Don Karlos

Don Karlos. Infant von Spanien. Ein dramatisches GedichtDon Carlos. Infante of Spain. A Dramatic Poem (first published and performed 1787)

Historical Context

The play is set in Spain in 1567-1568 during the rule of King Philip II (in Spanish, Felipe II) (1527-1598) and the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The setting is the royal court of Spain, first in Aranjuez and then in Madrid, but the subtext of the play is the revolt in the Netherlands which broke out in 1568 and which led to the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1581. In January 1568 Philip had his own son Carlos (1545-1568) imprisoned because he had become mentally unstable; Carlos died six months later. In 1559 Carlos had been engaged to Elisabeth of Valois (1545-1568), eldest daughter of King Henry II of France. However, for political reasons, she instead married Philip II in 1560. Carlos opposed Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, the third Duke of Alba (1507-1582). Alba was Philip’s commander in the Netherlands from 1567-1573, notorious for his violent rule. In 1568, the same year that Carlos was arrested, Elisabeth died as a result of a miscarriage, and the Dutch Count Egmont (1522-1568) was executed (on 5 June 1568). Egmont’s death forms the subject of Goethe’s play Egmont (1788). Immediately after Egmont’s execution revolt broke out in the Netherlands, led by William I of Orange, also known as William the Silent (1533-1584). The Netherlands declared their independence in 1581, but Spain continued to wage war against its former province until 1648. In Schiller’s play, Carlos is in love with his stepmother Elisabeth, although there is little evidence for this in the historical sources. Schiller also takes the Marquis of Posa, a minor figure from Louis Sebastien Mercier’s Portrait de Philippe II d’Espagne (1785) and makes him into the play’s leading spokesman of Enlightenment humanism (on this point see below, T. J. Reed, p. 40).

Composition and Publication History

In 1782 Schiller’s friend von Dalberg, the director and manager of the theatre in Mannheim, gave him the German translation [1784] of the Histoire de Dom Carlos [1691] by the Abbé de Saint-Réal. Schiller produced the first draft of his play in Bauerbach in the spring of 1783, this is known as the ‘Bauerbacher Plan’. In 1784 Schiller stopped writing the play in prose, and started writing it in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters). Act One of the play was published in Schiller’s journal Rheinischer Thalia in 1785. Between 1785 and 1787 various other scenes were also published in Thalia. The play was completed and published in 1787. Schiller published revised versions in 1802 and 1805 in which Act One was shortened. The play was premiered on 29 August 1787 in Hamburg. (Source: Matthias Luserke-Jaqui (ed.), Schiller-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2005), pp. 92-94)

The Play

At first Carlos and Philipp are rivals for the affections of Queen Elisabeth of Valois, but when Philipp meets Carlos’s friend the Marquis of Posa at the end of Act Three he feels that he has found a true friend for the first time in his life. Acts Four and Five hinge on this new love triangle, in which Carlos and Posa are rivals for Posa’s love and friendship. However, Posa cares more about achieving political freedom in the Netherlands. When his plans fail he sacrifices himself in order to save Carlos.

Philipp is affected more seriously by Posa’s betrayal than he is by Elisabeth’s presumed infidelity. According to Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kröger (1903), the emotional climax of the play occurs at the end of Act Four when the audience is informed by Count Lerma that ‘Der König hat / Geweint’ (lines 4464-65); ‘The King has / Wept’.

In Act Five, Scene 9, after the Marquis of Posa has died at his orders, Philipp confesses that he loved him:

‘Ich hab' ihn lieb gehabt, sehr lieb. / [...] Er / War meine erste Liebe’ (lines 5048-52)

‘I loved him, loved him a lot […] He was my first love’

In Act One Domingo, the royal confessor, asks Carlos to confide in him but is refused. Carlos meets his childhood friend the Marquis von Posa and confesses that he is in love with his stepmother, Queen Elisabeth of Valois. Posa tells Carlos that he will arrange a meeting for him with Elisabeth. He does so, allowing Carlos to declare his love to Elisabeth. Elisabeth tells him to save his love for the kingdoms he will rule when he becomes King. Then she gives him letters describing the sufferings of the Netherlands. King Philipp arrives and is angered that Elisabeth has been left alone. He tells his noblemen to watch Carlos and looks forward to the Auto da Fé he has planned for the next day. Posa asks Carlos if he will change when he becomes King and Carlos replies that he will always regard Posa as his brother.

