Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING (1729-1781)Among the authors contributing to Caroline Neuber's Leipsic enterprises was a young student who was destined to complete, after a very different fashion and with very different aims, what she and Gottsched had begun. The critical genius of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is peerless in its comprehensiveness, its keenness and depth; but if there was any branch of literature and art which by study and practice he made preëminently his own, it was the drama. As bearing upon the process of the German theatre, his services to its literature, both critical and creative, were simply inestimable. His Hamburgische Dramaturgie, a series of criticisms of plays and players, was undertaken in furtherance of the attempt to establish at Hamburg the first national German theatre. While the theatrical enterprise proved abortive, the Dramaturgie established the principle upon which the future of the stage in all countries depends, that for dramatic art the immediate theatrical public is no competent court of appeal. But the direct and most important effect of the Dramaturgie was to complete the task which Lessing had begun in previous writings, and that was to overthrow the dominion of the arbitrary French rules and French models established by Gottsched. Lessing vindicated its real laws to the drama, made clear the difference between the Greeks and their would-be successors, and established the claims of Shakespeare as the modern master of both tragedy and comedy. His own dramatic efforts were cautious and tentative, but progressive, opposing the realism of the English domestic drama to the artificiality of the French, while holding a judicious mean between English and French examples.

During the whole of the seventeenth century and the earlier part of the eighteenth, the literary history of Germany may almost be compared to a desert, and in the annals of no other modern nation shall we find such a long period of barrenness. The chief diversion is the animated controversy between the school of the pedantic Gottsched, who ruled at Leipsic, and the partisans of Bodmer, who at Zurich brought out from obscurity the long-neglected Nibelungenlied. As Gottsched took Racine for his model, Bodmer upheld the value of English literature and translated Milton and Pope. But it was Lessing who first broke a clear, broad path out of this wilderness, who was the true pioneer of German thought. His life was one long battle, one long and bitter fight for truth, tolerance and freedom. If his greatest merits seem to have been overshadowed for a time by the achievements of others, they come all the more clearly to light in that distance which gives us the true perspective. We see him now as he was, an unshaken champion of the cause of literature, always leading a forlorn hope, always armed to the teeth, always confident of the final victory. Hardly shall we find a nobler instance of well-grounded self-reliance than is furnished by his life.


Lessing was born in Camenz, a small Saxon town, where his father was a clergyman of scanty means and of a severe and stubborn nature. Being the eldest son, it was intended that he should follow his father's calling, as was then the custom in Germany. At the age of twelve he was sent to school at Meissen, and three years afterward to the university of Leipsic. But even as a boy he asserted his independence, entirely neglecting theological studies and devoting himself to languages, literature and the drama. The dictator in literary, as in dramatic affairs, in Leipsic, at that time, was Gottsched, a man of strong ability, but pedantic, conventional and arrogant to the last degree. Young Lessing was one of the first to dispute his authority. In his eighteenth year he completed a comedy which was produced on the stage. Even at that age he recognized clearly the characteristics of French and English literature, and became a partisan of the latter, in order to resist the overpowering Gallic influence which then prevailed in Germany. But he stood almost alone, and there were few hands that were not raised against him. So poor that he was barely able to live, he was stamped as immoral and profligate; his contempt of the reigning pedantry was ascribed to a barbaric want of taste; and his refusal to devote himself to theology was set down as atheism. The slanders prevalent in Leipsic reached his home, and were followed by angry and reproachful letters from his father. The patience and good sense with which he endured these troubles are remarkable in one so young. In one of his letters he quotes from Plautus the words of a father who is discontented with his son; in another, referring to his refusal to become a clergyman, he says boldly: "Religion is not a thing which a man should accept in simple faith and obedience from his parents"--meaning that it must be developed through the aspiration of the individual soul.

In his twenty-first year Lessing went to Berlin, where he succeeded in supporting himself by literary labor. He made the acquaintance of Moses Mendelssohn, Ramler and the poets Gleim and Von Kleist, and his mind began to develop rapidly and vigorously in a fresher and freer intellectual atmosphere. Notwithstanding his scanty earnings, he managed to collect a valuable library, and to contribute small sums from time to time for the education of his younger brothers. In 1755 his play of Miss Sara Sampson was produced. It was modelled on the English drama, and, as the German stage up to that time had been governed entirely by French ideas, it was a sudden and violent innovation, the success of which was not assured until ten years later, when Lessing wrote Minna von Barnhelm. The English authors of Queen Anne's time, especially Swift, Steele, Addison and Pope, had an equal share with the Greek and Latin classics in determining the character of his labors. He was also a careful student of Shakespeare and of Milton, and seems to have caught from them something of the compactness and strength of his style.

