Don Karlos by Friedrich Schiller

The first thing to note about Don Karlos is that I noped right out of it somewhere in the middle of the second act. My disbelief had wavered early on when Don Karlos, the crown prince of Spain, unburdens his soul to his childhood friend the Marquis of Posa. Karlos (Carl in English) says he is in love with his stepmother the queen, and means to win her. Schiller subtitled the five-act play “A Dramatic Poem,” and it is generally considered a tragedy. I knew I was in trouble when half the time it seemed like the action was better suited to a farce — mistaken identity, clueless servants, love letters not being from the expected person — than to tragic events. Slapstick among Spanish grandees is definitely not Schiller’s aim, but I kept picturing comic ineptitude rather than true love thwarted by arbitrary royal authority, and it did not get any better for me.

Early in the second act, Karlos wants to dash off to meet with the queen, whom he thinks has written him a letter returning his love, when the Duke of Alba asks him for a moment of time. Karlos has just had a big row with the king because Karlos has asked him for command of troops going to the Spanish Netherlands to quell a rebellion. The king has barely seen Karlos for many years, and turns him down flat, saying that such an important mission needs to be led by an experienced commander such as the Duke of Alba. The Duke had in fact been in the room before Karlos made his request, and Karlos used up much of his limited goodwill with the king by insisting that he send Alba out of the room for their discussion. Karlos goes through the whole inappropriate repertoire of making a request from the king: transparent flattery, begging, wheedling, insisting on his prerogatives as heir, arguing, raging. Schiller has already portrayed King Phillip II as arbitrary and cruel — he banned one of the queen’s handmaidens from Madrid for ten years for leaving the queen alone for less than a quarter hour — and he has no patience for Karlos’ sudden desire for a high position.

So, Karlos has just had a huge fight about wanting to replace the Duke of Alba when who should ask him for a moment but this selfsame Duke? Karlos, however, wants to hurry to the queen, so his first response is “Sorry, Duke dude, no time to talk, gotta run.” I suppose the eighteenth century would say that he was thinking with his hot blood and his heart, but I think his desire was lodged a little bit lower. Alba insists, and after some farcical dialogue in which Karlos is clearly distracted, they wind up challenging each other to a duel then and there. No sooner have they drawn their definitely not symbolic swords than the queen saunters by. “Naked swords!” she exclaims. Karlos, clever guy, realizes that she is not waiting for him in a secret rendezvous and wilts immediately. “Nevermind!” cries Karlos, and throws himself at the queen’s feet before dashing off. Alba, who just by the by later turns out to be a terrible choice as general in the Netherlands, is apparently the only one in this scene with any sense. “By God that was weird,” he says.

I am sure it comes across as foreboding and dramatic in most stagings, but I couldn’t get past imagining it as almost a Marx Brothers scene. Not surprisingly, I pronounced the Eight Deadly Words soon thereafter and skipped to the end to check the body count. It’s surprisingly low, as these things go. The Marquis of Posa gets shot fairly early on in the fifth act (scene three of eleven); in the last scene the queen faints dead away and may or may not have perished on the spot, while Karlos’ fate is left implied.

(Historically, in the events upon which the play is very loosely based, Queen Elisabeth died in childbirth, while Karlos died during his house arrest after the king confined him to curb increasingly erratic behavior. He seems to have been a bit of a Joffrey.)

Not only did the business of the play fall on the wrong side of the line between tragedy and farce for me, I thought that Schiller was largely working through his own issues with authority. Schiller’s higher education — he trained as a medical doctor — came thanks to the Duke of Württemburg. At the age of 21, he took up a post as a regimental doctor in the Duke’s service. Schiller wrote his first play, The Robbers, during this time. Forbidden to attend the premiere, he went AWOL and saw it anyway. The Duke had him imprisoned briefly and forbade him to publish any further work. Schiller fled the army, fled Württemburg entirely, and after some adventures settled in Weimar, where medicine’s loss became literature’s and Weimar’s gain. Phillip II surely represents much of the arbitrary authority that so chafed the young Schiller; I am glad that he produced a definitive reckoning with it, but I did not see the need to come along for some 5370 lines of verse on the subject.

Mine is surely a minority opinion. Don Karlos has formed the basis of five operas, including work by Verdi that is still in the standard repertoire. It has been translated into English at least five times as well, including a modern verse translation that was first staged in Edinburgh in 1995.

A 2016 visit to Schiller’s house in Weimar inspired me to read his major dramatic works, which, despite a bachelor’s in German literature, I had not done before. I have not read Fiesco, The Bride of Messina, or the unfinished Demetrius, and I have no plans to do so. Several of them are great works, still lively and interesting more than two centuries after their premieres. Wallenstein’s Camp is surprisingly cinematic; the apple scene in Wilhelm Tell manages to create suspense from the one thing that everyone knows about Swiss history. I was taken by how open Die Jungfrau von Orleans is to a pagan interpretation of the origins of Joan’s power. It’s been a pleasure to close this gap in my education.

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