Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Emilia Galotti (1772), a tragedy in five acts by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), is considered his masterpiece. The plot of the tragedy is based on a Roman story about a father who killed his daughter to save her from being pursued and violated by a noble.
The action of Lessing’s play takes place in the imaginary Italian principality of Guastalla. The lecherous and despotic prince has chosen as his next victim the beautiful Emilia, Colonel Odoardo Galotti’s daughter.
Odoardo is proud and courageous. He detests the immoral life of the court and the prince himself. He cannot be bribed or frightened.
Emilia is about to marry the noble and independent Count Appiani. In order to get Emilia, the prince, prompted by his chamberlain, Marinelli, commits a perfidious act. As the count and his bride are coming to the marriage service, the killers hired by Marinelli attack them. The count is dead, and Emilia is in the prince’s hands at his palace, to which his servants lead her, supposedly to give her aid.
Once Odoardo learns about this, he hastens to the palace in order to take Emilia from there. However, he does not have a clue about his sovereign’s true intentions. But Countess Orsina, the former lover of the prince, whom he abandoned for Emilia’s sake, reveals the truth to him. The old Galotti is terrified and indignant. He wants to reclaim his daughter, but the prince will not let him take her back. The father tells the prince that paternal duty requires him to place Emilia in a monastery. He says,
Prince, paternal love is jealous of its duties. I think I know what alone suits my daughter in her present situation. Retirement from the world—a cloister as soon as possible. (act 5, scene 5)
The prince is confused, because such a turn of events disrupts his plans for the young lady. But the wily Marinelli comes to his aid by resorting to downright slander. He says that the count was not attacked by robbers but rather, as is being rumored, by a person who is in favor with Emilia. Marinelli threatens to arrest Emilia and accuse her of having conspired to kill the count. He demands that the young lady be interrogated and the court proceedings be brought.
Emilia runs to her father, and after a few words, Odoardo becomes confident that she is innocent. Emilia is outraged because of the violence and the injustice committed. But she confesses to her father that she is more fearful of seduction. Force can be resisted, but seduction is much more perilous. She exclaims,
Force! Force! What is that? Who may not defy force? What you call force is nothing. Seduction is the only real force. I have blood, my father, as youthful and as warm as that of others. I have senses too. I cannot pledge myself: I guarantee nothing. (act 5, scene 7)
The young lady is apprehensive of the frailty of her own soul before the seduction of the wealth, grandeur, and alluring words of the prince.
Emilia asks her father to give her a dagger. She wants to stab herself, but her father wrests the dagger from her. She plucks the leaves of the rose that decks her head. And as she does so, she pleads with her father to stab her to save her from disgrace. Emilia dies in the old Galotti’s hands, saying,
Broken a rose before the storm had robbed it of its bloom. (act 5, scene 8)