Although Heinrich von Kleist (klist) is perhaps now best known for his two novellas, The Marquise of O—— and Michael Kohlhaas, he earned his reputation in early nineteenth century Germany as a playwright. He wrote tragedies and comedies, family dramas, and political plays, and he adapted one of Molière’s plays for the stage. Kleist combined Greek tragedy and William Shakespeare in his plays, even as he attempted to fashion a national drama that would somehow echo and reflect the spirit of the age.
Kleist’s first play, Die Familie Schroffenstein (pb. 1803; The Feud of the Schroffensteins, 1916), is a tragedy in which humans must reckon with their own shortcomings and their inability to understand truth. The play reveals that individuals create their own fates and that no powers outside themselves intervene to alter that fate. At the same time, Kleist was working on Robert Guiskard (pb. 1808; English translation, 1962), a play that he never finished; it was modeled on the tragedies of Aeschylus. In 1807, he recast the legend of Amphitryon, and his version, unlike Molière’s, focuses on the faithful wife, Alkmene, and her reluctance to accept her fate. Amphitryon (pb. 1807; English translation, 1962) appeared while he was in prison in France after being convicted as a spy.
Penthesilea (pb. 1808; English translation, 1959), Kleist’s most famous play, breathes new life into the Greek legend of the love of the Amazon queen for Achilles and its tragic consequences. This play secured Kleist’s reputation as a poet of great power and feeling, though it did not bring him the immediate recognition he sought. With Der zerbrochene Krug (pr. 1808; The Broken Jug, 1939), Kleist gave Germany one of its great comic masterpieces. Much like Shakespeare’s comedies, the play features country bumpkins and earthy language as well as a portrayal of human foibles. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, impressed with the play, produced it, but it was a disaster. The failed production ruined Kleist’s hopes of earning national recognition and fame. Kleist’s political drama Die Hermannsschlacht (pb. 1821; Hermann’s battle) was an attempt to inspire Germans to unite in a national patriotic and military campaign against Napoleon I. In Das Käthchen von Heilbronn: Oder, Die Feuerprobe (pr., pb. 1810; Cathy of Heilbronn: Or, The Trial by Fire, 1927), Kleist portrays a Cinderella-like character who loves her beloved so much that she endures his constant abuse of her.