Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Essay - Critical Essays


To some extent, all writing is autobiography, but the degree to which the autobiographical element manifests itself varies greatly from one author to another. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was undoubtedly accurate when he called attention to the close relationship between his life and his work by stating that “all my writings are fragments of a great confession.” On the other hand, such as statement as Goethe’s could never have been made by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing because there is seemingly little overt connection between the fictive content of his major plays and his own personal life. In Hamburg Dramaturgy, Lessing goes as far as to reject the notion that he truly merits the title of creative writer and proceeds to assert:Not everyone who takes a brush in his hand and lays on colors is a painter. The earliest of my attempts [at writing plays] were made in those years in which one is apt to regard desire and facility as genius. . . . I do not feel within me the living spring that works itself upward through its own native strength and breaks forth into such abundant, fresh, pure streams. I must force everything out of myself by means of pressure and pipes.

If one bears in mind the difficulty that he had in transmuting life into art, one will more easily understand why it was necessary for Lessing to use so much material borrowed from other literary sources in order to write his own plays. In the same source cited above, he acknowledges the necessity of such borrowing with complete candor:I would be so poor, so cold, so shortsighted if I had not, to some degree, modestly learned to borrow foreign treasures, to warm myself at foreign fires, and to strengthen my eyes through the glasses of art.

There is no sin in making use of vicarious experience obtained by reading the works of other writers; the degree to which Lessing was compelled to use the plots, the characters, and even the dialogue created by other authors, however, was so extreme that he drew on this source of inspiration almost as much as he drew on life. Indeed, in a book entitled Leszing’s Plagiate (1888-1891), “Lessing’s plagiarism,” Paul Albrecht goes as far as to represent Lessing as an archthief, utterly devoid of originality. While this conclusion is extreme, the book is useful in that it makes one aware of the extent of Lessing’s borrowing. In Lessing’s defense, it should be noted that he allowed plenty of time for the material borrowed from other authors’ works to simmer in his subconscious until a true synthesis had been achieved. Lessing’s dramas were not, therefore, undigested episodes pasted together with the technical skill of a great critic, but rather unified creations that earn the right to be called original despite their secondhand inspiration.

How keenly Lessing felt his shortcomings as a playwright can be inferred from the fact that at the age of twenty-one he was already the author of seven complete plays, yet in the remaining thirty-one years of his life he was to write only five more. With respect to these five later plays, Lessing stated that whatever is tolerable in them he owed simply and solely to the critic in him. Accordingly, Hamburg Dramaturgy contains the following ringing endorsement of the value of criticism: “I am therefore always ashamed or vexed whenever I hear or read anything that disparages criticism. It is supposed to stifle genius, and I flattered myself into believing that what I gained from it enabled me to achieve something very nearly approaching genius. I am a lame man who finds it impossible to be edified by a calumny on the use of crutches.” He hastens, however to add an important qualification: “But certainly, like the crutch that helps the lame man move from one place to another and yet cannot make him into a runner, so it is with criticism.”

In light of the extreme critical temperament that informs all of Lessing’s writings, it is imperative to recognize that each of his major plays is a concerted endeavor to solve a theoretical problem pertaining to dramatic form. Clearly, the playwright’s chief motivation in writing Miss Sara Sampson was to extend the range of tragedy so as to include the middle class within its purview. Similarly, Emilia Galotti, in addition to being a protest against political tyranny, should also be viewed as an attempt to construct a model Aristotelian tragedy in accordance with the principles set forth in Hamburg Dramaturgy. In Minna von Barnhelm, Lessing not only pleads for a reconciliation between the Saxons and the Prussians in the aftermath of the hostility fostered by the Seven Years’ War but also seeks to combine the serious and the comic in keeping with the suggestion of Denis Diderot concerning the feasibility of a mixed genre. Finally, in Nathan the Wise, his passionate advocacy of religious toleration is coupled with an attempt to work out the principles of writing a drama in verse form.


As a youth, Lessing set himself the goal of becoming the “German Molière.” Like Molière, who maintained that “the purpose of comedy is to correct men by entertaining them,” Lessing held a didactic view on the function of literature. Not surprisingly, the didactic element in his early comedies is particularly strong. In his first play, a one-act comedy called Damon: Or, True Friendship, Damon and Leander are friendly rivals for the hand of a young widow, who devises a scheme involving a business venture to test the genuineness of their loyalty to each other. Leander proves to be duplicitous, and the widow chooses to marry Damon because of his nobility of soul. Damon, for his part, forgives Leander and insists that his future wife do likewise.

