Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim
LESSING, GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM
German critic, dramatist, leading exponent of the Aufklärung; b. Kamenz, in Oberlausitz (Saxony), Jan. 22, 1729; d. Braunschweig, Feb. 15, 1781. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor and attended the celebrated school of St. Afra in Meissen (1741–46). He then entered the University of Leipzig, where, at the wish of his father, he studied first theology, then medicine. But his main interest was in philosophy and literature. His early play, Der junge Gelehrte, was produced at Leipzig in 1748 by the company of actors under the direction of Caroline Neuber (1697–1760). When this company failed in the same year, Lessing, who had become surety for its debts, fled to Berlin to escape his creditors. There he again wrote plays: Der Freigeist (1749), under the influence of the French comedy, and Die Juden (1749), which foreshadowed the themes of his later play Nathan der Weise. He also became a literary and dramatic critic; his essays were published in the short-lived journal Beiträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters (1749–50; with Christlob Mylius, 1752–54), the Berliner Privilegierte Zeitung, and the Vossische Zeitung and its supplement, Das Neueste aus dem Reiche des Witzes, of which he was editor in 1751.
In 1751–52, after having studied for his master's degree in Wittenberg, Lessing was again in Berlin, where he published the first volumes of his collected works (Schriften, 6 v., 1753–55, which included the lyrics and epigrams originally published as Kleinigkeiten in 1751). Lessing's second review of drama, Die theatralische Bibliothek, was published from 1754 to 1758. In collaboration with Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86) he published Pope, ein Metaphysiker! (1755), an essay that defines the distinct roles of poet and philosopher. He frequently changed his residence in the following years: he was at Leipzig (1755–58), where he formed a close friendship with the poet Ewald Christian von Kleist (1715–59); at Berlin (1758–60); Breslau (1760–64), as secretary to the governor, General Tauentzien; Berlin (1765–67); Hamburg (1767–68); and in Italy (1768–70). In 1770 he accepted the position of court librarian at Wolfenbüttel in Braunschweig, where, except for a visit to Vienna and Italy in 1775, he remained until his death. In 1776 he married a widow, Eva König, who died in childbirth the following year.
Influence as Critic. Lessing, in whom the German enlightenment found its culmination and German classicism its most eminent precursor and teacher, has been called the foremost critic of his time. His essay on the nature of the fable, prefixed to the collected edition of his Fabeln (1759), distinguishes the kinds of action proper to fable, drama, and epic. Perceptive criticisms of contemporary authors, among them Klopstock and Wieland, are to be found in the 54 letters he contributed to the journal Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend, published in Berlin (1759–65), with Moses Mendelssohn and Friedrich Nicolai (1733–1811), the latter a bookseller and writer of rationalistic literature. Especially noteworthy is the seventeenth letter, in which Lessing strove to free German literature from its subjection to the artificial rules of French pseudoclassicism by reinterpreting the classical tradition of the ancients and pointing the way to a proper appreciation of Shakespeare. In Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766) he defined the boundaries between the plastic arts, which portray objects in space, and literature, which portrays events in time.
As dramatic critic of the newly established National Theater in Hamburg, Lessing published the Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–68). Intended originally as a series of reviews of plays performed at the National Theater, these essays became in point of fact vehicles for the expression of Lessing's own dramatic theory, which, though largely derivative, exerted a major influence on 18th-century drama in Germany and in Europe generally. In them he again strove to break the tyranny of French pseudoclassicism in Germany and to create a German national drama based on a correct interpretation of Aristotle's dramatic theory of the unities. Out of Lessing's feud with the antiquarian Christian Adolf Klotz (1738–71), professor at the University of Halle, arose the Briefe antiquarischen Inhalts (1768–69) and the admirable essay Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet (1769).
Dramatic Work. Lessing's interest in the theater was not confined to criticism. Besides the plays already mentioned, he is author of a one-act tragedy Philotas (1759) and of the more important Miss Sara Sampson (1755), the first significant tragedy of middle-class life (bürgerliches Trauerspiel ) in German literature. Based on English models (especially George Lillo's Merchant of London, 1731), this play gave practical expression to Lessing's revolt against Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–66), the chief patron of French pseudoclassicism in Germany. In Minna von Barnhelm (1767), a play whose setting was the Seven Years' War, Lessing wrote the first German national drama of modern times, the first play in which a soldier (the hero, Major von Tellheim) has an honorable role. It is also the first masterpiece of German comedy, in which the comedy has its logical source in the events themselves, and the events in the characters who portray them; it is still popular in Germany. Lessing likewise gave Germany its first political tragedy, Emilia Galotti (1772), an indictment of corruption and immorality among the petty princes of absolutism.
Lessing's last drama, Nathan der Weise (1779), belongs more properly among the theological polemics precipitated by his publication, in Beiträge zur Geschichte und Literatur (1773–81), of selections from the Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes by Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768). To the ensuing controversy between orthodoxy and rationalism belong Lessing's Anti-Goeze (1778), a rebuttal of his most vehement opponent, the Hamburg pastor Johann Melchior Goeze (1717–86), and Nathan der Weise, in which
Lessing, forbidden by the Braunschweig government to continue his strife with orthodoxy, returned to his "old pulpit," the stage, and pleaded for religious tolerance; the play's parable of the three rings reflects his rejection of the concept of one true religion. Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780) is an essay that contains his doctrine of an organic religious evolution away from revealed religion and toward a future rational religion to succeed Judaism and Christianity. Ernst und Falk: Gespräche für Freimaurer (1777, 1780) is a group of five dialogues in which Lessing renewed his plea for religious and political tolerance. Mention should be made also of the volume of Rettungen (1753–54), in which Lessing sought to vindicate earlier victims of theological bigotry, and of the publication of a previously unknown manuscript of berengarius of tours, a work Lessing found in the Wolfenbüttel library.
Bibliography: Works. First ed. by his brother k. g. lessing et al., 31 v. (Berlin 1771–1825); ed. k. lachmann, 13 v. (Berlin 1838–40); ed. w. stammler, 2 v. (Munich 1959); ed. h. kesten, 2 v. (Frankfurt 1962). Studies. k. g. lessing, ed., Gotthold Ephraim Lessings Leben nebst seinem noch übrigen literarischen Nachlasse, 3 v. (Berlin 1793–95). j. sime, Lessing: His Life and Writings, 2 v. (London 1877). e. schmidt, Lessing: Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Schriften, ed. f. schultz, 2 v. (4th ed. Berlin 1923). h. kesten, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Ein deutscher Moralist (Mainz 1960). w. kosch, Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon, ed. b. berger (Bern 1963) 246–248. h. b. garland, Lessing: The Founder of Modern German Literature (2d ed. New York 1962).
[m. f. mccarthy]
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