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...
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- Critical Essays