Heinrich von Kleist

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Heinrich von Kleist Drama Analysis

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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...

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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 Nature is increased by the world’s bloodthirsty Ruperts and Gertrudes. There is no doubt about the guilt of individuals such as these, but the real villain is whatever force creates the illusions, the accidents, and the circumstantial evidence. It is the force that causes the old witch to skulk away from human society. Kleist’s family is a configuration, not only of individuals but also of forces behind them.


Kleist’s drama Amphitryon contains no complex family structure with a full complement of children, as is found in The Feud of the Schroffensteins, yet although Amphitryon is basically a marital drama, essentially similar problems of estrangement and reconciliation occur. Molière’s Amphitryon (pr., pb. 1668; English translation, 1775) is a witty comment on the social customs and sexual mores of the French court; Kleist’s Amphitryon, nominally a comedy, is much more than an individualized and internalized variation on the same theme. Kleist shifts Molière’s biting satire into a metaphysical frame of reference.

According to legend, Jupiter was forced to take on the appearance of Amphitryon to facilitate spending a night with the beautiful Alkmene, the implication being that she loved her husband too much to share her bed with anyone else, even the ruler of the gods. Such a marriage would seem to be as idyllic as the pure love of Ottokar and Agnes in The Feud of the Schroffensteins. Yet conversations between husband and wife are charged with misunderstanding, mistrust, and reproach, from act 2—where the shadow of Jupiter separates them for the first time—to the last scene of the play—where Jupiter reveals his true identity, announces the impending birth of Hercules, and departs.

Alkmene can easily accept Jupiter’s idealized portrayal of Amphitryon because it confirms her own previous idealization of her husband. (It is ironic that even when she prays to Jupiter she imagines him in the form of Amphitryon.) Alkmene reacts with protest and shock on discovering the true identity of her nocturnal visitor. Jupiter in the guise of Amphitryon commands Alkmene to pray to Jupiter as himself rather than as a sort of super-Amphitryon; she replies that she will forget Amphitryon when she prays but forget Jupiter the rest of the time.

Amphitryon’s main failing with regard to Alkmene is mistrust, for he accuses her of unfaithfulness, knowing full well that she believed the visitor to be her husband. In a speech reminiscent of Rupert Schroffenstein’s harangue, he reveals the depth of his injury in the strength of his alienation from his former existence. He rages both at the gods and at the shameless rascal disguised as himself, without knowing that these objects of his wrath are identical.

As in The Feud of the Schroffensteins, the real culprit is not the suspected family member but the old witch, deceptive reality. The unheard of and unimaginable happens, propelling Amphitryon onto a path of rage that renders him inaccessible to reason. The supposed crime against the family—murder or adultery—seems almost harmless compared with the devastation caused by pursuing vengeance for the sake of honor.

No Greco-Roman god fits the description Jupiter gives of himself in the fifth scene of the second act. The words omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—listed as attributes of God the Father in the Christian catechism—point to the incorporation of aspects of the Christian God in the figure of Jupiter. The intrusion of Jupiter is more than the intrusion of the supernatural—it is the intrusion of an entity composed of elements of two conflicting religions. It is clear that the estrangement of Alkmene and Amphitryon is accompanied by a mixed cosmology comparable to that of The Feud of the Schroffensteins. The mixture of Christianity with something quite alien to it is associated with family strife.

Throughout the play, Amphitryon is motivated only by a desire to return to his family and his identity, both of which are inextricably entwined in the person of Alkmene. It is precisely Amphitryon’s outrage at the estrangement brought about by Jupiter that alienates him from her all the more. Having been exorcized from his own identity, Amphitryon’s struggle to return to his former state, ironically enough, effects real changes in his personality, thereby removing him another step from Alkmene. Jupiter’s final pronouncement cannot patch up the marriage but merely emphasizes that their alienation has come about through no fault of theirs. Alkmene, who has borne all the rest with comparative equanimity, retreats to a faint that is first cousin to death. Her tortured “ach,” which is the final word of the play, expresses her shock at the fate that has been visited on her.


The destructive force of love is also central to Kleist’s Penthesilea, an eccentrically structured one-act tragedy in blank verse, the twenty-four scenes of which comprise some three thousand lines. The play is based on the post-Homeric legend of the slaying of the Amazon Penthesilea by Achilles during the Trojan War. Kleist, however, departs radically from his source: In his version, Penthesilea kills Achilles.