After ten years, passed partly in Wittenberg, but chiefly in Berlin, Lessing became the secretary of General Tauenzien, and in 1760 followed him to Breslau, where he wrote Minna von Barnhelm, a national comedy drawn from real life, and Laocoon, which deals with the limits of poetry and painting, and was published in 1766. It may be said that the great era of German literature commenced with these works. Laocoon, in its style, in its subtlety and clearness, in its breadth of intellectual vision, was a treatise the like of which had not been seen before. It was above popularity, for it appealed only to the highest minds; but its lessons sank deeply into one mind--that of young Goethe, then a student at Leipsic--and, as the great poet declares, placed him in the true path.

Lessing spent two more years in Berlin, living from hand to mouth, and then removed to Hamburg to assist in establishing a new theatre. The experiment was not successful, and was followed by another and more disastrous failure. In partnership with a literary friend he commenced the printing and publishing business upon an entirely new plan; but as neither he nor his partner had any practical knowledge of printing, they speedily ended in bankruptcy. Thus, in 1770, Lessing, at the age of forty-one, found himself penniless, deeply in debt, his library sold, his father writing to him for money and his sister reproaching him with being a heartless and undutiful son. But during the three years that he lived in Hamburg he had written his Dramaturgie, a work second in importance only to his Laocoon.

At this juncture the duke of Brunswick offered Lessing the post of librarian at Wolfenbüttel, with a salary of 600 thalers, or about $450 a year, which position he retained until his death. He visited Mannheim and Vienna, and accompanied the duke in a journey to Italy; but travel seems to have left little impression on his mind, for in his letters to his betrothed wife there is nothing about either the country or the antique sculpture, concerning which he had previously written so much. Returning to Wolfenbüttel, he passed here his remaining years; but they were not happy years, for his life was full of troubles, relieved only by his literary work. He was oppressed by the burden of his debts contracted in Hamburg; he missed the society of his most valued friends, and his health began to give way. Soon after his return from Italy he married Eva König, the widow of a Hamburg merchant. The union brought perfect happiness to both, but it did not last, for in little more than a year she died in childbirth.

Very touching are the letters which Lessing wrote at this time to his friend Eschenberg, on the death of his wife and child. On the 3rd of January, 1778, he says: "I seize the moment when my wife lies utterly unconscious to thank you for your sympathy. My happiness was only too short. And it was so hard to lose him, this son of mine! for he had so much understanding--so much understanding! Do not think that the few hours of my fatherhood have made me a very ape of my father! I know what I am saying. Was it not understanding that he came so unwillingly to the world?--that he so soon saw its unreason? Was it not understanding that he grasped the first chance of leaving it again? To be sure, the little fidget-head takes his mother with him, and from me!--for there is little hope that I may keep her. I thought I might be even as fortunate as other men, but it has turned out ill for me." A week afterward he writes: "My wife is dead; now I have also had this experience. I am glad that no other experience of the kind remains for me to endure--and am quite easy." After his bereavement, Lessing found consolation in literature and in caring for his four step-children, to whom he was tenderly attached.


Meanwhile he had extended his fame by several important works. Soon after settling in Wolfenbüttel he found in the library an ancient manuscript, which proved to be a treatise of Berengarius of Tours on Transubstantiation. Less was thus induced to write an essay on Berengarius, vindicating his character as a serious and consistent thinker--a publication that was much admired by the leading theologians of Germany. In 1772, he completed his second tragedy, Emilia Galotti, which had begun many years before in Leipsic, the first one being the prose drama of Philotas, published in Berlin in 1759. Emilia Galotti was suggested by the Roman legend of Virginia; but the scene is laid in an Italian court, and the entire play is conceived in accordance with the modern spirit. In some of the characters there is high imaginative power, as in the prince of Guastalla and his chamberlain, Marinelli, who weaves the intrigue from which Emilia escapes by death. The diction is at once refined and vigorous, and there are scenes in which some of the deepest passions in human nature are sounded with perfect art.


