In Heinrich von Kleist’s works, extremes of emotion, often combined with natural catastrophes or war, illumine the contradictions inherent in the human condition. Kleist was especially concerned with the limits of human knowledge and its interplay with other modes of perception, such as intuition, instinct, and the operations of the unconscious mind.
The Feud of the Schroffensteins
The great stress laid on family relationships in Kleist’s novellas, as well as in his play The Feud of the Schroffensteins, suggests that family motifs in the other plays emanate from a single family theme. Rupert Schroffenstein, for example, seems to return in the dark excesses and desperation of Amphitryon, Piachi (“The Foundling”), and to some extent Michael Kohlhaas. The innocence and inner serenity of Kathy, Agnes, Alkmene, and the Marquise of O seem similar or identical.
Much has been written about the unsolved mystery of Kleist, especially his penchant for constructing metaphysical analogies without revealing the key. Family relationships connect people without their volition, sometimes without their knowledge. To examine the often mysterious workings of the family in Kleist’s works may serve to clarify some other Kleistian mysteries, such as the interplay of truth, human knowledge, perception, intuition, and the unconscious. An investigation of the role of the family in Kleist’s works must necessarily start with The Feud of the Schroffensteins, a five-act play in blank verse. Kleist wrote the play as a spoof of contemporary knight-in-armor potboilers—hence the one-sided extremism of the characters. In the course of this play, every turn of the plot leads to the most horrible consequences imaginable. Characters jump to conclusions and threaten terrible acts of revenge for supposed crimes. Kleist, who wrote the play with tongue firmly in cheek and who could hardly speak for laughing when reading his play aloud, saw it taken very seriously. Indeed, it enjoyed more popularity than many of the knight-in-armor plays that it was meant to satirize. Originally titled Die Familie Ghonorez, then Die Familie Thierez, the play was moved to a German setting in its final version. Totally misunderstood by the public, it was Kleist’s most successful play during his lifetime.
The religious ceremony in the opening scene of The Feud of the Schroffensteins is revealed to be a blasphemous one dedicated solely to revenge. A transformation of human beings into vicious beasts occurs during this scene. The participants in the ceremony are not even called people but, rather, wild ones. It is a logical continuation of this development, in which Rupert claims—in a long, sermonlike harangue—that the mercy of ravenous wolves and other carnivores would be preferable to Sylvester’s mercy. Rupert announces his conviction that the child’s fable of Nature has been exploded by the murder of his son. Qualities such as love, innocence, and purity are as believable as talking animals. Rupert says that the last vestige of human feeling has been extinguished. The other house of Schroffenstein has become a brood of poisonous snakes to be exterminated relentlessly. The final message Rupert sends to Sylvester clearly has neither human nor natural origin; by the testimony of his own words, Rupert has deserted humanity and Nature to become a demon thirsting for Sylvester’s blood and that of his child.
The song with which the play begins sets up a non-Christian cosmology just before and during Holy Communion, which becomes in itself a vehicle of vengeance. The choir of maidens tells a continuous story that describes how Rupert sees his son’s (unwitnessed) murder. The response to love from the child is steel from the murderer, a sequence that anticipates Rupert’s metamorphosis in the harangue described previously. This sequence provides the human-to-demon transformation with more motivation than is present in the speech itself. The adoration of the dead child, particularly as described in the last stanza of the song, verges on idolatry. Considering that this song functions as a hymn during a supposedly Christian mass, it contains very few Christian ideas. The central theme is vengeance. The mass is actually a Black Mass, as revealed in the litany sung repeatedly by the choir of youths. The unnamed deity whom they invoke has an empire limited by the stars and a throne covered by the open spaces. This is clearly not the Christian God; it is the devil.
It has often been said of Kleist that what his characters say to one another usually creates misunderstanding, that words constitute barriers rather than communication and that often a character says just the opposite of what he intends to say. This is of interest in regard to the changing configurations of the family. The Schroffenstein family at Rossitz self-righteously considers itself far above the Schroffensteins of Warwand, whom it proposes to exterminate like a nest of vermin. Yet in the process of swearing vengeance, the Rossitz house identifies itself first with wild animals, then with supernatural forces of evil. It is as if the Rossitz house, in its efforts to vanquish the rival house, must become more evil than it accused Warwand of being. In Rupert’s harangue, it is as if two polar forces approach each other, then quickly exchange places, retaining only their polarity. The forces behind Rupert are unmasked in the course of the scene. They are not divine but infernal, just as in Kleist’s plays words are often unmasked as the exact opposite of the pure expression of truth they are assumed to be.
