Relevance of Lessing's "Emilia Galotti" for Goethe's "Die Leiden des jungen Werther" and the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers

Essay, 2018

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Relevance for Die Leiden des jungen Werther

3. Relevance for the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers/artists

4. Conclusion

Module title: Storm and Stress

Topic: Assess the relevance of Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti for both Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther and for the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers/artists. Use quotes from both texts.

Summary: This essay is concerned with E.G. Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti and its relevance for 1. Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther where it is mentioned in the last scene of Werther’s suicide, and 2. the state of mind of Storm and Stress artists and writers which it highly influenced.

Essay: The relevance of Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti for Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther and for the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers/artists

1. Introduction

“He had drunk only one glass of the wine. Emilia Galotti lay open on his desk” (Goethe 2004: 203). When Werther commits suicide at the end of Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther, Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti lies next to him on his desk. The fact that it is opened, lets the reader assume that Werther had read the book, perhaps just moments before his suicide. It makes it seem of importance to Werther and it might have been relevant for his decision to commit suicide. But that is just one assumption which can be made. For the reader, it is interesting to know what Goethe wanted to tell us by including Lessing’s work in his novel. It does not seem much of a coincidence that Lessing’s work appears at the most important scene of the novel. This leads to the question this essay is concerned with. What is the relevance of Lessing’s play for Goethe’s novel? Did Lessing’s play influence Goethe or is he actually criticizing Lessing by including the play in his novel? And going even further: What is the relevance of the play for the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers/artists in general? There are several possible assumptions to those two questions so some of them will be presented and analysed in this essay although not all of them can be covered.

2. Relevance for Die Leiden des jungen Werther

Lessing’s Emilia Galotti was first published in 1772, two years before Goethe wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Whereas Emilia Galotti is known as Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther however is a Briefroman, written in times of the Storm and Stress era. Lessing normally counts as a writer of the Enlightenment but it can be argued if his play Emilia Galotti might belong to the German Storm and Stress era. In any case, they have something very important in common. Both stories share a tragic ending with the protagonist committing suicide. It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that Goethe has made use of Lessing’s play in such an important scene in his novel about Werther. Through the years there have been many assumptions to why Emilia Galotti is relevant for Die Leiden des jungen Werther which shows that the question can’t be answered that easily . Many critics for example assume that Goethe’s death of Werther acts like a rewriting of the death of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem who killed himself in 1772 because of unrequited love and also died with a copy of Emilia Galotti (Duncan 1982: 42/43), just like Werther who mainly committed suicide because Lotte did not answer his love and was about to get married to another man. Apparently, Goethe has mentioned that Jerusalem’s death had affected him (Duncan 1982: 42) so it might have been why he wanted to include the same detail in Werther’s ending which appeared when Jerusalem died. What is for sure is that Emilia Galotti is associated with Werther’s death (Deguire 2011: 89). As already mentioned, both works show parallels in the death of their protagonists (Ittner 1942: 419/420). At first sight, you might wonder why, because Emilia did not commit suicide directly. But if her father would not have saved her from doing it she certainly would have. “She seizes it [the dagger] with ardour and is about to stab herself when Odoardo wrests it from her” (Lessing 2012: 77). Her father saves her from the terrible burden of suicide. With Werther there is no doubt, as there are several letters which proof that it was suicide. Both protagonists feel guilty. “Emilia feels doubly guilty for having aroused the interest of the Prince and for having been attracted by him; because of this she considers herself to be indirectly the cause of Appiani’s death. Werther feels the guilt of his love for Lotte, of his wildly passionate kisses, and because of this guilty love considers himself to be the cause of her unhappy married life” (Ittner 1942: 426). There is definitely a connection between those two suicides. And it does not seem like a coincidence that Goethe used Lessing’s play as the last book Werther has probably read. Eyck and Arens also argue that the relevance of Emilia Galotti seems clear because there is an “emotional link between two of the most futile deaths of innocents in German literature” (Eyck 2004: 40). On the other hand, Werther dies by his own hand whereas Emilia dies by the hand of her father. Ittner furthermore argues that “our appreciation and understanding of the conclusion is immeasurably heightened by the reference of the play” and that it is important for the “complete understanding of Werther’s nature” (Ittner 1942: 426). The reader knows a lot about Werther’s feelings towards Lotte but the fact that he read Emilia Galotti in his last hours before his death, has to be of some importance to fully understand his character. “It shows Werther’s weakness, emphasizing his humanity. He turns to alcohol and reads Emilia Galotti” (Deguire 2011: 97). “Werther’s choice of Emilia Galotti demonstrates that he prefers to take his life over continuing its current status” (Deguire 2011: 98). The suicide in the play might have encouraged him and gave him the last motivation to do what he had planned. Die Leiden des jungen Werther could even be seen as a rewriting of Emilia Galotti. According to Eyck and Arens precisely “as reevaluation of the privileges and duties of Enlightenment leaders” (Eyck 2004: 41). So it might have been a hint that Goethe included the play in his novel. Also, Lessing might have been something like a role model to Goethe, as he was known before him. The play could have been of importance to Goethe which is why he wanted to include it. On the other hand, as a reader we can’t know if Werther really read it or which page was opened last. So maybe there is no “specific message” that Goethe wanted to give the reader (Deguire 2011: 89). We can’t be sure of that.

