Heinrich Von Kleist's Amphitryon: Romanticism, Rape, and Comic Irresolution

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Central to at least two works by Heinrich von Kleist-- Amphitryon (1807) and "The Marquise of O..." (1808)--are acts of sexual violation. In conformity with traditional Kleist scholarship, the introduction to a popular English edition of the stories presents both works mentioned above as "revolv[ing] entirely around the seeming misconduct of a virtuous young woman" (Luke and Reeves 20). To be sure, some recognition of the stakes involved accompanies this familiar turning of the tables, the redirection of critical attention from the apparent misconduct of the culprit to that of his victim. It is acknowledged, for example, that the Marquise of O..., the eponymous protagonist of Kleist's famous story, "has in a certain sense been raped and . . . rape is not an unserious matter" (Luke and Reeves 18). Nevertheless, such a formulation in itself betrays an attitude reminiscent of what one critic describes as the mother's "refusal," in "The Marquise of O...," "to allow the scene [in this case, of incest] to signify what it signifies" (Gelus 65). Conceding the occurrence of rape only in a "certain" sense, only in a "technical" sense (Peter Horn, qtd. in Gelus 66-67), traditional readings typically shift the focus of attention to the question of the woman's complicity and diminish the impact of her experience of sexual violation. The Marquise, according to Luke and Reeves, is "at no point . . . threatened with anything more grave than a certain amount of social scandal" (18), while Alcmena, who in Amphitryon has been "ravished" by Jupiter (McGlathery 64), is regarded as having received more than she could have wished for (or perhaps exactly what she had wished for), and therefore can hardly in the end be seen to suffer, particularly in comparison with her unfortunate, cuckolded husband. Both women have been viewed as harboring guilt and shame over their "erotic abandon," their "surrender to desire" (McGlathery 65, 84), but all turns out for the best, "with the vindication of the heroine's moral if not technical innocence" (Luke and Reeves 20), and everything is ultimately forgiven in happy endings that mark even such troubling tales as belonging to the genre of comedy. Taking as its focus the play Amphitryon, with some attention to the novella "The Marquise of O...," this essay shows how Kleist's works subvert the comic structure to which they apparently conform.[1] The theme of rape by impersonation and that of a woman made pregnant without her knowledge may have "wide currency in world literature," "a long, ribald ancestry" (Luke and Reeves 18-19), but rather than blithely contributing to the idea of rape as harmless, humorous, and/or liberating, Amphitryon, like "The Marquise of O...," arouses the resistance of the reader to such romantic or romanticized narratives of sexual violation.

With its mingling of the tragic and the comic,[2] Kleist's treatment of such an unfunny subject as rape has led beyond the "Verwirrung des Gefuhls" on the part of the characters that Goethe perceived in Amphitryon (Goethe, qtd. in Sembdner 144) to a good deal of critical bewilderment. Despite its seemingly straightforward subtitle, "A Comedy after Moliere," Amphitryon has consistently been recognized as containing disturbingly tragic elements. The recasting of rape as part of an erotic adventure, however, allows for an accommodation of the "not unserious" aspects of the work within a larger comic structure. In reshaping Moliere's comedy, which emphasizes "the humour of cuckoldry" (Clouser 275), Kleist may well have added undeniably solemn features, normally associated with the characters'-- especially Alcmena's--crises of identity, but when all is said and done, critical consensus still locates his Amphitryon within that pleasing body of "comic literature aimed at a humorous portrayal of desire and its effects" (McGlathery 72).[3] One of Kleist's most notable innovations, the emphasis on Alcmena rather than on Amphitryon, infuses a classical social comedy with unsettling tragic elements--Goethe's "confusion of emotion"--but at the same time it allows the play to be retrieved as a farcical tale of cuckoldry. …