I have courage enough to walk through hell barefoot • The Robbers, Friedrich Schiller
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800
Sturm und Drang
1750 Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, an essay in which he condemns the Enlightenment drive towards pure rationalism.
1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is an immediate success and contains the elements that will characterize Sturm und Drang, such as high-flown expressions of intense emotion and the futile struggle of a young hero.
1777 Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger’s play Sturm und Drang is first performed, giving the movement its name.
1808 Goethe moves away from Sturm und Drang with his dramatic masterpiece Faust.
The Sturm und Drang movement (often translated as “storm and stress” but “storm and urge” is more accurate) was a sudden and brief explosion of German literature that lasted around 10 years. Sturm und Drang consisted of plays and novels characterized by great energy, physical and emotional violence, fierce and anguished lyricism, and the breaking of taboos (both social and artistic) in order to express the essential drama of the human heart.
The movement was a reaction to Enlightenment (and particularly French Enlightenment) values of pure reason and rationalism. Some early Enlightenment thinkers felt that genius could be attained through hard work and practice, and that good literature must adhere to classical forms. But to the Sturmer und Dranger (as the writers of the movement are known) these ideas were stifling — and were discarded with abandon.
Sturm und Drang plays ignored the established formal structures: they might not have five acts, or dialogue might not be written in perfectly formed sentences. And aside from being expressive, the language could be shocking, too: both Friedrich Schiller’s play The Robbers and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther exist in several editions, because the original language had to be toned down.
"Never has law formed a good man: ’tis liberty that breeds giants and heroes."
Schiller’s The Robbers, first performed in 1782, was the final flowering of a fading movement. The plot concerns two aristocratic brothers with opposing outlooks: Karl, an honourable idealist; and Franz, who is cold, materialistic and manipulative. Karl takes to the Bohemian woods to lead a band of robbers after Franz has turned their father against him, and stolen his inheritance. The Robbers broke taboos. The plot involved violence, robbery, and murder, and it is the hero, Karl, who leads the gang that commits the illegal and violent acts. In the depths of his passion he even kills his innocent cousin Amalia, to whom he is betrothed. The language of the play is as wild and stormy as the emotions it expresses, but it is also lyrical too, and The Robbers is regarded as one of the finest examples of dramatic writing in German literature. It is still considered a masterpiece today, and many critics also see in it the beginnings of European melodrama.
The Sturm und Drang movement was made up of energetic young men — most were in their 20s, the oldest only in their 30s. Perhaps as the authors grew older, they lost their taste for youthful rebellion, which might account for the movement’s brevity. Many chose more reflective modes of expression thereafter, as the storm-and-urge era settled into a long and fruitful period of Weimar Classicism and German Romanticism.
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759—1805) was born in Württemburg, Germany. A poet, playwright, philosopher, and historian, he wrote The Robbers while still at school. The play made him an overnight sensation, but it did not provide financial independence. Schiller later became a professor of History and Philosophy in Jena, whose university is now named after him. His friendship with Goethe led, in the late 18th century, to their setting up the Weimar Theatre, which would become the leading theatre in Germany.
Schiller was ill throughout his life, and he died of tuberculosis aged 45 in 1805, after making a fruitful return to playwriting in his last few years. He is still considered by many to be Germany’s greatest classical playwright.
Other key works
1784 Intrigue and Love
1786 “Ode to Joy”
1787 Don Carlos
1794 On the Aesthetic Education of Man
See also: Candide • The Sorrows of Young Werther • Nachstücke • Faust • Jane Eyre • Wuthering Heights • The Brothers Karamazov