Deguire also suggests another idea why Goethe has chosen Emilia Galotti. Apparently, Goethe disagreed with Lessing’s ideas “concerning pain and beauty in death” (Deguire 2011: 95). That again contrasts with the idea of Goethe seeing Lessing as a role model. So according to Deguire, including Emilia Galotti “seemingly functions as the impetus for Werther’s act of suicide, though his resolve was made when he learned that Lotte had sent him her husband’s pistol (Goethe 2004: 195). This shows that it serves a different function in the novel. It serves as an additional message for Lotte as well as a more subtle medium for Goethe to criticize Lessing while publicly praising him” (Deguire 2011: 95). Saine even goes as far as to suggest that leaving Emilia Galotti open on his desk, was a message to Lotte to follow Werther into death by committing suicide as well because Emilia also forces her father to kill her to “protect her virtue from being threatened and defiled by embraces of what we could call the ‘wrong man’” (Saine 1980: 350).

3. Relevance for the mind of Storm and Stress writers/artists

As already mentioned Emilia Galotti is known as Bürgerliches Trauerspiel (Bourgeois tragedy). This kind of work includes people of the bourgeois society into the tragedy which before was not common as only the nobility played parts in tragedies (Schweissinger 2016: 23). Lessing’s work was something new, a revolutionary work which is exactly what Storm and Stress artists are looking for. “It is easily understandable that Emilia Galotti should be the one German work which perhaps more than any other was to exert the greatest influence on the Sturm und Drang dramatists” (Dvoretzky 1963: 43). Storm and Stress is defined by rebellion against accepted standards and Emilia Galotti expresses that in the tension it portrays between the bourgeoisie and the nobility. Whether Emilia Galotti belongs to the era of Enlightenment or Storm and Stress is still arguable, also because they kind of overlap. Storm and Stress is defined as “an exuberant outburst of youthful energy” (Hill 2003: 1). “A group of young men challenged the conventions of what seemed to them a staid and narrow-minded society” (Hill 2003: 2). Enlightenment on the other hand “concerned, most essentially, the education and moral development of the individual, first within society, second, as a representative of humankind, and third, in history” (Martinson 2005: 41). Lessing’s play includes characteristics of both of these definitions which make it difficult to define to which era it belongs. Lessing himself is known as one of the most important authors of the Enlightenment though but certainly, Emilia Galotti influenced Storm and Stress writers and artists even though it might rather belong to the period of Enlightenment. They were especially susceptible because of what defines the era of Storm and Stress: the individual in relation to society and the feeling to reason (Dvoretzky 1963: 43). “The reason for the popularity of Emilia Galotti (…) is, of course, due to the fact that it was more or less a wellspring for some of the main themes of Storm and Stress dramas”, like for example problems of marriage, the women caught between two men, freethinking in matters of love and marriage, abduction, bigamy, suicide and infanticide (Dvoretzky 1963: 43). All of these topics which are part of Emilia’s story, reoccur in other plays and novels of the Storm and Stress era. The suicide of Emilia for example might have influenced Goethe in writing about the suicide of Werther. In a bourgeois tragedy suicide is a way to escape society in situations where it seems like there is no other solution (Schweissinger 2016: 23). That is exactly what Werther’s intention is as well when he commits suicide. He wants to escape the situation with Lotte. Even though Goethe apparently criticised Lessing, he must have seen his work as somehow relevant enough to include it in his novel. And Goethe certainly was not the only writer who saw Emilia Galotti as relevant. It could be said that Emilia Galotti acts like a role model for many writings of the Storm and Stress era.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Relevance of Lessing's "Emilia Galotti" for Goethe's "Die Leiden des jungen Werther" and the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers
Cardiff University
German literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
relevance, lessing, emilia, galotti, goethe, leiden, werther, storm, stress
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Julia Straub (Author), 2018, Relevance of Lessing's "Emilia Galotti" for Goethe's "Die Leiden des jungen Werther" and the state of mind of Storm and Stress writers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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