Wilhelm Tell

Wilhelm Tell, first published and performed in 1804Schiller called this a ‘Schauspiel’ (a play), but in some ways it is more of a Volksstück (popular play), with a touch of the celebratory pageant. There is a sense that the Swiss resistance to tyranny, represented by the tyrant Gessler (the governor of Schwyz and Uri), is grounded in the nature and the countryside itself. Natural rightness here goes hand in hand with democratic cultural and political forms. Through the figure of Tell, the play explores the coming-into-being of a legend, even though Tell does not seek this legenday status. The play also deals with the theme of Tyrannenmord (the murder of a tyrant), and asks the question: when is murder justified?

In Act One Baumgarten is on the run; he killed the governor of Unterwalden who was trying to interfere with his wife. Ruodi the fisherman refuses to ferry Baumgarten to safety, fearing a storm, but Tell arrives and takes Baumgarten across. Stauffacher’s wife Gertrud advises him to seek an alliance between the three cantons Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. Stauffacher goes to Uri to find support; there he meets the fugitive Melchthal whose father has been blinded by Gessler’s men.

In Act Two, the aging Baron von Attinghausen and his nephew Rudenz mope about; the men of the three cantons meet at the Rütli meadow and plan an uprising.

In Act Three, Bertha persuades Rudenz to support the national cause. Tell refuses to bow to Gessler’s hat. Gessler threatens to have Tell executed unless he shoots the apple placed on his son’s head. Tell does the deed but Gessler has him arrested anyway when Tell explains that the second arrow was intended for Gessler.

In Act Four, Tell escapes from Gessler’s men. Attinghausen dies saying that the aristocracy is no longer needed since the people have organised themselves. Tell assassinates Gessler.

In Act Five, the news arrives that the Kaiser, Albrecht, has been murdered by his nephew Johannes of Swabia. What is more, Albrecht’s widow Elisabeth guarantess Swiss independence. Johannes of Swabia, now called ‘Parricida’ because he murdered his uncle, arrives at Tell’s home and begs for mercy. This gives Tell an opportunity to argue that the two murders were different: Johannes was motivated by greed and envy, but Tell’s killing of Gessler is justified because he did it in order to defend his wife and son.

Tell is an enigmatic character who bears a distant resemblance to Goethe’s Faust. At the beginning of Act Three he tells his wife Hedwig:

Rastlos muss ich ein flüchtig Ziel verfolgen,

Dann erst geniess ich meines Lebens recht,

Wenn ich mir's jeden Tag aufs neu erbeute. (lines 1488-90)

Restless I must pursue a fleeting goal

For I only enjoy my life properly

When I conquer it for myself anew each day.


These words anticipate the final speech of Goethe’s Faust II by almost thirty years. And Tell almost seems to anticipate the principles of modern social democracy when he says: ‘Ein jeder wird besteuert nach Vermögen’; ‘Everyone is taxed according to their ability’ (line 1524).

The play suggests that democratic political organisation is important, but it also suggests that individual initiative (and a great deal of luck) are even more important.

Further Reading

Alan Best, ‘Alpine Ambivalence in Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell’, German Life and Letters 37:4 (1984), 297-306

Lawrence O. Frye, ‘Schiller, Juggler of Freedoms in Wilhelm Tell’, Monatshefte 76:1 (1984), 73-88

Karl S. Guthke, ‘Wilhelm Tell’, in A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, ed. by Steven D. Martinson (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), pp. 247-67

Gail Hart, ‘Schiller the Killer: Wilhelm Tell and the Decriminalization of Murder’, Goethe Yearbook 12 (2004), 197-207

Hartmut Heep, ‘Female Characters in Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell: A Study of Gertrud, Bertha, Hedwig and Armgard’, AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 85 (1996), 39-53

Robert L. Jamison, ‘From Edelmann to Eidgenosse: The Nobles in Wilhelm Tell’, German Quarterly 58:4 (1985), 554-65

F. J. Lamport, ‘The Silence of Wilhelm Tell’, Modern Language Review 76:4 (1981), 857-68

R. C. Ockenden, ‘Wilhelm Tell as Political Drama’, Oxford German Studies 18-19 (1989-90), 23-44

Jeffrey L. Sammons, ‘The Apple-Shot and the Politics of Wilhelm Tell’, in Friedrich von Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence, ed. by Alexej Ugrinsky (New York: Greenwood, 1988), pp. 81-88

Christoph E. Schweitzer, ‘A Defence of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell’, Goethe Yearbook 9 (1999), 253-63

Ross Vander Meulen, ‘The Theological Texture of Schiller’s Wilhem Tell’, Germanic Review 53 (1978), 56-62