s head. The outcome is never, intellectually speaking, in doubt, but he maneuvers the characters and the staging such that in the moment there is genuine uncertainty.
There is less personal transformation in Wilhelm Tell than in the Wallenstein plays. Schiller is working more in the mythic realm than in the particular. The young noble who intended to side with the Habsburgs, for instance, is easily induced to see the error of his ways. The Habsburg representative himself plays his role all the way through, never doubting the rightness of his cause. The only character with cause to regret his actions is the Kaiser’s son, who appears late in the play in disguise. Tell discerns who he is and sends him to Rome on a pilgrimage of repentance. In this, too, he acts as the archetypal dispenser of Christian justice, calling for submission to the spiritual authorities. Tell and the Swiss stand for local freedom, and for the traditions passed down to them through the years.
In the 19th century, the play was often seen as standing for freedom against imperial powers, and that is certainly one of the messages that comes through clearly. On the other hand, I wonder how much understanding Tell, and the other men who swore the oath, would have for sons and daughters who did not want to take up the traditional roles offered to them by rural life in the mountains. That story, however, was left to later generations of Swiss to tell.