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Rejected by past critics for its sadomasochistic extremes and for the alleged insanity of its protagonist, Penthesilea is valued today for its exploration of gender roles and the psychology of eroticism and violence. There is more disagreement on how to understand this play than for any of Kleist’s other works. Since so much of the text reports offstage action and the battles are as chaotic as the soul of the protagonist, Penthesilea is seldom produced. The plot runs counter to classical legends, where Amazons never fall in love and are always defeated by male heroes.

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In the opening scenes, Queen Penthesilea and Achilles feel mutual attraction, yet desire to subdue one another in battle. The Amazons and the Greeks view these desires as contrary to reason and custom. After their first armed contest, which is inconclusive, Penthesilea and Achilles announce plans to pursue one another and therefore to contravene the real goals of each army. While some Amazons want to continue the fight to win more captives, others argue that an enamored Penthesilea is not fit to wage war and risks losing the captives they have already won.

The High Priestess’s prediction that Penthesilea will be defeated by her inner foe, rather than by Achilles, proves true. When Penthesilea lies at Achilles’ feet after their second battle, her Amazon friend convinces him to postpone telling the queen of her defeat. Hearing the false report that Achilles is now her prisoner, an ecstatic Penthesilea orders the victory hymn.

A long dialogue ensues in which Achilles inquires about the history of the Amazons. Their ancestors had prayed for revenge to the war god Mars after they were forced into marriage by the murderers of their menfolk. Their first queen had died ripping away one breast to prove to Mars that the women could wield a bow. To reproduce, warrior virgins bring the men they have captured in battle home to a love feast. After a month of orgies, the men are loaded with gifts and dismissed. Though Achilles finds these customs unnatural, he is now determined to make Penthesilea his queen. As the Greeks approach and he orders Penthesilea to go with them, she learns that Achilles has conquered her.

While the Greeks drag Achilles away against his will, the Amazons rescue their queen. This angers Penthesilea, who feels she belongs to the victor. However, on learning that by saving her the Amazons have lost all their captives, she blushes with shame. When a challenge to single combat arrives from Achilles, Penthesilea is outraged, believing this proves that he does not love her. Achilles, confident of the queen’s love, tells his men he will only pretend to fight to give her an easy victory.

Despite attempts of the Amazons to...

(The entire section contains 679 words.)

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