Authors: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German playwright and critic

Author Works


Damon: Oder, Die wahre Freundschaft, pb. 1747 (Damon: Or, True Friendship, 1878)

Der junge Gelehrte, pr. 1748 (The Young Scholar, 1878)

Die alte Jungfer, pb. 1749 (The Old Maid, 1878)

Der Freigeist, wr. 1749, pb. 1755 (The Freethinker, 1838)

Samuel Henzi, wr. 1749, pb. 1753 (verse)

Die Juden, wr. 1749, pb. 1754 (The Jews, 1801)

Der Misogyn, pb. 1755 (The Woman-Hater, 1878)

Miss Sara Sampson, pr., pb. 1755 (English translation, 1933)

Philotas, pb. 1759 (English translation, 1878)

Minna von Barnhelm: Oder, Das Soldatenglück, pr., pb. 1767 (Minna von Barnhelm: Or, The Soldier’s Fortune, 1786)

Emilia Galotti, pr., pb. 1772 (English translation, 1786)

Nathan der Weise, pb. 1779 (verse; Nathan the Wise, 1781)

The Dramatic Works of G. E. Lessing, pb. 1878 (2 volumes)

Short Fiction:

Fabeln nebst Abhandlungen, 1759 (Fables, 1773)


Kritische Briefe, 1753

Abhandlungen vom weinerlichen oder rührenden Lustspiel, 1754

Vade mecum für den Hrn. Sam. Gotth. Lange, 1754

Theatralische Bibliothek, 1754-1758

Pope ein Mataphysiker!, 1755

Abhandlungen über die Fabel, 1759 (Treatises on the Fable, 1773)

Laokoon: Oder, Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie, 1766 (Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1836)

Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 1767-1769 (Hamburg Dramaturgy, 1889)

Briefe antiquarischen Inhalts, 1768

Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet, 1769 (How the Ancients Represented Death, 1879)

Zerstreute Anmerkungen über das Epigramm, 1771

Zur Geschichte und Literatur, 1773

Von der Duldung der Deisten, 1774 (English translation in Theological Writings, 1956)

Das Testament Johannis, 1777

Eine Duplick, 1778

“Eine Parable,” 1778 (“A Parable from the German of Lessing,” 1806)

“Axiomata,” 1778

Anti- Goeze, 1778

Ernst und Falk: Gespräche für Freimaurer, 1778 (Masonic Dialogues, 1927)

Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, 1780 (The Education of the Human Race, 1858)

Theological Writings, 1956


Das Theater des Hern Diderot, 1759

Edited Text:

Briefe die neueste Literature betreffend, 1759-1760


Selected Prose Works, 1879

Sämtliche Schriften, 1886-1924 (23 volumes)


Born January 22, 1729, in Kamenz, a small city of northeastern Saxony, of a family originally Slavic but citizens of Germany for centuries, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing mingled in his character the energetic ruggedness of the frontier with the discipline of civilization that turned it into intellectual and aesthetic channels. As the oldest son of the city’s chief pastor, the boy attended the Latin School and the famous St. Afra in Meissen, where students were up at 4:30 a.m. for a long day at their books. Introduced by his mathematics teacher to the writers of Europe, Lessing studied longer and harder than his schoolmates.{$I[AN]9810000487}{$I[A]Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim}{$I[tim]1729;Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim}

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

(Library of Congress)

He attended the University of Leipzig in 1746, sent by his father to study theology; but Karoline Neuber, who was striving to develop a serious German theater, encouraged Lessing to use his knowledge of the classics to write an original play. His The Young Scholar was performed in 1748; at the news, his disapproving father summoned him home and would not let him return until he promised to concentrate on medicine, if he lacked an aptitude for the Church. Unfortunately, money difficulties because of his friendships with the actors sent him fleeing to Wittenberg. In Berlin a friendly journalist found him employment in translating ancient history, writing plays, and editing a magazine devoted to the drama. Lessing eventually returned to Wittenberg to work for a master’s degree (1751). There he met the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the composer and the “German Socrates” who inspired Lessing’s Nathan the Wise.

Back in Berlin Lessing wrote his first important play, Miss Sara Sampson, a “tragedy of common life” growing out of his acquaintance with the character-revealing novels of Henry Fielding and from a play, The London Merchant (1731), by George Lillo. Lessing’s critical sense showed him the weakness of German drama, with its dependence on a frivolous French theater. He championed the imitation of Shakespeare and Sophocles.

