This is Lessing’s most famous Bürgerliches Trauerspiel; Bourgeois Tragedy. It is set in Italy but its relevance to the corruption of the German princes of Lessing’s day was clear. The play is based on the Roman story (from Livy) of Virginia. Virginia was the daughter of a plebeian, Virginius. The ruler of Rome’s ten-man governing council, Appius Claudius, had her imprisoned claiming that she was the daughter of a slave and so therefore a slave herself. Virginia’s father was allowed one final meeting with her, and killed her to save her from slavery. Soon afterwards the Roman patricians revolted against Claudius. As early as 21 January 1758 Lessing mentioned the idea of a ‘bourgeois Virginia’ in a letter to Friedrich Nicolai. But Lessing’s play moves the focus of the plot from the political sphere to the psychological one. This change of focus displaces the responsibility for heroine’s death away from the tyrant and onto Emilia and her father.
In Act One, the Prince drools over a painting of Emilia Galotti that he has ordered from the painter, Conti. He learns that she is about to marry Count Appiani and instructs his courtier Marinelli to prevent the wedding.
In Act Two, Emilia tells her mother Claudia that the Prince made advances to her in church. Claudia orders her not to tell Appiani or Odoardo about this, and Emilia obeys. Marinelli tries to persuade Appiani to go away on a journey, but Appiani does not fall for the ruse.
In Act Three, Marinelli’s men kill Appiani, abduct Emilia and take her to the Prince’s Lustschloss (pleasure villa). Claudia arrives and accuses Marinelli who denies everything.
In Act Four, Marinelli tells the Prince that Appiani’s death was an accident. Countess Orsina, the Prince’s lover arrives at the villa, only to receive the brush-off from Marinelli and the Prince. Orsina meets Odoardo and encourages him to take revenge, giving him a dagger.
In Act Five, Emilia fears becoming the Prince’s concubine and, terrified that she will give in to this temptation, she incites Odoardo to kill her.
Emilia’s character seems contradictory: she is submissive to Claudia in Act 2, Scene 6, but in Act 4, Scene 8 Claudia claims that ‘Sie ist die Furchtsamste und Entschlossenste unsers Geschlechts’ (‘She is the most fearsome and decisive member of our family’).
Actually her strict sense of morality is already evident in Act 2, Scene 6 when her mother tells her ‘Dem Himmel ist beten wollen auch beten’ (‘Heaven regards the desire to pray as prayer’). Emilia replies: ‘Und sündigen wollen auch sündigen’ (‘And it regards the desire to sin as sin’).
Faced by the choice between corruption and death, Emilia’s doom is sealed by the fact that she can see no other alternative. Her death indicts the absolutist system which has doomed her. But her moral fanaticism is terrible: it causes her to effectively commit assisted suicide, where others such Orsina would have chosen revenge or escape.
Edward Dvoretzky, The Enigma of “Emilia Galotti” (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963)
Richard T. Gray, Stations of the Divided Subject: Contestation and Ideological Legitimation in German Bourgeois Literature, 1770-1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), Chapter 2 on Emilia Galotti, pp. 45-101
F. J. Lamport, ‘The death of Emilia Galotti – a reconsideration’, German Life and Letters 44 (1990-91), 25-34
Grant P. McAllister, ‘The Dagger is the Pen: Violence and Writing in Lessing’s Emilia Galotti’, Seminar 44:4 (2008), 395-413
Irene Morris, ‘The Symbol of the Rose: A Baroque Echo in Emilia Galotti’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 64-65 (1996), 53-71
Brigitte Prutti, ‘Coup de Théâtre – Coup de Femme or: What is Lessing’s Emilia Galotti dying from?’, Lessing Yearbook 26 (1994), 1-28
Laurence A. Rickels, ‘Deception, Exchange and Revenge: Metaphors of Language in Emilia Galotti’, Lessing Yearbook 16 (1984), 37-54
Ritchie Robertson, ‘Virtue versus “Schwärmerei” in Lessing’s Emilia Galotti’, German Life and Letters 62:1 (2009), 39-52
Colin Walker, ‘“So tief liess mich die Gnade nicht sinken”: On the Absence of Divine Grace in Emilia Galotti’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 57 (1988), 75-94
Ingrid Walsøe-Engel, Fathers and Daughters: Patterns of Seduction in Tragedies by Gryphius, Lessing, Hebbel and Kroetz (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993), chapter on Emilia Galotti
Leonard P. Wessel, ‘The Function of Odoardo in Lessing’s Emilia Galotti’, Germanic Review 47 (1972), 243-58
Emilia Galotti in German; click on a word for the English translation