Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). Wilhelm Tell.
Vol. 26, pp. 441-449 of The Harvard Classics
The arrow shot from his bow with a twang and whizzed through the air. Tell covered his eyes, fearing to see where the arrow hit. Then the shout of triumph, a shout of the people and not of the tyrant-but the end was not yet.
(William Tell incident, legendary date, Nov. 18, 1307.)
Fürst. The Viceroy here! Then we shall smart for this! [Enter GESSLER on horseback, with a falcon on his wrist; RUDOLPH DER HARRAS, BERTHA, and RUDENZ,and a numerous train of armed attendants, who form a circle of lances round the whole stage.
Har. Room for the Viceroy!
Gessl. Drive the clowns apart.
Why throng the people thus? Who calls for help? [General silence.
Who was it? I will know. [FRIESSHARDT steps forward.
And who art thou?
And why hast thou this man in custody? [Gives his falcon to an attendant.
Friess. Dread sir, I am a soldier of your guard.
And station’d sentinel beside the cap;
This man I apprehended in the act
Of passing it without obeisance due,
So as you ordered, I arrested him,
Whereon to rescue him the people tried.
Gessl. (after a pause). And do you, Tell, so lightly hold your King,
And me, who act as his viceregent here,
That you refuse obeisance to the cap,
I hung aloft to test your loyalty?
I read in this a disaffected spirit.
Tell. Pardon me, good my lord! The action sprung
From inadvertence,—not from disrespect.
Were I discreet, I were not William Tell.
Forgive me now—I’ll not offend again.
Gessl. (after a pause). I hear, Tell, you’re a master with the bow,—
From every rival bear the palm away.
Walt. That’s very truth, sir! At a hundred yards
He’ll shoot an apple for you off the tree.
Gessl. Is that boy thine, Tell?
Tell. Yes, my gracious lord.
Gessl. Hast any more of them?
Tell. Two boys, my lord.
Gessl. And, of the two, which dost thou love the most?
Tell. Sir, both the boys are dear to me alike.
Gessl. Then, Tell, since at a hundred yards thou canst
Bring down the apple from the tree, thou shalt
Approve thy skill before me. Take thy bow—
Thou hast it there at hand—make ready, then,
To shoot an apple from the stripling’s head!
But take this counsel,—look well to thine aim,
See, that thou hit’st the apple at the first,
For, shouldst thou miss, thy head shall pay the forfeit. [All give signs of horror.
Tell. What monstrous thing, my lord, is this you ask?
What! from the head of mine own child!—No, no!
It cannot be, kind sir, you meant not that—
God, in His grace, forbid! You could not ask
A father seriously to do that thing!
Gessl. Thou art to shoot an apple from his head!
I do desire—command it so.
Tell. What, I!
Level my crossbow at the darling head
Of mine own child? No—rather let me die!
Gessl. Or thou must shoot, or with thee dies the boy.
Tell. Shall I become the murderer of my child!
You have no children, sir—you do not know
The tender throbbings of a father’s heart.
Gessl. How now, Tell, on a sudden so discreet?
I had been told thou wert a visionary,—
A wanderer from the paths of common men.
Thou lov’st the marvellous. So have I now
Cull’d out for thee a task of special daring.
Another man might pause and hesitate;—
Thou dashest at it, heart and soul, at once.
Berth. Oh, do not jest, my lord, with these poor souls!
See, how they tremble, and how pale they look,
So little used are they to hear thee jest.
Gessl. Who tells thee that I jest? [Grasping a branch above his head.
Here is the apple.
Room there, I say! And let him take his distance—
Just eighty paces,—as the custom is,—
Not an inch more or less! It was his boast,
That at a hundred he could hit his man.
Now, archer, to your task, and look you miss not!
Har. Heavens! this grows serious—down, boy, on your knees,
And beg the governor to spare your life.
Fürst (aside to MELCHTHAL, who can scarcely restrain his indignation). Command yourself,—be calm, I beg of you!
Bertha (to the Governor). Let this suffice you, sir! It is inhuman
To trifle with a father’s anguish thus.
Although this wretched man had forfeited
Both life and limb for such a slight offence,
Already has he suffer’d tenfold death.
Send him away uninjured to his home;
He’ll know thee well in future; and this hour
He and his children’s children will remember.
Gessl. Open a way there—quick! Why this delay?
Thy life is forfeited; I might dispatch thee,
And see, I graciously repose thy fate
Upon the skill of thine own practised hand.
No cause has he to say his doom is harsh,
Who’s made the master of his destiny.
Thou boastest thine unerring aim. ’Tis well!
