[This page by Martin Swales

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)

Heinrich von Kleist’s life was brief – catastrophically so because he committed suicide in his 34th year. His life has three distinct phases. He was born in 1777. The first phase sees him being educated at home, and his tutor gave him a powerful sense of Protestant inwardness and spirituality. His family was very much a military dynasty and in 1792 he did what was expected of him and joined the army. His career moved forward, he was promoted to the rank of officer; but in 1799 he left the army, thereby bringing the second phase of his life – which, in a letter to his sister Ulrike, he described as lost years – to a close. He then studied for three semesters at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder. And from that point on until his death in 1811 he sought to make headway as a writer. The creative years, the final phase of his life, extended from 1801 to 1811, and it is astonishing how much he achieved in that brief span. But it was also a time of instability and disappointment. He was restless and travelled frequently; more often than not he was short of money. From 1804 to 1805 he was in Berlin, working (in spite of his aversion to posts in government and civil administration) in financial management. His hope seems to have been to bring a measure of order and security into his life. But he was soon discontented and left in 1806. Later necessity again impelled him to seek civil service employment – but without success. His literary career was not without its ups and downs. Cotta published Penthesilea in 1808. Die Familie Schroffenstein and Das Käthchen von Heilbronn were performed in his lifetime – as was Der zerbrochene Krug; The Broken Jug, in Weimar in 1808. But it was a signal failure (not least because it was split into three acts). Goethe, who was in charge of the Weimar theatre, was, it seems, merely following performance convention and there was no ill will involved. But relations between the two men were problematic. Goethe could not accept the ferocity and violence of Penthesilea. In the years 1808-11 Kleist involved himself in cultural journalism, but his three projects Phöbus, Germania, and Berliner Abendblätter were all short-lived. Yet in 1810 and 1811 two volumes of his Erzählungen (short stories) appeared. By the end of his short life he had a considerable reputation as a writer.

There are many gaps and discontinuities in that life. In terms of weighty emotional ties, it is clear that he and his half sister Ulrike were particularly close. From 1800 to 1802 he was engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge. In the autumn of 1810 he met Henriette Vogel, a married woman with whom he shared an interest in early, particularly religious, art and in music. It seems that she was incurably ill and her intense emotional disarray brought her close to Kleist. They exchanged rhapsodic letters and finally made a suicide pact. On 21 November, at the Wannsee near Potsdam, Kleist shot her, then himself. As far as Kleist’s literary friendships were concerned, none of his contacts – with, for example, Heinrich Zschokke, Christoph Martin Wieland and his son Ludwig, Christian Gottfried Körner, Adam Müller – seem to have been particularly profound or supportive. And as regards his inner life and temperament, while we know a certain amount, we can only register contradictions and discontinuities wherever we look. We know that he cherished Rousseau and sometimes longed for a simple life in the natural world (at one point he even wanted to become a smallholding farmer in Switzerland). His Pietist upbringing gave him a feeling for religious experience and briefly he was attracted to Catholicism. Yet he also esteemed the intense rationality of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) with its belief in human autonomy. When, however, he discovered Kant’s philosophy, particularly the Kritik der reinen Vernunft; The Critique of Pure Reason, he felt shattered (as he put it in a letter of 22 and 23 March 1801 to Wilhelmine) ‘in dem Heiligtum meiner Seele’; ‘in the holiest place of my soul’. Having previously believed in the moral integrity and strength of the individual, he now felt that there was no perceptual or cognitive certainty available to the human subject. Kant had argued that a thoroughgoing understanding of the conditions on our knowing – and therefore of the conditionality of our knowing – provided grounds not for ontological despair but for a scrupulously reflective awareness of the value and dignity of human being in the world. Put simply; for Kant, limitation was salutary; in Kleist it triggered existential heartbreak. Kleist’s trajectory from spirituality via Enlightenment assertions of human autonomy to cognitive disarray is characteristic of him and is a radical expression of the currents and counter-currents of the age in which he lived. One strand of his personality displayed an almost military need for order and discipline. In a famous letter to Ulrike of May 1799 he speaks of the necessity of having a ‘Lebensplan’ (‘life plan’), a clear structure of priorities and purposes. Without that all-important directionality, he felt that human life was incorrigibly prey to ‘Gebrechlichkeit’ (‘fragility’, one of his favourite terms). We get glimpses of that ‘Lebensplan’ mentality in the letters he writes to Wilhelmine; they are deeply unattractive, self-righteous and hectoring. They urge her to focus her thoughts on certain key topics and issues. At one point he writes: ‘Du kennst doch Deine Lektionen noch auswendig? Du liest doch zuweilen meine Instruktionen durch?’; ‘You do know your reading by heart, don’t you? You do keep reading through my instructions?’ Yet Kleist, the man of the ‘Lebensplan’ was also a great drop-out. He travelled frequently, as we have already noted (Bern, Thun, Weimar, Leipzig, Berlin, Paris, Dresden), and sometimes – as is the case with the mysterious visit to Würzburg shortly after his engagement to Wilhelmine – he manages to disappear completely from view. We have no sense of what was going on outwardly and inwardly during the Würzburg journey. Yet on other occasions we do derive – particularly from his letters – a powerful sense of the inner life, and, above all as the end draws near, of the consuming disarray that threatens him. In the letter dated ‘am Morgen meines Todes’; ‘on the morning of my death’, we read: ‘die Wahrheit ist, daß mir auf Erden nicht zu helfen war’; ‘the truth is, that there was no help for me on earth’. The past tense – ‘war’ – says it all. The ultimately irreconcilable conflicting energies of Kleist’s life produced not a philosopher of note – but a supreme writer of narrative prose and drama. As Hans Joachim Kreutzer writes: ‘er existierte nur als Dichter’; ‘he only existed as a writer’ (see reading list below, p. 112). When Kleist’s mentality became literature, it took on thematic, stylistic, aesthetic forms that have an eloquence and urgency that has never ceased to take hold of his readers.

