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This article is taken from PN Review 23, Volume 8 Number 3, January - February 1982.

Lessing on Ghosts Idris Parry

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing died just two hundred years ago, in 1781. He is generally regarded as one of the most important figures in German literature. Writers since his time, from Goethe to Thomas Mann, have talked with admiration and gratitude about the man and his work. The word that crops up again and again is 'character'. Plenty of people are just as learned and cultivated as Lessing, said Goethe to Eckermann in 1825, 'but where do we find such character?' What we know of his life and what we read of his writings tell us this was an honest man, a fearless man, prepared to defend without compromise opinions arrived at through unprejudiced thought, however unpopular these opinions might be. His prose is as clear as his thought and as bold as his character.

Lessing was born in 1729. He made a name for himself as dramatist and critic. He did not think much of his own creative abilities, but he wrote the first (and some say the only) great stage comedy in the German language. In criticism he is best known for his Laokoon, a pioneer work of aesthetics about the frontiers between the genres of art, and the Hamburgische Dramaturgie, from which I have chosen to translate an extract to illustrate both his manner and his preoccupations.

In 1767 Lessing was invited to join a new 'German National Theatre' at Hamburg as resident critic. The theatrical venture was a failure. All that remains ...

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