The Swiss have chocolate and watches and cheese, but they also have William Tell, national hero from the early fourteenth century. The 1804 play bearing this champion’s name, by Friedrich von Schiller, tells of his most heroic deed in defense of the Swiss people.
The independent Cantons of Schwytz, Uri, and Unterwald are suffering. Although they are supposed to be free under orders from the Holy Roman Emperor himself, the King of Austria has decided otherwise. He has sent his soldiers, bureaucrats, and his most vile viceroy, Hermann Gessler, to oppress and control the Swiss. When the people are commanded to bow down and honor a cap on a stick that represents the authority of the king, tempers flare. But when a respected elder has his eyes gouged out after his son prevents soldiers from stealing some oxen, the Canton leaders make plans to rebel. Although he is not one of the official leaders, Tell plays a major role in battling the viceroy and freeing the Swiss from tyranny.
In the play, William Tell (also known as Wilhelm Tell, Guillaume Tell, Guglielmo Tell, and Guglielm Tell in the various official Swiss languages) is cast in the form of a Robin Hood or one of the Three Musketeers, a rich landowning gentleman whose love for his country compels him to take bold actions at the risk of his own life. Although respected in his community, he is not a political leader, and does not take part in the negotiations between the Canton leaders that forms a major part of the play. Instead, he acts as a lone ranger (perhaps the basis for using “The William Tell Overture” for The Lone Ranger TV show), coming out of nowhere to rescue Swiss citizens and eliminate sworn enemies of the region.
While Tell plays a pivotal role in overcoming the enemy, his bravest act doesn’t occur until after the leaders have already set into motion plans to defy the Austrian king. The hero of the story is simply one of many heroes, all of whom risked their names, their lands, and their futures to retain their freedom. And the structure of the play seems to agree with this fact, since William Tell himself only shows up in a few key scenes.
The exciting moment when Tell shoots an apple off of his son’s head is included in the story. There’s much drama to enjoy. But the bulk of the play is consumed with long discussions about historical realities to detailed for most modern viewers to care about. It’s like a history book on stage, and the size of the cast competes favorably with the current population of Switzerland. Even with these limitations, and while the research is still unclear about whether William Tell even existed, the play does succeed in providing an entire country with a rousing hero narrative.
The Well-Read Man Project
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