The Prince of Homburg

by Heinrich von Kleist

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As with much literature from the Romantic period, "The Prince of Homburg" has a dreamlike atmosphere. In act 1, scene 1, the Prince is found dozing and then sleepwalking in the palace garden. It's a scene symbolic of Homburg's separate existence, a kind of life in an alternative world. The Electress comments about him:

The man is ill, as I'm alive!

Princess Natalie, with whom Homburg is in love, agrees that he needs a doctor, but then Count Hohenzollern has a different opinion of Homburg's strange behavior:

He's healthy. . . . this is nothing more, on my word, believe me, than a kind of bad behavior of his spirit.

Hohenzollern's remark attests to the superficiality, or at least the failure to understand, of the "normal" people in the story. The uniqueness of Homburg, the thing that makes him special, is lost on them. In act I1 scene 4, Homburg, alone with Hohenzollern, reflects on his own thoughts:

What a strange dream I had ?!—It seemed as if a royal palace shining with gold and silver suddenly opened to me. And coming down from on high on a marble ramp, a whole troupe of the people beloved by me descended: the Elector and the Princess.

Homburg is the Other, but he wishes to be accepted by the establishment. In act 2, after the battle of Fehrbellin has taken place, there has been a report—later found to be false—that the Elector has been killed. When Natalie, who is the niece of the Elector, asks if it is true, Homburg tells her

O ! Would that I could say—No ! Would that I were able, with the blood of this faithful heart, to call his back into existence.

When the Elector later orders Homburg arrested for insubordination, for having led an attack prematurely and without authorization, Homburg is stunned. The Elector then gives him a chance to defend himself. In act 3, scene 4 Natalie delivers a letter from the Elector to Homburg in which he states:

My Prince of Homburg, when I had you imprisoned because of the premature attack you launched, I was thinking to do nothing other than my duty. But upon your own approval I must depend. If you believe that an injustice is being done to you, then I ask you to tell me so in two words. And then I immediately will return your sword to you.

What we see here is the theme of individual responsibility. It is as if even the authority figure of the Elector is acknowledging that the human spirit and its internal sense of moral right and wrong can overrule the law. Yet Homburg does not declare himself innocent. When the Elector nevertheless pardons him, his reaction (act 3, scene 11) is

Is this a dream?

The response to this, from Colonel Kottwitz, is to say,

A dream—what else?

This, evidently, is a very famous line in German literature. It speaks to the theme of illusion v. reality at the heart of most Romantic literature. It also ties in specifically to the opening scene of the play, in which Homburg's dreaming and sleepwalking are a metaphor of the unusual individual's separateness from society and its conventional standards and rules. The Elector's decision to free him represents the triumph of that spirit of the unique person over the arbitrary power of convention. It is an unexpected conclusion to an otherwise largely melancholy drama.

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