(Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245, published July 1, features entries on Athanasius Kircher and the Gotthold Ephraim Lessing plays Emilia Galotti and Nathan the Wise. This is the opening passage of the Emilia Galotti entry)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
German playwright, critic, essayist, and translator. The following entry provides criticism of Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti (1772).
Emilia Galotti by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) is based on an incident recounted in the Roman writer Livy’s History of Rome from Its Foundation (30 BC?-AD 10?) about Verginius, who killed his virgin daughter, Verginia, rather than allow her to become the concubine of the ruler Appius Claudius. As Livy relates, Verginius’s sacrifice of his daughter ultimately led to the overthrow of the corrupt government of Rome and the reestablishment of the Roman Republic.Although Lessing began writing Emilia Galotti in 1757, it was not produced until 13 March 1772, when it premiered in Brunswick, Germany.
Intended to exemplify the standards Lessing set forth in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-69; published as Hamburg Dramaturgy), it was widely hailed as an exemplary specimen of the bürgerliches Trauerspiel (“bourgeois tragedy”), a drama portraying the upper middle class rather than aristocrats in the manner of classical drama. The play was staged frequently in the following decades, although it
was banned in Gotha, Germany, because of its critical view of the aristocracy. Its popularity waned thereafter, but it endures as a subject of scholarly interest. Critics have continued to debate its themes and purpose, questioning, for example, whether Emilia’s death is meaningful or senseless and whether the play’s action constitutes a political critique. As a result, it has remained, according to Roy C. Cowen (1969; see Further Reading), “one of the great enigmas of the German theater.”
(Read the full 87-page Emilia Galotti entry in Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245. The academic advisor for this entry is James Hardin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina)