Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2370
First published: Minna von Barnhelm: Oder, Das Soldatenglück, 1767
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Romantic comedy
Time of work: Eighteenth century
Major Von Tellheim, a discharged officer
Just, his servant
Paul Werner, his sergeant
Minna Von Barnhelm, in love with Tellheim
Franziska, her maid
MINNA VON BARNHELM is important for two reasons. First, it was a beginning of a drama native to Germany, with much appeal for its original audience: the historical background touched their patriotism; its treatment of German soldiers and German women aroused their sympathy; and its amusing blend of comedy and pathos touched their hearts. Secondly, it ranks high in Lessing's canon. Modern readers follow the action easily, for the unity of plot and setting keeps the play in small compass.
Major von Tellheim had been wounded in the right arm, and after heroic deeds he had been discharged from the army. Crippled and poor, he had been put out of his room at the inn; in his absence his effects had been placed in a mean chamber with no view. The landlord had perhaps been justified. Two ladies had arrived asking for good accommodations, and Tellheim was behind in his rent.
Tellheim's servant, Just, sat in the inn parlor muttering about the injustice done to his master. The landlord came in and gave Just several drinks, but the worthy servant would not cease his complaints. Tellheim, entering in time to hear some of the dispute, ended the controversy by saying that the bill would be paid and that he would move out immediately. The landlord declared he was not afraid the bill would not be paid, for he had found a rich purse in Tellheim's writing desk.
When they were alone, Tellheim explained to Just that the money in the purse belonged to Werner, his sergeant; it was a trust. For immediate needs Tellheim asked his servant to pawn a ring for eighty louis. He tried to dismiss Just with a month's wages, but the servant preferred to work on for nothing. Then a widow came in to repay a loan Tellheim had made to her dead husband. Tellheim sent her away, vowing her husband owed him nothing. Werner tried to help the major by giving him all he could realize from the sale of his farm, but Tellheim would accept no help.
The ladies who had taken Tellheim's rooms were Minna von Barnhelm, a rich girl of twenty-one, and Franziska, her maid. Minna was agitated, for she had come in search of Tellheim. They had been betrothed, but she had had no word from him since the peace.
The landlord, who was inquisitive about his guests, came to their room to fill out an official form. When his questions became too personal, Minna, to turn the conversation, asked about the soldier whose room they had taken. The landlord contemptuously declared that he was only a discharged officer and showed her the ring Just had pawned with him. Minna recognized it at once as the ring she had given Tellheim. In the joy of her recognition, she put money to redeem it on the table and asked the landlord to bring in Tellheim at once.
When Tellheim first saw Minna, he spoke to her as a lover; but he promptly recovered himself and addressed her more formally. Hurt, Minna demanded a direct answer as to whether he still loved her. Tellheim admitted that he did. Crippled as he was, however, penniless, and discharged from service, he was no longer a suitable...
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Tellheim wrote a note to Minna in which he explained fully why he could no longer expect to marry her. While Just was delivering the note, he fell into conversation with Franziska, who asked about the rest of Tellheim's servants. Just admitted that he alone was left. The valet had decamped with Tellheim's wardrobe; the huntsman had been imprisoned for treachery during the war, and the footman had run up debts in Tellheim's name.
The curious landlord attempted to get the story behind the reunion of Minna and Tellheim, but Franziska gave him little satisfaction. When he attempted to get a hundred louis for the pawned ring, she reminded him tartly that the loan was only eighty louis.
Werner returned to the inn with his pockets full of money. He emphatically denied that Tellheim was poor; all the sergeant's money really belonged to the major. When Franziska told him about the pawned ring, Werner tried to pass off the matter by saying that so many women give rings to soldiers. Undoubtedly Tellheim had twenty rings. Franziska left in anger, but she left Werner meditating on her charms.
Werner, meeting Tellheim, tried to give him the money he had collected by selling all his goods. He was put out by Tellheim's refusal because he felt old comrades in arms should help each other.
Franziska brought Tellheim's letter to Minna back to the major with word that Minna had not read it. Instead, she expected him to take her riding. Werner, seeing that the major was really fond of Minna, confessed to Franziska his falsehood about the twenty rings. She teased him coquettishly about his ready tongue. When she went back to Minna, her mistress told her she had a plan to recapture Tellheim.
Minna's scheme was to let Tellheim think that she, too, was poor after being disinherited; Franziska would tell him that her uncle, Count von Bruchsal, had cut her off because he objected to her marriage to Tellheim. In preparation for the plot, Minna took off the ring Tellheim had given her and put on the ring she had redeemed from the landlord.
Lieutenant Riccaut, seeking Tellheim, arrived at the inn. He announced that he was a great friend of Tellheim's and that he had good news for the major. A high government official had told him that Tellheim would soon have a letter from the king restoring his commission and righting his financial troubles. Minna, delighted with the news, questioned Riccaut about himself. He was a gambler who had had bad luck for a long time. Minna gave him money to start up a bank again. Riccaut promised to repay the money and let her have a third of the profits. As their talk continued, Minna was repelled to realize that Riccaut was a sharper rather than a gentleman gambler.
Tellheim had a long interview with Minna. He rehearsed again his misfortunes and added that he was under suspicion by the war ministry. Instructed to levy a war tax on the people in Minna's neighborhood, he had nobly advanced the money out of his own fortune. After the peace he had tried to collect from the government, but he was discharged under suspicion of double-dealing. Obviously he could not marry Minna and be dependent on her.
Minna pretended anger at his reasoning and gave him back the ring she had recovered from the landlord. After she left, Franziska told Tellheim that Minna was also poor. In great relief he straightway went in search of her to get her back.
