Friedrich Schiller

William Tell

  • This summary of William Tell includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

William Tell Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of William Tell by Friedrich Schiller.

Friedrich Schiller’s William Tell is an 1804 German drama based on the legend of Swiss archer William Tell, set against the backdrop of the medieval Swiss movement towards independence from the Habsburg Empire. Schiller, a historian, was inspired by his wife, Lotte, who knew something of Swiss history and legend, to write the play. The drama is known as Wilhelm Tell in Germany.

The action begins in the early fourteenth century. Tell makes an enemy of Hermann Gessler, governor over the Swiss cantons and portrayed as little more than a petty tyrant. Tell observes a peasant rowing across Lake Lucerne in the middle of a storm; the Governor’s men, who cannot cross the waters with their horses, pursue the peasant. Tell directs the waters to take the peasant to safety, saying that the lake is more likely to take pity on him than the cruel Governor.

The King of Austria has sent Gessler to control the three Swiss cantons, or states, to prevent the possibility of an uprising. Gessler sends many to jail—so many that he builds a massive new prison to hold more of the peasantry. Then, in a condescending display, he sets a cap upon a stick and declares that this stick represents the king. He demands that the peasants bow down to the stick. Refusal means death.

Tempers rise when Gessler metes out extreme punishments. A respected villager’s son prevents Gessler’s men from stealing oxen. In retaliation, he orders the villager’s eyes to be gouged out. This causes an uproar and the canton leaders decide it is time to rebel. Tell does not openly join forces with the rebellion, but offers his aid if needed.

The Baron of Attenhausen, an old man, is a friend to the suffering peasants. His nephew and heir, Ulrich of Rudenz, is a different story. Ulrich admires Gessler’s wealth and hopes to court Bertha, the governor’s ward. The Baron tries to tell Ulrich that Gessler is using Bertha to manipulate him and that the rebellion will win someday. Ulrich doesn’t listen and allies himself with Gessler. However, on a hunting trip with Bertha, she surprises him: she is on the peasants’ side. She tells Ulrich he can win her heart by fighting for his own people.

Meanwhile, Tell visits his father-in-law, a known rebel leader. His wife fears for his safety, but Tell dismisses her concerns. He departs with his crossbow in hand and his son, Walter, by his side. Outside the prison, Tell fails to bow before the stick that represents the king. A guard seizes him on the spot and holds him until Gessler and more of his men arrive. Tell tries to say that his failure to make obeisance to the cap on the stick was a mistake and not intentional. But Gessler isn’t interested in explanations or excuses.

Instead, he remarks on Tell’s skill with a bow. Walter pipes up with a boast that his father can hit an apple from a hundred yards away. The crafty Gessler proposes a demonstration: Tell must prove his prowess by hitting an apple placed atop his son’s head. If he hits it, he will be set free. If he misses, Gessler will have him executed. And Walter may die in the attempt.

Tell begs Gessler not to make him do this. He bares his chest to the governor, begging that he take Tell’s own life rather than risking his son’s, but Gessler is unmoved. Walter tells his father not to be afraid, that he will stand still. Then, in the play’s most famous moment, Tell removes two arrows from his quiver, notches one, and successfully shoots the apple without harming his son. Walter runs to his father, giving him back the pierced apple.

Gessler demands to know what the second arrow was for. Tell explains that if the first arrow had killed his son, the second would have gone into Gessler’s heart. A furious Gessler orders Tell thrown into prison, but a sudden storm prevents his orders from being carried out. Tell alone has the skill to guide a boat through the storm, and the guards must release him so he can steer. Craftily Tell rows himself to a safe spot, then swiftly kicks the boat, with the guards still in it, back into the roiling waters. Now Tell plans to join the rebellion in full.

Gessler’s men capture Bertha for her rebel sympathies. Ulrich grows disillusioned with Gessler for his treatment of Tell and finally has the courage to side with his own people. His uncle, the Baron, dies, declaring that the day of the nobles is at an end, and the day of the peasants is at hand. He tells the people to unite as one with his dying breath.

Ulrich becomes the leader of the rebellion. He tells the peasants to arm themselves and wait for his signal upon a mountaintop. Tell, meanwhile, conceals himself on a road where Gessler is about to pass by. When Gessler appears, a peasant woman, Armgart, and her seven children block his path. She begs him to have mercy on her: her husband is in prison, and she has no means of feeding herself or her children.

Gessler threatens to run her and her children over. She lies down before him and tells him to do it. Gessler announces that he has been too mild and kind a ruler. He begins to declare a new and harsher set of laws, but mid-sentence, he is struck by an arrow. Tell has shot him through the heart. Armgart says, “This is how a tyrant dies.”

The revolution soars to new heights, and within a day, the peasants are tearing down the prison walls. They rescue Bertha. Later, they arrive outside of Tell’s home crying, “Long live William Tell!” Bertha and Ulrich hold hands, and Ulrich declares all the peasants free men. News arrives that the King of Austria has been assassinated by his nephew John.

Sometime later, a mysterious monk arrives at the Tell’s house. Tell realizes that he is John, attempting to flee from justice. John hopes for help from Tell, but instead. Tell expresses disgust with his crime. He agrees to help John, but only if he makes amends for what he has done.

Though William Tell is primarily remembered for the hero’s legendary feat of archery, the full play is about much more: a fully-realized revolution and historical details about the Swiss road to independence. The play has been staged many times since its debut, though it was briefly banned from public performance in Germany during the Nazi regime. It has been adapted into German, English, and Italian films.