Kleist’s Kohlhaas

Here’s Christine Smallwood in Harper’s Magazine on Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas in a new English translation by Michael Hofmann (use the Wayback Machine if inaccessible):

Here is how Kohlhaas ends: We learn, more or less out of nowhere, that the horse-dealer has for a long time been wearing around his neck a scrap of paper that was given to him… by a fortune-teller who [as Kohlhaas realizes at their second meeting] strongly resembled his dead wife. This paper reveals the manner in which the Elector of Saxony will lose his hold on power.

There are two electors, or Kurfürsten, of the Holy Roman Empire involved in the narrative: of Brandenburg and of Saxony. The former is generally sympathetic to Kohlhaas: while he cannot save him from the death penalty, he elevates his sons to knighthood and takes care of their education (as we learn at the end of the story). The latter, however, has done Kohlhaas much harm, so the horse-dealer has good reasons to wish him ill.

The fortune-teller, who we now understand to be the incarnation of Kohlhaas’s dead wife Lisbeth, urges him to think of the children and use the paper to save his life. But Kohlhaas is by now “jubilant at the power that had been given him to wound his enemy mortally in the heel even as he made to trample him in the dirt.”

The fortune-teller scene is more nuanced than that – the old woman resembles Lisbeth in some ways but the reader cannot be certain whether she is acting on behalf of the deceased or is tempting Kohlhaas into swerving away from his quest for vengeance. Kohlhaas argues sensibly that the Saxon prince simply can’t be trusted, and leaves it to the fortune-teller to instruct him on the best course of action. She leaves without giving him an obvious clue. Kohlhaas ascends the scaffold a few days later.

When he glimpses the Elector [of Saxony] in the crowd at his execution, he rips off the necklace, reads the paper, swallows it, and wordlessly submits to his beheading.

Too late for a reprieve at that point. Kohlhaas swallows the paper because the same mysterious fortune-teller has warned him that the ruler of Saxony plans to steal the secret letter off his dead body. Now that it’s impossible, he returns to his capital, Dresden, “wounded in mind and body,” to face the trouble that lies ahead. The historical duke of Saxony, John Frederick I (Johann Friedrich I), lost his electorship in 1547 after being defeated by the emperor Charles V.

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