Heinrich von Kleist’s fame as the author of short stories and novellas almost matches his fame as a playwright. The novella Michael Kohlhaas (1810; English translation, 1844), perhaps Kleist’s best-known narrative work, tells the story of a Reformation-era merchant whose thirst for justice becomes an obsession, overturning the social order but never achieving satisfaction. Die Marquise von O——— (1808; The Marquise of O———, 1960), incorporating themes of objective versus subjective reality often found in Kleist’s plays, presents the predicament of a young unmarried woman impregnated while unconscious. She knows herself to be virtuous, yet she is spurned by society. Other stories include “Das Erdbeben in Chile” (1807; “The Earthquake in Chile,” 1946), “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” (1811; “The Betrothal in St. Domingo,” 1960), “Das Bettelweib von Locarno” (1811; “The Foundling,” 1960), and “Die heilige Cäcilie: Oder, Die Gewalt der Musik” (1811; “The Duel,” 1960). Much of Kleist’s fiction can be found in the two-volume Erzählungen (1810-1811; “The Marquise of O” and Other Stories, 1960).
Perhaps the most misunderstood of German literary figures, Heinrich von Kleist was long considered a cheerleader of Prussian militarism. Critics misread the profound criticism of the military establishment in the play The Prince of Homburg, seeing only the highly emotional patriotism. There is still disagreement between those critics who consider Kleist an early Romantic with Ludwig Tieck and Clemens Brentano and those who emphasize his kinship with Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the giants of German classicism.
Kleist’s appeal to modern readers is attested by the many adaptations of his works. The best-selling novel Ragtime (1975), by E. L. Doctorow, follows closely the plot of Michael Kohlhaas, and director Eric Rohmer’s film Die Marquise von O (1976) received great critical acclaim. The French playwright Jean Giraudoux added his touch to the Amphitryon material in 1929 with Amphitryon 38. Georg Kaiser’s Zweimal Amphitryon (1944; twice Amphitryon) and the 1968 play Amphitryon by Peter Hacks (English translation, 1970) show the further adaptation of the mythological material Kleist himself had adapted from Plautus and Molière. Finally, poets from the early Romantics to the expressionists and existentialists have acknowledged their debt to Kleist.
Heinrich von Kleist considered himself primarily a dramatist, and each of his several plays is recognized in the twentieth century as a masterpiece of its type. Der zerbrochene Krug (1808; The Broken Jug, 1930), Kleist’s comedy of unmasking, is one of the liveliest exhibitions of comic misunderstanding and double entendre in European drama. In Penthesilea (1808; English translation, 1959), Kleist restructures a Greek myth as a psychological tragedy. Das Käthchen von Heilbronn (1810; Cathy of Heilbronn, 1927) and Penthesilea are paired by Kleist as opposite expressions of identical inner impulses. Cathy of Heilbronn is a fairy tale in which the heroine’s forbearance and inner surety guided by dream win her a life of true happiness. Kleist also wrote a family tragedy, Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803; The Feud of the Schroffensteins, 1916), a patriotic play, Die Hermannsschlacht (1821), and Amphitryon (1807; English translation, 1962), an adaptation of Molière’s comedy of the same name. Kleist’s fragmentary tragedy, Robert Guiskard (1808; English translation, 1962), prompted Wieland’s celebrated comment that the play, if finished, would unite the spirits of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and William Shakespeare. Kleist’s last play, the internationally known Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (1821; The Prince of Homburg , 1875), follows the career of...
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- Critical Essays