The Dramatic Works of G. E. Lessing / Miss Sara Sampson, Philotas, Emilia Galotti, Nathan the Wise

Produced by Charles Bowen, from page scans provided by Google Books

Transcriber’s Note:
1. Page scan source:





Translated from the German.












A Translation of some of Lessing’s works has long been contemplated for ‘Bonn’s Standard Library,’ and the publishers are glad to be able to bring it out at a time when an increased appreciation of this writer has become manifest in this country.

The publication of Mr. Sime’s work on Lessing, and the almost simultaneous appearance of Miss Helen Zimmern’s shorter but probably more popular biographical study, will, without doubt, tend to spread amongst English-speaking people a knowledge of a writer who is held in peculiar reverence by his own countrymen; and there is little, if anything, of what he wrote that does not appeal in some way or other to the sympathies of Englishmen.

In this translation it is purposed to include the most popular of his works–the first two volumes comprising all the finished dramatic pieces, whilst the third will contain the famous ‘Laokoon,’ and a large portion of the ‘Hamburg Dramaturgy’ (here called ‘Dramatic Notes’), and some other smaller pieces.

The arrangement of the plays is as follows:–The first volume contains the three tragedies and the “dramatic poem,” ‘Nathan the Wise.’ This last piece and ‘Emilia Galotti’ are translated by Mr. R. Dillon Boylan, whose English versions of Schiller’s ‘Don Carlos,’ Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ &c., had previously distinguished him in this path of literature.

The second volume will be found to consist entirely of comedies, arranged according to the date of composition; and as it happens that all these comedies, with the exception of the last and best, ‘Minna von Barnhelm,’ were written before he published any more serious dramatic composition, we have, by reversing the order of the first two volumes, an almost exactly chronological view of Lessing’s dramatic work. The later section of it has been placed at the commencement of the series, simply because it was more convenient to include in it the introductory notice which Miss Zimmern kindly consented to write.

York Street, Covent Garden.
June 1878.



Since Luther, Germany has produced no greater or better man than Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; these two are Germany’s pride and joy.

This is the witness of Heine, and with Goethe in memory, none would pronounce the statement too bold. Luther and Lessing are Germany’s representative men; each inaugurates an epoch the very existence of which would not have been possible without him. Nor is this the only point of analogy. Lessing was the Luther of the eighteenth century. Like Luther, Lessing is distinguished by earnestness, ardour, true manliness, fierce hatred of dissimulation, largeness of mind, breadth, and profundity of thought. Like Luther, he stands in history a massive presence whereon the weak may lean. Like Luther, he led the vanguard of reform in every department of human learning into which he penetrated. Like Luther, he was true to every conviction, and did not shrink from its expression. Like Luther, he could have said, “I was born to fight with devils and storms, and hence it is that my writings are so boisterous and stormy.” Like Luther, he became the founder of a new religion and of a new German literature. And again, like Luther, his life labours were not for Germany alone, but spread over all Europe; and few of us know how much of our present culture we owe directly or indirectly to Lessing’s influence.

In this country he has not been sufficiently known. Up to the present, his name has been familiar to Englishmen only as the author of the ‘Laokoon,’ ‘Nathan the Wise,’ and, possibly also, of ‘Minna von Barnhelm.’ In knowing these, we certainly know the names of some of his masterpieces, but we cannot thence deduce the entire cause of the man’s far-spreading influence.

Fully to understand Lessing’s influence, and fully to understand the bearing of his works, some slight previous acquaintance with German literature is absolutely requisite. For unless we comprehend the source whence an author’s inspirations have sprung, we may often misconceive his views. And Lessing’s writings, above all, essentially sprang from the needs of his time. The subject is a large one, and can only be briefly indicated here; but we venture to remark, for those whose interest may be aroused in the subject of this volume, that the fuller their knowledge of the man and the motive force that evoked his works, the keener will be their enjoyment of these works themselves.

In naming Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller, we utter the three greatest names that German literature can boast. And between the three runs a connecting link of endeavour; the efforts of none can be conceived without the efforts of the others; but Lessing was the leader. He was the mental pathfinder who smoothed the way for Goethe’s genius, and prepared the popular understanding for Schiller, the poetical interpreter of Kant.