The Seven Years’ War found Lessing employed in Breslau as secretary to its governor, General von Tauentzien, and for five years Lessing had respite from his continual state of poverty. The death of a friend in the war suggested the idea of a series of letters on contemporary literature, supposedly written by a wounded soldier. Lessing also clarified his ideas on poetry as a dynamic form and the plastic arts as a plastic form, in the volume Laocoön, a landmark in aesthetic criticism. While superseded now, this pioneer work had an immense influence on several generations. At Breslau he wrote also his greatest drama, Minna von Barnhelm, not published until 1767. The patriotic background and the soldier protagonist with his ideas of honor attracted local interest, while the blend of pathos and humor contributed to the play’s universal appeal.

In 1767 the port city of Hamburg, wishing to become also a center of culture, invited the dramatist and critic to establish a national theater there. After two vain years spent fighting petty intrigue and pressures to present only French box-office successes, Lessing resigned his post. However, his critical articles discussing the work of the theater, published as Hamburgische Dramaturgie, became the basis upon which a real German national art was eventually constructed.

In debt and discouraged, Lessing took a library job at Wolfenbuttel. He experienced a brief happiness when he fell in love with and married a widow, but she died in childbirth in 1778. He found comfort in preparing his only great tragedy, Emilia Galotti, which forecasts the coming social revolution, and in writing his dramatic poem in blank verse, Nathan the Wise, a plea for toleration from the representatives of three religions, the Jew Nathan, a Christian Knight Templar, and the Mohammadan Saladin. The carping of Christian zealots about this work made Lessing’s declining years unhappy. He died alone and in debt in Braunschweig on February 15, 1781, but his life and writings had prepared the way for the great poets and philosophers who were to give Germany her literary reputation.

BibliographyAllison, Henry E. Lessing and the Enlightenment: His Philosophy of Religion and Its Relation to Eighteenth-Century Thought. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. A comprehensive study; includes a bibliography and notes.Batley, Edward Malcolm. Catalyst of Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Productive Criticism of Eighteenth-Century Germany. New York: P. Lang, 1990. Places Lessing in eighteenth century German intellectual life. Includes bibliography and index.Brown, F. Andrew. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. New York: Twayne, 1971. A thorough introduction to Lessing’s life and works.Eckhardt, Jo-Jacqueline. Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise” and the Critics, 1779-1991. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. A long-term perspective of the literary criticism produced in response to Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. Bibliography and index.Garland, Henry B. Lessing: The Founder of Modern German Literature. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962. An important study. Includes a bibliography.Gustafson, Susan E. Absent Mothers and Orphaned Fathers: Narcissism and Abjection in Lessing’s Aesthetic and Dramatic Production. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. A psychoanalytic study of the works of Lessing, with emphasis on his sense of aesthetics. Bibliography and index.Hawari, Emma. Johnson’s and Lessing’s Dramatic Critical Theories and Practice with a Consideration of Lessing’s Affinities with Johnson. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. An examination of the dramatic theories of Lessing and Samuel Johnson, as well as a comparison of their literary works. Bibliography and index.Henriksen, Jan-Olav. The Reconstruction of Religion: Lessing, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. A study of the religious beliefs of Lessing, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche as revealed by their lives and writings. Bibliography and index.Leventhal, Robert Scott. The Disciplines of Interpretation: Lessing, Herder, Schlegel, and Hermeneutics in Germany, 1750-1800. New York: W. de Gruyter, 1994. A more scholarly work on Lessing’s place and theories in German literary criticism.Redekop, Benjamin Wall. Enlightenment and Community: Lessing, Abbt, Herder and the Quest for a German Public. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. An examination of the political and social views of Lessing, Thomas Abbt, and Johann Gottfried Herder as shown in their writings and lives. Bibliography and index.Ugrinsky, Alexej, ed. Lessing and the Enlightenment. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Another work that places Lessing in eighteenth century German intellectual life. Includes a bibliography and index.Vallée, Gérard. Soundings in G. E. Lessing’s Philosophy of Religion. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. An examination of the religious philosophy of Lessing, as evidenced in his writings. Bibliography and index.
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