The Robbers by J.C.F. Schiller 1781 (Preface)

The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller 1759-1805

Schiller’s Preface, Published in 1781 (Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller) Germany


This play is to be regarded merely as a dramatic narrative in which, for the purpose of tracing out the innermost workings of the soul, advantage has been taken of the dramatic method, without otherwise conforming to the stringent rules of theatrical composition, or seeking the dubious advantage of stage adaptation.

It must be admitted as somewhat inconsistent that three very remarkable people, whose acts are dependent on perhaps a thousand contingencies, should be completely developed within three hours, considering that it would scarcely be possible, in the ordinary course of events, that three such remarkable people should, even in twenty-four hours, fully reveal their characters to the most penetrating inquirer. A greater amount of incident is here crowded together than it was possible for me to confine within the narrow limits prescribed by Aristotle and Batteux.

It is, however, not so much the bulk of my play as its contents which banish it from the stage. Its scheme and economy require that several characters should appear who would offend the finer feelings of virtue and shock the delicacy of our manners. Every delineator of human character is placed in the same dilemma if he proposes to give a faithful picture of the world as it really is, and not an ideal phantasy, a mere creation of his own.

It is the course of mortal things that the good should be shadowed by the bad, and virtue shine the brightest when contrasted with vice.

Whoever proposes to discourage vice and to vindicate religion, morality, and social order against their enemies, must unveil crime in all its deformity, and place it before the eyes of men in its colossal magnitude; he must diligently explore its dark mazes, and make himself familiar with sentiments at the wickedness of which his soul revolts.

Vice is here exposed in its innermost workings. In Francis it resolves all the confused terrors of conscience into wild abstractions, destroys virtuous sentiments by dissecting them, and holds up the earnest voice of religion to mockery and scorn. He who has gone so far (a distinction by no means enviable) as to quicken his understanding at the expense of his soul—to him the holiest things are no longer holy; to him God and man are alike indifferent, and both worlds are as nothing. Of such a monster I have endeavored to sketch a striking and lifelike portrait, to hold up to abhorrence all the machinery of his scheme of vice, and to test its strength by contrasting it with truth. How far my narrative is successful in accomplishing these objects the reader is left to judge. My conviction is that I have painted nature to the life.


Next to this man (Francis) stands another who would perhaps puzzle not a few of my readers. A mind for which the greatest crimes have only charms through the glory which attaches to them, the energy which their perpetration requires, and the dangers which attend them. A remarkable and important personage, abundantly endowed with the power of becoming either a Brutus or a Catiline, according as that power is directed. An unhappy conjunction of circumstances determines him to choose the latter for, his example, and it is only after a fearful straying that he is recalled to emulate the former. Erroneous notions of activity and power, an exuberance of strength which bursts through all the barriers of law, must of necessity conflict with the rules of social life. To these enthusiast dreams of greatness and efficiency it needed but a sarcastic bitterness against the unpoetic spirit of the age to complete the strange Don Quixote whom, in the Robber Moor, we at once detest and love, admire and pity.

It is, I hope, unnecessary to remark that I no more hold up this picture as a warning exclusively to robbers than the greatest Spanish satire was levelled exclusively at knight-errants.


It is nowadays so much the fashion to be witty at the expense of religion that a man will hardly pass for a genius if he does not allow his impious satire to run a tilt at its most sacred truths. The noble simplicity of holy writ must needs be abused and turned into ridicule at the daily assemblies of the so-called wits; for what is there so holy and serious that will not raise a laugh if a false sense be attached to it? Let me hope that I shall have rendered no inconsiderable service to the cause of true religion and morality in holding up these wanton misbelievers to the detestation of society, under the form of the most despicable robbers.

But still more. I have made these said immoral characters to stand out favorably in particular points, and even in some measure to compensate by qualities of the head for what they are deficient in those of the heart. Herein I have done no more than literally copy nature. Every man, even the most depraved, bears in some degree the impress of the Almighty’s image, and perhaps the greatest villain is not farther removed from the most upright man than the petty offender; for the moral forces keep even pace with the powers of the mind, and the greater the capacity bestowed on man, the greater and more enormous becomes his misapplication of it; the more responsible is he for his errors.

The “Adramelech” of Klopstock (in his Messiah) awakens in us a feeling in which admiration is blended with detestation. We follow Milton’s Satan with shuddering wonder through the pathless realms of chaos. The Medea of the old dramatists is, in spite of all her crimes, a great and wondrous woman, and Shakespeare’s Richard III. is sure to excite the admiration of the reader, much as he would hate the reality. If it is to be my task to portray men as they are, I must at the same time include their good qualities, of which even the most vicious are never totally destitute. If I would warn mankind against the tiger, I must not omit to describe his glossy, beautifully-marked skin, lest, owing to this omission, the ferocious animal should not be recognized till too late. Besides this, a man who is so utterly depraved as to be without a single redeeming point is no meet subject for art, and would disgust rather than excite the interest of the reader; who would turn over with impatience the pages which concern him. A noble soul can no more endure a succession of moral discords than the musical ear the grating of knives upon glass.

And for this reason I should have been ill-advised in attempting to bring my drama on the stage. A certain strength of mind is required both on the part of the poet and the reader; in the former that he may not disguise vice, in the latter that he may not suffer brilliant qualities to beguile him into admiration of what is essentially detestable. Whether the author has fulfilled his duty he leaves others to judge, that his readers will perform theirs he by no means feels assured. The vulgar—among whom I would not be understood to mean merely the rabble—the vulgar I say (between ourselves) extend their influence far around, and unfortunately—set the fashion. Too shortsighted to reach my full meaning, too narrow-minded to comprehend the largeness of my views, too disingenuous to admit my moral aim—they will, I fear, almost frustrate my good intentions, and pretend to discover in my work an apology for the very vice which it has been my object to condemn, and will perhaps make the poor poet, to whom anything rather than justice is usually accorded, responsible for his simplicity.

Thus we have a Da capo of the old story of Democritus and the Abderitans, and our worthy Hippocrates would needs exhaust whole plantations of hellebore, were it proposed to remedy this mischief by a healing decoction.

Let as many friends of truth as you will, instruct their fellow-citizens in the pulpit and on the stage, the vulgar will never cease to be vulgar, though the sun and moon may change their course, and “heaven and earth wax old as a garment.”

Perhaps, in order to please tender-hearted people, I might have been less true to nature; but if a certain beetle, of whom we have all heard, could extract filth even from pearls, if we have examples that fire has destroyed and water deluged, shall therefore pearls, fire, and water be condemned.

In consequence of the remarkable catastrophe which ends my play, I may justly claim for it a place among books of morality, for crime meets at last with the punishment it deserves; the lost one enters again within the pale of the law, and virtue is triumphant. Whoever will but be courteous enough towards me to read my work through with a desire to understand it, from him I may expect—not that he will admire the poet, but that he will esteem the honest man.

SCHILLER.
EASTER FAIR, 1781.


A poem by Schiller
genius by schiller
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