Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729-81), the great German critic and dramatist, was one of the sons of the pastor of Kamenz, Saxony. After five years at the school of St. Afra, at Meissen, he was sent to Leipzig to study theology, but he preferred to continue reading the classical writers, while at the same time he indulged his passion for the drama. At the end of the year 1748 he went to Berlin in order to enter upon a literary career. During his three years' stay he wrote some plays, did some translations, and contributed critical articles to the Vossisiche Zeitung. At the end of 1751 he went to Wittenberg, where he read voraciously and took his degree in arts. After a year spent there he returned to Berlin, and during the next three years laid the foundation of his reputation as a critic by his articles in the Vossische Zeitung. With his friend Moses Mendelssohn he also wrote an essay on Pope as a metaphysician. In 1755 his first important play, Miss Sara Samj)son, was also produced. Its success, when represented at Frankfort-on-the-Oder, induced the author to return to Leipzig. In 1756 he started for a foreign tour with a young merchant named Winkler, but was recalled by the outbreak of the Seven Years' War. After this, except for a nine months' visit to Italy with the Duke of Brunswick in 1775, Lessing was never out of Germany. In 1758 he again went to live at Berlin, and immediately began his important contributions to Nicolai's Bitteraturbriefe. He also published a collection of fables, with a valuable essay on the nature of this department of literature. From 1760 to 1765 he was at Breslau, acting as secretary to General Tauentzien, the governor. Here he began Laocbon and Minna von Barnhelm and investigated the early history of Christianity. The two masterpieces just mentioned were published at Berlin in 1766 and 1767 respectively. Lessing, having been refused by Frederick the Great the post of keeper of the Royal Library because Voltaire fancied he had committed some offence against him, left Berlin for Hamburg in 1767. Here he received an appointment in connection with the National theatre, which an attempt was made to establish. The chief works of the Hamburg period (1767-70) were the Hamburgische Bramaturgie, a criticism of the plays produced, containing a complete theory of dramatic art, a defence of Laocoon against Klotze, and a comparison of ancient and modern views of death (Wie die Alien den Tod Gebildet). From
1770 to the end of his life Lessing's residence was at Wolfenbiittel. As librarian to the Duke of Brunswick he had command of a fine library, of which he made ample use. In 1771 he published a work on epigrams, described by Herder as itself an epigram, and in the following year Emilia Galotti, a modern play on the lines of the legend of Virginia. Lessing's last years were devoted to the discussion of philosophical and theological matters. In several pamphlets he contended for universal tolerance in religious opinion, and maintained that Christianity rested not upon speculations and researches, but upon its power of adaptation to human wants. Orthodox opinion compelled the Duke of Brunswick to order Lessing to refrain from further controversy; but he made bold to continue it in another form in his last play, Nathan der Weise (1779). Lessing was the father of modern German literature. In style he surpassed every German save Goethe and Heine, and in his Laocoon, acknowledged to be one of the world's greatest treatises on art, the method is clear and natural.