[This page by Martin Swales]

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

Similarly to the Der zerbrochene Krug; The Broken Jug, the twenty-four scenes of Penthesilea have a momentum which derives from their lack of division into acts. The eponymous heroine is Queen of the Amazons and she and her people attack the Greeks who are enmeshed in the war against Troy. The attack is pointless in military terms because the Greeks constitute no threat to the Amazons. But it becomes clear that Penthesilea is overcome with desire for Achilles. The rules of her nation dictate that the Amazons must conquer men before any form of love can be admissible. When Penthesilea (wrongly) thinks that she has overcome Achilles, she declares her love for him. When, however, as the Greeks leave, she realizes that she has been conquered by him, she pursues him relentlessly. He allows her to triumph, knowing that this is the only way to enable her to acknowledge her love. But in her frenzy she kills him and tears his body with her teeth. When she realizes what she has done, she is overcome by grief and dies. Penthesilea must be one of the most ferocious plays ever written. It is, at one level, an answer to the view current in 18th-century Germany (and expressed with great sublimity in Goethe’s Iphiginie auf Tauris) that the art of the classical world embodies (in Winckelmann’s famous phrase) ‘noble simplicity and gentle greatness’. But Kleist takes the argument much further than a mere act of cultural riposte. He explores the relationship between sexuality and notions of dominance and submission, between desire and blood lust with extraordinary intensity. Time and again metaphors link the human sphere to animal fury. In Scene 9 we hear of ‘Begierden, wie losgelassene Hunde’; ‘desires, like dogs off the leash’ and in a long speech by Meroe which describes Penthesilea’s killing of Achilles, the images come thick and fast – ‘gleich einem jungen Reh’; ‘like a young roe deer’, ‘gleich einer Hündin, Hunden beigesellt’; ‘like a bitch together with dogs’. Eerily, as Penthesilea tenses her bow to shoot Achilles as though he were a stag caught in a thicket, the two ends of the weapon are described as kissing:

Ha! Sein Geweih verräth’ den Hirsch, ruft sie

Und spannt, mit Kraft der Rasenden, sogleich

Den Bogen an, daß sich die Enden küssen.

Ha! His antlers betray the stag, she shouts

And stretches, with the power of a madwoman, at once

Her bow so tight that the ends kiss.

The animal metaphors turn into literal fact as Penthesilea becomes a dog amongst dogs, a crazed creature devouring the body of the man she desires. When her fury abates and she sees the mutilated body of Achilles, she is horrified and wants to know who has perpetrated the crime. When she learns the truth, her reaction is an eerie parody of all notions of tragic insight, of anagnorisis:

Küsse, Bisse,

Das reimt sich, und wer recht von Herzen liebt,

Kann schon das Eine für das Andre greifen.

Kisses, bites,

They rhyme, and whoever loves with a true heart,

Can easily take the one for the other.

And she reflects not just on language’s ability to rhyme ‘Küsse’ and ‘Bisse’, but also its ability to generate metaphors – for example the metaphor that describes the beloved as good enough to eat. She has done just that:

Hab’ ich’s wahrhaftig Wort für Wort gethan:

Ich war nicht so verrückt, als es wohl schien.

I have truly done it word for word:

I was not as crazy as it may have seemed.

Twice in the last scene the world is described as ‘gebrechlich’ (frail, fragile), as locked into obsession and misunderstanding, whereby values become unhinged and perverted. Kleist’s play reflects on its own medium, language. And he suggests that that agency, which supremely enshrines human self-consciousness and reflectivity, which can be a source of insight, wisdom and beauty, can also make possible utter depravity.

Further Reading

Heather Merle Benbow, "Weil ich der raschen Lippe Herr nicht bin": Oral Transgression as Enlightenment Disavowal in Kleist's Penthesilea’, Women in German Yearbook 22 (2006), 145-66

Chris Cullens and Dorothea von Mücke, ‘Love in Kleist’s Penthesilea and Käthchen von Heilbronn’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 63 (1989), 461-93

Amy Emm, ‘“Make Music, Women, Music!”: The Amazonian Power of Music in Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea (1808)’, Women in German Yearbook 27 (2011), 31-57

Elystan Griffiths, ‘Gender, Laughter, and the Desecration of Enlightenment: Kleist’s Penthesilea as “Hundekomödie”’, Modern Language Review 104:2 (2009), 453-71

Jost Hermand, ‘Kleist’s Penthesilea: Battleground of Gendered Discourses’, in A Companion to the Works of Heinrich von Kleist, ed. by Bernd Fischer (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003), pp. 43-62

Tim Mehigan, Heinrich von Kleist: Writing After Kant (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2011), Chapter 3 on Penthesilea

Maike Oergel, ‘The Amazon State in Kleist’s Penthesilea: Revolutionary Republic of Female Liberation or Anti-individualist Totalitarianism?’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 78:1-2 (2009), 70-80

Roger Paulin, ‘Kleist’s Metamorphoses: Some Remarks on the Use of Mythology in Penthesilea’, Oxford German Studies 14 (1983), 35-53

Ricarda Schmidt, ‘Kleist and the Dark Side of Antiquity: Reading Euripides in Modern Times’, in The Reception of Classical Antiquity in German Literature, ed. by Anne Simon and Katie Fleming, London German Studies XIV (Munich: Iudicium, 2013), pp. 104-24

Ricarda Schmift, ‘Beauty and Violence. The Constitution of Surface and Depth in the Gaze of Male Artists on Kleist’s Penthesilea’, in Gender, Agency and Violence: European Perspectives from Early Modern Times to the Present Day, ed. by Ulrike Zitzlsperger (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), pp. 96-122