Don Carlos by Schiller (trans. Sy-Quia & Oswald)

Two days, two posts in the ‘Plays Read’ section: I am on fire Doing Melpomene.s Work! Diligent readers will remember from yesterday.s blog on Ibsen.s Peer Gynt that your blogger confessed he would have had more to say but for the fact that it was his first read and hence first impression of Peer Gynt. Well, diligent readers, I am happy to say that Don Carlos is a play been reading for years: this is perhaps my sixth read. At least that.s what my memory says. Which–if I am to judge from what my friends who have known be a long time have to say–can be out in left field sometimes! Fortunately, none of them are here to correct me today, so the seventh read it is? Or did I say six? No matter–suffice to say, I.m quite familiar and fond of Don Carlos.

This is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, and here.s what the back blurb has to say:

Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas, deal with the timeless issues of power, freedom, and justice. Both plays dramatize periods of crisis in sixteenth-century Europe, and in doing so reflect Schiller’s passionate engagement with the great themes of his own age–justice, power, freedom of conscience, legitimacy of government.

A youthful work, Don Carlos (1787) shows the victory of the forces of reaction over the representatives of a new age. Mary Stuart (1800) shows the struggle of the Scottish queen in the last days of her life, not only for freedom but also for peace with her conscience, and that of her English rival, Elizabeth I, with the challenge of ruling justly. A vivid imaginative experience when read, these plays, with their starkly contrasting characters and thrilling confrontations, also demonstrate Schiller’s brilliant stagecraft.

And, here is a bonus image for diligent readers!–


By the way, that.s Mary Stuart on the cover, not Don Carlos!

I like the guarded praise on the back blurb: ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas’. It couldn.t be ‘two of literature.s greatest historical dramas’. Or even ‘two of German literature’s greatest dramas’. I have this feeling that whoever wrote the back blurb almost felt like writing ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas written near the turn of the nineteenth century which deal with imperial power struggles’. Or something like that. At least it is honest. There are problems with these plays. They are great. But a circumscribed greatness. I went on to find the images, and one authority calls the plays, ‘fast paced, tense, eloquent, and philosophical’. Fast paced compared to what, a snail? got to be kidding me.

Philosophical, yes. But fast paced, no. The dramatic fulcrum tying together the power struggles of Carlos, Philip, Elizabeth, Eboli, Alba, and Domingo is the cat and mouse recognition scene where Carlos and Eboli sound each other out. It takes over 300 lines for this to happen! I could go out and order pizza to go, come back, and they would still be disputing things! Shakespeare would have had Desdemona drop a handkerchief and it would have taken zero lines to accomplish something similar. In fact, Schiller–who was a Shakespeare fanatic–does have Carlos drop a handkerchief elsewhere. It.s likely that Schiller was fresh from reading Othello as Eboli.s fable about the pearl.s worth is also found in Othello. Compare:

Eboli: Love is the price of love.

It is the only diamond I possess

That I must either give away or hide;

Much like the merchant, who, to spite a king,

And since the whole of Venice could not pay,

Returned his pearl to the enriching sea

Rather than fix a price beneath its worth.


Othello: Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…

So Don Carlos is too long. Like Euripides, it is too rhetorical. Too much is accomplished through the dialogue and speech. More could be accomplished through stagecraft. There is too much thinking going on. But of course, not reading the blog to hear me rant!

Here.s the question. And it is a good question. How does one become familiar with a play? Through reading it many times? Yes, multiple reads give more clarity. But to really become familiar with a play (short of producing it), you have to subject the play to almost a scientific method. Come up with a hypothesis. And then reread the play having in mind that you are testing out the hypothesis. Reading a play without having an hypothesis of the play is like going for a walk. Go out for enough walks along the same route and, no doubt, you become sort of familiar with the path. But, if you go on a walk and measure the steps from this point to that point or pull out the watch to confirm if the same bird if flying by at the same time, then, you really get to know the secrets of the whole trail. Try this next time you read something read before. If you have a hunch, see if the text corroborates your feeling.

On this read of Don Carlos, I was interested in the question of the Marquis of Posa and how he gets his plan so wrong. And not only that, how can he get his plan so wrong and surprise the audience with his ‘wrongness’ at the same time. His plan is to usher in the Enlightenment, bring down the Inquisition, sweep tyranny off of the Low Countries, and to save and unite Elizabeth and Carlos. Oh yes, and he must martyr himself to achieve these goals. Which isn.t a bad deal, since he.s getting quite a large return on investment for the life of one Marquis! But of course his plan screws up. He sacrifices himself to pass the torch of the Enlightenment to Don Carlos, crown prince. But Posa misjudges Carlos’ motives. Posa thinks with his mind and guesses that Carlos thinks the same way. But in fact Carlos thinks with his heart so that when Posa passes the torch to him, he drops it:

Marquis: No!

This I did not foresee. How could I know

That you, led on by generosity,

Would be more sly and subtle in your schemes

Than I by thinking? I forgot your heart,

And all my clever structures fall to nothing.

Okay, so this is how he get it wrong. But why is this a surprise for the audience? Or, we should start with why this should be a surprise for the audience. It should be a surprise for the audience, because if it weren.t, the play would be no fun! No suspense if it is guaranteed that he would be successful. So Schiller has to somehow counterbalance Posa.s likelihood of success (high) with his eventual failure. How Schiller does this is by making Posa a great psychologist. He has met Eboli two times, yet has figured out all her secret drives and motives. On his first meeting the a very guarded King Philip, he reveals to him all his most inner thoughts. You.d think that if he were able to do this, he would have his childhood friend Don Carlos completely figured out. You.d think. But when second guessing all-too-human actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions, there is always a chance one can be mistaken. You can chart out the paths of billiard balls with mathematical precision, but consciousness is not a phenomenon; it is a sort of epiphenomenon whose path cannot quite be ascertained with precision. Schiller makes use of this to throw down Posa.s plan. So, on the one hand, Posa is good at deciphering people.s inner psychologies. But since this is an art and not a science, he can be mistaken. Schiller makes use of this. Posa is mistaken when it comes to Don Carlos. And so, that is how he gets his plan all wrong. I like how Schiller builds up our confidence in Posa.s keen insight into other people.s psychologies only to have that skill fail him at the end when he needs it the most.

By asking a question or testing a little hypothesis on this read through of Don Carlos, I was able to understand a little more of Schiller.s dramatic art. Next time you have an opportunity, diligent readers, try out this technique and I.m sure it will reveal a precious pearl lodged in between the crevices of the words which you had not seen before. Enjoy! And until next time, I am, as I always am, Doing Melpomene.s Work.