There has never been a simple interpretation of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. The tragedy portrays a father-daughter theme at the same time that it portrays the tensions between the bourgeoisie and the nobility in eighteenth century Germany. Setting the play in Italy at the court of Hettore Gonzaga, Lessing skillfully uses the Italian prince’s character to criticize the nobility that rules its subjects according to whim and fancy. The prince gives his consent to a woman’s request merely because her name is Emilia; because he is in a hurry, he carelessly pronounces a death sentence. The prince represents the corrupt and lascivious court where rulers who possess the weapon of gallantry indulge their romantic desires to the fullest and destroy women’s lives without remorse. The prince’s flaws become even more pronounced when Lessing introduces the character of Odoardo Galotti, Emilia Galotti’s proud, upright father, who belongs to the middle class and remains purposefully aloof from the court because he regards it as a place of decadence. His contempt for the court is so strong that he has only unwillingly allowed his wife and his daughter to stay in the city in its vicinity for the sake of Emilia’s education. He himself spends his retirement years on his country estate.
Despite portraying the prince as a man with great shortcomings, Lessing is successful in also making him a likable character. He is a young man who finds it hard to exercise control over his amorous leanings, prevaricates when he should be firm, and trusts his aides too much. Because he is diffident about making decisions, he depends on his chamberlain, Marinelli, who sets the various plots in motion. To some extent, Lessing directs his audience’s wrath away from the prince toward his chamberlain, which may be interpreted as a softening of...
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