Emilia Galotti

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Emilia Galotti is a play by German writer and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The play was premiered in 1772 and is an example of the sub-genre bourgeois tragedy, which primarily centers on the lives of ordinary citizens—particularly those of the bourgeois class.

The play provides insights in the Enlightenment period in Europe, especially examining the concept of love, which is a prominent topic among Enlightenment-era writers and artists. Although the plot revolves around love and romance, the play is considered an example of political commentary. The play contrasts the aristocracy's old-fashioned, often draconian way of ruling the people, with the then-revolutionary ideas about democracy and people power.

Another prominent feature of the play is the concept of morality and how the Enlightenment-period bourgeois class defined it. One of the more blatant examples of the contrasting cultures between the aristocrats and the bourgeois is the structure of marriage. Specifically, the play comments on the differing ideas about relationships and love which lead to marriage.

The anachronistic route towards marriage is represented by the elite class, who brokered marriages between powerful families in order to increase their respective power rankings. Marriage was just another way to gain more capital and socio-political influence. The bourgeois believed that marriage is sacred and that only the purest love could be considered the foundation of matrimony.

In this regard, the play documents the changing social and political dynamics during the period. It examines how the revolutionary ideals of the Enlightenment changed the power dynamics between the people and the state. By using a particular idea—e.g. love and relationships—of the Enlightenment, Lessing was able to provide a large picture of the period's central philosophical roots.

Lessing's play was also considered avant-garde at the time it was performed, with one theater critic commenting on the "vulgar" language of the dialogues. However, the language was designed to show the irrelevance of formality and decorum when the latter represented the ways of the elite, who were out of touch with the people.

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