In Act Two Carlos asks Philipp to appoint him as governor of the Netherlands instead of the Duke of Alba. Philipp refuses. Carlos receives a love letter and a key which he thinks are from Elisabeth. He is surprised by the Duke of Alba. they argue and fight, but when Elisabeth appears Carlos stops fighting and says that all is forgiven. Then Carlos discovers that the letter was sent by Princess Eboli. Eboli loves Carlos but when she realises that he does not love her, her love turns to hatred, especially when Carlos refuses to return the proof that Philipp has tried to seduce her. Eboli realises that Carlos is in love with Elisabeth and decides to tell Philipp. She forms an alliance with Alba and Domingo, both of whom despise Carlos and Elisabeth because of their tolerance towards the Netherlands. Meanwhile Carlos meets Posa in secret at a Carthusian monastery. Posa warns Carlos against Eboli and tears up Philipp’s letter to Eboli; however he agrees that Carlos must speak to Elisabeth.

Act Three focuses on King Philipp II and his reaction to Eboli’s denunciation of Elisabeth and Carlos. Philipp talks to Alba and Domingo who make the same accusations. Philipp realises that they are in league with each other and dismisses them. Philipp longs for a friend, an independent spirit who will tell him the truth. He sends for the Marquis of Posa. Philipp forgives Admiral Medina Sidonia who reports the sinking of the Armada (this actually occurred in 1588). Then Philipp meets with Posa. Posa tells him (twice) ‘Ich kann nicht Fürstendiener sein’; ‘I cannot be a servant of princes’ (lines 3020 and 3063). Posa impresses Philipp with his free thinking and his insights into Philipp’s situation. Posa asks Philip to grant his subjects ‘Gedankenfreiheit’, freedom of thought (lines 3213-14). Philipp orders Posa to meet with Carlos and Elisabeth and find out their true intentions; Posa accepts. Despite claiming ‘Ich kann nicht Fürstendiener sein’; ‘I cannot be a servant of princes’, by the end of the scene Posa has become – despite himself – a servant of King Philipp, or rather a false servant. Posa’s words of gratitude (‘this day is the happiest of my life’, lines 3349-50) ring hollow, since Philipp has granted nothing.

Act Four depicts Posa’s brief career as the new favourite of King Philipp. Posa asks Elisabeth to persuade Carlos to lead a rebellion in the Netherlands, claiming unconvincingly that this will force Philipp to agree terms. Count Lerma warns Carlos to beware of Posa. Posa persuades Carlos to give him all of his letters. Philipp accuses Elisabeth of deceiving him and he threatens her. He pushes their daughter away from Elisabeth, who falls and hurts her head. Alba and Domingo arrive and Philipp blames them for the scene. Posa shows Philipp Eboli’s note to Carlos; Philipp realises that Eboli’s denunciation of Elisabeth was motivated by spite and cannot be trusted. Posa asks Philipp to write out an arrest warrant for Carlos which he can use if necessary. Lerma tells Carlos that Posa has betrayed him to Philipp and Carlos believes him. Alba and Domingo warn Elisabeth against Posa but she turns them away. Carlos tells Eboli she is the only friend he has left and begs her to arrange for him to meet Elisabeth. Posa bursts in with two of Philipp’s bodyguards and has Carlos arrested. Posa is about to kill Eboli but then he changes his mind. Eboli confesses her treachery to Elisabeth. Posa tells Elisabeth that his plans have failed and that he has been forced to chose between himself and Carlos. One of them must die and so Posa has decided to sacrifice himself. Offstage, he writes a letter to William of Orange in Brussels, the leader of the Protestant rebellion there, knowing that it will be intercepted and brought to King Philipp. When Philipp reads the letter, he cries (offstage). Alba emerges triumphantly from the King’s chamber, he tells Domingo that victory is theirs.

In Act Five Carlos and Posa are reunited as prisoners. Posa explains to Carlos that he had him arrested in order to prevent him from confiding in Eboli. Alba arrives and tells Carlos he is free to go, but Carlos refuses to leave. Posa explains why he has decided to sacrifice himself in order to save Carlos. He wrote to William of Orange knowing that it would be intercepted. Carlos says he will tell Philipp everything and beg for mercy, but Posa is shot down and killed by an unseen assassin. With his dying words he tells Carlos to save himself. Philipp and his noblemen arrive and Carlos blames his father for ordering Posa’s murder. Carlos’s accusations are interrupted by the news that the people are clamouring to see him. When Philipp hears the word ‘rebellion’ he is overcome by paranoia and declares that he is the victim; he faints and is carried out by his nobles. Merkado persuades Carlos to disguise himself as the ghost of the dead Emperor in order to get past Elisabeth’s guards. Lerma tells Carlos to flee. Philipp talks with Alba, Domingo and Feria. At first he mourns Posa but then he decides to take revenge. Alba shows Philipp Posa’s letters to Carlos. News arrives that the Emperor’s ghost has been seen going into the Queen’s chambers. Philipp orders the rooms to be sealed and sends for the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor reprimands Philipp for his dealings with Posa. Philipp asks him to decide Carlos’s fate and the Inquisitor decrees that Carlos must die. Carlos is bidding farewell to Elisabeth when he is surprised by Philipp and his nobles. Philipp hands Carlos over to the Inquisition.


