Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend

4. Lessing and the French Classics
Emilia Galotti

It is impossible to understand Lessing’s “dramaturgie” [1] unless its social aspects are considered. It is no theory of the drama valid for all time. Applied by the hands of aesthetic dullards, this fine and elastic weapon has done much harm. How often has poor Lessing himself been attacked with it, sometimes out of intentional malice, sometimes – which was still more dangerous – out of well-meaning stupidity. He to whom nothing was more foreign than senseless chauvinism is supposed to have hoisted the banner of German against that of French art, to have critically destroyed the French drama in order to lead German drama “towards a better glory,” “in the steps of the Greeks and the British.”

Schiller’s meaning in the following epigram is quite sensible, although he expressed these ideas much more strongly than Lessing ever did:

The French must never become a model for us,
No live spirit speaks from their art.

To be sure, Lessing’s Dramaturgie was the greatest national manifestation Germany had seen since Hutten’s broadsides. But the national point of view is always determined by the social interests of the classes representing it, in Hatten’s case the German aristocracy, in Lessing’s the German middle class. It never occurred to Lessing to attack Molière and Destouches in the same strain as he attacked Corneille and Racine, or to throw Voltaire the writer of middle-class comedies overboard with Voltaire the author of court tragedies. Like all ideology, aesthetic and literary criticism is in the last analysis determined by the economic structure of society. Under fundamentally changed economic conditions, we have now arrived at aesthetic and literary views different from Lessing’s. His Dramaturgie is neither an infallible revelation nor a faulty stylistic exercise: it must be judged from the social aspect to which it belongs historically. Regarded from this point of view, it is most delightful to read this work, and everywhere one feels the manly and courageous spirit of Lessing, to whom dramatic art was not an idle game but, like all art, a lever of human culture.

The wretched conditions in Germany forced any “National Theatre” to live mainly on foreign plays. With a few mediocre or bad German plays no attractive program could possibly be created; with Lessing’s Sara and Minna at least not a varied one. Among foreign plays the French stood in the front rank, through Gottsched’s endeavors and through the great number of translations as well. In this state of affairs only Lessing’s Dramaturgie caused a certain change. In the main, it still had to settle accounts with French dramatic art. Thus Lessing wrote his famous condemnation of the French court tragedy, which would have been like poison to the middle class if transplanted to Germany. Lessing overlooked that Corneille and Racine must somehow have been rooted in the national soil in order to become the classical authors of a great nation; he overlooked that their tragedies were rich in theatrical effects and full of powerful tension for their contemporaries. He made fun of the “monsters” of women that Corneille liked to show, and yet Corneille’s contemporaries had seen these “monsters” in reality – the princesses of the Fronde. In an even more biased manner than against Corneille, Lessing proceeded against Voltaire as a writer of tragedies – often not without some malice, due to his experiences in Berlin. Lessing’s prejudice seems the greater for the very reason that in his tragedies Voltaire had begun a certain reaction against Corneille and Racine. Nevertheless essentially Lessing was right in fighting against French tragedy. Whatever roots it might have had in a certain historical soil, for all that as a model it was disastrous to middle class art in Germany. And Lessing speaks as an advocate of this art, not as a critic, enthroned above the clouds, above all times and all nations – none such has ever existed anyway.

It might seem, though, as if in the Dramaturgie itself Lessing had presented Aristotle as such an eternally infallible judge. But here again one must know how to make distinctions. Corneille founded the court tragedy on Aristotle’s rules; it was the last echo of the appalling treatment that had made the ancient Greek the canonical philosopher of the middle ages. Lessing swept away all this; he opposed to the wrongly understood Aristotle the correctly understood Aristotle. Indeed, he contrasted the Greek tragedy with the French, and never tired of repeating that rules do not create the genius, but genius makes the rules, and that any rule can at any time be brushed aside by a genius. In the triumphant progress of his victorious polemics, he remarks insolently that the aesthetics of Aristotle are as infallible as mathematical truths, and that he could improve any play of the great Corneille according to Aristotle’s rules. But he adds at once that for all that he would be no Corneille, and would not have created a masterpiece.

