“Die Stunde der Entscheidung”: Ordeal and Uncertainty in Kleist’s “Der Zweikampf ”

Brian Tucker


Kleist’s “Der Zweikampf” (1811) depicts the use of trial by combat to decide between two contradictory claims to the truth. The duel’s aftermath, though, represents a second form of medieval proof, the trial by ordeal, in which wounds communicate guilt and innocence. While many readers take “Der Zweikampf” as a story about the pitfalls of ambiguity and the futility of hermeneutics, this article argues that the uncertainty derives not from ambiguous messages or obscure signs. It occurs, rather, when two forms of medieval proof deliver clear but mutually exclusive results and divine judgment undermines itself through an excess of legible judgments. Kleist uses this conflict to demonstrate that an element of human decision cannot be removed from adjudication. Although the judicial duel seeks to pass difficult decisions to divine authority, the court must always decide whether a particular instance of combat conforms to the norm of divine judgment. (BMT)

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