Cover image for Penthesilea : a tragic drama
Penthesilea : a tragic drama
Kleist, Heinrich von, 1777-1811.
Uniform Title:
Penthesilea. English
First edition.
Publication Information:
[New York?] : Michael di Capua Books : HarperCollins, [1998]

Physical Description:
xxxiii, 159 pages : color illustrations ; 23 cm
General Note:
First published in 1808.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PT2378.P4 E5 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Presents a translation of the German play about an army of Amazons who blast their way into the middle of the Trojan War, looking for Greek heroes to conquer.

Author Notes

The plays and stories of Heinrich von Kleist seem particularly modern, in that they show a world in which the individual can no longer rely on the institutions of society, the discoveries of science, or the revelations of religion. Instead, his characters can trust only in their intuition of some higher, though unknowable, providential purpose. At a time when the writers of German classicism counseled moderation and restraint, Kleist excelled in depicting elemental passions. He differed, however, from the writers of both Storm and Stress and romanticism in the austere character of his language and the almost clinical detachment of his narrative prose.

Kleist was born into a distinguished though impoverished Prussian family. In 1799, he broke with family tradition by refusing to pursue a military career. For a while he wished to study natural science, but, in 1801, a reading of Kant precipitated a crisis by convincing him that knowledge was impossible. The rest of his tempestuous life was marked by generally unsuccessful attempts to establish himself in various vocations, including journalism and politics. He achieved some moderate success with his play Katchen von Heilbronn in 1810, but most of his work remained unappreciated. Prince Friedrich von Homburg, now his most celebrated play, was not to be discovered and published until 1821, a decade after the author's death by suicide.

The suicide of Kleist brought him the attention that had been denied him in life. He was, almost immediately afterward, recognized as a significant writer, and his reputation has grown steadily ever since. David Luke and Nigel Reeves have written, "It is precisely Kleist's vulnerability and disequilibrium, his desperate challenge to established values and beliefs, that carry him further than Goethe and Schiller across the gap between the eighteenth century and our own age." Despite the great attention now given to the work of Kleist in Germany, he remains largely unknown to the American public. In Japan and Korea, however, in part because of cultural affinities, he is extremely popular.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Kleist (1777^-1811) was Germany's Keats or Shelley, a genius properly appreciated only after his too-early death. His play The Broken Jug is a staple German comedy, and his short novels The Marquise of O-- and Michael Kohlhaas (on which E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime is partly based) are acknowledged classics. His blank verse imitation of Greek tragedy, Penthesilea, waited until the 1960s for acceptance. Based on a legend subsidiary to the Trojan War, it is about the lust of Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, for the Greek hero Achilles--a passion that puts her in a frenzy that eventually turns murderous. Achilles tries to finesse the situation while going for the main chance, but all ends in gore and grim death. Sixties German audiences took to this spectacle of woman rampant, and translator Agee has fashioned a propulsive English version. But the most ferocious action--and there is a lot of it--is described rather than played onstage, and it is most gratifying that the eminent illustrator Maurice Sendak contributes 12 marvelous color drawings to this edition. --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Kleist's obscure and complex early 19th-century play is here translated by Guggenheim Fellow Agee in blank verse, a more formal version than Martin Greenberg's translation (Five Plays, Yale Univ., 1988). Set after the Trojan War, this tragedy of love and war is dramatized in 24 briskly paced scenes as a battle of the sexes between the Amazon warrior queen Penthesilea and the Hellenic king Achilles. Their passion and the poetic beauty of the text make the consequent violence of war, madness, and murder-suicide even more grotesque. Unusual characterizations and numerous allusions mocking classical mythology make the play challenging reading. Notes for each scene are listed by page (but not line) at the end of the play. Twelve superb full-page color illustrations by renowned Caldecott Medalist Maurice Sendak truly enhance this serious literary translation. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.‘Ming-ming Shen Kuo, Ball State Univ. Lib., Muncie, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This handsome volume provides a new translation of--and introduction to--Kleist's difficult and troubling work. Other English versions include Humphrey Treveleyan's translation (included in Eric Bentley's The Classic Theater, 1958-61, and in Kleist's Plays, ed. by Walter Hinderer, CH, Feb'83) and Bentley's easy-to-read adaptation The Fall of the Amazons (published in The Kleist Variations: Three Plays, 1982), which differs in tone from the original. Unlike these translators, Agee provides illustrations: 12 color drawings by Maurice Sendak. Though Sendak's illustrations suggest the darker forces lurking beneath the drama's surface, they are an unusual addition to a play such as this: Kleist's battle of the sexes is a literal battle in which the Amazon Queen conquers Achilles, tears him to pieces, and then commits suicide. Kleistian syntax is notoriously twisted and tortured, and Agee translates it into credible English while recognizing the crucial role of language and the intent of the play (e.g., Agee's elegant translation has Penthesilea remarking that ". . . a kiss, a bite / The two should rhyme, for one who truly loves / With all her heart can easily mistake them." Recommended for all undergraduate and graduate academic libraries collecting Continental literature in translation. E. L. Vines Albany College of Pharmacy of Union University



