Kleist, (Bernd) Heinrich (Wilhelm) von

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KLEIST, (Bernd) Heinrich (Wilhelm) von

Nationality: German. Born: Frankfurt an der Oder, Brandenburg (now Germany), 18 October 1777. Education: Studied under Professor Wünsch, University of Frankfurt, 1799. Military Service: Entered the Prussian army in 1792; took part in the seige of Mainz, 1793, promoted to second lieutenant, 1799, resigned his commission, 1799. Career: Traveled throughout Germany, and to Paris and Switzerland, 1800-04; attempted to join the French army, 1803; civil servant, Königsberg, 1805-06; co-founder, with Adam Müller, and editor, Phöbus, Dresden, 1808-09; attempted unsuccessfully to publish the newspaper Germania, in Prague, 1809; editor, Berliner Abendblätter, 1808-11. Suffered many nervous breakdowns. Died: 21 November 1811 (suicide).



Hinterlassene Schriften, edited by Ludwig Tieck. 1821.

Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Ludwig Tieck. 3 vols., 1826.

Werke, edited by Erich Schmidt and others. 5 vols., 1904-05; revised edition, 7 vols., 1936-38.

Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, edited by Helmut Sembdner. 2 vols., 1961.

Short Stories

Erzählungen. 2 vols., 1810-11.

Michael Kohlhaas (in English). 1844.

The Marquise of O. and Other Stories. 1960.


Die Familie Schroffenstein (produced 1804). 1803; as The Feud of the Schroffensteins, 1916.

Amphitryon (produced 1899). 1807; translated as Amphitryon, 1974; in Five Plays, 1988.

Der zerbrochene Krug (produced 1808). 1811; as The Broken Pitcher, 1961; as The Broken Jug, in Four Continental Plays, edited by John P. Allen, 1964; in Five Plays, 1988.

Penthesilea (produced 1876). 1808; translated as Penthesilea, inThe Classic Theater, edited by Eric Bentley, 1959; in Five Plays, 1988.

Das Käthchen von Heilbronn (produced 1810). 1810; as Kate of Heilbronn, in Illustrations of German Poetry, 1841; as Käthchenof Heilbronn; or, the Test of Fire, in Fiction and Fantasy of German Literature, 1927.

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (produced 1821). In Hinterlassene Schriften, 1821; as The Prince of Homburg, 1956; in The Classic Theater, edited by Eric Bentley, 1959; as Prince Frederick of Homburg, 1988.

Die Hermannsschlacht (produced 1839). In Hinterlassene Schriften, 1821.

Robert Guiskard (unfinished; produced 1901). In Gesammelte Schriften, 1826; as A Fragment of the Tragedy of Robert Guiscard, in Five Plays, 1988.

Five Plays (includes Amphitryon; The Broken Jug; Penthesilea; Prince Frederick of Homburg; A Fragment of the Tragedy of Robert Guiscard). 1988.


Briefe an seine Schwester Ulrike, edited by August Koberstein. 1860.

Briefe an seine Braut, edited by Karl Biedermann and others. 1884.

Lebensspuren: Dokumente und Berichte der Zeitgenossen, edited by Helmut Sembdner. 1964.

Über das Marionettentheater: Aufsätze und Anekdoten, edited by Helmut Sembdner. 1935; revised edition, 1980; as On a Theatre of Marionettes, 1989; as On Puppetshows, 1991.

An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Kleist, with essays, edited by Philip B. Miller. 1982.


Critical Studies:

Reason and Energy by Michael Hamburger, 1957; Kleist's Dramas by E. L. Stahl, 1961; Kleist: Studies in His Work and Literary Character by Walter Silz, 1961; Kleist's "Prinz Friedrich von Homburg": An Interpretation Through Word Patterns by Mary Garland, 1968; Kleist: A Study in Tragedy and Anxiety by John Gearey, 1968; Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, 1970, and Kleist, 1979, both by J. M. Ellis; From Lessing to Hauptmann: Studies in German Drama by Ladislaus Löb, 1974; The Major Works of Kleist by R.E. Helbling, 1975; Kleist and the Tragic Ideal by H. M. Brown, 1977; The Stories of Kleist by Denys Dyer, 1977; Kleist: Word into Flesh: A Poet's Quest for the Symbol by Ilse Graham, 1977; Kleist: A Biography by Joachim Maass, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1983; Desire's Sway: The Plays and Stories of Kleist by James M. McGlathery, 1983; Spirited Women Heroes: Major Female Characters in the Dramas of Goethe, Schiller and Kleist by Julie D. Prandi, 1983; Prison and Idylls: Studies in Kleist's Fictional World by Linda Dietrick, 1985; Kleist: A Critical Study by Raymond Cooke, 1987; The Manipulation of Reality in Works by Kleist by Robert E. Glenny, 1987; Kafka's Prusian Advocate: The Influence of Kleist on Franz Kafka by John M. Grandin, 1987; In Pursuit of Power: Kleist's Machiavellian Protagonists, 1987, Kleist's Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, 1991, and Kleist on Stage, 1804-1987, 1993, all by William C. Reeve; Laughter, Comedy and Aesthetics: Kleist's Der zerbrochene Krug by Mark G. Ward, 1989; Kleist on Stage, 1804-1987 by William C. Reeve, 1993; Heinrich von Kleist: The Dramas and Stories by Anthony R. Stephens, 1994; The Poetics of Death: The Short Prose of Kleist and Balzac by Beatrice Martina Guenther, 1996; The Plays of Heinrich von Kleist: Ideals and Illusions by Seán Allan, 1996; Heinrich von Kleist: The Ambiguity of Art and the Necessity of Form by H. M. Brown, 1998.

