Prinz Friedrich von Homburg

[This page by Martin Swales]

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

Kleist’s last drama, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, is designated as a ‘Schauspiel’ (play); but the question is, what kind of play is it? It engages with both tragic and comic possibilities, yet seems to hold both genres in precarious balance. Prussia is at war with Sweden. Prince Friedrich (Frederick), one of Prussia’s most charismatic military commanders, is expected as preparations are in hand for the next battle. But the opening scene shows him asleep in the garden of Fehrbellin castle, dreaming. The contents of his dream become apparent; he is plaiting a laurel wreath, the symbol of victory. The Elector (Kurfürst) and members of the court emerge from the castle and look down (both literally and metaphorically) on the Prince. He is vulnerable and exposed (his shirt is half open). The Elector plays a trick on him; he enters into the dream, and the Prince, now sleepwalking, follows him. He reaches towards Natalie, the Elector’s niece, and takes a glove from her hand. The Elector and his entourage withdraw and the castle gate is slammed shut. The Prince awakes from his dream – but has in his hand the glove that was part of that dream. In his bewildered state he attends only imperfectly to the briefing for the imminent battle. As the battle unfolds, he attacks prematurely, before the order is given, but his military instinct is right; he contributes to a glorious victory. The Elector decrees death for the officer who departed from the battle plan. The Prince is destroyed by this turn of events. He mobilizes the Kurfürstin (Lady Elector) and Natalie to intercede on his behalf. The Elector agrees to annul the sentence if the Prince considers it to be unjust. Pressure mounts on the Elector to pardon the Prince. Yet the Prince endorses the Elector’s original verdict. But the verdict is not carried out. The Prince is brought out, blindfolded, as he thinks to be executed. But the original scene is re-enacted, now in reality: he is given the victor’s wreath, Natalie is united with him. The Prince wonders if it is all a dream; but clearly it is not, and the play ends with the Prussian army leaving to fight another battle.

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg is a complexly fascinating play. At one level it is a comedy – not least because the conciliatory possibility is given from the beginning. The Prince may be a dreamer, but he is in no way impelled by antisocial impulses, by any kind of alternative consciousness. His intervention in the battle may be unorthodox, but it produces victory. There is comic symmetry to the sequence by which the characters change their minds. The Prince rejects the death sentence, then accepts it. The Elector decrees the death sentence, then rescinds it because the Prince has accepted it. If comedy is one governing strand within the play, tragedy is the other. The destruction of the prince’s dream, at the end of the first scene, is brutal. The Elector says:

Ins Nichts, mit dir zurück, Herr Prinz von Homburg,

Ins Nichts, ins Nichts! In dem Gefild’ der Schlacht,

Sehn wir, wenn’s dir gefällig ist, uns wieder!

Im Traum erringt man solche Dinge nicht!

Back into nothingness with you, Sir Prince of Homburg,

Into nothing into nothing! On the battlefield

We shall, if it pleases you, see each other again!

Such things are not won in dreams!

The Prince is a vulnerable figure; shortly after emerging from the dream at the beginning of the play, he collapses. After the reinstatement of the dream at the end of the play he faints. When he is forced to face the possibility of his imminent death, he disintegrates completely. And, paradoxically, the ending, for all its happiness is cruel. The Prince accepts death, only to find that his hard-won strength of purpose is not needed. Constantly throughout the text the image patterns of, on the one hand, ‘Herz’ (heart) and ‘Gefühl’ (feeling) and, on the other, ‘Gesetz’ (law) and ‘Befehl’ (command) announce a weighty, often bitter, conflict of allegiances. Yet the sharp edges of conflict are softened and the play moves to a happy ending across a sombre vision of the price that a state of war can exact from a community.

The unsettling ambivalence of the play comes to its height at the very end. The Prince emerges from his faint, and, not surprisingly, asks what is happening:

Two problems are salient here. One is Kottwitz’s response to the Prince’s question; surely he ought to answer in the negative – no, this is on longer a dream, this is a dream come true. Why does Kottwitz insist that it is a dream and can be nothing else? And the second problem is in the ‘Alle’ who shout the final lines. Is the Prince one of their number or not? The uncertainty has not been exorcised. In Peter Stein’s magnificent production for the Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer (in West Berlin in 1972) the play ends with the Prince being carried off should high into battle. Except that it is not the Prince; it is an effigy, an icon of Prussian patriotism. And as the stage empties, the actor playing the Prince is left alone and disorientated amidst the props and trappings of a stage production. Perhaps, then we need to understand this play as partaking of that lucid, beguiling dream that is the theatre. We recall the ending of Shakespeare’s The Tempest where the vividly palpable world of stage performance evaporates into thin air. The fragility of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, now comic, now tragic, makes it a kind of utopian dream in which the holiness of the heart’s affections can be reconciled with the world of brutal practicalities and raison d’état, and regimented living. Only the theatre can embody that dream. And the dream fades as the lights go down at the end of the play.

In 1958, Kleist’s play was adapted into an opera by the composer Hans Werner Henze, with a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann.

Further Reading

Hilda Meldrum Brown, ‘Changing Perceptions of Modernity in Nineteenth-Century German Theater from Goethe to Wagner, with Reference to Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, in Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity, ed. by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 131-44

John M. Ellis, Kleist’s “Prinz Friedrich von Homburg”: A Critical Study (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1970)

E. G. Fürstenheim, ‘The Sources of Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, German Life and Letters 8:2 (1955), 103-10

Stephen Howe, Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), Chapter 5 on Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, pp. 162-94

F. J. Lamport, ‘Kleist, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, in Landmarks in German Drama, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2002)

John Lyon, ‘Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and the Crisis of Masculinity’, The Germanic Review 83:2 (2008), 167-88

Alfred Nordmann, ‘Political Theater as Experimental Anthropology: On a Production of Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, New German Critique 66 (1995), 17-34

David Pan, ‘Representing the Nation in Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, in Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity, ed. by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 93-112

William C. Reeve, ‘An Unsung Villain: The Role of Hohenzollern in Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, The Germanic Review 56 (1981), 95-110

Ritchie Robertson, ‘The Rediscovery of Machiavelli in Napoleon’s Germany. Heinrich von Kleist and his Contemporaries’, Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics 17:3 (2015), 58-77

Erika Swales, ‘Configurations of Irony: Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 56 (1982), 407-30