The Young Scholar and The Woman-Hater

The Young Scholar, a play that Karoline Neuber first produced in Leipzig, is a three-act comedy with an extremely convoluted plot, the purpose of which is to ridicule pedantry. It is highly likely that there is an element of self-mockery in this work.

In The Woman-Hater, a one-act play that Lessing later expanded to three acts, a young woman disguises herself as a man in order to win over her fiancé’s misogynistic father, who does not wish his son to marry. Although she does eventually succeed in winning the admiration of the father, he does not entirely abandon his misogyny after the unmasking. He consents to the marriage, but he goes on to declare that his son will have to learn about women the hard way.

The Old Maid and The Freethinker

In the one-act play The Old Maid, a wealthy unmarried woman of fifty is courted by a retired military man of dubious character. Their union is opposed by her dissipated nephew, who stands to lose his inheritance. The situation is resolved by the captain and the nephew agreeing to divide up the woman’s money. Just why Lessing would want to reward roguery in this way remains a puzzle.

The plot of The Freethinker is derived from an obscure French source and involves an unpleasant atheist and a gentle minister who are respectively engaged to two sisters. The betrothal of the two sisters has been arranged by their father, and it soon turns out that each sister is in love with the other’s fiancé. Before the appropriate exchange of partners is consummated, the minister has ample opportunity to display his sterling qualities. In doing so, he demonstrates to the atheist that, contrary to his expectations, virtue can be found in people who profess a belief in God. The atheist vows henceforth to model himself after the virtuous minister. It should be emphasized that none of these comedies would merit attention today if they were not part of the dramatic apprenticeship of one of the major figures in eighteenth century German literature.

The Jews

More important than any of the aforementioned plays is Lessing’s comedy The Jews and the fragmentary tragedy Samuel Henzi. In The Jews, a nobleman narrowly escapes being robbed and murdered by two bearded assailants, whom he assumes to be Jews. His rescuer is an unknown traveler, who agrees to interrupt his journey to stay at the Baron’s estate for a few days. During this visit, the Baron voices anti-Semitic views, to which the Traveler quietly demurs. By chance, the Traveler discovers false beards in the possession of the overseer of the Baron’s estate. When confronted by this evidence, the overseer confesses to the assault on the Baron and reveals the identity of his accomplice. It is at this point that the Baron offers the Traveler his daughter’s hand in marriage. The Traveler, however, declines on the grounds that such a union would be impossible in their society because he is a Jew. The Baron is now suitably perplexed. Although the Baron’s daughter is still willing to enter into marriage with him, the Traveler states that the only reward he desires is to have his people judged fairly. This having been said, the Traveler departs.

Samuel Henzi

In the tragedy Samuel Henzi, Lessing turns to the topic of political oppression. His hero is a Swiss patriot who was executed in 1749 for attempting to overthrow the tyrannical government of Berne. Although Lessing managed to complete only the first act and part of the second, this fragment received much critical approbation when it was published by Lessing in 1753 as part of his Kritische Briefe (1753). Despite the topical nature of the play, Lessing chose to employ the rhymed Alexandrines of French classical tragedy to adhere strictly to the traditional dramatic unities.

Miss Sara Sampson

It is generally acknowledged that Lessing’s prime objective in writing Miss Sara Sampson was to promote the acceptance of middle-class tragedy among his countrymen. Although this play is often described as the first German work in this genre, there is much to be said for according precedence to Andreas Gryphius’s tragedy Cardenio und Celinde: Oder, Unglücklich Verliebte (wr. c. 1647-1649, pb. 1657, pr. 1661). Lessing’s inspiration, however, came from abroad. The chief influences were George Lillo’s play The London Merchant: Or, The History of George Barnwell (pr., pb. 1731) and Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747-1748). In addition, Lessing also drew heavily from plays written by Thomas Shadwell, Charles Johnson, and Mrs. Susannah Centlivre for specific details of plot, character, and dialogue. It is, accordingly, highly appropriate for Lessing to have given an English title to his own middle-class tragedy.