Lessing was born in the early years of the eighteenth century, at a time therefore when Germany may be said practically to have had no literature. For the revival of learning, the interest in letters that arose with the Reformation, and had been fostered by the emancipating spirit of Protestantism, had been blighted and extinguished by the terrible wars that ravaged the country for thirty years, impoverishing the people, destroying the homesteads and farms, and utterly annihilating the mental repose needful to the growth and to the just appreciation of literature. Books were destroyed as relentlessly in those sad times as flourishing cornfields were down-trodden by the iron heel of the invader. It was a fearful period of anarchy and retrogression, under the baneful effects of which Germany still labours. Peace was at last restored in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia, but it found the nation broken in spirit and vigour, and where material needs entirely absorb the mental energies of a people the Muses cannot flourish. And not only was the spirit of the people broken by the war, their national feeling seemed totally extinct. The bold fine language wherewith Luther had endowed them was neglected and despised by the better classes, who deemed servile imitation of the foreigner the true and only criterion of good taste. It grew, at last, to be held quite a distinction for a German to be unable to speak his own language correctly, and it seems probable that but for the religious utterances of the hymn-writers, who thus provided the poor oppressed people with ideal consolations, the very essence of the language, in all its purity, might have perished. It is among these hymn-writers that we must seek and shall find the finest, truest, and most national expressions of that time. Shortly before Lessing’s birth there had awakened a sense of this national degradation, and some princes and nobles formed themselves into a society to suppress the fashionable Gallicisms and reinstate the people’s language. Their efforts met with some little success, but their powers were too limited, and their attempts too artificial and jejune to exert any considerable influence either in the direction of conservation or of reform. It needed something stronger, bolder, to dispel the apathy of a century. Still these associations, known as the two Silesian schools, bore their part in sowing the good seed, and though most of it fell on stony ground, because there was little other ground for it whereon to fall, still some fell on fruitful earth, and brought forth in due season. An excessive interest in French literature was opposed by an equal interest in English literature. The adherents of these two factions formed what was known as the Swiss and Leipzig schools. They waged a fierce paper warfare, that had the good effect of once more attracting popular attention to the claims of letters, as well as showing the people that in French manners, French language, and French literature, the Alpha and Omega of culture need not of necessity be sought. The leader of the Leipzig faction, who stood by the French, was Gottsched, a German professor of high pretensions and small merits, who put his opponents on their mettle by his pedantic and arrogant attacks. He had instituted himself a national dictator of good taste, and for a long time it seemed probable that he and his party would triumph. His ultimate defeat was accomplished by Lessing, whose early boyhood was contemporaneous with the fiercest encounters of these antagonists. It was he who gave the death-blow to their factious disputes, and referred the nation back to itself and its own national glory and power. He found Germany without original literature, and, before his short life was ended, the splendid genius of Goethe shed its light over the land. Who and what was the man who effected so much?

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born on the twenty-second of January, 1729, at Camentz, a small town in Saxony, of which his father was head pastor. For several generations Lessing’s ancestors had been distinguished for their learning, and with few exceptions they had all held ecclesiastical preferment. The father of Gotthold Ephraim was a man of no inconsiderable talents and acquirements. His upright principles, breadth of vision and scholarly attainments, made him a venerated example to his son, with whom he maintained through life the most cordial relationship, though the son’s yet more enlightened standpoint came to transcend the comprehension of the father. Their first divergence occurred on the choice of a profession. It had been traditional among the Lessings that the eldest son should take orders, and accordingly Gotthold Ephraim was silently assumed to be training for the ministry. He was sent for this end, first to the Grammar-school of his native town, then to a public school at Meissen, and finally to the University of Leipzig. At Meissen he distinguished himself in classical studies, and attempted some original German verses. He outstripped his compeers, and before he had accomplished his curriculum, the rector recommended his removal, inasmuch as he had exhausted the resources of the school. At Leipzig he appeared to turn his back on study. He deserted the class-rooms of the theologians and was the more constant attendant instead at the theatre, at that time the bête noire of all who affected respectability, and decried loudly by the clergy as a very hotbed of vice. News of their son’s haunts reached the dismayed parents. They urged him to abandon his courses, that could only end in mental and moral destruction. In vain the son represented to them that he had lived in retirement too long, that he now wished to become acquainted with the world and men, and that he held the theatre to be a popular educator. In vain he represented that he did attend the philosophical courses of Professors Kaestner, Ernesti, and Christ. He was a playgoer, and what was still worse, he was a play-writer, for the directress of the Leipzig Theatre, Frau Neuber, a woman, of great taste and intelligence, had put on the stage Lessing’s juvenile effort, ‘The Young Scholar.’ Nay more, he associated with a notorious freethinker, Mylius, and in concert with him had contributed to various journals and periodicals. And meanwhile the magistracy of Camentz was allowing Lessing a stipend on condition of studying theology. It was too much. His son was neglecting the dic cur hic, and to obviate this the father recalled him home by a stratagem, informing him that his mother was dying and desired once more to see her son. The ruse, intended also as a test of Lessing’s filial obedience, succeeded in so far as to prove that this was at least unshaken; but his parents urged in vain that he should abandon his evil ways. He once more expressed with great decision his disinclination towards a theological career. But he was also firmly resolved to be no longer a burden to his parents, whose large family was a great drain on their resources. He determined to follow Mylius, who had gone to Berlin in the capacity of editor, convinced that a good brain and steadfast will would force their own way in the world.

