Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781). Minna von Barnhelm. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING was born at Kamenz, Germany, January 22, 1729, the son of a Lutheran minister. He was educated at Meissen and Leipzic, and began writing for the stage before he was twenty. In 1748 he went to Berlin, where he met Voltaire and for a time was powerfully influenced by him. The most important product of this period was his tragedy of Miss Sara Samson, a modern version of the story of Medea, which began the vogue of the sentimental middle-class play in Germany. After a second sojourn in Leipzic (17551758), during which he wrote criticism, lyrics, and fables, Lessing returned to Berlin and began to publish his Literary Letters, making himself by the vigor and candor of his criticism a real force in contemporary literature. From Berlin he went to Breslau, where he made the first sketches of two of his greatest works, Laocoön and Minna von Barnhelm, both of which were issued after his return to the Prussian capital. Failing in his effort to be appointed Director of the Royal Library by Frederick the Great, Lessing went to Hamburg in 1767 as critic of a new national theatre, and in connection with this enterprise he issued twice a week the Hamburgische Dramaturgie, the two volumes of which are a rich mine of dramatic criticism and theory.
His next residence was at Wolfenb¨ttel, where he had charge of the ducal library from 1770 till his death in 1781. Here he wrote his tragedy of Emilia Galotti, founded on the story of Virginia, and engaged for a time in violent religious controversies, one important outcome of which was his Education of the Human Race, to be found in another volume of the Harvard Classics. On being ordered by the Brunswick authorities to give up controversial writing, he found expression for his views in his play Nathan the Wise, his last great production.
The importance of Lessings masterpiece in comedy, Minna von Barnhelm, it is difficult to exaggerate. It was the beginning of German national drama; and by the patriotic interest of its historical background, by its sympathetic treatment of the German soldier and the German woman, and by its happy blending of the amusing and the pathetic, it won a place in the national heart from which no succeeding comedy has been able to dislodge it.