The closing years of Lessing's life were embittered by a violent theological controversy, bringing upon him the displeasure of the Brunswick government, which confiscated some of his writings. Thereupon, as he wrote to a friend, he resolved to "try whether they would not let him preach undisturbed from his old pulpit, the stage." In 1779 he completed his Nathan der Weise, begun three years before, and now gave poetic form to the theological ideas already developed in prose. The governing conception is that noble character may be associated with the most diverse creeds, and that there can be no good reason why the holders of one set of religious principles should not tolerate those having entirely different views. As a play, the work has serious imperfections, but as a dramatic poem it is one of the finest creations of the eighteenth century. The characters possess true vitality, and several passages, especially the one setting forth the parable of the rings, have a depth and spontaneity which are the unmistakable notes of genius.

When Nathan the Wise was ready for the printer, Lessing issued a prospectus announcing that it would by published by subscription, his object being probably to secure a little more from the publication than he could expect from a bookseller. His father had died in debt, and though he had barely sufficient for his own needs the calls for assistance from his elder sister were sharp and frequent. It is almost pitiful to read his appeal to his friends, informing them that the price of the work will be one groschen--two and a half cents--for each printed sheet, and that they may deduct a commission of fifteen percent for their services in procuring subscriptions. As the edition did not exceed two thousand copies, the author's profits must have been extremely moderate. In his correspondence Lessing declares his weariness of the theological controversy, and speaks of the play as "an attack on the flank," as its leading idea is religious tolerance. The three principal characters--Nathan, Saladin and the Knight Templar--represent Judaism, Islam and Christianity; and the lesson to be deduced from the plot is simply that the test of the true religion lies in deeds and works, and not in the mere profession. The story of the rings is that of the Jew Melchisedech, as told by Boccaccio, in the third tale of the Decameron.

Lessing had ever contended that the stage might prove as a useful pulpet as the church, and in Nathan he strove to preach the universal brotherhood of mankind; its hero is a Jew of ideal and pure morality. The whole purpose of the drama was a stricture on class prejudices and an enunciation of the innate truth that underlies all forms of creeds.

Soon after the publication of Nathan the Wise, while still in the midst of work and new plans of work, it became evident to his friends that Lessing could not much longer continue his labors. His health had been undermined by excessive toil and anxiety, and after a short illness he died at Brunswick on the 22nd of January, 1781.


In the biographies of authors we do not always find that genius rests on a strong basis of character, and there are many instances where we approve the mind and condemn the man. But Lessing's chief intellectual quality was a passion for truth, so earnest and unswerving that we cannot help expecting to find it manifested in the events of his life; and we shall not be disappointed. Whatever faults may have been his, he was always candid, honest, honorable and generous. Though himself nearly always in straits for money, he was ever ready to help those who appealed to him for aid. He lived at a time when a very little tact and pliancy of nature might have greatly advanced his fortunes, when a little prudent reticence, now and then, would have saved him from many a rebuff and many an angry denunciation. But he seems never to have concerned himself with anything beyong his immediate needs. "All that a man wants is health," he once wrote; "why should I trouble myself about the future? What would be privation to many is a sufficiency for me." In one of his earlier poems he says: "Fame never sought me, and would not, in any case, have found me. I have never craved riches, for why, during this short journey, where so little is needed, should one hoard it up for thieves rather than for himself? In a little while I shall be trampled under the feet of those who come after. Why need they know upon whom they tread? I alone know who I am." This self-reliant spirit, without vanity, only asserting itself when its independence must be maintained, is very rare among men. Lessing understood the character and extent of his own power so well, even as a young man, that all his utterances have a stamp of certainty, which is as far as possible from egotism.

We must bear in mind the fact that, when he began to write, literature was little better than a collection of lifeless forms; that government still clung to the ideas of the middle ages, and that religion had, for the most part, degenerated into intolerance. Lessing's position was that of a rebel, at the start. It was impossible for him to breathe the same atmosphere with the dogmatists of his day, and live. His first volume of poems, chiefly imitations of the amorous lyrics of the ancients, gave the opportunity for an attack upon his moral character. In replying to his father, who seems to have joined in the denunciation, he says: "The cause of their existence is really nothing more than my inclination to attempt all forms of poetry." He then adds: "Am I so very wrong in selecting for my youthful labor something whereon very few of my countrymen have tried their skill? And would it not be foolish in me to discontinue, until I have produced a masterpiece?"

