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Heinrich von Kleist - Biography

Heinrich von Kleist (October 18, 1777 November 21, 1811) was a German dramatist and poet. Kleist's life was filled with restlessness and constant movement to and fro, this can be seen from the debates surrounding his date of birth. Official records show that he was born October 18th, yet Heinrich von Kleist insists on his date of birth being the 10th of October. His career as an author and playwright only lasted nine years out of his short life with the most consistent dedication to his vocation being in the last four to five years before his death. His death was his own choosing; he shot himself in 1811 in a suicide pact with Henriette Vogel. Kleist's impact on German drama is immense and the esteemed German literary award, the Kleist Prize, is named after him. During his lifetime, however, only two of his plays were staged and it wasn't until about a contury after his death that his work began to be recognized as crucial in the development for Realist, Naturalist, Expressionist and Existentialist writers. While he was living, Kleist clashed with the idealistic Romanticism heralded by Novalis, Tieck and Schlegel among others, that saturated the literary context of the time. It was after he had read Immanuel Kant that he found it impossible to believe in some sort of divine fate or otherworldly forces at work in humanity. Translator David Constantine writes in his introduction to Kleist's Selected Works, "Kleist, who doubted whether human beings could ever fully understand one another and whose characters excel in every form of malentendu, laid a vast responsibility on human relationships." Kleist himself remarked that, "I should be quite without any unpleasant feelings were I not, after a lifetime's habit, condemned to create them myself."

Kleist was born to an ancient Prussian aristocratic family that had deep roots in the military having produced eighteen generals (and one poet, Ewald von Kleist). Kleist himself entered the military before he was fifteen. When was released in 1799 he was already a second lieutenant but gave up a military career to craft his life. A Lebensplan, or a life-plan, was very important to Kleist as he felt that life was to be directed, to be improved upon, he wrote once that "I have set myself a goal that weill require, if I am to achieve it, the constant application of all my energies and every minute of my time." This self-direction and improvement can be seen as so crucial to him that he impresses this approach to life in letters to his half-sister Ulrike and his future fiancee, Wilhelmine. For Kleist after leaving the military tried to study at the university in his hometown, Frankfurt an der Oder, and became engaged to said fiancee the next year. Wilhelmine's father was a Prussian general which may have helped to push him towards a sensible career in the civil service which he made a tentative move toward. It is at this moment that some of the strange travels of Kleist's lifetime begin to take place, whether one or all of them had some sort of military or intelligence purpose or if they merely were the wanderings of a restless spirit is not known. The trip Kleist took at this time was with his friend, Brockes, as the took off through Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden and Würzburg. Kleist always impressed upon the importance of this trip as decisive upon his life, but he never explained why.

Upon his return he never quite settled into work with the civil service, instead he underwent what he called his Kant-Crisis in 1801 and took off to spend some time with his half-sister in Paris where he experienced a deep unhappiness that led him to Switzerland where he imaged he could settle down with Wilhelmine on a small farm. Unfortunately, Wilhelmine felt that so much sun would give her headaches so Kleist rented a place on a river island by himself near Thun. While he kept correspondence with Wilhelmine, they never married. This time spent in Switzerland (only a spring and summer) gave Kleist some time to explore writing as a career and he produced The Schroffenstein Family which appeared in Leipzig in 1803 in anonymity. After undergoing another year of journeying through Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy and back to Paris, Kleist randomly walked to the coast of France to attempt to join Napoleon's army in preparation for invasion of England. Having been a former Prussian officer, he was lucky to merely be denied and not shot. Returning to Berlin, Kleist solicited the civil service for the steady employment and they set him up under the Ministry of Finance and did well enough to merit further studies in political science in Königsberg. By August 1806, however, he was given sick leave which allowed him to finish The Broken Jug and progress further on other writings. The same year, France obliterated Prussia and the court fled to Königsberg. Always the contrarian, Kleist took off through Berlin to Dresden but was intercepted on his travels and arrested as a spy by the French.

It was in prison in Fort de Joux that Kleist was able to finish Amphitryon and have it published in Dresden. He was released at the end of July with a renewed commitment to writing. He finished Penthesilea and founded a periodical, Phobus, with Adam Muller in 1807. In 1808, Goethe staged The Broken Jug in Weimar which didn't do very well and which Kleist blamed Goethe for. Although there was burgeoning interest in his work, Kleist still struggled with how to support himself. He also was unable to stay put and in 1809 while France and Austria were engaged in battle, Kleist wandered around the war zone as far as Vienna. When he was in Berlin, he edited the city's first newspaper until it began to dwindle in 1811, he appealed to the state for civil service work again or even the military. He saw the publication of volumes of his stories, but it was this year that he met Henriette Vogel who was terminally ill, and they executed their suicide pact.

As mentioned earlier, Kleist's goal in his writing was to unite the storytelling and stagewriting of the Greek playwright, Aeschylus and theater mastermind, Shakespeare. His plays have a tendency to unravel characterizations that were not typical during the sentiment saturated Romantic context, or even in previous interpretations. Amphytiron, a drama previously attended to by Plautus and Moliere, had been interpreted most often with a focus on the husband but Kleist's Amphytiron searches out the complex experience and emotions of the faithful and devoted wife. Likewise, with Penthesilea, a female is the central character of the story and is not colored in one shade of emotional tenor, but her love is knotted with desire to conquer her lover. The interweaving of unsavory and admirable traits was Kleist's forte as a playwright and in this sense he very much was able to reignite Greek drama. He also understood that, as translator David Constantine writes, that "Lives hold together in Kleist's world by tension of their destructive forces." Constantine uses the emblem of an arch, which Kleist saw in Wurzburg was held together because "all of its constituent stones are striving to collapse" and he argues that this is the structure of many of Kleist's pieces and that "Often in his plays and stories the keystone of the arch of a person's life is removed."

In Kleist’s own words taken from a letter to Wilhelmine in 1801: “Truly, considering that we need a lifetime to learn how we ought to live, that even in death we still have no idea what heaven wants with us, if nobody knows the purpose of his existence nor what he is intended for, if human reason is not adequate to comprehend us, our souls, our lives, the things around us, if even after thousands of years we are still doubtful whether there is any such thing as right -- can God ask of such creatures that they be responsible? Let nobody tell me there is a voice in us that whispers clearly what is right. [. . .] And then what does it mean, to do something evil, judging by its effect? What is evil? Absolute evil? The things of the world are connected and intertwined in a myriad ways, every act is the mother of a million more and often the worst begets the best -- Tell me who on this earth has ever done anything evil?”