Already in the Letters on Literature Lessing had pointed out that according to Greek standards Shakespeare was a much greater tragic writer than Corneille, that he always achieved the aim of the tragedy, while Corneille never did so, even though he followed the path marked out by the ancient Greeks.

Thus Lessing understood that all aesthetics are historically conditioned, and if he did not grasp this fact theoretically, it is implicit in all his writings.

It is quite true to say that in Germany Lessing was the first to point out Shakespeare’s greatness; in the Dramaturgie especially he praises Shakespeare in many marvellous comparisons. But he always contrasts Shakespeare’s historical tragedies solely with the historical tragedies of the French, and it is quite incorrect to trace the German “Shakespearomania” to Lessing ...

Not the historical tragedy but the middle class drama is the ideal of this aesthetician. Diderot is his man, not Shakespeare. Nobody who has really read the Dramaturgie can doubt this, and Lessing prefers the French comedy to the English as decidedly as he prefers the English tragedy to the French. It is clear then how hopeless it is to regard aesthetics as a purely intellectual matter. Of course Lessing knew that from an aesthetic point of view it was ridiculous to mention Diderot and Shakespeare in one breath. He refuted such an equalization, at least indirectly; he did not think of giving Diderot the honor which he attributed so generously to Shakespeare.

But if aesthetics, too, belongs to the superstructure of the class struggle, the connection is quite clear. Shakespeare was no court author, but still much less a middle class writer. He occasionally paid homage to the court in Henry VIII, but whenever he lets the Lord Mayor of London appear, he invariably portrays him in a manner either ridiculous or contemptible. This is understandable considering that the Puritans hated the theatre bitterly while the court granted it a certain protection. The theatre found its real support in the aristocratic youth, which was vigorous and manly, and – all its limitations granted – still the leading class of a great nation in a period of powerful advance when new horizons were appearing. [2] In Shakespeare’s tragedies the surge of the sea is heard, while in Corneille’s the fountains of Versailles murmur. But how could Shakespeare be a model to Germany, whose aristocracy was as decadent physically as mentally? Lessing therefore unswervingly pointed to the English and French middle class plays as models for German tragedy and drama. The French comedy, however, was much superior to the English: the middle class opposition in England had long had its Parliament and its periodical press, while in France it still had to concentrate its whole intellectual vigor in the comedy. Because of Shakespeare’s hostile attitude to the middle class of his time, his comedies moved in a world of fairies and fairy tales, adventures and romanticism, with one exception: the Merry Wives of Windsor.

Though second-rate as comedy, historically this is a highly important satire. Shakespeare portrayed the aristocrat who has come down in the world and is ridiculed even by the women of the middle class. But what sort of model could this be to the German middle classes, the great majority of whose women did not as yet know a greater honor than to be ridiculed by decadent despots? [3]

Probably Shakespeare did not intend Merry Wives of Windsor to be a historical satire; it would be the only occasion on which he scorned the aristocracy to the greater glory of the middle classes! According to an old account, his only middle class comedy is supposed to have been written for a very harmless reason: to grant the wish of Queen Elizabeth to see the brave Sir John as a lover for once.

When in 1757 Lessing conceived the first plan for his middle class Virginia, Emilia Galotti, he did not imagine what a scathing satire on German conditions posterity would see in the catastrophe of his dramatic masterpiece.

Emilia implores her own father to kill her, as she cannot rely on her senses and her blood in the struggle against the amorous advances of the despot who had ordered her fiancé to be murdered just before their wedding ... Emilia does not love the prince. But the fact that she and her father know no way to escape the despot’s power other than the murder of the daughter has a ghastly effect on the spectator. It can cause neither fear nor pity. It cannot have any tragic effect, even if it can be traced to real history. Lessing himself has convincingly demonstrated this in Chapter 79 of the Dramaturgie.

From the point of view of tragic art the end of the play is indefensible, the reason being that it can be defended only too well from the point of view of history ...

In Livy’s famous story, the young Lessing saw first the most revolting and striking accompaniment of social oppression: the attack on virginal honor which was as topical in the eighteenth century as it had been two thousand years before, as it still is to-day and will be as long as social oppression exists.

