The plot revolves around the conflict between two aristocratic brothers, Karl and Franz Moor. The charismatic but rebellious student Karl is deeply loved by his father. The younger brother, Franz, who appears as a cold, calculating villain, plots to wrest away Karl's inheritance. As the play unfolds, both Franz's motives and Karl's innocence and heroism are revealed to be complex.
Schiller's highly emotional language and his depiction of physical violence mark the play as a quintessential Sturm und Drang work. At the same time, the play utilizes a traditional five-act structure, with each act containing two to five scenes. The play uses alternating scenes to pit the brothers against each other, as one quests for money and power, while the other attempts to create a revolutionary anarchy in the Bohemian Forest.
Schiller raises many disturbing issues in the play. For instance, he questions the dividing lines between personal liberty and the law and probes the psychology of power, the nature of masculinity and the essential differences between good and evil. He strongly criticizes both the hypocrisies of class and religion and the economic inequities of German society. He also conducts a complicated inquiry into the nature of evil.
Schiller was inspired by the play Julius of Tarent (1774) by Johann Anton Leisewitz, a play Friedrich Schiller considered a favourite.