Now is the fitting time to show thy skill;
The mark is worthy and the prize is great.
To hit the bull’s eye in the target;—that
Can many another do as well as thou;
But he, methinks, is master of his craft,
Who can at all times on his skill rely,
Nor lets his heart disturb or eye or hand.
Fürst. My lord, we bow to your authority;
But oh, let justice yield to mercy here.
Take half my property, nay, take it all,
But spare a father this unnatural doom!
Walt. Grandfather, do not kneel to that bad man!
Say, where am I to stand? I do not fear;
My father strikes the bird upon the wing,
And will not miss now when ’twould harm his boy!
Stauff. Does the child’s innocence not touch your heart?
Rössel. Bethink you, sir, there is a God in heaven,
To whom you must account for all your deeds.
Gessl. (pointing to the boy). Bind him to yonder lime tree!
Walter. What! Bind me?
No, I will not be bound! I will be still.
Still as a lamb—nor even draw my breath!
But if you bind me, I can not be still.
Then I shall writhe and struggle with my bonds.
Har. But let your eyes at least be bandaged, boy!
Walt. And why my eyes? No! Do you think I fear
An arrow from my father’s hand? Not I!
I’ll wait it firmly, nor so much as wink!
Quick, father, show them what thy bow can do.
He doubts thy skill—he thinks to ruin us.
Shoot then and hit, though but to spite the tyrant! [He goes to the lime tree, and an apple is placed on his head.
Melch. (to the country people). What! Is this outrage to be perpetrated
Before our very eyes? Where is our oath?
Stauff. Resist we cannot! Weapons we have none.
And see the wood of lances round us! See!
Melch. Oh! would to heaven that we had struck at once!
God pardon those who counsell’d the delay!
Gessl. (to TELL). Now to your task! Men bear not arms for naught.
To carry deadly tools is dangerous,
And on the archer oft his shaft recoils.
This right, these haughty peasant churls assume,
Trenches upon their master’s privileges:
None should be armed, but those who bear command.
It pleases you to carry bow and bolt;—
Well,—be it so. I will prescribe the mark.
Tell. (bends the bow, and fixes the arrow). A lane there! Room!
Stauff. What, Tell? You would—no, no!
You shake—your hand’s unsteady—your knees tremble.
Tell (letting the bow sink down). There’s something swims before mine eyes!
Women. Great Heaven!
Tell. Release me from this shot! Here is my heart! [Tears open his breast.
Summon your troopers—let them strike me down!
Gessl. ’Tis not thy life I want—I want the shot,
Thy talent’s universal! Nothing daunts thee!
The rudder thou canst handle like the bow!
No storms affright thee, when a life’s at stake.
Now, saviour, help thyself,—thou savest all! [TELL stands fearfully agitated by contending emotions, his hands moving convulsively, and his eyes turning alternately to the Governor and Heaven. Suddenly he takes a second arrow from his quiver, and sticks it in his belt. The Governor notes all he does.
Walter (beneath the lime tree). Shoot, father, shoot! fear not!
Tell. It must be! [Collects himself and levels the bow.
Rud. (who all the while has been standing in a state of violent excitement, and has with difficulty restrained himself, advances). My lord, you will not urge this matter further;
You will not. It was surely but a test.
You’ve gained your object. Rigour push’d too far
Is sure to miss its aim, however good,
As snaps the bow that’s all too straitly bent.
Gessl. Peace, till your counsel’s ask’d for!
Rud. I will speak!
Ay, and I dare! I reverence my King;
But acts like these must make his name abhorr’d.
He sanctions not this cruelty. I dare
Avouch the fact. And you outstep your powers
In handling thus my harmless countrymen.
Gessl. Ha! thou grow’st bold, methinks!
Rud. I have been dumb
To all the oppressions I was doomed to see.
I’ve closed mine eyes to shut them from my view,
Bade my rebellious, swelling heart be still,
And pent its struggles down within my breast.
But to be silent longer, were to be
A traitor to my King and country both.
Berth. (casting herself between him and the Governor).
Oh, Heavens! you but exasperate his rage!
Rud. My people I forsook—renounced my kindred—
Broke all the ties of nature, that I might
Attach myself to you. I madly thought
That I should best advance the general weal
By adding sinews to the Emperor’s power.
The scales have fallen from mine eyes—I see
The fearful precipice on which I stand.
You’ve led my youthful judgment far astray,—
Deceived my honest heart. With best intent,
I had well-nigh achiev’d my country’s ruin.
Gessl. Audacious boy, this language to thy lord?
