An Intriguing Tale of Love

My second post for Week One addresses a play, one I intended to get to last year (but never did).  If Goethe is the undisputed Batman of German Literature, then to find his Robin we should look no further than Friedrich Schiller, noted playwright, poet, historian and philosopher (it’s a wonder he also found time to fight crime…).  Back into the bus with you all – we’re off to the south-west of Germany today…

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Schiller’s 1784 play Kabale und Liebe, or Love and Intrigues, is set in one of the many German principalities of the time.  The plot revolves around the romance between Major Ferdinand von Walter, the son of a high-ranking politician, and Luise Miller, the daughter of a musician.  Despite the disparity in social status, Ferdinand is not merely dallying with Luise’s intentions, fully intending to make an honest woman of his lover.  However, his father has other ideas, and with a little help from his trusty assistant, he begins to think about how best to break the happy couple up.

Schiller peoples his play with some wonderful characters, all of whom have a pivotal role to play in the events to follow.  Miller, Luise’s father, is a cantankerous musician with a sarcastic tongue, a man who is well aware of the dangers involved in looking too high for love.  Wurm (whose name is well chosen…) is the assistant to Ferdinand’s father and has designs on the lovely Luise himself.  Lady (Milady Johanna von Norfolk) is a ruined English aristocrat who lives off the bounty of the Prince – but secretly has feelings for Ferdinand.  And Ferdinand’s father?  Well, he is a cunning politician who is hoping to pull the strings to his benefit…

I came into this work with an open (read ’empty’) mind, knowing little more about the play than the writer and the title, and from the first few scenes, I actually had the impression that it was to be a comedy of errors, with everything working itself out in the end.  Gradually though, the tone changes, and by the middle of the play, it is clear that this is a story which is unlikely to have a happy ending.

While the ‘Liebe’ of the title is fairly self-explanatory, the intrigues may need a little more explaining.  At the time of the play, Germany as a country did not actually exist.  Instead, in addition to the larger states such as Prussia, Austria and Bavaria, hundreds of tiny Principalities and Grand Duchies operated as mini-states, each with its autocratic ruler and hangers on.  Ferdinand’s father, the President, has achieved the highest of ranks in this principality, having *somehow* removed his predecessor from office.  Ferdinand’s romantic wishes are awkward for his father, as he is hoping to use his son’s marriage to further strengthen his position – by marrying him off to the Prince’s mistress…

The tragedy of Kabale und Liebe is that things could end well, despite the intrigues, if only everyone could be a little more patient.  Wurm’s cunning plan (and there is a little of the Baldricks about the President’s side-kick) has several weak points, but unfortunately Ferdinand’s jealousy means that he is blind to the obvious falseness of the plot, even when one of the main perpetrators confesses that it is a lie.  In fact, Ferdinand shows himself to be completely immature, a man who has captured the hearts of not one, but two, women – and is unworthy of either one of them.  His arrogant appeal to God is typical:

“Ich will dich nicht zur Rede stellen, Gott Schöpfer – Aber warum denn dein Gift in so schönen Gefäßen?”

“I don’t wish to put you on the spot, oh God, Creator – But why do you have to store your poison in such beautiful containers?”

Oh, the irony…

As a tale of star-crossed lovers, the comparison between Kabale und Liebe and Romeo and Juliet is obvious.  However, the scenes between Ferdinand and Luise are not particularly exceptional (the two lovers are fairly weak characters compared to some); in fact, one of the best scenes in the play is the one between Ferdinand and the English Lady, when the immature nobleman proposes in a way guaranteed to provoke rejection, and she flings his offer back at his feet after laying bare her love and humiliating the abject suitor.

In a story where the two young lovers are both forced to choose between romantic love and loyalty to their father, the real tragedy is that they make different choices, leading them down the road to disaster.  It’s a familiar tale, but Schiller handles it deftly, at the same time thumbing his nose at the ruler of the Principality he was forced to leave in  a hurry.  Yes, it’s over two-hundred-years old, but (just like Shakespeare’s work) Kabale und Liebe still speaks to people today because it concerns basic fundamental human truths: people fall in love, and other people do nasty things to break them apart.  So ist das Leben…

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9 thoughts on “An Intriguing Tale of Love

  1. Caroline – I don't read many plays, simply because I think that they're not really meant to be read. I don't think there's any play I've read which I've thought was better than most novels.

    Mind you, if this was written as a novel, I'd probably think it was too predictable and melodramatic 😉

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  2. I'm with you Tony on not reading too many plays – they are often much more effective on the stage, it also brings back memories of analysing plays to death at school! As a social commentary they are often quite interesting though – you get an insight into the norms of the time. This sounds like an interesting tale. Your map was a nice addition!
    Sarah

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  3. Sarah – Yes, I like the map too 🙂 I read somewhere today (no idea where now…) that at one point there were over 300 (!) micro-states in th region, all with their own courts and self-importance…

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  4. Nice review, Tony! After reading an introduction to German literature, I wanted to read Friedrich Schiller's 'The Robbers'. Now after reading your review, I want to read 'Love and Intrigues' also. Interestingly, 'Love and Intrigues' is also mentioned in Bernhard Schlink's 'The Reader' as it is one of the books which is read by Michael to Hanna. Thanks for also writing about the history of the period which enhanced my understanding of the plot. Thanks for this wonderful review!

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  5. Vishy – Ah, meta-fiction, always a good part of a story! I might give Schiller's other big play a try too… but not this month 😉

    Stu – That's what I thought – it's a bit like not having tried Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare in English.

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