Die Räuber; The Robbers

Die Räuber, The Robbers (written 1779-80, published in 1781, first performed 1782)

In J.M.R. Lenz’s Der Hofmeister; The Tutor (1774), a young nobleman, Fritz von Berg, is slandered by his love rival, causing his father to reject him. A similar event provokes the action of Schiller’s Die Räuber, The Robbers (1781), although in this case, Karl von Moor is slandered by his own jealous brother, Franz, who hopes to steal his inheritance and his fiancée, Amalia. The perceived rejection by his father leads Karl to rebel against all authority, and become the leader of a group of robbers and bandits. But the true villains of the piece are Franz von Moor and the robber Spiegelberg, monstrous libertines endowed with the Machiavellian cunning of Shakespeare’s Richard III and informed by Enlightenment heterodoxy (on this last point, see K. F. Hilliard, reading list below).

When we first meet Karl Moor in Act One, Scene 2, he is full of bravado about his capacity for greatness:

Das Gesetz hat noch keinen großen Mann gebildet, aber die Freiheit brütet Kolosse und Extremitäten aus. […] – Stelle mich vor ein Heer Kerls wie ich, und aus Deutschland soll eine Republik werden, gegen die Rom und Sparta Nonnenklöster sein sollen.


No great man was ever formed according to the law, but freedom will breed giants and extremities. Put me in front of an army of fellows like me, and Germany will become a Republic that will make Rome and Sparta look like nunneries.

But in the second half of the play, once he has become guilty of murder, Karl is tormented by his crimes and longs for his lost innocence. In Act Four, Scene 5, he declares ‘Außendinge sind nur der Anstrich des Manns – Ich bin mein Himmel und meine Hölle’; ‘External things are but the varnish on a man – I am my heaven and my hell’.


Most commentators see Karl Moor as a tragic figure, but Richard T. Gray regards him as a comic figure in the tradition of Don Quijote (see reading list below, pp. 116-17). According to Gray, the clash between the two brothers is also the clash between two semiotic systems: Franz represents the ‘deceptive mediacy’ of academic, instrumental reason, whilst Karl represents ‘the immediacy of naive cognition’ (Gray, p. 115).

In Act One Franz informs Old Moor that Karl has run up debts and wounded a man in a duel. Franz offers to write a stern letter to Karl, and Old Moor accepts. Once alone, Franz reveals his wicked plans to steal Karl’s inheritance and Amalia, declaring that might is right. In a tavern, Karl receives Franz’s letter and is enraged. Spiegelberg persuades Roller, Grimm, Schwarz, Ratzmann, Schufterle and Schweitzer to become robbers. Roller insists that Karl must be the leader. Karl agrees and Spiegelberg plans revenge. Franz tries to seduce Amalia but she rejects him.

In Act Two Franz persuades Herrmann, the bastard son of a nobleman, to tell Old Moor and Amalia that Karl has died at the battle of Prague. Amalia sings the farewell of Hector and Andromache, and then reads the story of Jacob and Joseph to Old Moor, who collapses. Spiegelberg boasts to Ratzmann about how he pillaged a nunnery, and also explains how he recruits new men to join the band. Karl has rescued Roller from the gallows by burning down the entire town including the powder magazine, 83 people have died. A priest arrives and tells the robbers that they are surrounded. If they hand over Karl then they will be spared. The robbers refuse and prepare to fight.

In Act Three Franz tells Amalia that Old Moor has died. Then he tries to drag Amalia to his bedroom, but she grabs his sword and drives him away. Herrmann appears and tells Amalia that Karl and Old Moor are still alive. The robbers are camped near the Danube; they have escaped, although Roller was killed. Karl mourns his lost innocence. Kosinsky wants to join their band and tells his story: he was about to marry a girl called Amalia, but the prince of his country fell in love with her. Kosinsky was arrested and Amalia was blackmailed by a corrupt minister into becoming the prince’s mistress in order to save Kosinsky’s life (one is reminded here of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti). The corrupt minister then had Kosinsky banished. Karl is so moved by the story that he decides he must see his Amalia again.

In Act Four Karl returns home in disguise, pretending to be Count Brand from Mecklenburg. Franz sees through his disguise and asks Daniel, the elderly servant, to murder the Count. Daniel pleads in vain with Franz. Then Daniel recognises Karl and tells him that his brother is a villain. Karl realises that it was Franz who turned his father against him. He does not want Amalia to know that he has become a murderer and so he bids her farewell. Spiegelberg tries to persuade Ratzmann to help him assassinate Karl, but Schweitzer stabs him to death. Karl returns to the robbers’ camp. He sings the song of Brutus and Caesar; he considers suicide but then decides against it, in a speech reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Then Karl finds Herrmann, who is bringing food to Old Moor. Karl frees Old Moor, who still does not recognise him. Karl tells Schweitzer to go and capture Franz, and to bring him back alive, or else he will tear him to pieces.

In Act Five Daniel prepares to leave the castle forever when Franz appears, tormented by nightmares and visions. Franz calls for Pastor Moser who tells him that the greatest sins are parricide and fratricide. Franz is gripped by convulsions and starts trying to pray. Schweitzer and the robbers seize the castle and set it on fire. Franz strangles himself. When Schweitzer sees that Franz is dead he shoots himself. Karl finally reveals his identity to Old Moor who drops down dead. Karl and Amalia embrace but they are separated by the robbers who remind Karl that he swore an oath never to forsake them. Karl is about to leave her when Amalia begs him to kill her. Karl refuses but when he sees a robber taking aim at her, Karl kills her himself. Then Karl leaves to give himself up.

Further Reading

Jaimey Fisher, ‘Familial Politics and Political Families: Consent, Critique, and the Fraternal Social Contract in Schiller’s Die Räuber’, Goethe Yearbook 13 (2005), 75-103

Richard T. Gray, Stations of the Divided Subject: Contestation and Ideological Legitimation in German Bourgeois Literature, 1770-1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), Chapter 3: ‘Righting Writing: Semiotic Conflict, Hermeneutical Disjunction, and the Subl(im)ation of Revolt in Schiller’s The Robbers’, pp. 102-45

John Guthrie, ‘Schiller’s Early Styles: Language and Gesture in Die Räuber’, Modern Language Review 94:2 (1999), 438-59

K. F. Hilliard, Freethinkers, Libertines and Schwärmer: Heterodoxy in German Literature, 1750-1800 (London: igrs, 2011), pp. 167-84

David Pugh, Schiller’s Early Dramas: A Critical History (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000)

T. J. Reed, ‘Coming of Age in Prussia and Swabia: Kant, Schiller, and the Duke’, Modern Language Review 86 (1991), 613-26

Christoph E. Schweitzer, ‘Schiller’s Die Räuber: Revenge, Sacrifice, and the Terrible Price of Absolute Freedom’, Goethe Yearbook 15 (2008), 161-70

Oskar Seidlin, ‘Schiller’s “Treacherous Signs”: The Function of the Letters in his Early Plays’, in Schiller 1759/1959: Commemorative American Studies, ed. by John R. Frey (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1959), pp. 129-46

Dagmar C. Stern, ‘Amalia: The Third Extraordinary Person in Schiller’s Die Räuber’, Colloquia Germanica 27 (1994), 321-31

Anthony Williams, ‘The Ambivalences in the Plays of the Young Schiller about Contemporary Germany’, in Deutsches Bürgertum und literarische Intelligenz 1750-1800, ed. by Bernd Lutz, Literaturwissenschaft und Sozialwissenschaften vol. 3 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1974), pp. 1-112