Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Shakespeare and Schiller

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Shakespeare and Schiller

By Alexander Hill Everett (1790–1847)

[Born in Boston, Mass. Died in Canton, China. From Life and Writings of Schiller in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. 1845.]

IN fact, though the names of Schiller and Shakespeare are often cited together, the two writers have hardly any points of resemblance. They belong to two different periods in the progress of poetry. Shakespeare has all the exuberant fulness, the fresh and joyous flow of thought and feeling, that appertain to an early literary age; and the fetters of general principles and conventional rules hang about him very loosely. At the slightest temptation he breaks through them with perfect nonchalance, and shakes them off, “like dew-drops from a lion’s mane.” Nay, he often, in the wantonness of power, seems to take delight in setting all forms at defiance, and bringing into one picture the most incongruous images in art and nature, as in the last act of Hamlet. In Schiller, on the contrary, we recognize the established empire of taste, against which genius itself in a polished age does not venture to rebel. The form predominates over the substance. There is no playing with conventional rules—no mixture of prose and verse, of tragedy and comedy in the same scene—no puns in the midst of pathos, or instructions to stage-players given by a tragic hero at the height of his distress. The execution is pure, chaste, and polished, and even in the Robbers only errs by a small excess in degree. Thus far all is well; but then we miss at the same time the fresh impression of nature, and the careless ease and lightheartedness of an untamed fancy. The language is studied and elaborate, as well as elegant, and the effect upon the whole is much less delightful. Whether it be possible for any talent, however high, to produce the same impression of power, and the same degree of pleasure, with a strict observance of all the formal rules of taste, that result from witnessing the wild and graceful sports of a genius that rises above them, is perhaps a question. The talent of Schiller, great as it was, has certainly not been sufficient for this object.

The difference between these two poets is as great in the substance, as in the form of their works; and in this respect, also, each of them wears the stamp of the age in which he lived. Shakespeare gives us the simple and true impression of nature, as observed and felt by himself. In Schiller we generally get it at second hand, through the medium of books, and deduced from vague generalities. Shakespeare, too, is rich in the most profound and curious general observations upon every branch of moral science; but with him they seem to be instinctive conclusions of his own acute sense, while in Schiller, on the contrary, we trace them at once to be the common fund of the philosophical knowledge of his time; and are rather tempted to regard even his individual characters as personifications of acknowledged general truths. In making these remarks, we are far from wishing to undervalue the merit of Schiller, which is sufficiently attested by his prodigious and continued success. Indeed the general characteristics, which we have just noticed, belong to him in common with the most distinguished dramatic poets of ancient and modern times. The masters of the Greek and French tragedy are, like him, artificial and discursive, as well as pure and elegant. The manner of Alfieri and Metastasio partakes of the same qualities; and the best English tragedies of the last century are feebler examples of this model. We are inclined to think, indeed, that Schiller has upon the whole brought this form of tragedy to a higher degree of perfection, than any modern writer, with the exception, perhaps, of Corneille and Racine. We only mean to insist, that his merits and defects are entirely different from those of Shakespeare, with whom he is frequently classed by superficial critics, who also describe them both as belonging to the romantic school of poetry. It is almost needless to remark, that there is not a writer in the whole compass of literature less romantic than Shakespeare; and it is rather difficult to conjecture for what reason he has been classed with Schiller, unless it be that they both neglect at pleasure the formal unities of time and place—a circumstance which, however unimportant, seems to be regarded by some critics as the real touchstone of merit and only true ground of distinctions among dramatic writers.