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Penthesilea: A Tragic Drama

Penthesilea: A Tragic Drama

by Heinrich von Kleist, Maurice Sendak (Photographer), Joel Agee (Translator)

An army of Amazons sets out to conquer Greek heroes for the purpose of stocking their women's state with new female offspring. They blast into the midst of the Trojan War, confusing Greeks and Trojans alike and for a moment forcing those enemies into a terrified alliance. When Achilles, the pride and mainstay of the Greeks, and Penthesilea (Pen-te-sil-lay-uh


An army of Amazons sets out to conquer Greek heroes for the purpose of stocking their women's state with new female offspring. They blast into the midst of the Trojan War, confusing Greeks and Trojans alike and for a moment forcing those enemies into a terrified alliance. When Achilles, the pride and mainstay of the Greeks, and Penthesilea (Pen-te-sil-lay-uh), queen of the Amazons, meet, a chase begins,

The like of which not even the wildest storms Set loose to thunder across the plain of heaven Have yet presented to the astonished world,

and it is the queen who is hunting Achilles, to the uncomprehending horror of the Greeks. Thus begins a tragedy of love in a world governed by the rules of war, on which "the gods look down but from afar."

For the first time, in this splendidly illustrated book, an English translation recreates the audaity, romance, and poetry of one of the strangest and most beautiful works of Western literature.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
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

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Scene One

[Enter Odysseus and Diomedes from one
Antilochus from the other, with soldiers.]

My greetings to you, Kings! How have you fared
Since last we met before the gates of Troy?

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.

These Amazons-what do they want of us?

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
OfDeiphobus! 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.

Strange, by our god!

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.

Why, yes, by the river Styx! It clearly follows.

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!

So, word for word, your messenger reported;
But no one in the entire Grecian camp
Could comprehend it.

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.

Truly astounding, Danaeans!

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.

Meet the Author

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was virtually forgotten until the beginning of the twentieth century, when Rilke, Kafka, and Thomas Mann hailed him as a master of German prose and European dramatic literature. During Kleist's lifetime, Goethe, sensing in the younger man his greatest rival, carefully withheld from him the endorsement that would have established his reputation. At the age of thirty-four, impoverished and in debt, despairing of the literary honor he had hoped to gain for his family, Kleist consummated a suicide pact with an incurably ill married woman. Ironically, the spectacular circumstances of his death helped to rescue his oeuvre—primarily eight stories and eight plays—from oblivion.

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