In the fifteenth scene of Penthesilea, the Amazon chieftain speaks of a future in which she will be able to dedicate herself entirely to Achilles, much as Alkmene is dedicated to Amphitryon. Achilles brings to mind the predicted birth of Hercules in Amphitryon when he declares, “You shall bear me the god of the earth.” The future family envisioned in this scene indicates how the previous existence of each individual is overthrown by another’s love. The duties, allegiances, and circumstances that thrust them apart are no longer capable of determining the direction of their lives, for each embodies hope, happiness, and fate for the other. This absolute dependence on one another, coupled with the complete failure of mutual understanding and communication, brings about the ultimate failure of the family to exist—the self-destruction of the lovers.

Cathy of Heilbronn

In Cathy of Heilbronn, a five-act play in blank verse, the same overwhelming sense that the lovers are destined for each other prevails, although with a happier resolution. Here it is consciously invoked by the lovers as an irrational, semireligious necessity; here, too, a lack of communication determines the sequence of events. (Kleist wrote in a letter to Henriette Hendel in 1807 that Cathy and Penthesilea belong together like the plus and minus of algebra, and in a letter to Heinrich Joseph von Collin on December 8, 1808, Kleist wrote that Cathy and Penthesilea are one and the same being under opposite circumstances.) In Cathy of Heilbronn, however, in contrast to Amphitryon and Penthesilea, which evoke the classical concept of fate, the mood is closer to that of a fairy tale, overlaid with the gothic trappings that were so much in vogue in the early nineteenth century.

Cathy, reared as the daughter of a Heilbronn armorer, is in fact the illegitimate daughter of the emperor, although this is not established until the end of the play. The action is set in motion when a handsome knight, Friedrich Wetter, Count vom Strahl, comes to Cathy’s father’s forge. When Cathy sees the count for the first time, she collapses at his feet. Convinced by a dream that she is to marry him, she follows him everywhere as if in a trance. The count, however, has been granted a revelation of his own: He is to marry an emperor’s daughter. Thus, he rebuffs Cathy’s attentions, gently at first, then more harshly. Eventually, however, communication and understanding do come about, and the lovers find each other. The play is a near tragedy; even in the general euphoria of the happy ending, it is clear that all this happiness might never have been. The emperor might have seemed a deus ex machina and Cathy a comic-opera princess, but these possibilities are lost in the fairy-tale atmosphere of the play as a whole.

Cathy’s inexplicable actions remove her completely from the rational material world. When she is brought before a secret court, Cathy herself has no conscious justification for her bizarre pursuit of the count. When faced with repeated evidence that Count vom Stahl does not want her company, indeed regards her doglike devotion as a curse, Cathy persists. She is serenely at one with herself in a world completely at odds with her perception of it. Forced to promise to return to her father, Cathy sees the inescapability of her predicament for the first time. Although she does not allow the demands and expectations of her father and the count to throw her into conflict with herself, she faints when confronted with an action that she knows would destroy her.

From the end of the trial to act 4, scene 2, the count has been admitting to himself ever more fervently that he loves Cathy, but for him the dream-prophecy that his future wife be a daughter of the emperor is important enough to blind him to the witchlike Lady Kunigunde, who happens to be a granddaughter of a previous emperor. Like Amphitryon, Cathy’s count has difficulty disentangling himself from the lying and artifical truths—above all, Kunigunde is artificial—of the external world. As the count questions Cathy in her sleep, however, the process of understanding slowly grows, not out of the words but out of the images themselves. The lovers have shared the same dream, guided by an angel.

It is the angel who, in the play’s climactic scene, rescues Cathy from a burning castle; it is the angel, whose presence attests the absolute faith and trust in God, that envelops Cathy in a mystic certainty wholly alien to the other characters in the play. Like Penthesilea and Alkmene, she is regarded as crazy by the count and others. She pursues her God-given objectives with all the zeal and unswerving valor of a saint or martyr. As in the case of Alkmene, the “Weg des Weibes . . . zur Gottheit” alienates her lover and her entire world. Her close, naïve relationship to the absolute very nearly destroys her relationship with the count. The alienation that accompanies the enmity of faith and reality in the beginning of the play is ended with the allegiance of Cathy and the count in their matching dreams. The family longed for by both lovers is happily founded in their marriage at the play’s end.

