Friendship and love form the substance of one of Friedrich von Schiller’s most political plays, his Don Karlos of 1787. Since the early 1880s, the German dramatist enjoyed considerable prestige all over Europe, to the point that soon after the Revolution of 1789 he was made an honorary citizen of France, although he later distanced himself from the excesses of the Republican regime. Schiller wrote Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien, between 1783 and 1787, a dramatic poem in five acts, in its monumental dimension not dissimilar to the French grand opéra Giuseppe Verdi composed on the same subject, premiered in Paris in 1867. When starting on Don Karlos Schiller was still working as a regimental doctor in Stuttgart, a position he deserted in order to fully concentrate on his play, living in fear of being arrested for months to come. Although his play Die Räuber (1781) had brought him fame all over the German lands and abroad, at the time of working on Don Karlos he only started to live of his writing (as well as of his wealthy admirers).
Don Karlos was premiered in the free city of Hamburg in 1787 by one of Germany’s most influential and progressive theatre directors. The original performance was soon followed by productions in Leipzig and Riga (Duchy of Courland, today Latvia), before travelling widely through the German lands and abroad. The play was also appreciated as reading material for a surprisingly wide social stratum of people: while the fragment of an earlier version had been published as a feuilleton in the periodical Thalia, the full drama was printed in Leipzig two months before the premiere. Further editions followed suite. The play’s extraordinary popularity had the effect that pirate editions outnumbered official sales in the thousands, not helping the poet’s attempts to resolve his persistent financial difficulties. The particular connection between passions and politics at the heart of Schiller’s play responded in almost unprecedented ways to a public sentiment shared across national boundaries and social classes.
How did Schiller succeed in writing such a play? Don Karlos is set in Spain during the reign of Philippe II (1527 – 1598) and deals with the fight for the liberation of Flanders from Spanish rule, epitomised by the conflict between a ruthless but also deeply human King and the freedom-loving Infante. Despite this background, it would be misleading to reduce Schiller’s Don Karlos to a simple tale about national liberation from foreign domination. Although it is often read as a play about the Dutch revolt, it was the depiction of the political atmosphere and of interpersonal relations at the court of Philippe II that was at the forefront of Schiller’s mind when thinking about the historical context. Schiller treats freedom as a complex, almost abstract concept, connecting individual and spiritual notions of freedom with collective and political ones. Although international politics form the background to the drama’s plot, its political constellation is not moving the play. Instead, the historical background represents a canvas to display moral values and the main characters’ emotional and psychological disposition.
Therefore, Don Karlos is not a play about freedom in a narrow political sense. Its notion of freedom depends on three different layers of dramatic action: the exposition of individual characters; the evolution of interpersonal relations; and the panorama of an oppressive political regime. As for the plot’s historical background, the playwright Schiller takes precedent over the historian Schiller. During his work on Don Karlos, Schiller had started being seriously interested in history and not long after the play’s completion he accepted a chair as Professor of History at the University of Jena, offered to him in recognition of his History of the Dutch Revolt and a clear sign of the openness towards enlightened ideas in some of the German states at the time. However, even as a professional historian Schiller clearly distinguished between historical craftsmanship and history’s philosophical purpose. In his famous inaugural lecture for the University of Jena he explained the historian’s role as a teacher of humanity. The starting point of Schiller’s Don Karlos therefore was not the Dutch revolt (as was the case in his book about the same events), but the interpersonal psychodrama between his play’s main characters.
Schiller did not take the plot from original historical sources, using instead a historical novel, at the time over a hundred years old. For his Histoire de Dom Karlos (1672) the Abbé César Richard de Saint-Réal had invented a fictitious love affair between the Spanish infante and his father’s third wife, Elisabeth de Valois, which came to form the background to Schiller’s play. Schiller knew little about the historical infante, who allegedly planned a number of assaults on the king before dying in prison, possibly as the consequences of a hunger strike. His stepmother died shortly after, fuelling speculation over a double assassination. However, in order to craft the wider historical context for his psychodrama, Schiller read a number of historical and biographical studies, including a German translation of Juan de Ferreras’ multi-volume History of Spain and a biography of Philippe II by the very popular playwright and novelist Louis-Sèbastien Mercier, a work which Schiller later published in German translation. During the process of drafting individual scenes, Schiller also studied Robert Watson’s and William Robertson’s biographies of Philippe II and of Charles V. In line with his own enlightened ideals, his research encouraged Schiller to underline the role of the Inquisition within his drama, used as an opportunity to express his horror at this institution of Catholic fanaticism.
Schiller’s philosophical approach to the past explains why, in his play, he decided to consciously manipulate the course of events and to add fictional characters to fit his play’s dramatic purpose. Not the events in Flanders, but his characters’ psychological disposition and interpersonal relations were his principal preoccupations when drafting the plot. Early on he decided to make it a play about friendship, centred on the relationship between Karlos and the Marquis Rodrigo of Posa, the latter emerging as the play’s principal character. In the course of the play, Posa founders on the gap between his enlightened ideals and the factual realities around him, struck by a conflict between moral ambition and republican virtue. Posa’s fate describes fundamental dilemmas of human existence, independent of the play’s specific historical context.
Friendship and passion take precedent over the historical events. However, regarding the play’s lack of historical authenticity, it would be wrong to charge Schiller with academic ineptitude or political partisanship. For Schiller, as for Verdi a century later, history constituted a canvas upon which to project fictional characters, allowing the dramatist and composer to analyse fundamental traits of human character. Schiller speaks a timeless and cosmopolitan language, the language of friendship and love.
© Axel Körner, 2015