The play was written by Friedrich Schiller between 1803 and 1804, and published that year in a first edition of 7000 copies. Since its publication, Schiller’s William Tell has been translated into many languages.
Friedrich Schiller (who had never been to Switzerland, but was well informed, being a historian) was inspired to write a play about the legendary Swiss marksman William Tell by his wife Lotte, who knew the country from her personal experience. After his friend, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, had returned from his second journey to the Lake of Lucerne in 1779, Schiller started collecting sources.
Most of Schiller’s information about the history of the Swiss confederation is drawn from Aegidius Tschudi’s Chronicon Helveticum (Latin: ‘Swiss Chronicle’), Johannes von Müller’s History of the Swiss Confederation (German: Geschichten Schweizerischer Eidgenossenschaft), as well as two chronicles of Petermann Etterlin and Johannes Stumpf.
The fateful enmity of the tyrant Gessler, Governor of the Swiss cantons, and William Tell, an obscure huntsman, begins during a tempest on Lake Lucerne when Tell braves the angry waves to row to safety a peasant who is pursued by the Governor's horsemen. "The lake may take pity on him; but the Governor, never," says Tell.
His opinion of the bloodthirsty Gessler is shared increasingly by the peasantry as the oppressor fills the old jails, builds a huge new prison at Altdorf for more victims, and sets his cap upon a pole before it, commanding that all who pass must bow to it or pay the penalty of death. Public anger is fanned into rebellion when Gessler blinds an aged man for a trifling misdemeanor. Tell, the individualist, holds aloof from the rebels' councils, but promises his aid when needed.