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...
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