Posa supports Protestants against persecution, but he is not a Protestant himself. His speech to Philipp in Act Three, Scene 10 suggests that he is perhaps a Deist, perhaps a freethinker, but in any case a secularist:

Sehen Sie sich um

In seiner herrlichen Natur! Auf Freiheit

Ist sie gegründet – und wie reich ist sie

Durch Freiheit! Er, der große Schöpfer, wirft

In einen Tropfen Thau den Wurm und läßt

Noch in den todten Räumen der Verwesung

Die Willkür sich ergötzen – Ihre Schöpfung,

Wie eng und arm! Das Rauschen eines Blattes

Erschreckt den Herrn der Christenheit – Sie müssen

Vor jeder Tugend zittern. Er – der Freiheit

Entzückende Erscheinung nicht zu stören –

Er läßt des Uebels grauenvolles Heer

In seinem Weltall lieber toben – ihn,

Den Künstler, wird man nicht gewahr, bescheiden

Verhüllt er sich in ewige Gesetze;

Die sieht der Freigeist, doch nicht ihn. Wozu

Ein Gott? sagt er: die Welt ist sich genug.

Und keines Christen Andacht hat ihn mehr,

Als dieses Freigeists Lästerung, gepriesen.

(lines 3216-3233)

Look around at

His majestic nature! On freedom

It is founded – and how rich it is

Through freedom! He, the great Creator, throws

Into a drop of dew the worm and even

In the dead places of decay he still lets

That which is arbitrary delight itself – Your creation,

How narrow and poor! The rustling of a leaf

Terrifies the Lord of Christendom – You must

Tremble before each virtue. He – in order not

To disturb the delightful appearance of freedom –

He prefers to allow evil’s cruel army

Rage in his universe – he,

The artist, is not perceived, modestly

He veils himself in eternal laws;

These are what the freethinker sees, not him.

What’s the point of God? he says;

The world is sufficient unto itself.

And no Christian worship has ever praised him more

Than this freethinker’s blasphemy.

In Act Four Posa gets carried away by the unprecedented political power which Phillip allows him to wield. For example, almost as soon as he has a warrant to arrest Carlos, he finds himself using it. As T.J. Reed puts it, Posa is ‘corrupted by political opportunism’ (see Reed, p. 48).

Briefe über Don Karlos; Letters on Don Carlos (1788)

In 1788 Schiller published a series of twelve letters on the play in which he responds to some of the criticisms which were made of the play. Schiller focuses on the character of the Marquis of Posa, whom he defends from the charge of excessive idealism. At the end of the letters Schiller concedes that Posa may be guilty of ‘Schwärmerei’, i.e. getting carried away by his own passionate enthusiasm.

Further Reading in English

Allan G. Blunden, ‘Nature and Politics in Schiller’s Don Carlos’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 52 (1978), 241-56

Dushan Bresky, ‘Schiller’s Debt to Montesquieu and Adam Ferguson’, Comparative Literature 13 (1961), 239-53

Zak Eastop, ‘Adapting Schiller’s Don Karlos: Verdi, Posa, and the Problem of the “Familiengemälde”’, German Life and Letters 73:2 (2020), 229-45

Stephanie Hammer, ‘Creation and Constipation: Don Carlos and Schiller’s Blocked Passage to Weimar’, in Unwrapping Goethe's Weimar: Essays in Cultural Studies and Local Knowledge, ed. by Burkhard Henke, Susanne Kord and Simon Richter (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1999), pp. 273-94

Rolf-Peter Janz, ‘Great Emotions-Great Criminals? Schiller's Don Carlos’, in A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, ed. by Steven D. Martinson (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), pp. 137-45

Graham Orton, Schiller: Don Carlos (London: Arnold, 1967)

Ladislaus Löb, From Lessing to Hauptmann: Studies in German Drama (London: University Tutorial Press, 1974), pp. 92-100

T. J. Reed, Schiller, Past Masters (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

T. J. Reed, Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), Chapter 4

Lesley Sharpe, Friedrich Schiller: Drama, Thought and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Nicholas Vazsonyi, ‘Schiller's Don Carlos: Historical Drama or Dramatized History?’, New German Review 7 (1991), 26-41

Further Reading in German

François Genton, ‘Don Carlos, doch ein Frauengemälde?’, Aurora 60 (2000), 1-11

Stefanie Kufner, ‘Die Frau in der politischen Welt. Zu Elisabeth und Eboli in Schillers Don Carlos’, in Käthchen und seine Schwestern. Frauenfiguren im Drama um 1800 (Heilbronn: Stadtbücherei, 2000), pp. 129-50

César Vischard de Saint Réal, Des Abbé de Saint-Réal Histoire de Dom Carlos. Nach der Ausgabe von 1691, ed. by Albert Leitzmann (Halle, 1914)