Just four prefatory remarks before we turn to the literary and essayistic work.

Firstly: in a letter of 7 October 1800 Kleist refers to his writing as ‘Schreibereien’ – scribblings – and no member of the family is to have access to them. There is, then, a kind of shame, reminiscent of Kafka, about his (to recall Kreutzer’s phrase) existing only as a writer. Yet at the same time (as with Kafka) there is the sense that literature is all that he has to offer.

Secondly: as I have just suggested, the tensions of his life which destroyed him become truly lucid and expressive when when transposed into literary statement. The oscillation between order and disarray produces in his creative self an acute feel for the shape of any given literary genre – and at the same the burning need to subvert those structures.

Thirdly: the clashing imperatives of foregrounded physicality on the one hand and the need for metaphysical certainties on the other generates a kind of existential melodrama in which the faultiness of the world order triggers immortal longings in the protagonists.

Fourthly: Kleist is a master of the German language. Time and again he uses it at full stretch, indeed almost to breaking point. In his hands the syntax of the German sentence acquires a kind of existential force, a sentence in the quasi-judicial sense of grammar passing judgment on the world’s unruliness: on the one hand, clauses proliferate dangerously and threaten to get out of control, yet the overall structure holds firm. Remarkably (to employ a metaphor of which he was very fond) the tension serves not to fracture the sentence but to hold it together. What was not true of the life was emphatically true of the art.

Dramatic Works:

Kleist’s four greatest dramas all have the singular characteristic of challenging the particular literary genre in which they are housed. Amphitryon and Der zerbrochene Krug; The Broken Jug are contestations of comedy, as is Penthesilea of tragedy. And Prinz Friedrich von Homburg can perhaps best be understood as being close to the late Shakespearean romances (The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest).

Die Familie Schroffenstein; The Family Schroffenstein (published 1803, first performed 1804)

Der zerbrochene Krug; The Broken Jug (written 1802-06, first performed 1808, published 1811)

Amphitryon (published 1807, first performed 1899)

Penthesilea (written 1806-07, published 1808, first performed 1876)

Robert Guiskard, Herzog der Normänner; Robert Guiscard, Duke of the Normans (published 1808)

Das Käthchen von Heilbronn; Katie of Heilbronn (published 1810)

Die Her[r]mannsschlacht; The Battle of the Teutoberg Forest (written 1808, published 1821, first performed 1860)

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg; Prince Frederick of Homburg (completed in 1810, first published and performed 1821)


Kleist’s prose has all the expressive force of the verse dramas. The stories vary enormously in length – from the extended tale in chronicle mode Michael Kohlhaas to the devastatingly brief Das Erdbeben in Chili; The Earthquake in Chile. What they have in common is a focus on exceptional, striking, violent events that generates philosophical questions about the world order. They are almost existential test cases, designed to make the reader share in the protagonists’ anguish and question the explicability of human experience.

Das Erdbeben in Chili; The Earthquake in Chile (written 1805-06; first published 1807)

Die Marquise von O… ; The Marquise of O. (first published 1808)

Michael Kohlhaas (fragment published 1808, first published 1810)

Die Verlobung in St. Domingo; The Betrothal in St. Domingo (written and published 1811)

Das Bettelweib von Locarno; The Beggar Woman of Locarno (published 1810)

Der Findling; The Foundling (published 1811)

Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik; St. Cecilia or the Power of Music (first version published 1810; expanded version 1811)

Der Zweikampf; The Duel (published 1811)


Kleist’s journalistic activities were varied. He enjoyed publishing brief anecdotes – strange, often ironically tinged events that quirkily illuminate the incoherence of human experience. His essayistic writings are often characterized by a casualness and lightness of tone that contrasts with the pressurized, almost hectoring tone of his literary writings. A number of his essays have attracted the particular attention of literary critics. It is advisable not to expect from them a kind of discursive summation of his literary preoccupations. Even so, the essays remind us that Kleist explores with great subtlety and resonance the value schemes, the textures of cognition and feeling by which men and women, in their self-consciousness, live. We know that we have no choice but to be knowing creatures, knowing in both body and mind. And Kleist makes knowing readers of us all.

