Kleist, Heinrich von (1777–1811)
KLEIST, HEINRICH VON
Heinrich von Kleist, a German dramatist, poet, and novelist, was born in Frankfurt on the Oder. Following a family tradition, Kleist entered the Prussian military service at fourteen, but he left, dissatisfied, in 1799. Uncertain what profession to adopt, Kleist prepared himself for the university by studying privately philosophy, mathematics, and classical languages. An intensive study of Immanuel Kant, or perhaps of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, led to a spiritual crisis in March 1801. The relativity of all knowledge seemed to Kleist to render life, especially a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, pointless. In disgust he discontinued his studies and journeyed to Paris and Switzerland. His decision to pursue a literary career led to a second crisis: Afraid that he had no talent, he burned his tragedy Robert Guiskard in 1803. A period of restless activity followed. In 1805 he obtained a minor civil service position in Königsberg, which relieved him of his immediate worries. His two comedies, Amphitryon and Der zerbrochene Krug, were written at this time. Eager to aid the anti-Napoleonic cause he left Königsberg for Berlin, where in 1807 he was seized as a spy and sent to prison in France. After his sister had obtained his release, Kleist made an attempt to establish himself in Dresden from 1807 to 1809. With Adam Müller he founded the literary magazine Phöbus, which, however, soon failed. Attempts to help the patriotic cause with his literary efforts (Hermannsschlacht, 1808) met with little response. He returned to Berlin, where for a time he published the Abendblätter. When this project also failed, partly because of political pressure, Kleist was left without means. On November 21, 1811, Kleist committed suicide with Henriette Vogel near Berlin.
Kleist's reading of Kant taught him that all attempts to penetrate the veil of phenomena were futile, that the world possesses no higher meaning. In his first play, Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803), love, the only value, is destroyed by the force of illusion and circumstance—a theme that was to recur in such stories as Die Verlobung in St. Domingo and Das Erdbeben in Chile. Like G. W. F. Hegel, Kleist saw life as essentially tragic, but unlike Hegel, he saw tragedy in absurdity, in the indifference of the world to man's demands for love and meaning. Kleist's heroes confront this absurdity with demonic defiance. Thus Michael Kohlhaas, in the novella of the same name (1810), becomes inhuman in his pursuit of justice; and the heroines of Kleist's plays Penthesilea (1808) and Das Käthchen von Heilbronn (1810) become inhuman in their pursuit of love—one by being totally aggressive, the other by being totally submissive. In his last play, Der Prinz von Homburg (1810), Kleist attempted to oppose the order provided by the state to the uncertainties of the human situation. The prince disobeys orders, wins a battle, and yet is condemned to death. At first incapable of understanding this judgment and driven only by his fear of death, he regains control of himself when made judge of his own actions, and freely accepts the verdict.
works by kleist
Werke, 5 vols. Edited by E. Schmidt. Leipzig, 1905; 2nd ed., 7 vols., edited by G. Minde-Pouet, Leipzig: Bibliographisches institut, 1936–.
Werke, 2 vols. Edited by H. Sembdner. Munich, 1961.
The Marquise of O, and Other Stories. Translated by Martin Greenberg. New York: Criterion, 1960.
translations of plays
"The Feud of the Schroffensteins." Translated by M. J. and L. M. Price. Poet Lore (Boston) 27 (5) (1916): 457–576.
The Prince of Homburg. Translated by C. E. Passage. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956.
Katie of Heilbronn. Translated by A. H. Hughes. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 1960.
The Broken Pitcher. Translated by B. Q. Morgan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
works on kleist
Blöcker, Günter. Heinrich von Kleist oder Das absolute Ich. Berlin: Argon, 1960.
Cassirer, Ernst. Idee und Gestalt. Berlin: Cassirer, 1921.
Fricke, Gerhard. Gefühl und Schicksal bei Heinrich von Kleist. Berlin, 1929.
March, Richard. Heinrich von Kleist. Cambridge, U.K.: Bowes and Bowes, 1954.
Muth, Ludwig. Kleist und Kant. Cologne, 1954.
Silz, W. Heinrich von Kleist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.
Stahl, E. L. Heinrich von Kleist's Dramas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1948.
Witkop, Philipp. Heinrich von Kleist. Leipzig: Haessel, 1922.
Karsten Harries (1967)