Fitting the Crime

This is the twenty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVI: Continental Drama

What do John Wilkes Booth, Marcus Junius Brutus, and William Tell have in common? That question would hardly need answering if not for the fact that so many people only remember William Tell for shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Aside from that spectacular display of marksmanship, Tell’s truly remarkable act was the assassination Hermann Gessler, the Austrian governor in Switzerland. And like every other political assassin, Tell had his reasons.

In Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the Tell legend, Gessler is a cruel despot. The law that drives the plot of the story is one which makes it a capital offense not to kneel before Gessler’s hat, hung upon a pole. It is the enforcement of this draconian rule that brings Gessler and Tell into conflict.

By the way, the word “draconian”, like so many other words, enjoys popular usage without its origin being generally well-known. Draco was a legislator, but not a tyrant. Just about 2,600 years ago, he promulgated the first written legal code for the city of Athens. And the Draconian Code was a doozy.

According to Plutarch, “Draco’s laws… were too severe, and the punishment[s] too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.'”

Anyway, Gessler was cruel, particularly in his treatment of fathers. For failing to kneel to a hat, Tell was forced to choose between execution and shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Another father was blinded for not informing on his son. It’s clear that to Schiller and the Swiss who regard Tell as a hero, one’s allegiance to family is far more important than one’s allegiance to civil authority. A hierarchy of values that Gessler, like most civil authorities, resented.

Beer of the week: Wolters Pilsner – Tell was Swiss and his son was called Walter. This beer is German and is called Wolters. Close enough? I want to like Wolters more. The brand was acquired by the international beer behemoth InBev a while back, but has since become independent once again. Unfortunately they make a pretty average German pils. It is pale gold, with a quickly fading head of large bubbles. The aroma is faint, and primarily of malt. Nothing special. Also, it’s been a while since I complained about the “German Purity Law” as a marketing gimmick, but this beer is another offender. “Hops extract” was almost certainly not invented yet when the Reinheitsgrebot was enacted, yet it is an ingredient in this beer that is purportedly “brewed in strict accordance to the German Purity Law.” (Which, by the way, is not draconian, because it is not enforced at all.)

Reading of the week: William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Act One, Scene One – Although Gessler is clearly the villain of the play, the Swiss may have driven him to his cruelty. The first act of defiance by Tell is helping the murderer of a government official escape justice. (To be fair, we learn that the murder was committed in response to “unseemly overtures” the official had made to the killers wife, which lends further support to the reading that the real moral of the play is to prioritize familial loyalty over obedience to civil authority.) But everybody that the murderer encounters in this scene approves of the killing and is willing to aid him in making his escape. Gessler must rule with an iron fist if the people will not even consent to the prosecution of an axe murderer. (Did I mention that the murder was committed by cleaving the official’s skull with an axe?)

Question of the week: Criminal penalties generally serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retaliation, prevention (preventing the offender from offending again by being incarcerated, incapacitated, or dead), deterrence (setting an example to deter others from offending.) How does one even begin to balance those objectives?

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