The heroine of Lessing’s play is an essentially virtuous woman who permits herself to be persuaded into living with a man out of wedlock. Although Sara’s lover, Mellefont, faces disinheritance if he should marry her, the chief obstacles to consummating a marriage are psychological. Despite his love for Sara, Mellefont is unable to make the irrevocable commitment implied by the marital bond however much she may importune him to do so. At the opening of the play, the two lovers have been living together for several months at a country inn in a remote locality. Their whereabouts have, however, been discovered through the determined efforts of Mellefont’s former mistress, Marwood. Shortly after discovering the location of the inn, Marwood appears on the scene and attempts to persuade Mellefont to leave Sara and resume the relationship that they had shared sporadically during a period of ten years. To play on his sympathies further, she brings along their illegitimate daughter, Arabella. When Mellefont refuses to leave Sara, Marwood attempts to stab him, but he promptly disarms her. Also on hand is Sara’s father, Sir William Sampson, whom Marwood has apprised of the inn’s location in order to create additional difficulties for the couple. When she learns that it is Sir William’s intent to forgive his daughter, she arranges an interview with Sara for herself. Under a false identity, Marwood pleads her own case and that of her daughter, Arabella, but to no avail. She then poisons Sara. While Sara is dying, her father grants her parental absolution and accedes to her request that he adopt Arabella. Mellefont, full of remorse, commits suicide with the dagger that he had wrested away from Marwood a short time before. Despite the fact that audiences in Lessing’s day would normally have regarded her as a fallen woman, Sara is otherwise so virtuous that her moral transgression is fully transcended and her death is genuinely tragic.

It is worth observing that, while extending the concept of tragedy to encompass the middle class, Lessing is careful to adhere to the traditional unities. The entire play takes place at the inn within a single day. It is somewhat implausible for Sir William to remain at the inn for several hours before attempting to see his daughter, but otherwise the plot works well within this framework. Lessing regarded the unities of time and place as useful devices, but he refused to consider them as essential parts of the Aristotelian method. He saw no need to hold on to the empty shell of the unities of time and place because the Greek chorus, which served as an idealized public and thus required the unities of time and place, had disappeared from European drama, and he charged that Voltaire and Pierre Corneille were able to retain them only through all sorts of twists and dislocations of the plot. Nevertheless, Lessing believed that it is advantageous for a dramatist to adhere to these unities whenever feasible, and he clearly believed that such was the case in Miss Sara Sampson.

A Faust Play

As part of his attack on French neoclassicism in the seventeenth installment of his Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend, Lessing included a scene from a play dealing with the Faust legend on which he had intermittently been working for a number of years. The scene involves Doctor Faust’s selection of a devil who is to serve as his assistant. After summoning seven devils, he asks each in turn to describe how swiftly his commands can be executed. He then chooses the one who claims that he is as swift as the transition from good to evil. Although the author of the scene is never identified, most readers would quickly conclude that it was Lessing himself. At the end of the excerpt he asks rhetorically: “What do you think of this scene? Would you like to have a German play that is made up exclusively of such scenes? Me too!” Unfortunately, only a few brief fragments of the play have survived. Nevertheless, Lessing deserves to be remembered as the first author to conceive of Faust as a positive figure worthy of redemption. To judge from the remarks that he made to his friends pertaining to his plans for a Faust play, Lessing appears to have rescued the protagonist from eternal damnation by presenting the entire action as a dream that serves as a providential warning to his hero against exceeding the limits of reason.


Published in 1759, Philotas, a one-act prose tragedy, represents Lessing’s attempt to create a Sophoclean drama treating the theme of patriotic self-sacrifice. In an endeavor to achieve “the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” that Winckelmann held to be the most prominent characteristic of Greek art, Lessing limits himself to only four characters and a plot of undeviating unity. The play is set somewhere in the Greek world at the time of Alexander the Great. Philotas, the son of an unnamed king, has been captured by the enemy, along with a number of other soldiers whom his father had assigned to his command. The young prince deeply bemoans the fact that his wounds are slight and that he will survive. His father will, he believes, feel obliged to ransom him at the expense of the political interests of the state. As fate or chance would have it, it soon comes to light that his captor, King Aridäus, faces a similar predicament, for his own son was captured by the opposing side in the very same encounter. Hence, a simple exchange of the two captured princes seems to be the logical solution to the situation. Philotas, however, determines to kill himself so that his father will be able to exact full ransom from King Aridäus for the return of his son and thus advance the interests of his own state. To this end, Philotas persuades his captors to return his sword to him before the impending exchange and then inflicts a mortal wound on himself. While in his death throes, he...

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