Minna von Barnhelm

Minna von Barnhelm (first performed and published 1767)This comedy is set in an inn in Berlin in 1763, months after the end of the Seven Years War (1756-63) between Prussia and Austria and their allies. Major von Tellheim is a Prussian officer who is suspected of misappropriating funds. In fact he is only guilty of generosity. As Tellheim explains in Act 4, Scene 6, having been charged with raising draconian taxes in Saxony during the war, he advanced the money from his own pocket. In return he received a written promise from the Saxons to pay back the loan at the end of the war. But Tellheim is accused of bribing the Saxons. As a result he feels unable to marry Minna von Barnhelm, the Saxon woman he loves.

Act One begins with a comic scene between Tellheim’s loyal servant Just and the innkeeper who has moved Tellheim to a new room in order to accommodate a new guest, a young lady. Tellheim’s virtue and generosity is displayed in Scene 6: Marloff, his friend, has died leaving a widow and a son. The widow arrives and wants to pay back the debt that Marloff owed to Tellheim, but Tellheim refuses to acknowledge the debt. We also learn that when Just was ill in a field hospital, Tellheim paid for his care.

In Act Two, the innkeeper asks Minna to value Tellheim’s ring for him. Minna is joyful to discover that Tellheim is in the inn, but her maid Franziska urges caution. Franziska is proved correct, as Tellheim meets Minna and explains that he is now unworthy of her love.

In Act Three, Just tells Franziska how Tellheim’s other servants abandoned him, Tellheim’s friend Werner asks him to look after money for him, and Tellheim send a letter to Minna explaining why he cannot marry her.

In Act Four, Scene 2, the French soldier-for-hire Riccaut de la Marlinère appears and tells Minna that King Frederick the Great has decided favourably in Tellheim’s case. In Scene 6, Tellheim meets Minna and he still refuses to marry her.

In Act Five, Minna fools Tellheim into thinking that she has been disinherited. As a result Tellheim’s sense of honour now impels him to marry her, but this time she is the one who plays hard to get, in order to teach him a lesson. Minna’s uncle arrives and blesses the union; Franziska is to marry Werner.

Does Tellheim suffer from an excessive sense of honour? As H. B. Nisbet points out in his recent essay on the play (see below, Nisbet, p. 39), Tellheim’s situation is serious: he risks a fine; hard labour; or even imprisonment. The danger of a tragic outcome is very real. Tellheim chooses honour rather than love, to Minna’s chagrin, but it should also be remembered that it was Tellheim’s virtue which caused Minna to fall in love with him in the first place. The key scene is Act 4, Scene 6: Minna recognises that Tellheim is on the verge of despair, and tells him not to give in to hatred: ‘Oh, ersticken Sie dieses Lachen, Tellheim! […] Es ist das schreckliche Lachen des Menschenhasses!’ (‘O, smother that laugh, Tellheim! […] It is the terrible laughter of misanthropy!’). Tellheim’s great virtue is in danger of leading him to a tragic outcome, and Minna is right to urge moderation when she states: ‘Kann man denn auch nicht lachend sehr ernsthaft sein? Lieber Major, das Lachen erhält uns vernünftiger als der Verdruss’ (‘Is it not possible to laugh and be very serious at the same time? Dear Major, laughter keeps us more reasonable than frustration.’).


Here Minna echoes the terms of Lessing’s own theory of comedy, which, in the 28th section of his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-68) differentiates between lachen (laughter) and verlachen (ridicule). Lessing prefers the former: he wants laughter to be sympathetic and free of ridicule. In the 29th section, Lessing says that laughter can function as a preservative to prevent people from making future mistakes. Minna thus embodies a loving, moderate form of laughter; in doing so she helps to save Tellheim from misanthropy. Only two characters are treated satirically in the play: the spying, greedy innkeeper and the unscrupulous, arrogant Riccaut de la Marlinière.

Further Reading

Judith P. Aikin, ‘Who Learns a Lesson? The Function of Sex Role Reversal in Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm’, Women in German Yearbook 3 (1987), 47-62

Judith P. Aikin, ‘“Das klingt sehr tragisch!” Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm as Embodiment of the Genre Discussion’, Lessing Yearbook 20 (1988), 15-28

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Der gute Mensch von Barnhelm: The Female Essence and the Ensemble of Human Relations in Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 54 (1985), 1-36

Osman Durrani, ‘Love and Money in Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm’, Modern Language Review 84:3 (1989), 638-51

Matt Erlin, Berlin’s Forgotten Future: City, History and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), Chapter 4: ‘Aesthetic Experience and Urban Enlightenment in G. E. Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm’, pp. 97-131

Robin Harrison, Lessing, Minna von Barnhelm (London: Grant & Cutler, 1985)

Georg Lukács, Goethe and his Age, trans. Robert Anchor (London: Merlin Press, 1968), Chapter 1 on Minna von Barnhelm

Michael M. Metzger, Lessing and the Language of Comedy (The Hague: Mouton, 1966)

H. B. Nisbet, ‘Lessing, Minna von Barnhelm’, in Landmarks in German Comedy, ed. Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), pp. 37-53

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Minna von Barnhelm in German; click on a word for the English translation