Authors: Heinrich von Kleist

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German playwright and novelist

Author Works


Die Familie Schroffenstein, pb. 1803 (The Feud of the Schroffensteins, 1916)

Amphitryon, pb. 1807 (English translation, 1962)

Penthesilea, pb. 1808 (English translation, 1959)

Der zerbrochene Krug, pr. 1808 (The Broken Jug, 1930)

Robert Guiskard, pb. 1808 (English translation, 1962)

Das Käthchen von Heilbronn: Oder, Die Feuerprobe, pr., pb. 1810 (Cathy of Heilbronn: Or, The Trial by Fire, 1927)

Die Hermannsschlacht, pb. 1821

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, pr., pb. 1821 (The Prince of Homburg, 1875)

Long Fiction:

Die Marquise von O–, 1808 (novella; The Marquise of O–, 1960)

Michael Kohlhaas, 1810 (novella; English translation, 1844)

Short Fiction:

Erzählungen, 1810-1811 (2 volumes; The Marquise of O–, and Other Stories, 1960)


Phöbus: Ein Journal für die Kunst, 1807-1808 (serial), 1961 (book)

essays in the Berliner Abendblätter, 1810-1811 (collected in An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist, with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes, 1982)


Heinrich von Kleists gesammelte Schriften, 1826 (Ludwig Tieck, editor)


A contemporary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and of the German Romantics, Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (klist) was an outstanding German dramatist and writer of novellas. He was born in 1777 in Frankfurt an der Oder, the oldest son of a Prussian military man, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, and his second wife, Juliane von Pannwitz.{$I[AN]9810001101}{$I[A]Kleist, Heinrich von}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Kleist, Heinrich von}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Kleist, Heinrich von}{$I[tim]1777;Kleist, Heinrich von}

Kleist received his first education from theologian Christian Ernst Martini, who later became a close friend. He suffered the loss of his father in 1788 and, shortly after he entered the Prussian army in 1792, the loss of his mother. During his military years, he took part in the Rhine campaign and was promoted to lieutenant. In 1799 he resigned his commission, stating in a letter to Martini that he could not resolve the conflict inherent in the obedience demanded of an officer and the individual judgment of a human being. His dramatic masterpiece, The Prince of Homburg, deals with this dilemma. After his resignation, he attended the University of Frankfurt for three semesters and in 1800 became engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge. That same year he also made a trip to Würzburg, where he was hospitalized.

In 1801, as a result of reading the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Kleist experienced a personal crisis that shook his faith in the powers of reason. The problem of the inability to know anything for certain, the illusive quality of truth, became a theme of all of his major works. He took a leave and traveled to Paris, to Frankfurt am Main, and finally to Switzerland, where he began his first drama, a Schicksalstragödie (fate tragedy) called The Schroffenstein Family. During this time Kleist also ended his engagement; in 1803 he was hospitalized in Mainz after suffering a breakdown.

When he returned to Berlin in 1804, he was employed in the office of the finance minister, and The Feud of the Schroffensteins premiered in Graz. He focused his energies on writing and by 1808 had completed the majority of his principal works. In 1807, he had been arrested on suspicion of espionage in French-occupied Berlin and sent to France. After his release, Kleist founded the journal Phöbus with Adam Muller. Scenes from Penthesilea and further examples of his work, including Michael Kohlhaas, appeared for the first time in this periodical. Goethe was invited to contribute something for the publication, but he declined, having little sympathy for or understanding of Kleist’s work. Goethe did stage The Broken Jug at the Weimar theater, but he cut the original one-act play of more than twenty uninterrupted scenes into acts, and the resulting performance was unsuccessful.