* * *

Heinrich von Kleist's standing in this century may only be a little short of adulation—Franz Kafka thought his work close to perfection and Thomas Mann considered him Germany's writer of genius—yet at the time of Kleist's suicide in 1811 contemporaries held the view of him propagated by Goethe, namely that Kleist's work was the product of a diseased mind. The contents of Kleist's handful of short prose pieces constituting his claim to being the finest short prose writer in the German language are indeed marked by the most explosive and violent spectrum of emotions and actions: brutal murders, sex crimes, hideous acts of revenge, the destruction of entire populations, race warfare, the slaughtering of innocent babes, and the rewarding of deeds of love by deeds of hate are the staple fare of his stories. A sensitive reading, however, quickly dispels the belief that Kleist is simply pandering to a mindless fascination with anarchy and evil. Behind all these prose works resides the response of a man who may best be regarded as the greatest casualty of the collapse of Enlightenment optimism. Raised in a belief in the perfectibility of humanity, Kleist encountered Kant's writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century and found all his convictions shattered in a Kantian philosophy that demonstrated the limitations of human knowledge. At the heart of Kleist's prose writing is the discovery he confessed to his fiancée after reading Kant: "We cannot decide if that which we call truth is indeed truth or if it simply seems to be." In all Kleist's stories there is a dichotomy between appearance and truth. The natural disaster at the beginning of "The Earthquake in Chile" allows Jerónimo to flee prison; it appears as a divine act of intervention on his behalf, but it in fact marks the beginning of a far greater chain of disasters to come. In "The Foundling" the virtuous Elvire appears to have a lover in her room, whist in "The Duel" the noble-minded Friedrich appears to have lost the combat to the evil Count Jakob, yet it is ultimately the latter who succumbs to an apparently minor wound. And in "St. Cecilia or the Power of Music" the reader is invited to believe that the divine music that protected a convent from desecration was not conducted by Sister Antonia but by the saint who has taken on the appearance of that sister.

Acting on the strength of what they perceive to be true compels people to make hideous mistakes, thus in "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo" Gustav murders his lover Toni because he thinks he has seen her betraying him, but her actions were in fact a courageous rouse to save Gustav and his companions. Once made aware of the true situation, Gustav's reaction is pure Kleistian: he shoots himself in the head.

Throughout Kleist's stories can be encountered the expression "by chance." It adds to the world of appearance a crushing dimension of apparent arbitrariness governing human existence. An identical act can lead to a belief in a world of absolute good or of absolute evil, thus in "The Earthquake in Chile" the adoption of a child at the end of a story of unmitigated horror leaves an impression that human kindness may have triumphed, but a similar act of adoption at the beginning of "The Foundling" unleashes a sequence of events that leaves the most benign of men an avenging, God-defying monster. Chance permits Kleist to introduce at every stage of his narrative sudden, dramatic changes; powerful—and often overpowering—changes or reversals of fortunes, often based on erroneous perceptions, plunge characters into greater depths of despair or momentarily elate them before their illusory hopes are crushed. Yet it would be a misreading to see his stories as essentially dramatic concepts rendered down into the short prose form, for Kleist's use of language demonstrates that these stories are neither the work of an epic writer nor a dramatist, even though Kleist the dramatist stands alongside both Goethe and Schiller as having the most profound influence upon the German theater. As a storyteller, Kleist made unrivaled use of the hypotactic possibilities of the German language. He is unmatched in the exploitation of the language's natural tendency to grammatical subordination; his sentences almost collapse under their own weight, as by use of hypotaxis he offers further information, detail, and qualifying comments. It is the prose form itself that his stories celebrate, and the psychological and metaphysical insights he offers are won as much by means of syntax and linguistic juxtaposition as by the plots of the stories themselves. To the unwary reader, however, the deliberate chronicler tone adopted in his stories can be misleading. The archaic, and seemingly unpolished, even clumsy, narrative voice belies Kleist's achievement of raising the short prose form in German to an unparalleled tool for probing the darkest recesses of humans' minds in an age that had lost its naive confidence in a loving God. Understandably, a genre that is so deeply located within its own structure and language, as Kleist's stories undoubtedly are, does not lend itself easily to adaptation to other forms, such as film, or to translation into other languages, and perhaps for this reason Kleist's influence on the development of the short prose form in European literature has not been as marked as his standing within German literature might suggest.

—Anthony Bushell

See the essays on "The Marquise of O" and "Michael Kohlhass."

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Kleist, (Bernd) Heinrich (Wilhelm) von

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