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last updated: 10 December 2008

Friedrich Schiller

William Tell

A Play

The story of William Tell shooting an apple from his young son’s head is legendary, but few know the context of the struggle for national liberation in which it took place.

Schiller’s celebrated play, completed in 1804, a year before his early death, is known throughout the world as a hymn to, and archetypical dramatic expression of, self-liberation from tyranny. It also contains representative domestic characters who take part in the human drama, in which women too have an important role, which is integral to the epic story.

Like Hamlet, William Tell contains many of the most famous quotations and speeches in its country’s literature, for instance:

‘No, there are limits to the tyrants’ power.
When a man finds justice is denied him.
When he can bear no more, then he will look
To Heaven at the last with bold assurance
And claim from Heaven his eternal rights,
Which hang there like the very stars themselves,
Inalienable, indestructible.’

Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) is most famous outside Germany as the author of the ‘Ode to Joy’, set by Beethoven’s in his Ninth Symphony. Poet, playwright, writer on aesthetics, his most famous plays are The Robbers, Don Carlos, Wallenstein and William Tell.

Francis Lamport, who taught German at Oxford University, is the author of German Classical Drama, and the translator of all Schiller’s major plays, including a celebrated Wallenstein staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

book cover

Cover picture by Rosalind Thornycroft, from Heroes and Heroines by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon (Gollancz, London, 1933) (All rights reserved)