Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

(gôt`hôlt ā`fräĭm), 1729–81, German philosopher, dramatist, and critic, one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment. He was connected with the theater in Berlin, where he produced some of his most famous works, and with the national theater in Hamburg. His series of critical essays, Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–69), attacked the French classical theater and claimed that it had failed to capture the true spirit of Aristotelian dramatic unities. From 1770 he was librarian at Wolfenbüttel, writing there Zur Geschichte und Literatur [on history and literature] (1773–77). Other significant critical works are Literaturbriefe [literary letters] (1759–65) and Laokoon (1766). Lessing differentiated between the poet as interpreter of time and the artist as interpreter of space; he found different aesthetic criteria applicable to each. His plays include Miss Sara Sampson (1755), Minna von Barnhelm (1763, tr. 1799), Emilia Galotti (1772, tr. 1909), and Nathan the Wise (1779, tr. 1781), which was partly the result of the numerous theological controversies into which he was drawn by his insistence on freedom of thought. A deist, Lessing took theology seriously. His Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts [education of the human race] (1780) applied Enlightenment ideas of progress and evolution to religion. Lessing's introduction in Germany of English literature, especially of Shakespeare, was an important contribution.

Bibliography

See studies by H. E. Allison (1966), A. F. Brown (1971), and H. B. Garland (1949, repr. 1973).

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

 

Born Jan. 22, 1729, in Kamenz, Saxony; died Feb. 15, 1781, in Braunschweig. German playwright, art theorist, and literary critic of the Enlightenment. Founder of German classical literature.

Lessing was the son of a pastor. He received his education at the universities of Leipzig (1746–48) and Wittenberg (1748). Rejecting an ecclesiastical or university career and the patronage of aristocrats, Lessing moved to Berlin, where he led a hand-to-mouth existence as a self-supporting man of letters.

From 1760 to 1765, Lessing served as a secretary to the governor of Silesia, the Prussian general Tauentzien. During the years 1767–68, Lessing made an unsuccessful attempt to found a theater in Hamburg. He ended his days in the modest post of librarian to the duke of Braunschweig.

The principal driving force in Lessing’s career was his opposition to absolutist ideology in favor of a democratic national culture that would unify the country politically and abolish feudalism and class distinctions. In his early anacreontic songs, Lessing asserted the human right to the joys of life; in his fables and epigrams, he cruelly ridiculed the mores of the German aristocracy and philistines.

Rejecting classicism, Lessing wrote the first “bourgeois” family drama in Germany, Miss Sara Sampson (1755), and a comedy with national characters, Minna von Barnhelm (1767), in which enlightened morality triumphs over class and regional prejudices. In his tragedy Emilia Galotti (1772), Lessing vigorously condemns the despotism and arbitrary rule of feudal princes.

In his publicistic writings, Lessing was mainly concerned with the problems of the Enlightenment. From 1751 to 1755 he contributed to the newspaper Vossische Zeitung and published periodicals, including Theatralische Bibliothek.

Lessing’s dramatic poem Nathan der Weise (1779) condemned ecclesiastical reactionism and religious intolerance and defended the principles of humaneness and universal equality.

Lessing’s most important contribution was his doctrine of dynamism, of temporal succession, and the fullness of the representation of life as the primary principles of poetry (Laokoon, 1766); he ardently defended the theoretical principles of realistic theater and drama. Lessing opposed the aristocratic theater of the court and called for truthful and ingenuous theatrical and dramaturgical forms (Hamburgische Dramaturgie, published 1767–69).

In philosophy, Lessing was a predecessor of the materialistic tradition in Germany. N. G. Chernyshevskii devoted a separate monograph to Lessing in 1857. Marx, Engels, and Mering evaluated Lessing’s work highly. The Lessing-Theater existed in Berlin from 1888 to 1943.

WORKS

Sämtliche Schriften, 3rd ed., vols. 1–23. Stuttgart, 1886–1924. (Vol. 22, part 2, 1919, contains a bibliography of literature about Lessing from 1749 to 1919.)
Gesammelte Werke, vols. 1–10. Berlin, 1954–58.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–10. St. Petersburg, 1904.
Dramy. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937.
Gamburgskaia dramaturgiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Laokoon, ili O granitsakh zhivopisi i poezii. Moscow, 1957.

REFERENCES

Chernyshevskii, N. G. “Lessing: Ego vremia, ego zhizn’ i deiatel’nost’.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 4, Moscow, 1948.
Grib, V. R. “Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo Lessinga.” In Izbr. raboty. Moscow, 1956.
Fridlender, G. M. Lessing. Moscow, 1957.
Mering, F. “Legenda o Lessinge.” In Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.
Rilla, P. Lessing und sein Zeitalter. Berlin, 1960.
Seidel, S. G. E. Lessing, 1729–1781: Eine Einführung in sein Leben und Werk. Berlin, 1963.
Ritzel, W. G. E. Lessing. Stuttgart, 1966.
Guthke, K. S. Der Stand der Lessing-Forschung: Ein Berichtüber die Literatur von 1932–1962. Stuttgart, 1965.

G. M. FRIDLENDER