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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: April 2017

Kleist's Penthesilea: Battleground of Gendered Discourses

from Critical Approaches


Older Views and Interpretations

Kleist's oeuvre encompasses some of the most enigmatic works in German literature — and his Penthesilea is unquestionably the most puzzling among them. Here a virgin Amazon queen intends to subjugate Achilles, the most famous of all Greek heroes, in order to have him impregnate her at a nocturnal ritual orgy in Themiscyra. Yet, she falls passionately in love with this man in the middle of fierce combat, and she is unable to overpower him in the melee as demanded by the law of the land. When he, equally gripped by an intensely burning passion, charges unarmed toward her, she ultimately tears him limb from limb with the help of her bloodthirsty hounds and devours his corpse in an intoxicatingly cannibalistic and necrophilic manner. Kisses or bites: for her they suddenly become one and the same (24.2981). Afterward, as if awakening from a spell of temporary insanity, she plunges a “destructive emotion that is as cold as ore” into her breast — and sinks lifeless to the ground (24.3027).

It is understandable that such a scene has spurred hundreds of literary scholars, male and female alike, to wild interpretations. Many of them have attempted to base their arguments on Kleist's own statements about the drama. These statements are few and far between, however, and so cryptic as to obscure the genuine literary intention of the work. From the few references to Penthesilea in Kleist's letters we know only that (1) this work, second only to Robert Guiskard, must certainly have been his most ambitious project; (2) he wept from a deep shock while writing it — above all, after the death of Penthesilea; (3) he infused this drama with the “entire filth” and “brilliance of my soul”; (4) he considered the drama's “martial” spirit “not for women”; and (5) his Penthesilea and Käthchen von Heilbronn were connected to each other like “the + and – of algebra” (Sembdner 35–43). No further authorial comments have come to light.