Essays in German and Comparative Literature

By Oskar Seidlin | Go to book overview

SCHILLER'S "TREACHEROUS SIGNS": THE FUNCTION OF THE LETTERS IN HIS EARLY PLAYS

We have become accustomed to regard the abundance of letters--which in Schiller's early plays engender, propel and, often enough, obfuscate the action--as clumsy technical devices and props, chargeable to the inexperience of a youthful beginner, and, therefore, to be dismissed and excused with a mixture of condescension and embarrassment. By doing so, we have relegated one of young Schiller's most persistent motifs to the level of mere dramatic machinery, and quite a maladroit one at that, uncognizant of the fact that we are thus committing one of the deadly sins of criticism: namely, considering formal and technical devices as merely extraneous matter, and abdicating before the imperative task to reveal, within all the elements of a work of art, the basic oneness without which a literary product is no more than an arbitrary agglomeration of unshaped materials. The plot of a drama, so Aristotle knew, is inseparable from its meaning; and the devices setting off the action are not an artificial mechanism, invented at will to serve an extrinsic purpose, but they are of the essence, the energeia of the play, in and through which the over-all design manifests itself. Seen as such, they are motifs in the very proper sense of the word; and they act, within the literary work of art, as metaphors, figures of speech in a speech universe.

If we cease to regard the letters in Schiller's early plays merely as crutches for the development of dramatic action, as mechanically manipulated gadgets, which produce and accelerate intrigue and counterintrigue, conflicts and dénouements, we may be able to recognize them as poetic symbols, which reveal, together with all other elements, the full meaning of the drama.1

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1
The special perspective of this investigation precludes any heavy reliance on the large body of Schiller scholarship. Still, a few recent studies should be mentioned which are, though only remotely, related to this discussion. A similar functional or metaphorical interpretation of certain materials within Schiller's plays is offered by Ilse Appelbaum-Graham in "Reflection As a Function of Form in Schiller's Tragic Poetry," Publications of the English Goethe Society, XXIV ( 1955), 1 ff. Some points of contact are to be found in the much broader investigations of Kurt May, Friedrich Schiller, Idee und Wirklichkeit ( Göttingen, 1948), and in Paul Böckmann, "Die innere Form in Schillers Jugenddramen," Dichtung und Volkstum, XXXIV ( 1934), 439 ff. Especially enlightening among more specialized studies were Fritz Martini "Schillers Kabale und Liebe," Der Deutschunterricht, V ( 1952), 18 ff., and Walter Müller-Seidel "Dasstumme Drama der Luise Millerin,"

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