Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (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.

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

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