Accordingly Lessing settled in Berlin in 1748, a youth of barely twenty years, prepared to fight a hand-to-hand struggle for existence. Frederick the Great at that time ruled in Prussia, and his capital was in ill repute as a hotbed of frivolity and atheism. If anything could be worse in the parents’ eyes than their son’s attendance at the theatre, it was his presence at Berlin. They urged his return home. He refused respectfully but decidedly. He had found employment that remunerated him. Voss’s Gazette had appointed him literary editor, he wrote its critical feuilletons, and here he had the first opportunity of attacking the Swiss and Leipzig factions, and of exposing the absurdities of both schools. He was able to teach himself Spanish and Italian, he translated for the booksellers, he catalogued a library; and while thus earning his livelihood tant bien que mal, he indirectly prosecuted his studies and enlarged his knowledge of literature and life. For at Berlin he was not forced to associate only with books, he also came in contact with intellectual men, his views expanded, his judgment became sure. A volume of minor poems that he published in 1751 excited attention.

The essays he contributed to Voss’s Gazette gave him notoriety on account of their independent spirit, their pregnant flashes of originality and truth. This unknown youth ventured alone and unsupported to attack Gottsched’s meretricious writings, and so successfully that even the vain dictator trembled, and the rival schools asked each other who was this Daniel that had come to judgment? With pitiless subtlety he exposed the crudity, the inflation of Klopstock’s ‘Messiah,’ which at that time one half the world extolled, the other half abused, while he alone could truly distinguish in what respects the poem fell short of its pretensions to be a national epic, and where its national importance and merit really lay.

For two years Lessing remained at Berlin; busy years, in which he scattered these treatises teeming with discernment and genius. Then at the end of that time he felt himself exhausted, he craved seclusion, in which he could once more live for himself and garner up fresh stores of knowledge. The city and his numerous friends were too distracting. So one day he stole away without previous warning and installed himself in the quiet university town of Wittenberg. At Wittenberg he spent a year of quiet study. The University library was freely opened to him, and he could boast that it did not contain a book he had not held in his hands. Wittenberg: being chiefly a theological university, Lessing’s attention was principally attracted to that subject, and he here laid the foundations of the accurate knowledge that was in after years to stand him in great stead. When he had exhausted all that Wittenberg could offer, he one day (1752) reappeared at Berlin as unexpectedly as he had quitted it, and quickly resumed his old relations there, which proved as busy and significant as before. Lessing again maintained himself by authorship, but this time his productions were riper. He published several volumes of his writings. They contained treatises composed at Wittenberg, Rehabilitations (Rettungen) of distinguished men, whom he held the world had maligned, as well as several plays, among which were the ‘Jews,’ ‘The Woman-hater,’ ‘The Freethinker,’ ‘The Treasure,’ as well as the fragmentary play ‘Samuel Henzi,’ a novel attempt to treat of modern historical incidents on the stage. A somewhat savage attack, entitled ‘Vade mecum,’ in which he criticised unsparingly a certain Pastor Lange’s rendering of ‘Horace,’ drew upon Lessing the attention of the learned world, and since he was in the right in his strictures, they regarded him with mingled fear and admiration. His renewed criticisms in Voss’s Gazette further maintained his reputation as a redoubtable critic.

These were happy, hopeful years in Lessing’s life; he enjoyed his work, and it brought him success. He had, moreover, formed some of the warmest friendships of his life with the bookseller Nicolai and the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. With the former he discoursed on English literature, with the latter, on æsthetic and metaphysical themes. Their frequent reunions were sources of mental refreshment and invigoration to all three. What cared Lessing that his resources were meagre, he could live, and his father was growing more reconciled now that men of established repute lauded his son’s works. Together with Mendelssohn, Lessing wrote an essay on a theme propounded by the Berlin Academy, ‘Pope a Metaphysician!’ that did not obtain the prize, as it ridiculed the learned body which had proposed a ridiculous theme, but it attracted notice.