Über die allmählige Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden; On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking (written 1805-06; published 1878)

Über das Marionettentheater; On Marionette Theatre (published 1810)

Empfindungen vor Friedrichs Seelandschaft; Sensations before Friedrich’s Seascape (1810)

English Translations

Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O – and Other Stories, trans. by David Luke and Nigel Reeves (London: Penguin, 1978)

David Constantine, Heinrich von Kleist: Selected Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004)

Further Reading

Publications of the English Goethe Society 78:1-2 (2009), Special issue on Kleist

German Life and Letters 64:3 (2011), Special issue on Kleist

Seán D. Allan, The Plays of Heinrich von Kleist: Ideals and Illusions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Seán Allan, The Stories of Heinrich von Kleist: Fictions of Security (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)

Iain Bamforth, ‘“A strange set-up”: The brilliant, disordered urgency of Heinrich von Kleist’, Times Literary Supplement, 2 October 1998, p. 5

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Losing the Plot? Kleist, Kafka, and Disappearing Grand Narratives’, German Life and Letters 70:2 (2017), 137-54

Patrick Bridgwater, ‘Kleist and Gothic’, Oxford German Studies 39:1 (2010), 30-53

Hilda Meldrum Brown, Heinrich von Kleist: The Ambiguity of Art and the Necessity of Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Denys Dyer, The Stories of Heinrich von Kleist: A Critical Study (London: Duckworth, 1977)

John M. Ellis, Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in the Character and Meaning of his Writings (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979)

Bernd Fischer (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Heinrich von Kleist (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003)

Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan (eds.), Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011)

Ilse Graham, Heinrich von Kleist. Word into Flesh: A Poet’s Quest for the Symbol (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1977)

Elystan Griffiths, Political Change and Human Emancipation in the Works of Heinrich von Kleist (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005)

Elystan Griffiths, ‘“Die unverhoffte Wirkung”: Revolutionary Violence, “Beschränkung” and the Rewriting of the Domestic Idyll in Kleist’s Works’, German Life and Letters 65:4 (2012), 399-420

John Hibberd, ‘Kleist’s Letter of 1 April 1801’, Modern Language Review 96:2 (2001), 397-408

Jeffrey L. High and Sophia Clark (eds.), Heinrich von Kleist: Artistic and Political Legacies (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013)

Stephen Howe, Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)

F. J. Lamport, German Classical Drama: Theatre, Humanity and Nation 1750-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Chapter 9 on Kleist

Georg Lukács, ‘The Tragedy of Heinrich von Kleist’ [1936], in Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, ed. by Rodney Livingstone (London: Libris, 1993), pp. 17-49

Rachel MagShamhráin, Afterlives: Heinrich von Kleist and Posterity (London: Peter Lang, 2017)

James M. McGlathery, Desire’s Sway: The Plays and Stories of Heinrich von Kleist (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983)

Timothy J. Mehigan, Text as Contract: The Nature and Function of Narrative Discourse in the Erzählungen of Heinrich von Kleist (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988)

Tim Mehigan, Heinrich von Kleist: Writing After Kant (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011)

F. G. Peters, ‘Kafka and Kleist: A Literary Relationship’, Oxford German Studies 1 (1966), 114-62

William C. Reeve, In Pursuit of Power: Heinrich von Kleist's Machiavellian Protagonists (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987)

William C. Reeve, Kleist on Stage, 1804–1987 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993)

Nigel Reeves, ‘Kleist’s Indebtedness to the Science, Psychiatry and Medicine of his Time’, Oxford German Studies 16 (1985), 47-65

Lucia Ruprecht, Dances of the Self in Heinrich von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)

Dieter Sevin and Christoph Zeller (eds.), Heinrich von Kleist: Style and Concept. Explorations of Literary Dissonance (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013)

Anthony Stephens, Heinrich von Kleist: The Dramas and Stories (Oxford: Berg, 1994)

Andrew J. Webber, The Doppelgänger: Double Visions in German Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Chapter 4: ‘Cases of Double Trouble in Kleist’, pp. 195-231


Further Reading in German

Ingo Breuer (ed.), Kleist Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2009)

Stephan Ehrig, Der dialektische Kleist. Zur Rezeption Heinrich von Kleists in Literatur und Theater der DDR (Bielefeld: transcript, 2018)

Dieter Heimböckel, Emphatische Unaussprechlichkeit. Sprachkritik im Werk Heinrich von Kleists, Palaestra 319 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003)

Hans Joachim Kreutzer, Heinrich von Kleist (Munich: Beck, 2011)

Walter Müller-Seidel, Versehen und Erkennen. Eine Studie über Heinrich von Kleist (Cologne and Graz: Böhlau, 1961)

Hinrich C. Seeba, Abgründiger Klassiker der Moderne. Gesammelte Aufsätze zu Heinrich von Kleist (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2012)

Helmut Sembdner (ed.), Heinrich von Kleists Lebensspuren. Dokumente und Berichte der Zeitgenossen, 7th revised edn (Munich: Hanser, 1996)

Anthony Stephens, Kleist: Sprache und Gewalt (Freiburg: Rombach, 1999)

Web Links


Kleist Project at the University of Warwick (includes podcasts)


Website of the German Kleist Society (mainly in German)