REVIEW OF HEINRICH VON KLEIST’S PLAY
THE PRINCE OF HOMBURG, OR THE BATTLE OF FEHRBELLIN (1850)
By FRIEDRICH HEBBEL
TRANSLATED BY FRANCES H. KING
THE PRINCE OF HOMBURG is one of the most peculiar creations of the German mind, for the reason that in it, through the mere horror of death, through death’s darkening shadow, has been achieved what in all other tragedies (this work is a tragedy) is achieved only through death itself: that is to say, the moral purification and apotheosis of the hero. The whole drama is planned to bring about this result, and what Tieck, in a well known passage, declares to be, the kernel of it, namely the illustration of what subordination is, in reality is only the means to an end. Neither do I agree with Tieck when he remarks further that the sleep-walking scene with which the piece begins, and the final denouement connected with it add to the other merits of the drama by lending it the charm of a pleasing and attractive fairy-tale. On the contrary, this feature is to be censured because it is disturbing, and if, as in Kaethchen of Heilbronn, it were intimately inwoven in the organism of the work it would deprive the latter of its claim to be considered a classic. For man must not be forced to do penance for the mischief which the moon causes; otherwise we might be obliged to call it a tragedy if a man, having climbed up to the apex of the roof in his sleep, and been spied there by his sweetheart, who, in the first terror of surprise, called his name, should fall at her feet crushed to pieces! Happily, however, we can eliminate the whole sleep-walking episode and the work continues to be what it is; it stands immovable on a solid psychological foundation, and the rank weeds of Romanticism, have only twined themselves around it like superfluous arabesques. That, indeed, must not be understood to mean that half of the first and half of the last act could be struck out. If such a barbaric procedure were possible, Kleist would not be what, he is, a true poet, whom, like every original God-given growth, one must accept as a whole or must reject as a whole. No, we shall have to leave the Prince his garland-wreathing and the glove which he catches as a consequence of it. But the incident is by no means essential to the rest of the drama. The structure has, beside these artificial supports, other very different and entirely solid ones, and there is no need to enlarge upon the former unless one is animated with a desire to find fault. Here we have a youth who had the misfortune to have fortune smile upon him prematurely, and who loves where perhaps—he has as yet no certainty of it—he should not love; what more is needed to enable us to comprehend the arrogance displayed in the first catastrophe and the pusillanimity in the second? Kleist has put a set of pulleys in motion where the simplest lever would have sufficed, but the pulleys have been connected with the lever, and the purpose has been thoroughly accomplished, though not by the most direct, and therefore the best means.