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.
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...
(The entire section is 560 words.)