An illustration by Philip Dadd for P. G. Wodehouse’s William Tell Told Again, 1904.
According to legend, it was on November 18, 1307, that the Swiss patriot William Tell shot an apple off his son’s head. After refusing to pay homage to a Hapsburg liege, Tell was forced to submit to the test of marksmanship. Later, Tell killed the tyrant and went on to many a daring exploit in the service of the Old Swiss Confederacy.
Although the William Tell legend is mentioned in books dating back to the late fifteenth century—and one can find similar marksmanship myths throughout the world—it was Schiller’s highly politicized play that canonized the apple-centric version, and, buoyed by Switzerland’s post-Napoleonic patriotism, made the archer iconic. Schiller had never visited Switzerland; he got the idea from his friend Goethe, who returned from a trip bearing tales of local lore. In 1804, the play premiered at Weimar under Goethe’s direction. (The popular Rossini opera—and the resulting Lone Ranger theme—was based on the play.)
Although a part of the German dramatic canon (and initially a Nazi favorite), the play came into disfavor with Hitler. After a 1941 assassination attempt by a Swiss-born activist, the Führer banned William Tell, reportedly lamenting, “Of all people Schiller had to glorify this Swiss sniper.”
I would say Tell is well remembered, but lately I’ve been very concerned. As readers of tabloids well know, the reality-star-turned-Pinterest-doyenne Lauren Conrad recently married a law student and former musician (Wikipedia’s words; I would have thought you sort of kept amateur status throughout life) named William Tell.
Now, one would think that the name William Tell would be a great boon. Every Halloween costume, every birthday-party motif, every college-admissions essay writes itself. At the very least, one would imagine that such a name would give rise to a little apple-related badinage when the man in question became engaged to a bold-faced name. But no. Nary a bow and arrow decorated their wedding bower; nary a Schiller quote graced the pages of Us Weekly. It’s bad enough that the actress Anne Hathaway should have superceded Shakespeare’s wife in the public consciousness; now Lauren Conrad’s husband is hard on the Swiss patriot’s heels in Google results. As Schiller said, “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”
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