Lessing revealed his dramatic instinct in recognizing the general historical import of this tragic problem as far more important than the single case which had been the cause of a political revolution. He wished to write a middle class Virginia, since “the fate of a daughter who is killed by her father, to whom her virtue is worth more than her life, is tragic enough and has sufficient power to impress the whole soul, even if no political revolution follows it.”

Compared with the original story, Lessing’s treatment of the subject is not shallower, as Dühring asserts, but deeper.

In eighteenth century Germany a middle-class author who wished to write a middle class Virginia with a really tragic ending would have faced an impossible task. A short time before Emilia Galotti was published, in Lessing’s Saxon state, an aristocratic family had solemnly celebrated the “wedding” of their daughter whom the ruling despot had chosen as one of his mistresses. On German soil neither an Emilia nor an Odoardo could be imagined; here one of the most tragic motives of world history challenged the pen of an Aristophanes rather than a Sophocles.

But Lessing would not have been the champion of the middle classes if he had been scornful of this shame rather than incensed by it. In order that his play might be psychologically true, he had to move the scene of action from the half boring, half libertine world of the philistines of his country to the country of the more passionate nation from which the Roman Virginia sprang. Still, if circumstances are otherwise equal, the social forms of life never depend on frontiers; in disunited Italy petty despotism ruled no less than in disunited Germany, though thanks to the ancient culture of the country, in finer and more polished forms.

But essentially petty despotism remained everywhere what it was and was bound to be. There was no punishment for its grotesque and ghastly crimes, and if it is doubtful whether Emilia Galotti is a real tragedy, nevertheless the play is rooted in the economic structure of the society in which Lessing’s figures lived. And the author could not go beyond those barriers ..

Outstanding contemporaries understood the social meaning of the tragedy at once. Herder called the author “a real man” and proposed to him to give the tragedy the motto : “Discite moniti. “ Goethe saw in it “the deciding step towards a morally inspired opposition against tyrannical autocracy,” and even in later years he praised it as an excellent work, a piece full of intelligence, of wisdom, of deep understanding of the world, the expression of an admirable culture “compared with which we are already barbarous again,” and one that would appear new in any epoch.


1. A book of dramatic criticism written by Lessing when he was dramatist to the German National Theatre in Hamburg.

2. The question – For whom did Shakespeare write? is excellently treated by Rümelin, Shakespeare-Studien, pp.34ff. Among bourgeois historians of literature Rümelin is by far the most advanced in recognizing that poets do not write in heaven and wander in the clouds, but that like other people they live and create in the class struggles of their times. – F.M.

3. It would require a separate treatise to show in detail how German bourgeois aesthetics since Lessing’s time has been continually built in the shape of bourgeois class interests. But we cannot refrain from introducing an illuminating example. Gustav Freytag, the classic man of bourgeois literature at the time when the German bourgeoisie was going from its idealistic to its mammonistic epoch, wrote in his Technik des Dramas, p.57:

“If a poet wanted to dishonor art so completely as to use the social perversion of real life, the tyranny of the rich, the tormented plight of the oppressed, the position of the poor who get from society almost nothing but suffering, in a polemic and propagandistic manner as the plot of a drama, he would probably arouse the vivid interest of his audience, but at the end of the play this interest would disappear in a tormented depression of spirits. The depiction of the spiritual processes of a common criminal belongs in the court room, care for the improvement of the poor and oppressed classes should be an important part of our practical interest in life, the muse of art is no merciful nun.”

In this passage Freytag takes the same position toward the working class as Gottsched took toward the bourgeoisie. One sees, too, in these sentences, Freytag in the process of casting off the shell of the idealistic period of the bourgeoisie for the shell of the mammonistic period. He is still honest enough to admit that the poor get from society almost nothing but suffering, but he is not ashamed of the unpretty act of seeing in the lives of the working class nothing but a subject for the attention of the overseers of the poor and the sick. That was a generation ago, and how things have changed since then! The mammonism of the bourgeoisie has completely defeated its idealism, and the most famous piece of literature of our day, the touching novel of economical Agnes, pictures the raptures of joy and delight which the poor get from present-day society, while the “revolutionary” poetasters of the bourgeoisie empty into “art” all sorts of “social perversions, “ brothels, bar-rooms and jails. – F.M.


Last updated on 9.2.2006