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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

Heinrich von Kleist based his tale on a factual account, and his manner of presentation suggests that he wants the reader to see it as nonfiction. Acknowledging the complexity of Michael Kohlhaas’ character, he encourages us to consider his “sense of justice” in evaluating his criminal actions.

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The world would have every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue—his sense of justice, which made of him a robber and a murderer.

The problems began when Kohlhaas, a horse trader, was moving a group of horses to another town to sell. He learned that a new squire had replaced the old one who had died, and that new regulations were in place. Because he did not have a passport, he offered to get it at the next city, but at the castle he had to leave a security in the form of some horses. After he obtained his passport and returned for his horses, however, all was not well. He found his once “glossy, well-fed blacks” were now bone thin, with matted hair; they had apparently been starved and worked as draft-horses.

No one in the castle will admit responsibility, and Kohlhaas learns, after questioning his groom, who was also injured, of the deplorable conditions to which they had all been subjected. He decides to take legal action. Aided by an attorney, who drew up a petition, the aggrieved horse-dealer filed a claim based on

the wrong which the Squire Wenzel von Tronka had done both to him, and his servant Herse, [Kohlhaas] claimed that he should be punished according to law, that his horses should be restored to their former condition, and that compensation should be awarded for the wrong which he and his servant had suffered.

His claim is not successful, however, as the squire has friends and relations in the court. Kohlhaas takes matters into his own hands and gathers some men to accompany him to the squire’s castle. After setting the outbuildings on fire, he bursts into the castle itself. Although the squire...

(The entire section contains 536 words.)

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