Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
ph_0111206596-Lessing_G.jpg Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Lessing contributed to literature through his work in the field of literary criticism and drama, to philosophy in his efforts to bring the ideas of the European Enlightenment to Germany, and to theology in his founding of the philosophy of religion.

Early Life

Born the son of a Protestant minister, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing enrolled as a student of theology at the University of Leipzig in 1746, but he was soon attracted by literature and the theater. He wrote his first play, Der junge Gelehrte (the young scholar), a comedy which was performed with great success by the local company in 1748. Other comedies were to follow, and soon it became apparent that Lessing had embarked on a literary rather than a theological career. Lessing’s early comedies were comparatively trivial, following the model advocated by Johann Christoph Gottsched, who dominated literary life in Germany until approximately 1750. Although Lessing followed Gottsched, he did write two problem plays, which show his departure from the Gottschedian model: Die Juden (wr. 1749, pb. 1754; The Jews, 1801) and Die Freigeist (wr. 1749, pb. 1755; The Freethinker, 1838). In the first comedy, Lessing attacked anti-Semitic prejudices, while in the second, he neither glorified nor criticized his protagonist but tried to provide his character with a larger degree of realism. While The Jews is a forerunner of Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise, 1781) in terms of its topicality, The Freethinker is an anticipation of contemporary realist comedy, as represented by Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm: Oder, Das Soldatenglück (1767; Minna von Barnhelm: Or, The Soldier’s Fortune, 1786).

In 1748, Lessing went to Berlin, where he stayed until 1755. Lessing was one of the first free-lance writers in German literature, trying to live by the work of his pen. He failed in the end and had to take a civil service position, as did the majority of intellectuals in eighteenth century Germany, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller; Lessing’s endeavors, nevertheless, were an inspiration to subsequent generations of writers. Beginning his career as a journalist, Lessing also published a number of scholarly articles and was active as translator, editor, and literary critic. In 1751-1752, he briefly attended the University of Wittenberg to obtain a master’s degree but returned to Berlin in November, 1752.

One of the most important events of Lessing’s life in Berlin was the beginning of his lifelong friendship with Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had made the transition from the protected existence within the Jewish community, which had lived in the physical and intellectual isolation of the ghettos since the Middle Ages, to participation in the surrounding German and European life of commerce and intellect. Mendelssohn met with much prejudice, but Lessing accepted him on equal terms. Indeed, Lessing’s support of Mendelssohn paved the way for Jewish emancipation in Germany. The Lessing-Mendelssohn friendship was perceived as a symbol of a successful German-Jewish symbiosis. While this symbol was rendered totally invalid by the Holocaust of World War II, it was, nevertheless, true for the eighteenth century. Lessing modeled Nathan the Wise, the noble Jewish protagonist of his last drama, after Mendelssohn.

Lessing’s first successful tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (English translation, 1789), was written, performed, and published in 1755. Lessing introduced domestic, or bourgeois, tragedy to the German stage. The introduction of middle-class characters and their family problems into tragedy constituted his break with Gottsched, who had reserved tragedy for affairs of state and the fate of princes. Because of its sentimental appeal and audience identification with the protagonists, the performance was a great success. The middle-class audience saw characters of its class onstage and witnessed their struggle with ethical norms and their ensuing tragic failures.

In 1756, Lessing planned to embark on a three-year grand tour of Europe as traveling companion to a wealthy young man, but they had to abandon their travel plans when the Seven Years’ War broke out in Europe. After a short stay in Leipzig, Lessing returned to Berlin in 1758. There, he edited and published, together with Mendelssohn and Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend (1759-1760; letters on current literature), a journal which employed the fiction of letters, reporting on recent publications to a friend. The criteria developed by Lessing and his friends in their literary criticism provided new standards of excellence for German literature, which was still in its beginnings at this time. One of Lessing’s most famous contributions was the seventeenth letter of February, 1759, attacking Gottsched and his hold on German literature and recommending William Shakespeare instead of the French...

(The entire section is 2069 words.)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born on January 22, 1729, in a small town called Kamenz, located near the city of Meissen, in Saxony, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was the second son and third child in a family of twelve children (five of whom died in childhood). His father, Johann Gottfried Lessing, shortly after earning a degree in theology from the University of Wittenberg, had obtained a modest position as assistant pastor in Kamenz and, in 1725, married Justina Salome Feller. Lessing’s mother, although a loving and dutiful housewife, manifested little interest in either her husband’s or her children’s intellectual pursuits. It was, consequently, from his father that Lessing developed his own precocious appetite for reading. A frequently repeated anecdote relates that at the age of six Lessing refused to pose for a portrait holding a bird cage and insisted that the cage be replaced by a pile of books. (Interestingly, Lessing managed to collect a personal library of more than five thousand volumes in later life.) Lessing’s father, despite some minor advancements in his career, remained an impecunious albeit respected clergyman throughout his entire life, but he nevertheless managed to find the wherewithal to send five of his sons to the university.

Lessing’s own formal education began in a progressive Latin school at Kamenz, where he remained until the age of twelve. He then entered the Elector’s School of St. Afra in Meissen, one of the three finest schools in Germany at that time, and proved himself such a gifted and eager pupil that his teachers described him as “a horse that requires double fodder.” After five years of intensive study at St. Afra’s, Lessing matriculated at the University of Leipzig as a student of theology, in deference to his father’s wishes. Philology and literature, however, proved more congenial to him than did theology. At the same time, Lessing became involved in the lively social life of Leipzig, a city commonly referred to during this period as “a little Paris.” It was in Leipzig that he became involved with the theatrical troupe headed by Professor Gottsched’s protégée, Karoline Neuber, who encouraged him to make use of his literary talents to write original plays and who eventually produced one of his early works. Distressed by the academic indifference and general waywardness of his son, Lessing’s father summoned him back to Kamenz, permitting him to return to Leipzig only on the condition that he would henceforth devote himself to the study of medicine. Before long, however, Lessing was obliged to flee from Leipzig because he was unable to make payment for debts incurred by some members of the Neuber troupe, for whom he had unwisely agreed to stand surety.

Except for about a year’s time spent at the University of Wittenberg, from which institution he acquired a Master of Arts degree in 1752, Lessing worked as a translator and freelance journalist in Berlin from 1748 to 1755. Here he eventually came into close association with such leading thinkers as Mendelssohn and...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born January 22, 1729, in Kamenz, a small city of northeastern Saxony, of a family originally Slavic but citizens of Germany for centuries, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing mingled in his character the energetic ruggedness of the frontier with the discipline of civilization that turned it into intellectual and aesthetic channels. As the oldest son of the city’s chief pastor, the boy attended the Latin School and the famous St. Afra in Meissen, where students were up at 4:30 a.m. for a long day at their books. Introduced by his mathematics teacher to the writers of Europe, Lessing studied longer and harder than his schoolmates.

He attended the University of Leipzig in 1746, sent by his father to...

(The entire section is 657 words.)