Kleist’s first and last literary works were plays. While he usually composed in blank verse, he experimented with an amazing variety of forms. After agonizing difficulties with his first two dramatic efforts, he developed a polished, self-confident technique. He turned out classical five-act plays as well as unorthodox one-act plays, covered mythological as well as patriotic historical subjects, and wrote a village farce as well as a romantic comedy. As an example of his dramatic range, one can contrast his Amphitryon (pb. 1807, pr. 1899; English translation, 1962), which imitates the French classical drama of Molière, with his Penthesilea (pb. 1808, pr. 1876; English translation, 1959), which is decidedly anticlassical in its form, as well as in its depiction of character. Like William Shakespeare’s comedies, Kleist’s include serious moments that sometimes border on the tragic. The fact that metaphysical debate and the use of trials or formal interrogations are characteristic of Kleist’s plays points to an important theme in his work: the difficulty of reconciling divergent viewpoints and of discovering the truth.
Since the early nineteenth century, Kleist has been considered a master of the novella form he developed from Giovanni Boccaccio’s model. Kleist completed only eight of these stories because he began writing them only in the last five years of his life. As is typical of the novella, description is kept to a minimum, character is revealed by action, and events constrain choices, as well as drive the fast-paced narrative forward. Tightly structured with complex sentences, Kleist’s stories report much of the dialogue in indirect speech, which can create ironic distance. Kleist is famous for his dramatic openings, with their frequent riddles, as well as his unexpected and sometimes inconclusive endings. The modern, skeptical narrative stance presents a choice of viewpoints for interpreting events. Despite ample use of historical events and characters, Kleist’s stories also contain fantastic elements that can seem hard to reconcile with the realistic details and the sober, objective style of narration.
Through his conscious use of polarities in morality, character, and fate, Kleist externalizes intractable conflict and hones the paradoxes and ironies that he frequently employs. Whereas the sparks of passion fly as the opposites touch, the emotive force is deflected either into humor or into despair as the polarities increasingly diverge or undercut one another. Appearance contradicts reality and a protagonist’s needs and desires seem impossible to achieve in the given society or under the particular government. Unlike German Romantics, who share his focus on subjectivity and the emotions, Kleist shines a dubious light on religion and can be relentlessly logical. His works have a great deal to say about the theory and practice of war, as well as about the pitfalls of legal systems and the administration of justice. Kleist provides as rich a field for psychological analyses as he does for social criticism.
Language skepticism pervades Kleist’s works. It is a sign of his critique of Enlightenment rationality; however, his works also show the perils of extreme passion. Typically, characters fall silent for long periods or misunderstand what is said. The profusion of dashes in his dialogues marks the unfinished utterances of the characters. Bodily signals, such as blushing, sudden pallor, or fainting, provide better cues to the internal situation of the character than much of what they say. Kleist endows hand gestures, kneeling, and head movements with symbolic meaning and places them at turning points or scenes of extreme emotive power.
The strength and complexity of Kleist’s women figures, such as Penthesilea and the Marquise of O——, continue to attract readers and...
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