Heinrich von Kleist

The plays and stories of the German author Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) show a preoccupation with intense feelings and the problems these feelings may cause.

Heinrich von Kleist was born in Frankfurt an der Oder on October 18, 1777. In compliance with family tradition he entered the Prussian army at the age of 15. At 16 he participated in the war against the French Republic. In 1799 he left the army as a second lieutenant and went to study philosophy, mathematics, and political science at the University of Frankfurt. In 1801 he ended his studies and began a period of wandering, visiting various countries. An early "fate tragedy," Die Familie Schroffenstein (The Schroffenstein Family), dates from this time. In 1803 he met the poets J. W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller in Weimar. Between 1805 and 1807 he held a position with the Prussian government in Königsberg but was taken prisoner by the French army after Napoleon's invasion of the area.

Kleist's first two important plays, Amphytrion and Penthesilea, were written during his residence in Königsberg. Amphytrion, an adaptation of Molière's play by the same name, tells how the god Jupiter assumes the appearance of the Greek general Amphytrion in order to gain access to the general's faithful wife, Alkmene. Penthesilea is about an Amazon queen who falls in love with the Greek hero Achilles but later goes mad with passion and kills him. At this time Kleist also wrote his only comedy, Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug), a witty farce about a corrupt judge and a village maiden, named Adam and Eva.

After his release by the French, Kleist went to Dresden, where he founded and edited a literary journal between 1807 and 1809. While there he wrote two historical dramas, Kätchen von Heilbronn and Die Hermannschlacht (Herman's Battle), which tells what happens to people who invade Germany. He also began Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, perhaps his greatest drama. Its hero manages to convince himself that he should indeed be sentenced to death for disobeying a military order. Having decided to sacrifice his own life to the higher idea of military justice, he is pardoned in the last scene. In describing the prince's inner struggle, Kleist is thought to have anticipated the insights of present-day existentialist philosophy.

In 1810 Kleist moved to Berlin, where he edited another journal and published his Erzählungen (Stories), highly compressed tales generally concerning some bizarre incident. The most famous of these, "Michael Kohlhaas," recounts the effects of a single man's insistence on personal justice. Like the dramas, Kleist's stories show his preoccupation with extreme states of feeling, to which he was not himself immune. He committed suicide at Wannsee near Berlin on Nov. 21, 1811.

Further Reading on Heinrich von Kleist

One of the best general introductions to Kleist's life and works is in Michael Hamburger's Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature (1957), which also provides an analysis of the intellectual background. Walter Silz, Early German Romanticism: Its Founders and Heinrich von Kleist (1929), views Kleist within the contexts of the German romantic movement, and Ralph Tymms, German Romantic Literature (1955), has an excellent chapter on Kleist as a romantic dramatist.

Additional Biography Sources

Maass, Joachim, Kleist: a biography, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.

Samuel, R. H. (Richard H.), Kleist's lost year and the quest for Robert Guiskard, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Great Britain: J. Hall, 1981.

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