Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81)Lessing can be considered as the founder of modern German literature because his plays established a new genre, Bürgerliches Trauerspiel; bourgeois tragedy which engaged critically with the contemporary German scene and articulated the values of the emerging German middle class.

Between 1767 and 1769 Lessing worked as a dramaturge (dramatic advisor) for the Hamburg National Theatre, where he wrote a series of 104 short articles on dramatic theory and practice, the Hamburgische Dramaturgie; Hamburger Dramaturgy (1767-68).

Lessing promoted religious toleration in his life and work, and he did not shy away from controversy: in 1777 he published the work of H. S. Reimarus, a free-thinker. This led to a polemic with the Protestant pastor J. M. Goeze in 1778. Lessing was a friend of the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who helped to inspire the character of Nathan in Nathan der Weise. Although Lessing was a man of the Enlightenment, he was not an atheist and he enjoyed gambling (on this last point see F. J. Lamport’s essay ‘Direction, which thou canst not see’ in the reading list below).

The standard biography of Lessing is by H. B. Nisbet, available in English and in German (see reading list below).

Lessing’s four most important plays are:

Miß Sara Sampson (1755)

Minna von Barnhelm (1767)

Emilia Galotti (1772)

Nathan der Weise; Nathan the Wise (1779)

Please click on the above titles for further informaton.

Lessing also wrote a major work on aesthetics, Laokoön (1766). In Laokoön Lessing argues that poetry and painting have entirely different characteristics. According to Lessing, poetry is always based on a sequence through time: words come ‘nacheinander’, after each other; whereas painting and sculpture are essentially static arts, based on objects extended in space and/or placed next to each other (‘nebeneinander’). Lessing’s theory of visual art as a static art was accepted for well over a century until it was challenged in the early 20th century by the Italian Futurists and by the Swiss artist Paul Klee. However Lessing’s view that every artistic medium has its own unique characteristics is still highly influential, and informs much of the visual art of the 20th century.

Further Reading

Edward M. Batley, Catalyst of Enlightenment: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Bern: Peter Lang, 1990)

Matthew Bell, ‘Psychological Conceptions in Lessing’s Dramas’, Lessing Yearbook 28 (1997), 53-81

Barbara Fischer and Thomas C. Fox, A Companion to the Works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005)

H. B. Garland, Lessing: The Founder of Modern German Literature, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1962)

F. J. Lamport, Lessing and The Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981)

F. J. Lamport, ‘“Direction, which thou canst not see”: Chance, Providence and Faith in Lessing’, Oxford German Studies 12 (1981), 1-17

F. J. Lamport, German Classical Drama: Theatre, Humanity and Nation 1750-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Thomas Martinec, ‘The Boundaries of Mitleidsdramaturgie: Some Clarifications Concerning Lessing’s Concept of “Mitleid”’, Modern Language Review 101:3 (2006), 743-58

H. B. Nisbet, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life, Works, and Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) [the standard work in English]

H. B. Nisbet, ‘On the Rise of Toleration in Europe: Lessing and the German Contribution’, Modern Language Review 105:4 (2010), xxviii-xliv

Simon Richter, Laocoon’s Body and the Aesthetics of Pain: Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Moritz, Goethe (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992)

David Wellbery, Lessing’s “Laokoön”: Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

Further Reading in German

H. B. Nisbet, Lessing. Eine Biographie, trans. by Karl S. Guthke (Munich: Beck, 2008)

Web Link


The Lessing Yearbook