Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707
The principal characters of Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas" are:
The title character, Kohlhaas. He is a horse-dealer who lives in the German principality of Brandenburg during the early 1500s. After two of his horses are stolen and mistreated by a neighboring nobleman, the Squire von Tronka, Kohlhaas, after being denied justice through the courts, takes private revenge against the Squire. Kohlhaas and his servants destroy the Squire's castle, and when Tronka himself escapes, Kohlhaas's rebellion escalates, he raises a mob of followers, and he sets fire to the town of Wittenberg, where the Squire is presumed to be hiding. Eventually, after many twists and turns of the story, Kohlhaas is brought to trial and executed.
Kohlhaas's wife, Lisbeth. She is killed by a guard at the Elector (ruling prince) of Saxony's palace when trying to petition the Elector with her husband's complaint against Tronka.
The Squire (in German, the title is "Junker," a feudal nobleman) Tronka. He is a disreputable nobleman whose men detain Kohlhaas, then confiscate and abuse his horses when Kohlhaas is passing near Tronka's castle on the border between Brandenburg and Saxony.
Herse, a stable-lad who is Kohlhaas's servant. Herse is beaten by Tronka's men and eventually dies of his wounds.
The Elector of Saxony. Elector (in German, "Kurfurst") was the term for the rulers of the German states, which at that time, and until Germany was unified in the late nineteenth century, were basically independent principalities within the loose confederation of the Holy Roman Empire. Saxony is a region in eastern Germany, the capital of which is Dresden.
The Elector of Brandenburg. Brandenburg is a principality, later called Prussia, the capital of which is Berlin.
Prince Christian von Misnia. He is the leader of Saxony's military forces.
Martin Luther. Luther, of course, was the leader of the Protestant Reformation. In the story, he intercedes on behalf of Kohlhaas after the rebellion has gotten out of control, and he obtains an amnesty for Kohlhaas, though later it is revoked and Kohlhaas is sentenced to death for his crimes.
Kohlhaas's children. There are three girls and two boys; the names of the latter are Heinrich and Leopold.
Waldmann and Sternbald. They are two other servants of Kohlhaas.
A gypsy woman. She has uttered a prophecy regarding the Saxon Elector and passed this to Kohlhaas on a slip of paper. It is possible the woman is the ghost of Kohlhaas's wife, Lisbeth.
Given that Kleist's novella is based on true events, Kohlhaas himself and, as can be seen, other characters in the story such as Martin Luther are actual historical figures. The story is historical fiction, a Romantic interpretation, or re-imagining, of events that took place 300 years before the author's time. Kohlhaas, because he cannot receive legal justice for the theft and mistreatment of his horses, takes private revenge by, as stated above, burning down the castle of the nobleman who perpetrated the crime. His extra-judicial actions escalate out of control and he foments an uprising of people who are themselves unhappy with the establishment and with government. Kohlhaas, in Kleist's treatment, becomes a Romantic rebel, seeking justice at any cost to himself and others.
The novella needs to be seen in the context of Kleist's time during the Napoleonic wars. The German principalities had basically been reduced to client states by Bonaparte, and there was widespread dissatisfaction among intellectuals and people in the arts generally who saw the way Germany was governed as reactionary and harmful to the people. Kohlhaas is a symbol, to Kleist, of the defiance of political and social norms; even more so, he is a kind of existential hero, disregarding and transcending the limits imposed upon humanity in defense of justice for himself and others. The authority figures in the story, especially Squire Tronka and the Saxon Elector, are symbols of backwardness and the injustice of the social hierarchy of their time, the sixteenth century, and Kleist's own time 300 years later.
Martin Luther is depicted ambiguously, in my view. Though Kleist arguably presents an anti-religious theme, Luther does, nevertheless, intercede on Kohlhaas's behalf, in the end ineffectively, however. Interestingly, in his novel "Ragtime," E. L. Doctorow based one of the plots upon Kleist's story and renamed the Kohlhaas character "Coalhouse Walker, Jr."