The Prince of Homburg

by Heinrich von Kleist

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Critical Evaluation

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Heinrich von Kleist’s last play, The Prince of Homburg, is a work of contrast—between the heart, feelings, and spontaneous, intuitive action on one hand and the head, reflection, and rational thinking on the other. Dream and reality operate simultaneously. In thus incorporating the tension of opposites, this play reflects the Kleistian mind. In his personal life, Kleist was constantly tortured by such demands of the bourgeois life as having a career, earning a livelihood, and creating a name for himself. His quest for knowledge or absolute truth did not permit him to accept the trodden path. Even the notion of absolute truth failed to provide him comfort, for he saw flaws there, too. Alienated from the world and disenchanted with the existing order of religion, politics, and literature, he often contemplated ending his life, and at the age of thirty-four he did so.

The two main protagonists in The Prince of Homburg are by nature utterly different. The prince is a young man incapable of reflection, and he lets his heart rule his mind. The elector of Brandenburg, the sovereign, is a mature man who considers the autonomy of rules to be just. For him, the state needs the submission of its citizens: All sacrifices in the name of the state are justified. Conversely, individuality for the elector is synonymous with anarchy. The prince is an individual led by his feelings. When he impetuously advances, thus failing to follow the elector’s orders, it becomes clear that he does not possess the necessary calm and mature judgment of a military commander. Some critics have analyzed the play’s opposition between the individual and the state and concluded that the resolution is synonymous with the victory of one over the other. Others have interpreted the elector’s softening toward the prince and the prince’s acceptance of his death sentence as a compromise.

The elector, in his Prussian belief in obedience to authority, cannot tolerate disobedience. It takes the prince a while to realize that he must lose his life for leading his country to victory against the Swedish army at Fehrbellin. At the thought of his impending death the prince loses all sense of dignity. In portraying the weak prince groveling at the feet of the electress and begging his beloved Natalie to approach the elector for his pardon, Kleist brilliantly captures the humanness in the prince. He thereby also mocks the sublime portrayals of death in the dramas of antiquity, for in reality death is invariably accompanied by fear. Kleist does not present the prince as the embodiment of valor who can sacrifice himself for the sake of the state. He even forsakes his love for Natalie, assuming, though wrongly so, that the elector may take a more severe view of his situation once he knows that the prince is the hindrance to the plan to marry Natalie to the king of Sweden.

Instead of emphasizing the feminine characteristics of the two women in the play, Kleist focuses more on their ability to take control of the situation. In act 1, scene 1, when Hohenzollern leads the elector, his wife, and Natalie to the garden where the prince of Homburg sits bareheaded with his shirt open at the throat in a somnambulistic state weaving a laurel wreath, the electress is the only one to express sympathy regarding his condition. She interrupts Hohenzollern and her husband and recommends that they try to help him instead of making fun of him. Later, when the prince has sunk into the depths of despair, Natalie makes a compelling argument for the prince. She cleverly conveys to...

(This entire section contains 880 words.)

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the elector that he has the power to grant the prince mercy and that his refusal to do so would be inhumane. She appeals to his emotions when she says that he will not be able to enjoy Prussia’s victory if it is gained at the cost of a friend’s life. By the last scene of the play, when Natalie crowns the prince with a laurel wreath and announces his pardon, the prince has lost his composure and dignity so thoroughly that he faints. Natalie, with compassion and understanding, exclaims, “Heavens—killed with joy!”

Upon recovering, the prince cannot believe that his crowning and pardon are really taking place. As in the first scene, where his somnambulistic state is responsible for his confused state of mind, in the resolution of the play too it seems as if he cannot distinguish between reality and dream. To his question, “No, it’s a dream! Do say—is it a dream?” the mature veteran of war Colonel Kottwitz answers, “A dream, what else?” The prince has felt the proximity of death and knows now that life is transitory. Only one thing is certain, and that is death. In the midst of the joyful occasion, he asks the seemingly naïve but in fact profound question about the dreamlike quality of life. Colonel Kottwitz displays his understanding of the hidden meaning in his question when he agrees that life is a mere dream. Kleist thus ends his play with a reference to life’s being a preparation for death. When military officers shout about war while preparing for battle, they are at the same time preparing for their end.