Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, author of Nathan the Wise, was both a playwright and a German philosophe during the Enlightenment. Born in 1729 in Saxony, Lessing was the son of a clergyman and took a great interest in theology. His affinity for divinity led him to believe strongly in the importance of religious tolerance, and he focused his literary works on this cause. Nathan the Wise, the story of three men, one Muslim, one Catholic, and one Jew, embodies Lessing’s convictions most fully–it tells of a mutual acceptance and amicability between the three and aims to convince the audience that religious diversity can coexist so long as there is active understanding. Lessing also shared a close relationship with Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish philosopher, and based the character Nathan on Mendelssohn. Unfortunately, Lessing was never able to see his play come to fruition as it was banned from being performed by the Church. However, it was finally produced in Berlin in 1783, four years after it was written and two years after the death of its creator. During his life, Lessing served as a dramaturg at the Hamburg National Theatre, and he is widely considered the father of dramaturgy.  Lessing was also a leader in the new style of drama called “Ideendrama,” or the drama of ideas. This method placed the conflict or driving force of the piece within the core beliefs represented in the play, not in the superficial actions of the characters themselves. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing completely restructured the foundations of theatre in his day and was a great advocate for Enlightenment thinking. As reviewer Michael Billington for the UK Guardian says, “Lessing…turned the efforts of tragic poets into new tracks….[He] inaugurated an era of high drama.”

Copyright © 2013 by Marit E. Shuman.  Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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