The Prince of Homburg

The Prince of Homburg, a five-act play in blank verse, is based on a historical event: the Battle of Fehrbellin in 1675, in which Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenberg, the Great Elector, triumphed over the Swedes. The play’s titular protagonist was also a historical figure; typically, however, Kleist felt free to change the facts as he saw fit.

Kleist’s Homburg, like many of his protagonists, is out of tune with his environment. In the opening scene, he is sleepwalking—a symbolic expression of his alienation. The Elector teases Homburg with promises of fame and marriage to Princess Natalie von Oranien, the Elector’s niece, all wordlessly conveyed in the presentation of a laurel wreath. In his unconscious—and therefore naïve—state Homburg reaches out to them both, calling, “Natalie! Meing Mädchen! Meine Braut!” and “Friedrich! Mein Fürst! Mein Vater!” Later Homburg demonstrates his desire to win their approval through recognition as a successful militarist, which causes him to make the fatal military mistake of advancing without command. A forgotten glove of Natalie is a paradox to the prince when he awakes; it marks the entrance of the inexplicable in the play.

The dream that is not a dream is the cause of the prince’s later predicament. Lost in speculation about the glove and the miraculous realm to which it belongs, Homburg ignores important demands of the material world. He does not listen to his orders when the battle plan is discussed but merely repeats mechanically what he has heard, for he is still musing over the glove. Later, when Kottwitz repeats that he is to wait for orders before advancing, Homburg purposely closes his mind to what he is being told, too intent on winning for himself the fame and glory promised him the night before. The prince’s actions win the battle, but the Elector (before he has learned the identity of his insubordinate commander) sentences him to death for his disobedience. When the Elector is told that the prince is begging for mercy, he responds: “I have the highest respect for his feeling. If he feels the judgment is unfair, I will rescind it.” Feeling dominates the relationship of the prince to the Elector, whom he longs to have for a father, as is seen in the sleepwalking sequence. The dependent status of the prince is emphasized in his helpless pleas for his life in the fifth scene of the third act. Homburg appeals to the Elector’s lady as “Oh, my mother!” She continually refers to him as “my son.” The prince explains that the sight of his own open grave has brought him to this desperate emotional extreme. It is this great flood of feeling—fear of death—that propels the prince back to the refuge of childhood, in which the parents bear the responsibility of protecting the child. The boy-prince begs his surrogate parents to save him from death, and the Elector responds to the same feeling that has brought the prince to childhood. Feeling is now to return the prince to decisive manhood, for the Elector returns the “to be or not to be” predicament to the prince.

Here feeling turns traitor, throwing Homburg back to childlike dependence, while the Elector assumes he can function as a responsible man in resolving the predicament of the execution. Homburg expects the Elector to be a father, and the Elector expects Homburg to be a man.

The Family as Theme

In Penthesilea, Cathy of Heilbronn, Amphitryon, and The Prince of Homburg, there is a breakdown in communication between the individuals most precious to each other. This is at least partially a result of the failure of language to communicate that which is most vital to human beings. The estrangement is so great in Amphitryon that only the promise of the child Hercules retrieves the play from tragedy, while Achilles’ vain hope of a child from Penthesilea indicates their one fragile possibility of redemption.

Real stability belongs only to those possessed of an inner balance, a sort of “schöne Seele” awareness of oneself and one’s role. Cathy, Alkmene, and Natalie are exemplary of this, as is Penthesilea in her own world; it is the completely alien world of Achilles that hurls her into despair and madness, as the strangeness of their men confuses and upsets the lives of the other three. The inner harmony of Alkmene, Cathy, and Natalie is what marks their rightful and proper course through their own worlds—which are bent on opposing them in every way.

These four plays are primarily concerned with the basic unit of the family structure—the husband-wife relationship. Predestined lovers find their way to each other for the first time, not because of intellectual or emotional communication but without any apparent empirical cause, like people in a dream. The fact that Kleist uses dream sequences to express the birth of this inexorable sense of destiny is no coincidence, for reality is the dream unmasked. Much has been said of Kleist’s use of accidental circumstances to express the futility of humanity’s striving. In these four prefamilial plays, true accidents are of minuscule importance, while Kleist makes fairly constant reference to a supernatural power, be it God or fate. The union of the lovers in Cathy of Heilbronn and ThePrince of Homburg is just as directly a result of the influence of this higher power as is the stalemate in Amphitryon and the ultimate disunion in Penthesilea.


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