Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

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Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729-81): German, Playwright and Critic.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing considered himself chiefly a critic, but he also made significant contributions to German literature as a dramatist, poet, and theologian. Lessing was among the first Germans to succeed at supporting himself almost completely through his writing. He embraced the principles of the Enlightenment wholeheartedly and advocated religious and intellectual tolerance. The son of a Lutheran minister, Lessing attended the Fürstenschule in Meissen, Saxony. There he read works by the Latin dramatists Plautus and Terence and developed an interest in writing comedies. From 1746-48, Lessing attended universities in Leipzig and Wittenberg, where he studied theology, philosophy, and medicine. While devoting time to his academic studies, he also began his literary career and was befriended by Caroline Neuber. Prominent in Leipzig theater circles, she was instrumental in the staging of his first play, a satire called The Young Scholar (1748). Between 1747 and 1749, Lessing, who wanted to be known as the German Molière, wrote Damon, The Old Maid, The Misogynist, The Jews, and The Freethinker.

In 1748, Lessing moved to Berlin, where he lived off and on for the next nineteen years. During his early years in Berlin, Lessing attracted much attention as the book review editor of the Berlin Privileged Newspaper. He was both feared and respected for his impartiality, directness, and clarity.

In 1752, Lessing received a degree in medicine from the University of Wittenberg. Returning to Berlin, he resumed his writing and became friends with Mendelssohn, Moses and Nicolai, Christoph Friedrich. In his monograph, Vade Mecum for Mr. Samuel Gotthold Lange (1754), Lessing, not one to avoid controversy, takes Lange to task for careless translations of Horace’s poetry. In 1755, he completed Miss Sara Sampson, the first successful domestic tragedy in German drama. The play tells the story of Sara, a young middle-class woman seduced by Mellefont and poisoned by Marwood, Mellefont’s abandoned mistress. Grief stricken, Mellefont regrets his trickery and commits suicide at the end of the play. Well received by audiences of the time, Lessing’s play helped pave the way for Sturm und Drang theater.

From 1759-60, Lessing, Mendelssohn, and Nicolai published Letters Concerning the Latest Literature. In his contributions, Lessing attacked the French-oriented neo-classicism that much of mid-eighteenth century Germany had embraced, and his criticism was especially directed toward Gottsched, Johann Christoph. Believing that Gottsched had misunderstood the German soul, Lessing felt that the Germans had much more in common with the English. Shakespeare was, therefore, a much more appropriate model for German writers than French tragedians such as Pierre Corneille. In 1759, Lessing published a collection of fables and a treatise on their structure and content.

After serving as secretary to General Bogislaw von Tauentzien, the governor of Breslau (Wroclaw, Poland) from 1760-65, Lessing returned to Berlin and published two of his most important works: Laokoon (1766) and Minna von Barnhelm (1767). A major aesthetic document of Enlightenment Germany, Laokoon discusses the differences in form and content between literature and the visual arts. Minna von Barnhelm, considered to be the first modern comedy in German literature, has been praised for its convincing depiction of the period following the Seven Year War and for its realistic characters. In the play, Major Tellheim, a Prussian officer unjustly accused of a crime, feels that his honor has been besmirched and cancels his engagement to Minna, a lively, strong-willed woman from Saxony. Using her resourcefulness and insight into human nature, Minna succeeds in resolving the conflict.

Lessing’s next important contribution to German literary life was his involvement in the founding of a German national theater in Hamburg. Though the venture proved to be unsuccessful, it gave Lessing occasion to write his Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767-68), a collection of reviews and short essays on fundamental principles of the drama. In his work, Lessing attacks the German preoccupation with French culture, and he offers suggestions for a uniquely German theater: a mixture of plot and characterization features found in Shakespearian drama with the dignified style and form of Sophocles’ drama.

Lessing’s final years brought him much difficulty and sorrow. In 1770, he accepted a position as librarian of the ducal library at Wolfenbüttel. Although he had the chance to discover several hidden treasures in the library, Lessing never really felt comfortable working under conditions imposed by the Duke of Braunschweig. In 1776, Lessing married Eva König, and she soon became pregnant. By 1778, both his child and his wife had died.

During his years at Wolfenbüttel, Lessing was very active as a critic and playwright. The domestic tragedy Emilia Galotti (1772), one of his most popular plays, is the story of Emilia, a young middle-class woman who is sexually pursued by Hettore Gonzago, Prince of Guastalla, and ultimately sacrificed by her father to preserve her virginity. From 1774-77, Lessing published a series of fragments from controversial theological works by Hermann Samuel Reimarus and was severely criticized, especially by Pastor Johann Melchior Goeze. Lessing, intellectually superior to his opponents, defended himself valiantly. Eventually, the Duke entered the conflict, using his powers of censorship to silence Lessing, who then switched to a different medium in order to continue his struggle against religious intolerance. In Nathan the Wise (1779), a dramatic poem in unrhymed iambics, he argues that moral excellence and an exalted mind, character, and spirit do not depend on adherence to a particular religion, and that the validity of a particular religious creed is determined by the actions of its followers.

More than two hundred years after his death, Lessing’s influence can still be felt. As a dramatist, he established new standards in German literature, and his plays, especially Minna von Barnhelm, Emilia Galotti, and Nathan the Wise, continue to be produced. As a critic, he argued successfully for less French influence on German literature. As a theologian, he stood for religious and intellectual openmindedness.

Further Reading:

Edward M. Batley, Catalyst of Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Productive Criticism of Eighteenth-Century Germany, New York, 1990.

Monika Fick, Lessing Handbuch: Leben, Werk, Wirkung, Stuttgart, 2000.


David Witkosky

Auburn Montgomery

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