Rud. The Emperor is my lord, not you! I’m free.
As you by birth, and I can cope with you
In every virtue that beseems a knight.
And if you stood not here in that King’s name,
Which I respect e’en where ’tis most abused,
I’d throw my gauntlet down, and you should give
An answer to my gage in knightly sort.
Ay, beckon to your troopers! Here I stand;
But not like these [Pointing to the people.
—unarmed. I have a sword,
And he that stirs one step—
Stauff. (exclaims). The apple’s down! [While the attention of the crowd has been directed to the spot where BERTHA had cast herself between RUDENZ and GESSLER,TELL has shot.
Rössel. The boy’s alive!
Many Voices. The apple has been struck! [WALTER FÜRST staggers and is about to fall. BERTHA supports him.
Gessl. (astonished). How? Has he shot? The madman!
Berth. Worthy father!
Pray you, compose yourself. The boy’s alive.
Walter (runs in with the apple). Here is the apple, father! Well I knew
You would not harm your boy. [TELL stands with his body bent forwards, as if still following the arrow. His bow drops from his hand. When he sees the boy advancing, he hastens to meet him with open arms, and, embracing him passionately, sinks down with him quite exhausted. All crowd round them deeply affected.
Berth. Oh, ye kind Heavens!
Fürst (to father and son). My children, my dear children!
Stauff. God be praised!
Leuth. Almighty powers! That was a shot indeed!
It will be talked of to the end of time.
Har. This feat of Tell, the archer, will be told
Long as these mountains stand upon their base. [Hands the apple to GESSLER.
Gessl. By Heaven! the apple’s cleft right through the core.
It was a master shot, I must allow.
Rössel. The shot was good. But woe to him who drove
The man to tempt his God by such a feat!
Stauff. Cheer up, Tell, rise! You’ve nobly freed yourself,
And now may go in quiet to your home.
Rössel. Come, to the mother let us bear her son! [They are about to lead him off.
Gessl. A word, Tell.
Tell. Sir, your pleasure?
Gessl. Thou didst place
A second arrow in thy belt—nay, nay!
I saw it well. Thy purpose with it? Speak!
Tell (confused). It is a custom with all archers, sir.
Gessl. No, Tell, I cannot let that answer pass.
There was some other motive, well I know.
Frankly and cheerfully confess the truth;—
Whate’er it be, I promise thee thy life.
Wherefore the second arrow?
Tell. Well, my lord,
Since you have promised not to take my life,
I will, without reserve, declare the truth. [He draws the arrow from his belt, and fixes his eyes sternly upon the governor.
If that my hand had struck my darling child,
This second arrow I had aimed at you,
And, be assured, I should not then have miss’d.
Gessl. Well, Tell, I promised thou shouldst have thy life;
I gave my knightly word, and I will keep it.
Yet, as I know the malice of thy thoughts,
I’ll have thee carried hence, and safely penn’d,
Where neither sun nor moon shall reach thine eyes.
Thus from thy arrows I shall be secure.
Seize on him, guards, and bind him! [They bind him.
Stauff. How, my lord—
How can you treat in such a way a man
On whom God’s hand has plainly been reveal’d?
Gessl. Well, let us see if it will save him twice!
Remove him to my ship; I’ll follow straight,
At Küssnacht I will see him safely lodged.
Rössel. You dare not do’t. Nor durst the Emperor’s self
So violate our dearest chartered rights.
Gessl. Where are they? Has the Emp’ror confirm’d them?
He never has. And only by obedience
May you that favour hope to win from him.
You are all rebels ’gainst the Emp’ror’s power,—
And bear a desperate and rebellious spirit.
I know you all—I see you through and through.
Him do I single from amongst you now,
But in his guilt you all participate.
If you are wise, be silent and obey! [Exit, followed by BERTHA, RUDENZ, HARRAS,and attendants. FRIESSHARDT and LEUTHOLD remain.
Fürst (in violent anguish). All’s over now! He is resolved to bring
Destruction on myself and all my house.
Stauff. (to TELL). Oh, why did you provoke the tyrant’s rage?
Tell. Let him be calm who feels the pangs I felt.
Stauff. Alas! alas! Our every hope is gone.
With you we all are fettered and enchain’d.
Country People (surrounding TELL). Our last remaining comfort goes with you!
Leuth. (approaching him). I’m sorry for you, Tell, but must obey.
Walter Tell (clinging to him in great agony). Oh, father, father, father dear!
Tell (pointing to Heaven). Thy father is on high—appeal to Him!
Stauff. Have you no message, Tell, to send your wife?