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...
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