Penthesilea Scene One [ Enter Odysseus and Diomedes from one Antilochus from the other, with soldiers. ] Antilochus My greetings to you, Kings! How have you fared Since last we met before the gates of Troy? Odysseus Badly, Antilochus. As you can see, The armies of the Greeks and Amazons Are locked in battle like two raging wolves. I swear by Jupiter, they don't know why! Unless Mars in his fury, or Apollo, Takes them in hand, unless cloud-shaking Zeus Cleaves them apart with storm and thunderbolt: They will lie dead before the end of day, Each with its teeth sunk in the other's throat. Bring me a helmet full of water. Antilochus Wait! These Amazons-what do they want of us? Odysseus The two of us, on Agamemnon's counsel, Set out with all the Myrmidons behind us, Achilles and myself; Penthesilea, We'd heard, had risen in the Scythian forests, Leading an army, dressed in serpent skins, Of Amazons, burning with lust for war, By winding turns through mountainous terrain, To shield King Priam and break our siege of Troy. Then, by Scamander's bank, news reaches us That Deiphobus, the Priamid, has also Set forth in armed array, from Ilium, To meet the Queen, who's coming near with help, And greet her as a friend. Now we devour The highway, hoping to forfend against The ominous alliance of such foes By stepping in between. All night we march. But with the first dim reddening of dawn, Amazement seizes us, Antilochus: In a wide valley at our feet we see The Amazons in combat with the troops Of Deiphobus! And, like a hurricane Dispersing shredded clouds, Penthesilea Blasting the Trojan ranks in headlong sweep As if to blow them past the Hellespont And off the edge of Earth. Antilochus Strange, by our god! Odysseus We close our ranks to shield against their flight, Which thunders in upon us like the wedge Of an attacking phalanx, and conjoin Our spears to form a solid wall against them. Beholding this, Deiphobus hesitates; And we, conferring hastily, decide To greet Penthesilea as an ally: The while she, too, stems her triumphant course. Was ever simpler, sounder counsel taken? If I had asked Athena for advice, Could she have whispered anything more shrewd? She has no choice, this maiden! Having dropped From heaven, clad for war, into our midst To mingle in our fight-what choice has she, Except to side with one against the other? She must, by Hades! And we likewise must Presume her friendly, since she battles Troy. Antilochus Why, yes, by the river Styx! It clearly follows. Odysseus Well, then. Achilles goes with me to greet The Scythian heroine where she sits mounted In martial panoply before her maids, Plumes flowing from her helmet, skirt tucked high, Her palfrey tossing gold and purple tassels, Hooves stamping on the muddy ground beneath. For one long moment, with a pensive gaze She stares into our ranks, void of expression, As if we stood before her carved in stone; This bare flat palm has more expressive features Than were displayed upon that woman's face: Until her glance meets that of Peleus' son: A deepening flush spreads down unto her neck, Blood sets her face aglow as if the world Surrounding her were leaping into flames. Then, with a sudden jolt, she swings herself Casting a somber scowl upon Achilles Down from her horse, and, stepping toward us, leaves The reins with an attendant, and inquires What brings us to her in such pageantry. We Argives, I reply, are highly pleased To come upon an enemy of Troy; Long has a hatred for the sons of Priam Consumed our hearts, I say; great benefit Would be our Joint reward if we were friends; And other suchlike bounties of the moment. But then I notice in the flow of talking: She doesn't hear a word. Instead, she turns And with a look of utter wonderment, Suddenly like a girl, a sixteen-year-old On her way back from the Olympic Games, Addresses a companion by her side: Oh Prothoë, I do not think my mother, Otrerë, ever laid eyes on such a man! The friend, embarrassed at these words, stays silent, Achilles smiles at me, and I at him, While she herself stands gazing, as if drunk With admiration, at that glittering figure: Until her friend reminds her timidly That she still owes an answer to my words. Whether from rage or shame, another blush Staining her harness crimson to the waist, She turns to me, confusion, wildness, pride Commingling in her face, and speaks: I am Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, And you shall have my arrows for reply! Antilochus So, word for word, your messenger reported; But no one in the entire Grecian camp Could comprehend it. Odysseus Nor could we. Not knowing Just what to make of this display, we turn And wend our way home, bitterly ashamed, And see the Trojans guessing from afar At our humiliation, and assembling As if in triumph, with supercilious smiles, Convinced they're the ones favored after all, And that some error, soon to be put right, Had drawn the Amazon's wrath upon themselves. So they resolve to send a messenger And offer her again the heart and hand She'd scorned. This herald, though, has just begun To shake the dust off his cuirass and shield, When, sweeping in upon us one and all, Trojans and Greeks alike, that centauress Comes flying, reins hung slack, with all the force And rampant frenzy of a cataract. Antilochus Truly astounding, Danaeans! Odysseus And now begins A struggle, friend, such as had not been fought Since Gala loosed the Furies on this world. I thought till now that Nature knows but force And counterforce, and no third power besides. Whatever quenches fire will not bring water Seething to a boll, nor vice versa. Penthesilea . Copyright © by Heinrich von Kleist. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Penthesilea by Heinrich Von Kleist All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.