Thinking Minna destitute, Tellheim asked Werner for all the money he could get. Soon Tellheim would go to the wars in Asia as a mercenary soldier, and Werner and Minna would go with him to the Orient. The delighted Werner brought in all the gold he could lay his hands on.
The plan never materialized, however. An orderly brought a letter from the king in which Tellheim learned his bill against the government would be honored and that he was recommissioned in the army. Tellheim's jubilation ended when he learned that Minna had not given him back her engagement ring after all, but rather the ring he had pawned. He interpreted her redemption of the pledge as proof that Minna had sought him out to break the engagement. The lovers were reconciled, however, by the arrival of Count von Bruchsal. The count declared his love for them both and sanctioned their marriage.
Werner thought he had as good luck as his commander, for he became engaged to Franziska.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
Lessing's MINNA VON BARNHELM is his greatest comedy, and one of the great comedies of the German stage; it was also a landmark in the development of theatrical style, introducing in German literature the new realistic, contemporary comedy that had become fashionable in England and France. As Lessing's MISS SARA SAMPSON and EMILIA GALOTTI introduced the bourgeois tragedy to the German stage, so MINNA VON BARNHELM represents the first comedy that departs from the baroque tradition of Moliere which Lessing himself had followed in his early years. The play is set in a specific time and place, almost contemporary with the first production; in 1763 the Peace of Hubertusburg ended the Seven Years' War between Prussia and Austria, and in that same year the king of Prussia, Frederick II the Great, placed a large number of officers in the same situation Major Tellheim faced by releasing them from service without compensation for damages and losses. In the play, the plot is developed out of this situation, and the reminiscence of the conflict is underscored by the fact that the two protagonists, Tellheim and Minna, represent opposite sides in the war, as well as opposite aspects of the German character. Tellheim embodies the strict code of military honor, state-centered and unresponsive to personal motivations of the heart, that was coming to be regarded as typical of the fast-rising state of Prussia. In the peace treaty Prussia had retained the rich province of Silesia, which it had earlier seized from Austria, and thus secured its role as a major European power. Minna, a radiant portrait combining decisiveness, fortitude, wit, grace, and guile, is from Saxony, one of the allied states which had opposed Prussia, and which had been invaded at the beginning of the war. She is the feminine nature opposed to Tellheim's masculine military character, and she is linked to the other pole of German temperament, one that is associated with the South, Austria, nd those old sections where culture had flourished in the centuries while Prussia was still barbarian. She is less idealistic and more pragmatic, more given to laughter than to tragedy, and not above playing tricks on the man she loves—for his own good.
The combination of elements puts the play in a very special situation, and determines to a certain extent its form. The basic conflict, that of an impoverished, wounded, and unjustly accused officer, whose code of honor will not let him accept help, is closer to tragedy than to comedy and the fact that Minna loves him, that he must remain noble in the eyes of the audience, prevents Lessing from making a mockery of his exaggerated adherence to what he regards as his duty. In fact, Tellheim's conscience, his idealism, is precisely what Minna loves about him, and Lessing does not want us to see it as a fault, except insofar as it prevents him from acknowledging the humanity that underlies his officership. Thus, in contrast to the comedy of Moliere, in which a human fault, such as avarice or social climbing, is mocked, and the representative of the fault humiliated, Lessing presents us with a character whom his associates respect, and whose situation, historically real, could well be the material for tragedy. In this, he was following the lead of the English, who turned away from pure comedy to a mixture of somber and light tones, a sentimental comedy, closer to life as it is; less funny, admittedly, but far more engaging.
The pure comedy is now restricted to the secondary figures—all individual portraits, and yet comic types in a tradition that goes back to Menander and Plautus—the pert maid, the coarse manservant, the opportunist innkeeper. Lessing has given each an individual style of speech, most hilariously in the thick French accent of Riccaut de la Marliniere, the fast talking card sharp, who defines cheating as "corriger la fortune." These characters, like the protagonists, underscore the contemporary setting of the play. Indeed, the inn, "King of Portugal," was an actual Berlin locale and became famous through the play. But unlike the classical comedy, in which the servants often play a leading role in developing the plot, being pictured as more clever than their masters, the stage here really belongs to Tellheim and Minna, and the plot becomes a kind of campaign between the two, a contest of wit and will in which the thin line between comedy and tragedy is crossed and re-crossed as first Tellheim, with his tragic self-image, and then Minna, with humor and humanity, gains the ascendant. It is worth noting that it is, in fact, a sham battle, a diversion that keeps the audience involved during five acts, although clearly neither Minna's plots nor Tellheim's obduracy can provide a satisfying solution.
Tellheim's dilemma is real, and his behavior, though exaggerated, is what the state would expect of a man in his position. Minna's ruse is nothing more than that—her feigning helplessness does bring out Tellheim's underlying magnanimity of character, but it could hardly be the basis for a resolution of the conflict. This resolution can only come from the man who created the conflict, the king, whose letter does in fact begin the denouement, in which the characters have to unravel the complications which they themselves have created. Thus, all the action of the play becomes a kind of much ado about nothing, and this resolution suddenly elevates the stage conflict out of the realm of grim reality into that cheerful sphere where pain is illusory and only joy proves real. This resolution through a deus ex machina is kept entirely within the realistic framework, and it fully preserves both the honor of Tellheim and the rightness of Minna. Yet, at the same time, it leaves us with a poignant awareness of the vulnerability of even the best of men, of the danger in all excess, even that of virtue, of the nearness of comic fault to tragic flaw, and of the need for the preservation of humanity against all the institutional demands which threaten it.