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Heinrich Von Kleist’s Penthesilea: Amazon or Bluestocking Herman Salinger One readily accepted view of Kleist’s Penthesilea as a dramatis persona and as a human being is that she has a highly sexed and deeply passionate nature, capable of a wide swing of emotions from love to hate. This is not an unusual scope. But her particular char­ acteristic is the rapidity of the swing, a change so rapid that it seems to include a combination of the extremes and to encompass both of them in the form of a neurotic and self-defeating Hassliebe. That such a knot of emotions must unavoidably end in tragedy is the only feature of this drama which may be called crystal-clear. What Stefan Zweig, forty years ago, wrote of Kleist’s outer and inner self may equally be applied to his heroine: “ ein ganzes Schlangennest von Dämonien brütete unter dem kühlen, verdeckten, undurchdringlichen Fels seiner äussern Starre, und eine hitzte sich an der andern.” 1 It is legitimate to apply these words to Penthesilea’s mask and demon for the simple reason that this is whence, in part, they come. Zweig and others have drawn Kleist’s portrait partially or even largely from the creatures of his creativity. Thus the creator is both judged by and confused with his creation. It becomes difficult or impossible to extricate the one image from the other. In this way, Penthesilea has come to be considered a self-portrait of and by Heinrich von Kleist, consciously executed as such. The basis for this certainly lies in Kleist’s often quoted words about “ all the pain and splendor of [his] soul” (“ der ganze Schmerz . . . und Glanz meiner Seele” ). I submit that Kleist was talking about the entire play and not merely the main character when he expressed the feeling that his innermost being had been pressed into the work; the play is a play of opposites and a split in Kleist’s personality finds expression in the deep contradictions that arise between the personae or masks of the drama, every bit as convincingly as this same split is revealed and reflected within any one personality of the drama, notably that of the heroine. “Achill und Penthesilea,” to quote Friedrich Gundolf, “jedes ist Kleist und beide zusammen sind Kleist, die beiden Pole einer einzigen Spannung. . . . Beide gehören zusammen und sind als ein Paar konzipiert worden. . . . Beide sind Mann und Weib in einem . . . wie in jeder vollen Menschenseele sich beide geschlechtigen Sonderun­ gen verbinden.” 2 However this may be, Penthesilea herself may be viewed as a complex, duplex personality, highly sexed and deeply passionate on 49 the one side (i.e., supremely well endowed for love) and yet equally capable of a destructive hate, adding up to a totality of ambivalence and ambiguity.3 Moreover, this view is based on and would be im­ possible without one act: Penthesilea’s mutilation of the love-object himself, namely Achilles. Both logical and psychological explanations may be offered for this drastic dramatic transformation from love and desire to hate and savage loathing: explanations too complicated for resume here. Commentators may seek some explanation in the mind of Kleist at the conscious level but the temptation has been to seek it far more deeply, in the hidden layers of the psyche. Such excursions into depth psychology are hazardous, yet often rewarding. If we could only find some simple explanation! But a simple way out of a com­ plex problem is often a delusion because it is often predicated on oversimplification. To say that Penthesilea is outraged because she cannot possess the love of a great hero, of a man who will stand up and really offer heroic opposition and not yield to her, a woman, because he is scheming to outwit and then possess her : this explanation may be too simple to satisfy our sophisticated and scholarly minds and yet be very near the basic truth. Yet even this explication leaves unex­ plained the violence of Penthesilea’s emotions and the violent outlet given them. Does such action lie in her nature, within a consistent line of characterization? Or is it to be found in that demonic...


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pp. 49-55
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