Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) had one great dramatic theme: the birth pangs of liberal, enlightened, Protestant, nationalistic, modern Europe out of the womb of repressive, Catholic, absolutist tyranny. With differing inflections and emphases and granted a certain largeness of statement, this theme may be said to animate The Robbers, Don Carlos, Mary Stuart, Maid of Orleans, Wallenstein, and William Tell. This interest of Schiller’s can be misread as narrow advocacy of German nationalism, but his concern, for all the fervid patriotism, was larger; he wanted an Enlightened Europe.

Schiller has had the misfortune of being a school classic in Germany and elsewhere. His unrelenting nobility of purpose, his prolixity and pomposity of diction (Goethe had a coarser vein of popular humor), have made many a pupil groan. In a way, Americans, whose schools are saddled nowadays with far...

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