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 a young prince whose dream of future glory is playfully encouraged by the Elector and his guests, who come on the prince walking in his sleep. The prince wins a military victory but is sentenced to death for violating orders. When he sees his grave being dug, he recoils in horror and begs for his life. Later he accepts his guilt and passionately yearns for death. When he is pardoned and celebrated as a hero after all, reality seems more illusory than the dream which opens the play.
Kleist was also a journalist, and he wrote a group of war poems and several aesthetic and political essays. These along with several of his stories first appeared in newspapers.
Although he received little recognition during his lifetime, Heinrich von Kleist is considered a masterful writer of fiction and one of the greatest German dramatists. Critics rank his work second only to that of his great contemporaries, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. His short fiction (novellas), as well as his dramas, all confront the central problem of the elusive quality of truth, and even his highly individual writing style and syntax seem to reflect that problem by using an objective tone and a complex pattern of a clause within a clause, breaking the logical sequence of the reader’s thoughts. The world is presented as problematic or “torn,” bereft of its logical or sensible wholeness, and his characters are confronted with an irrational universe, barring the possibility of justice and happiness. Kleist’s tragic view of the contradictions in the world present an essentially modern viewpoint, a forerunner of the feelings of isolation and alienation in an unpredictable world so often presented by twentieth century writers.
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.
Even with his prolific output of plays and tales, Heinrich von Kleist failed to achieve either fame or fortune in his own lifetime. His friends Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, and German poet Christoph Martin Wieland greatly admired his writings, but his work did not win awards or receive significant public recognition. He had made several efforts to gain wider appreciation for his work. Kleist’s frustration and disappointment very likely led to his suicide in 1811. Today, Kleist’s plays and novellas are often recognized for their eloquent lyrical writing and their powerful themes, and he is honored as the namesake of the prestigious Kleist Prize for German literature.
In 1807-1808, Kleist and philosopher Adam Heinrich Müller published the journal Phöbus: Ein Journal für die Kunst (which appeared in book form in 1961), in which Kleist published an early fragment of Michael Kohlhaas and several excerpts from his plays and other stories. This journal did not succeed, though, and lasted only a few months. In 1811, Kleist edited the daily newspaper Berliner Abendblätter, but the publication lasted for six months only.
What gives rise to conflicts between the individual and the state in Michael Kohlhaas and Penthesilea? What, if any, political criticism is implied?
What elements in Heinrich von Kleist’s works point to a moral ambiguity that makes it difficult to assess particular characters?
How do gestures or other body language convey feelings that are not directly expressed by Kleist’s characters? To what themes do specific gestures point?
In what ways do Kleist’s characters transcend traditional gender roles or appear to be constrained by them? How does this affect relationships between men and women?
To what extent does unexpected information at the close of a novella or...
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Allen, Richard. “Reading Kleist and Hoffmann.” In Romantic Writing, edited by Stephen Bygrave. London: Routledge, 1996. Discusses irony, characterization, and the cultural and political context of Kleist’s story “The Betrothal on Santo Domingo.”
Allan, Seán. The Plays of Heinrich von Kleist: Ideals and Illusions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A critical analysis of the ideals and illusions in Kleist’s drama. Bibliography and index.
Allan, Seán. The Stories of Heinrich von Kleist: Fictions of Security. Rochester, N.H.: Camden House, 2001. Although this work focuses on the...
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