This double level of meaning is already present in the opening hymn, unmasked as a devil’s litany. It is present in the one utterance of the accused accomplice under torture. “Sylvester,” his dying shriek, could be interpreted as an appeal for help rather than an accusation, yet the Rossitz house seizes on it as proof of the Warwand house’s guilt. The later discovery of the real cause of death witnesses to the fact that this “word” was inadequate to its speaker’s intention. The lack of understanding and of communication is particularly evident between Rupert and Sylvester, heads of the two enemy camps whose only connection is an ancient contract allowing the lands and chattels of an extinct house to all into the hands of the other. A bitter feud results, whose beginning is forgotten and whose end is not in sight. It is the classic Montague-Capulet situation made more poignant by the inclusion of both houses in the same family.
Overwhelming circumstantial evidence convinces each of the two warring parties of the other’s guilt in the death of a child. Unfortunate accidents, mistrust, and misunderstanding form a terrifying chain reaction that leads to the final catastrophe. Yet for all their enmity, the houses are strikingly similar. If it is true that Kleist set up Rupert and Sylvester in crassest opposition—Rupert the impulsive, deluded mystic, Sylvester the cautious, yet trusting realist—then it is also true that he set up the wives in opposition to these men. The children Ottokar and Agnes are basically innocent and trusting, but they are prejudiced by their upbringing. The vassals of each house, strange to note, remain on the side of the mistrusting parent—in Warwand, Gertrude; in Rossitz, the fierce Rupert. Sylvester is the only character in the play with a clear view of what is about to happen: He sees that, to the diseased mind, innocence will always seem like guilt.
The first scene of the fifth act, in which the audience sees the perfect understanding and mutual trust of Agnes and Ottokar, reveals the ideal condition of human beings. Their secret betrothal takes place when they are both in great danger. Even in this relationship, however, there is an element of deception. Ottokar lies to induce Agnes to exchange clothes with him so that she might escape the pursuing Rupert. She believes him and complies. Their state of perfect trust, in spite of the minor deception, stands in direct contrast to Rupert’s blind mistrust. Ottokar describes a magic wedding night; the fateful change of clothes unites him with Agnes. This takes place in defiance of the whole framework of false reality built up in the play. The lovers unite, not only in spite of language and appearances but also in spite of the whole world as it appears to them. Their inner equilibrium guides them in opposition to everyone and everything else in the world except each other. It is not in vain that this happens, for they are finally vouchsafed access to the truth about the child’s death, Sylvester’s innocence, and all the subsequent wrongs on both sides. With their perfect trust has come truth. Ottokar says that everything is solved, the whole mystery clear; he is speaking not only of the riddle of the child’s death but also of the riddle of reality itself.
As Rupert is ruined by suspicion, Sylvester is ruined by faith. Despite his innate feeling for justice, he eventually begins to give credence to the horrible suspicions of his companions and to the undeniably strong circumstantial evidence. Sylvester becomes guilty when he denies his inner certainty in the face of apparent facts. He and Rupert finally find reality, but it appears in the form of the witch Ursula. She found the child’s body drowned, not murdered. A reality dependent on a witch’s testimony and Rupert’s dark delusions—is there any difference? Kleist’s answer is not nihilistic, for the inner balance of Ottokar and Agnes preserves them free from guilt.
The vendetta, or feud, is an old and beloved vehicle in literature for expressing the need for harmony and trust between people. The innocent lovers who are usually the victims of such tragedies remain true to each other and prove to the world that love conquers all, even in death; the prototypical example is Romeo and Juliet. In traditional treatments of this theme, the family is little more than a framework used to assign characters to opposing parties, while Kleist’s enemy houses are both part of the same family—a refinement that renders the disastrous events even more disastrous, if possible. Unlike the Montagues and Capulets, neither house of Schroffenstein is united in opposition to the other; each set of parents contains one more reasonable and one more impulsive member. Within these couples, the balance of power is always on the side of the irrational. Even Sylvester eventually succumbs to the pressures of wife, vassals, and environment, which lead him away from his inner certainty. Kleist emphasizes the innate closeness of human beings, compromised by their artificial alienation from one another and from their environment. Ties of blood are bridges between people that cannot be overlooked. The isolation of individuals from one another and...
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