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  • William Tell’s Atlantic Travels in the Revolutionary Era1
  • Marc H. Lerner (bio)

“The story of William Tell has been told in various ways; it has been dramatized in almost every country in Europe where Liberty dare raise her head.” So wrote William Hewetson in his 1810 translator’s preface to Florian’s William Tell, or Swisserland delivered.2 As Hewetson explained, the character of Tell, a legendary Swiss alpine hero purportedly from the early fourteenth century, was used in a variety of locations to comment on local society and contemporary political culture, including moments of rebellion and revolution. Tell’s role during the long eighteenth century is especially striking in its flexibility and ability to articulate divergent political arguments. During the Age of Revolution Tell helped to define a rights–based political culture, republican ideals, and political revolt as legitimate, but he also served to remind British audiences of virtue, loyalty, and devotion to the commonweal.3 The William Tell story was more than simply a reflection of the often jagged and conflicted development of political culture over the long eighteenth century, it was also, in itself, a vehicle for making arguments. The Tell legend was more than a symbol or a parable, it was a seemingly living story that inspired ordinary people to take political action, sometimes in extraordinary ways by comparing themselves to, dressing as, and naming themselves after William Tell. [End Page 85]

This article and the larger book project to which it belongs reflect two trends in eighteenth-century studies: first, the focus on the international context of the period with its transnational cultural and political exchanges, and, second, the emphasis on culture as a means to understand the emergent political ideals, nationalism, and revolutionary politics. In my work I argue that far from understanding a revolution in France as independent and isolated, we grasp its nature by exploring how it was shaped by and helped to form transnational intellectual and cultural trends.4 The transitions and revolutions across the eighteenth-century Euro-Atlantic world must furthermore be understood as not only an intellectual transformation, but also as practice-driven developments.5 Cultural trends and practices are not just reflections, but also motors of political transformation; history is made by objects, rituals and performances.6 In addition to my emphasis on transnational exchange and culture as an engine of change, my project expands the parameters of the long eighteenth century, suggesting that the 1848 Revolutions were fundamentally shaped by eighteenth-century cultural developments, which, in turn, were shaped by cultural icons, including the figure of William Tell.

Known widely throughout Europe, North America and Latin America, the Tell story has long been open to multiple interpretations and available to make varied political statements. Its flexibility and ultimately ambivalent political meaning make the reiterations of the Tell story particularly revealing in the eighteenth century. After an introduction discussing the historical origins and uses of the story in Switzerland, this article focuses on a series of specific, intertwined versions of the Tell story that appeared in France and Britain from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineenth century: Antoine-Marin Lemierre’s Guillaume Tell of 1766, Michel-Jean Sedaine and André Grétry’s 1791 comic opera, rewritten by Jean-Baptiste Pelissier in 1828, Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s 1794–1801 epic poem with its English translation, first published in 1810, and James Sheridan Knowles’s 1825 five-act play.7 Of course, this is not a comprehensive catalog of revolutionary era Tell stories as I have excluded or only briefly mention many, including most obviously Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 classic play and Gioachino Rossini’s 1829 famous opera, first performed in Paris. The four I do examine, however, exemplify the legend’s malleability and polyvalent political meanings in the Atlantic World. Furthermore, Grétry’s opera (rewritten by Pelissier and based partly on Lemierre’s play) and Knowles’s version (based partly on Florian’s epic) were both performed on the Paris stage in the summer of 1828. [End Page 86]

Historical Origins in Switzerland

Modern scholars have followed several paths through oral and written culture and across genres to trace Tell’s...


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pp. 85-114
Launched on MUSE
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