This play reminded me of Henry IV. It’s about a prince (cousin or nephew of the king, which is called Duke. Don’t ask me to explain, while it’s clear who’s in charge this was really confusing to figure out. I call them prince for the main character and Duke for the guy in charge) whom in the opening scene is sleepwalking. Because he is dreaming of victory in the battle he will fight in the next day, a counting your chickens before they hatch scenario, the Duke plays a trick on him. Because of this trick the prince isn’t all there to receive his orders, and makes things worse by disobeying the Duke out right. Because of this the Duke almost dies and the prince is sentenced to death.
The rest of the play is a very straight forward discussion about whether or not sentencing the prince to death was the right thing to do. It tries to figure out if a soldier has to follow the orders he is given during a battle, and since von Kleist manages to present both sides he manages to actually have a discussion about it.
Duke: But the biggest victory can’t forgive the one whom won by coincidence; because I have more battles to fight and I demand obedience unto the law. – Act II, scene 9
I liked that the play actually portray the act of the defiance the prince committed. By letting us see the lead up, the act and the consequences, we as the audience become judges. We decide, even before the discussion commences, what we actually think about the act. Not in the sense that you need to know a lot about military law to understand the play. The act of following rules and laws is something we all do, and we all have our own ideas about what kind of laws are okay to break and when. Maybe you think it’s okay to take a life if you are in a war-zone or for self defence, then what does it mean that something is a war-zone or self defence? Maybe you think that it’s okay to cross the street even though the light is red, but of course not when the car is coming really fast and walking across would be disruptive for the drivers, or maybe even if you become disruptive for the drivers.
A key to understanding the play is a plot point when the prince is asked if he thinks the Duke was wrong in punishing him. Which is a good question to ask. If you litter, do you think it’s wrong to be punished for it (assuming littering is against the law)?