Emilia Galotti

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s work is, above all, a tale of intrigue, a conflict between various aristocratic figures over a single prize. Human life is afforded very little worth in comparison to this prize, as evidenced by the assassination of Count Appiani for the crime of frustrating the prince’s intentions. Characters such as Marinelli embody the classic archetypal schemer within the courts of European aristocracy, the cunning whispering advisor who facilitates his master’s plans with a combination of ingenuity and deception. In contrast to this, figures like Emilia’s father characterize the bluff simplicity of principle and honor, which often clashes with Marinelli and those like him.


As stated above, the male characters in this work are in conflict for a prize—namely, ownership over Emilia. During the course of the novel she passes from the ownership of her father to the Count Appiani, then to the prince, and finally back to her father. She rarely expresses her own agency. Other feminine archetypes are also evoked. Emilia’s mother Claudia demonstrates the hysteria characteristic of women, and often of mothers, portrayed in a variety of works in Lessing’s time period. Meanwhile, the Countess Orsina, in her bitterness and hatred toward the prince, calls to mind the trope of the spurned and vengeful mistress.


A third key theme of this work is honor, or more broadly, a sense of the moral high ground for which all characters strive. Even the prince, after successfully kidnapping Emilia, seeks to portray himself as righteous, both in the gallant mask he wears when conversing with her and in his insistence to her father that he intends to honor the judicial processes in that country.

Ordordo also bases his actions on a firm sense of principle. He initially appeals to the prince that, as her father, he has a right to bring Emilia home with him, and his decision to stab his daughter rather than permit her and himself to suffer dishonor exemplifies how he values such principles above what are implied to be lesser concerns such as human relationships. Dishonor is portrayed as reaping its just rewards in the text, especially in the case of the prince, whose designs on Emilia are ultimately frustrated.

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