Lessing's critical articles, which he began to write during his first residence in Berlin, and especially his Letters on Literature, soon made him respected and feared, although they gained him few friends beyond the circle of his personal associates. Industry, combined with a keen intellectual insight, had made him an admirable practical scholar, and few scholars knew how better to manage their resources. His style was somewhat colored by his study of the English language; but it is clear, keen and bright, never uncertain or obscure. Like the sword of Saladin it cuts its way through the finest web of speculation. He had neither reverence for names nor mercy for pretensions, and no mind of looser texture than his own could stand before him. It would be hard to find critical papers in any literature, at once so brilliant and so destructive. They would have had a more immediate and a wider effect, but for the fact that his antagonists represented the general sentiment of the time, which could not be entirely suppressed. Yet his principles of criticism were broader than mere defense and counter-attack. To Pastor Lange, who complains of his tone toward him, he answers: "If I were commissioned as a judge in art, this would be my scale of tone: gentle and encouraging for the beginners; admiring with doubt or doubting with admiration, for the masters; positive and repellant for the botchers; scornful for the swaggerers, and as bitter as possible for the intriguers. The judge in art who has but one tone for all, had better have none."

Unfortunately, he had few opportunities of expressing either admiration or encouragement. He never failed to recognize the merits of Moses Mendelssohn, Klopstock, Wieland and Herder, but they were authors who stood in little need of his aid. They did not set themselves in immediate antagonism to the fashion of the age; their growth out of it, and into an independent literary activity, was more gradual; consequently each of them acquired, almost at the start, a circle of admirers and followers. But Lessing marched straight forward, looking neither to the right nor to the left, indifferent what prejudices he shocked, or upon whom he set his feet. Having, as he conceived, the great minds of Greece, Rome and England as his allies in the past, he was content to stand alone in the present. His criticism was positive as well as negative; he not only pointed out the prevalent deficiences in taste and knowledge, but laid down the law which he felt to have been violated, and substituted the true for the false interpretation.

Lessing's biographers have hardly recognized the extent of his indebtedness to English authors. It has been remarked that his epigrammatic poems read like stiff translations from the classics; but they seem rather to suggest the similar performances of Swift and Herrick. The three plays by which he revolutionized the German stage--Miss Sara Sampson, Minna von Barnhelm and Emilia Galotti--were constructed upon English models. With them the drama of ordinary life was introduced into Germany. They have kept their place to this day, and are even now more frequently performed than the plays of Goethe. Although they possess little poetic merit, they are so admirably constructed, with so much regard to the movement of the plot and its cumulative development, that they have scarcely been surpassed by any later dramatic author. Even Goethe declares that it is impossible to estimate their influence on dramatic literature.


Lessing's influence as a reformer has been immense; but it is hardly yet recognized by the world. Luther himself was not of a more fearless and independent character. In an age when men of letters were fond of grouping themselves in sects and coteries, Lessing pursued his way, unmoved by clamor and indifferent to popular favor. Yet no man was more warmly loved by his friends, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that the younger generation of writers looked up to him with confidence and reverence. Jacobi wished for many years to make his acquaintance, but was deterred, as he said, by a profound consciousness of the difference between himself and one whom he regarded as "a king among minds." "We lose much in him," wrote Goethe after his death, "much more than we think." It may be questioned whether there is any other writer to whom the Germans owe a deeper debt of gratitude. He was succeeded by poets and philosophers, who for a time gave Germany the first place in the intellectual life of the world, and it was Lessing, as they acknowledged, who prepared the way for their achievements. Without attaching himself to any particular system of philosophical doctrine, he fought incessantly against error, and in regard to art, poetry, the drama and religion, suggested ideas which kindled the enthusiasm of aspiring minds, and stimulated their highest energies. While his work was thus effective in its own day, it has lost little of its value for later ages. His dramas have imaginative qualities which appeal to every generation, and an unfading charm is conferred on his critical and theological writings by the power and classical purity of his style.

†This article was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol X ed. Alfred Bates. New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 47-56, 67-73.

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