The last issue of Phöbus appeared in 1809, and Kleist suffered more illness. There were even rumors of his death after Kleist witnessed the battle of Aspern on May 25 of that year. He returned to Frankfurt an der Oder in poverty but soon found hope of financial security as the editor of a daily newspaper, the Berliner Abendblätter (Berlin evening press). The Prince of Homburg was completed during this time, but plans for a performance failed. Then in 1810, a first volume of his collected short fiction, Erzählungen (stories), including Michael Kohlhaas and The Marquise of O–, was published in Berlin. The second volume appeared the following year. The Prince of Homburg, however, was unfavorably received and remained unpublished until 1821.

The last year of Kleist’s life was plagued by financial difficulties. The Berliner Abendblätter failed, and he was unable to find a position in the civil service. He also had conflicts with his family. Finally, suffering financially and psychologically, Kleist ended his life in a suicide pact with Henriette Vogel, who was incurably ill. On November 21, 1811, at Wannsee, near Berlin, he shot her and then killed himself.

Kleist’s plays and novellas reveal a tragic view of life and a world in which the individual’s beliefs and certainties are destroyed. Illusion and deception are the dominant motifs in his major works: The marquise of The Marquise of O– is shaken by a pregnancy that seems to her physically impossible; The Prince of Homburg uses the illusion of a dream to explore a tenuous reality. The individual’s place in the world is repeatedly shown to be insecure, plagued by crisis and, ultimately, tragedy.

Kleist’s style, particularly in the novellas, is distinguished by a penchant for sentences with a complex series of subordinate clauses–often a clause within a clause within a clause (known in German as Schachtelsatz, or “boxed sentence”). Some critics have interpreted this complexity in its relationship to the themes and stories themselves and have seen in the syntax a reinforcement of Kleist’s worldview. Whether or not that is the case, it is certainly true that Kleist has a highly individual style.

Today, Kleist is recognized as a masterful writer of fiction and one of the greatest German dramatists, although during his lifetime few of his plays were performed–and none with real success. His family was an ancient military family that could not accept his literary career, and other literary groups of the time did not recognize his worth. When he died by his own hand at the age of thirty-four, he had received no critical acclaim and considered himself a failure. It took a century for him to become the object of critical attention, and the scholarly literature has not always been unanimous in its assessment of his work. Yet the challenge and interest of his work continue to attract critics and other readers alike. The modern theme of creation as a “broken” or “torn” wholeness where humanity must deal with an often-incomprehensible world touches a chord in twentieth century experience as well.

