Kabale und Liebe by Friedrich Schiller

From the subtitle, “A Bourgeois Tragedy” to the Romeo and Juliet references that crop up in discussions of the play, it’s clear that Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love, although I am glad to see that at least some translators go with the better order of Love and Intrigue) is not going to end well for the protagonists. And of course it doesn’t. Along the way, though, readers encounter what Theodor Fontane, quoted on the back of my little yellow Reclam edition, called the play’s “extraordinary dramatic power.”

Kabale und Liebe was Schiller’s third drama, his second important play after The Robbers, and his last in prose. From Don Karlos onward, he turned to verse for his plays. He also turned to historical subjects and away from fictional settings like the ones in Kabale und Liebe. The play follows Luise Miller, sixteen-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family, who has fallen in love with Ferdinand von Walter, the son of the president of an unnamed ruler’s court. (The dramatis personae says that it is a prince’s court; in the play, he is usually referred to as a duke.) The drama opens with her parents worrying about Ferdinand’s interest in their daughter, what his presents mean, the likelihood that this bodes ill for her and them, for a match across class lines cannot be made. The second scene sets the intrigues in motion, as the president’s assistant — the all-too-aptly named Wurm — asks Herr Miller for his daughter’s hand and is rejected.

The play premiered in 1784, after the American Revolution but before the French. Ancien régime rulers held sway across Europe while the Enlightenement brought new ideas into play. The ruler of Kabale und Liebe‘s setting seems far more despot than enlightened, and it is hinted that Ferdinand’s father attained his present position by well-timed murder, although the exact deed is never spelled out. Schiller has a great many targets as his tragedy unfurls: the arbitrary power of monarchs, the poverty of the people they rule (these two combine in the description of the duke’s selling thousands of his subjects into indentured servitude in America to finance jewels for his favorite; people who protest are massacred, and the whole takes place off-stage, an event merely to be reported), the impenetrable barrier between nobility and commoners, the servility and violence required at court life.

The roles of women in this society are another subject entirely. The whole play turns on the notion of men possessing women, and women’s value solely in terms of their relations to powerful men. Women are bargaining chips; in the marriage market, their chastity is a supreme value, greater than their actual lives in many instances. Luise makes some speeches rebelling against her lot, contrasting the strength it takes to bear the burdens imposed on her with the supposition that women are the weaker sex. Schiller shows some of the costs that these views exact from all of the characters, but part of the tragedy is that no alternatives appear to be available.

Kabale und Liebe is a very fast play. Characters declaim less than in The Robbers, but they are still more types than individuals, and it is a work about intersecting roles rather than character study. I would say that this is melodrama of the highest order, but that is unfair to Schiller. What strikes a modern reader as melodrama was new to the stage when Schiller was writing. Moreover, the types and their interactions propel the story forward. Their obvious flaws make the play simultaneously hard to read — just tell him what happened! it isn’t that hard! — and irresistible.

Luise loves Ferdinand but worries that a Baron is unattainable for a commoner. Her parents want a good match for her, entertain hopes that a Baron might actually elevate her to the nobility, but worry that he is just toying with her. Wurm wants Luise for his own and is willing to use his closeness to Ferdinand’s father to get her, consequences be damned. Ferdinand loves Luise, but is easily led to think that she is untrue. For most of the play, he loves his honor more than he loves the actual person Luise. He is also afraid of his father. The senior von Walter wants to secure his position with the ruler by marrying Ferdinand to the duke’s favorite, one Lady Milford.

There are the requisite intrigues, involving false letters and misunderstandings, some deliberately fostered, others the results of characters’ blind spots or wilfulness. And of course there’s a tragic ending. The tragedy seems unnecessary — Luise should just tell Ferdinand she was forced to write the letter; Ferdinand should shut his yap for a while and listen to what people are saying; everyone should slow down and think for a moment. Especially Ferdinand should think a bit. He knows his father is all about conspiracy, why should he believe in a coincidence that plays to his prejudices? If the play were less propulsive, I would be more annoyed that it takes characters acting stupidly to bring it to its conclusion. As it is, I can’t look away.

The first English translation appeared in 1795, and new translations have followed up through London productions in 2010 and 2011. I have not read any of the English translations. Verdi based an opera on the play. It premiered in Naples in 1849.

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