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 his stance toward the ruling class. The prince is thus presented as a victim of his circumstances who is exploited through his vulnerability. At the conclusion of the play, the prince even bemoans the fact that to be a prince and a human being is tragic. A prince must be able to rule his emotions to rule effectively, but being a human being he finds it difficult to control his emotions. In the prince’s exclamation: “Is it not enough, for the misery of the many, that princes are human? Must it also be that devils disguise themselves as their friends?” Lessing shifts the blame of Emilia’s tragic death to Marinelli. The prince is reduced to a mere puppet in the hands of his corrupt court official.
Because Emilia knows that her father values chaste thoughts and conduct above everything else, she asks him to stab her so that her virtue may remain intact, crying out, “What we call brute force is nothing: seduction is the only true force.—I have blood pulsing in my veins, my father, blood that is as youthful, as warm as anyone’s. And my senses are senses too. I vouch for nothing. I will be responsible for nothing.” In his depiction of Odoardo’s regard for virtue that exceeds his love for his daughter, Lessing draws attention to the emptiness of the concept of bourgeois morality. He forces the audience to ask whether this bourgeois concept of virtue must indeed be upheld at the cost of human life.
Lessing’s characterization of the prince’s previous mistress, Countess Orsina, provides yet another character type, a fiercely independent, active woman. The dagger she carries with her when she visits the prince in Dosalo shows that she is even ready to avenge her humiliation caused by the prince’s rejection. In...
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fact, she is indirectly responsible for Emilia’s stabbing, because she provokes Odoardo by saying, “The bridegroom is dead: the bride—your daughter—worse than dead.” Countess Orsina’s characterization also reveals Lessing’s concern about the strict imposition of gender roles during his time. Orsina correctly understands the limitations imposed on her sex. When the prince rejects her, she responds, “How can a man love a thing that wants to think in spite of him? A woman who thinks is as loathsome as a man who powders his nose.” Lessing may have given these words to Orsina, who is on the verge of madness and an ambiguous character in the play, so as to disassociate himself from too obvious an endorsement of her views. Their mere expression, however, brings to the fore the subject of gender inequality and its tragic consequences.