BibliographyAllen, Richard. “Reading Kleist and Hoffmann.” In Romantic Writing, edited by Stephen Bygrave. London: Routledge, 1996. Discusses irony, characterization, and the cultural and political context of Kleist’s story “The Betrothal on Santo Domingo.”Allan, Seán. The Plays of Heinrich von Kleist: Ideals and Illusions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A critical analysis of the ideals and illusions in Kleist’s drama. Bibliography and index.Allan, Seán. The Stories of Heinrich von Kleist: Fictions of Security. Rochester, N.H.: Camden House, 2001. Although this work focuses on the stories of Kleist, it sheds light on his plays. Bibliography and index.Brown, H. M. Heinrich von Kleist: The Ambiguity of Art and the Necessity of Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A thoughtful study on Kleist’s style.Brown, Robert H. “Fear of Social Change in Kleist’s ‘Erdbeben in Chili.’” Monatshefte 84 (1992): 447-458. Argues that “The Earthquake in Chile” explores contemporary social conflicts with no simple solutions. Discusses the story as being focused on the collapse of the old order and the disintegration behind reform movements of the eighteenth century; the story’s subtext deals with modern challenges to harmonious cooperative hierarchy.Dutoit, Thomas. “Rape, Crypt, and Fantasm: Kleist’s Marquise of O.” Mosaic 27 (September, 1994): 45-64. Discusses the implications of impregnation in Kleist’s story; argues that the story suggests a gap between the fact that something happened and the description of the event.Dyer, Denys. The Stories of Kleist: A Critical Study. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977. An excellent study of Kleist’s masterpieces of short fiction, intended for students and general readers with little knowledge of German literature. After a chapter on Kleist’s life and works, Dyer treats the stories individually so that each chapter is a self-contained interpretation. Chapter 8 summarizes the main points about Kleist’s themes and style. Contains an index and a bibliography, including some sources on individual stories (many in German).Fischer, Bernd, ed. A Companion to the Works of Heinrich von Kleist. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003. A general overview and guide to Kleist’s work.Gearey, John. Heinrich von Kleist: A Study in Tragedy and Anxiety. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968. A helpful and readable study of Kleist’s life and works. In studying the works, Gearey focuses on the problem of conflict, which he believes is caused by Kleist’s own puzzlement over the problem of human experience. Includes plot summaries and analyses of Kleist’s early dramas, some of his novellas, and his later major works. Supplemented by a chronology of Kleist’s life and a bibliography.Grandin, John M. Kafka’s Prussian Advocate: A Study of the Influence of Heinrich von Kleist on Franz Kafka. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1987. This study tracks parallels of style and theme in the works of the two writers. It is Grandin’s belief that much of Kafka can be better understood through “Kleistian eyes” and that some Kleist stories can be read “from the more modern Kafka perspective.” The comments on Michael Kohlhaas are particularly helpful. Complemented by an index and a bibliography.Guenther, Beatrice Martina. The Poetics of Death: The Short Prose of Kleist and Balzac. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Examines the short fiction of Kleist and Honoré de Balzac. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Maass, Joachim. Kleist: A Biography. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. A comprehensive biography of Kleist including detailed information about his family background, life, and attitudes. His works are also discussed in context. Includes photographs, a select bibliography, and an index of works and names.Mehigan, Timothy J. Text as Contract: The Nature and Function of Narrative Discourse in the “Erzählungen” of Heinrich von Kleist. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988. A discussion of Kleist’s short fiction from the point of view of language and communication. Mehigan believes that the narratives have a “strong sense of structure,” even when describing disorder, and he uses a narrative paradigm to show the relationship between pattern and disorder in the individual works. Contains an extensive bibliography.Reeve, William A. Kleist on Stage: 1804-1987. Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993. An analysis of Kleist’s major plays and details about their staging and production history. Bibliography and index.Reeve, William A. Kleist’s Aristocratic Heritage and “Das Käthchen von Heilbronn.” Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. A closer look at Kleist’s familial background and its connection with his play Cathy of Heilbronn. Bibliography and index.Silz, Walter. Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in His Works and Literary Character. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961. A collection of essays on various works and aspects of Kleist’s literary expression. Includes separate chapters on “Das Erdbeben in Chili,” Amphitryon, “Über das Marionettentheater,” Michael Kohlhaas, and Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, and an excellent chapter on the recurrence of certain concepts and expressions in Kleist’s work. Supplemented by notes to each chapter, bibliographical references, and an index of names.Stephens, Anthony. Heinrich von Kleist: The Dramas and Stories. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1994. Critical analyses of many of Kleist’s works. Bibliography and index.Ugrinsky, Alexej, et al., eds. Heinrich von Kleist Studies. New York: AMS Press, 1980. A collection of studies prepared for the Heinrich von Kleist bicentennial (1777-1977) and published in both English and German. After an introduction on Kleist’s life by Ilse Graham, the discussions are divided into various headings: drama; novellas; marionettes; comparative studies; education, linguistics, and science; and new perspectives. Includes an index and a reprint of the catalog of materials available on Kleist.Werlen, Hans Jakob. “Seduction and Betrayal: Race and Gender in Kleist’s ‘Die Verlobung in St. Domingo.’” Monatshefte 84 (1992): 459-471. Discusses how the story reflects the struggle between the races in the seduction of Toni and her recasting into the image of Gustav’s dead bride. Uses Sigmund Freud’s concept of “suggestion” to discuss the effect of Gustav on Toni. Claims that the end of the story removes Gustav and Toni from their previous historical-political and racial context and erases its own central issues of race, sexuality, and culture.
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