Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

ph_0111206596-Lessing_G.jpg Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Lessing contributed to literature through his work in the field of literary criticism and drama, to philosophy in his efforts to bring the ideas of the European Enlightenment to Germany, and to theology in his founding of the philosophy of religion.

Early Life

Born the son of a Protestant minister, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing enrolled as a student of theology at the University of Leipzig in 1746, but he was soon attracted by literature and the theater. He wrote his first play, Der junge Gelehrte (the young scholar), a comedy which was performed with great success by the local company in 1748. Other comedies were to follow, and soon it became apparent that Lessing had embarked on a literary rather than a theological career. Lessing’s early comedies were comparatively trivial, following the model advocated by Johann Christoph Gottsched, who dominated literary life in Germany until approximately 1750. Although Lessing followed Gottsched, he did write two problem plays, which show his departure from the Gottschedian model: Die Juden (wr. 1749, pb. 1754; The Jews, 1801) and Die Freigeist (wr. 1749, pb. 1755; The Freethinker, 1838). In the first comedy, Lessing attacked anti-Semitic prejudices, while in the second, he neither glorified nor criticized his protagonist but tried to provide his character with a larger degree of realism. While The Jews is a forerunner of Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise, 1781) in terms of its topicality, The Freethinker is an anticipation of contemporary realist comedy, as represented by Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm: Oder, Das Soldatenglück (1767; Minna von Barnhelm: Or, The Soldier’s Fortune, 1786).

In 1748, Lessing went to Berlin, where he stayed until 1755. Lessing was one of the first free-lance writers in German literature, trying to live by the work of his pen. He failed in the end and had to take a civil service position, as did the majority of intellectuals in eighteenth century Germany, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller; Lessing’s endeavors, nevertheless, were an inspiration to subsequent generations of writers. Beginning his career as a journalist, Lessing also published a number of scholarly articles and was active as translator, editor, and literary critic. In 1751-1752, he briefly attended the University of Wittenberg to obtain a master’s degree but returned to Berlin in November, 1752.

One of the most important events of Lessing’s life in Berlin was the beginning of his lifelong friendship with Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had made the transition from the protected existence within the Jewish community, which had lived in the physical and intellectual isolation of the ghettos since the Middle Ages, to participation in the surrounding German and European life of commerce and intellect. Mendelssohn met with much prejudice, but Lessing accepted him on equal terms. Indeed, Lessing’s support of Mendelssohn paved the way for Jewish emancipation in Germany. The Lessing-Mendelssohn friendship was perceived as a symbol of a successful German-Jewish symbiosis. While this symbol was rendered totally invalid by the Holocaust of World War II, it was, nevertheless, true for the eighteenth century. Lessing modeled Nathan the Wise, the noble Jewish protagonist of his last drama, after Mendelssohn.

Lessing’s first successful tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (English translation, 1789), was written, performed, and published in 1755. Lessing introduced domestic, or bourgeois, tragedy to the German stage. The introduction of middle-class characters and their family problems into tragedy constituted his break with Gottsched, who had reserved tragedy for affairs of state and the fate of princes. Because of its sentimental appeal and audience identification with the protagonists, the performance was a great success. The middle-class audience saw characters of its class onstage and witnessed their struggle with ethical norms and their ensuing tragic failures.

In 1756, Lessing planned to embark on a three-year grand tour of Europe as traveling companion to a wealthy young man, but they had to abandon their travel plans when the Seven Years’ War broke out in Europe. After a short stay in Leipzig, Lessing returned to Berlin in 1758. There, he edited and published, together with Mendelssohn and Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend (1759-1760; letters on current literature), a journal which employed the fiction of letters, reporting on recent publications to a friend. The criteria developed by Lessing and his friends in their literary criticism provided new standards of excellence for German literature, which was still in its beginnings at this time. One of Lessing’s most famous contributions was the seventeenth letter of February, 1759, attacking Gottsched and his hold on German literature and recommending William Shakespeare instead of the French...

(The entire section is 2069 words.)