In the year 1755 Lessing wrote ‘Miss Sara Sampson,’ a play that marks an epoch in his life and in German literature. It was the first German attempt at domestic drama, and was, moreover, written in prose instead of in the fashionable Alexandrines. The play was acted that same year at Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, and Lessing went to superintend in person. Its success was immense, and revived Lessing’s love for the stage, which had rather flagged at Berlin from want of a theatre there. He accordingly resolved on this account to remove to Leipzig again, and disappeared from Berlin without announcing his intention to his friends.

At Leipzig he once more lived among the comedians, and carried on a lively correspondence with Mendelssohn on the philosophical theories of the drama in general, with especial reference to Aristotle. A proposal to act as travelling companion to a rich Leipzig merchant interrupted this life. The pair started early in the year 1756, intending a long absence that should include a visit to England. The trip, however, did not extend beyond Holland, as the Seven Years’ War broke out. Prussian troops were stationed at Leipzig, and this caused Lessing’s companion to desire return. Return they accordingly did, Lessing waiting all the winter for the resumption of their interrupted project. But as the prospects of peace grew more distant, their contract was annulled, much to Lessing’s regret, and also to his severe pecuniary loss. He found himself at Leipzig penniless, the theatre closed by the war, and interest in letters deadened from the same cause. He contrived, however, to maintain himself by hack-work for the booksellers; but it was a dismal time, not devoid, however, of some redeeming lights. The poet Von Kleist was then stationed at Leipzig, and with him Lessing formed a friendship that proved one of his warmest and tenderest. On the removal of Kleist to active service, Lessing determined to quit Leipzig, which had grown distasteful to him in its military hubbub. In May 1758 he once more appeared at Berlin, and fell into his former niche. He worked at his ‘Fables,’ wrote a play on the Greek models, ‘Philotas,’ began a life of Sophocles, and edited and translated several works of minor importance. But the chief labour of the period was the establishment of a journal dealing with contemporary literature. It was to be written tersely, as was suited to a time of war and general excitement; and to connect it with the war, it was couched in the form of letters purporting to be addressed to an officer in the field, who wished to be kept acquainted with current literature. Kleist was certainly in Lessing’s mind when he began. The letters were to be written by Mendelssohn, Nicolai, and Lessing, but nearly all the earlier ones are from Lessing’s pen. The papers made a great mark, from their bold strictures and independence. They did not belong to either of the recognised coteries, plainly placing themselves on a footing outside and above them. Though they were issued anonymously, Lessing was now sufficiently known, and it was not long before they were universally attributed to him. Their peculiar merit was that they did not merely condemn the contemporary productions, but showed the way to their improvement. They are throughout written with dialectic brilliancy, vigour, and lively wit, so that they are classics to this day, although their immediate themes are long removed from our interests From these ‘Letters Concerning Contemporary Literature’ our modern science of criticism may be said to date. After this, works were no longer merely judged by ancient standards, but by their application to the demands of the age in which they were written.

The news of Kleist’s death affected Lessing severely, and so broke down his energies that he felt the imperative need of a change of scene. He therefore accepted an offer to act as secretary to General Tauentzien, who had been appointed Governor of Breslau. He followed him to that city in 1760, hoping to find renewed energies in a fixed employment that gave him good emolument and left him free time for self-culture.

Lessing remained at this post for nearly five years, until the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, and though his letters of that period are very scanty, and though he gained evil repute at Breslau as a gambler and a tavern haunter, they were really the busiest and most studious years of his life. Here he read Spinoza and the Church Fathers, studied æsthetics and Winckelmann’s newly issued ‘History of Art,’ wrote his ‘Minna von Barnhelm,’ and the ‘Laokoon.’ Their publication did not occur till his return to Berlin after the peace of Hubertsburg, when Lessing threw up his appointment, greatly to the dismay of his family, who had reckoned on it as a permanent resource. But Lessing had had enough of soldiers and military life, he had exhausted all they could teach him, and he craved to resume his studious and independent existence. He did not like it on resumption so well as he had thought he should at a distance. Restlessness seized him. He wanted to travel; to see Italy. His friends desired an appointment for him as royal librarian. He applied for the post, and was kept for some time in uncertainty. He failed, however, owing to Frederick’s dislike to German learned men, and it was in vain that Lessing’s friends pleaded that he was anything but the typical German pedant, uncouth, unkempt, who was Frederick’s bête noire. To prove his efficiency for the post, Lessing had published his ‘Laokoon.’ He published it as a fragment, and, like too many of Lessing’s works, it never grew beyond that stage.

Pages: 1 | 2 | Single Page