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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. Shakespeare on the Continent

§ 16. German interest in Shakespeare aroused by Lessing

In the years when the French literary world was torn asunder by controversies as to what should be admired and imitated in Shakespeare, Germany was rapidly outdistancing France as the real leader of continental appreciation of Shakespeare. A critic had arisen here—a greater than Voltaire—who not merely made Shakespeare a power of the first magnitude in his own literature, but also discovered the formula which was to reconcile the unclassic art of Shakespeare with the classic and humanitarian strivings of the eighteenth century. This was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. We must, however, avoid the mistake of overestimating either Lessing’s services to the appreciation of Shakespeare in Germany, or his originality in judging the English poet. It is usual to scoff at the slender knowledge with which Voltaire presumed to pass judgment on Shakespeare; but, so far as Lessing’s printed work is concerned, he, also, gave no proof of any intimate familiarity with thepoet’s works. To begin with, there is no doubt that, until at least the year 1753, Lessing’s actual acquaintance with Shakespeare was limited to Borck’s translation of Julius Caesar; of critical judgments of Shakespeare he had read nothing more authoritative than Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, of which he had just translated and published in his journal, Beiträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters, the two letters on tragedy and comedy. From about the year 1753, however, Germany made rapid strides in her knowledge of Shakespeare; indeed, this was inevitable, considering how carefully Germans, in these years, followed the opinions of French writers and the French press. An article vigorously remonstrating against Gottsched’s standpoint appeared in Neue Erweiterungen der Erkenntnis und des Vergnügens in 1753, and was followed, three years later, by a prose translation of Richard III; while, in 1755, Lessing’s friend and later colleague, Nicolai, boldly put in a plea for the irregularity of the English stage in preference to the artificial regularity of the French stage. Lessing was willing enough to subscribe to these opinions and to echo them in his writings; his own interest in the English theatre at this time, however, was directed not to Shakespeare, but to the “tragedy of common life”; and, when, in the winter of 1756–7, he devoted himself seriously to the study of tragedy and its aesthetic basis, it was to Aristotle and to Sophocles he turned in the first instance. Lessing’s acquaintance with Shakespeare in the original seems to date from the year 1757, and fragments of dramas which have been preserved from that period bear testimony to the deep impression which Shakespeare had then made upon him. By 1759, Lessing had arrived at two conclusions of far-reaching significance with regard to the English poet. Neither was altogether new; but they were both expressed with a vigour and piquancy which at once riveted the attention of his contemporaries. One of these was that the drama of Shakespeare was akin to the German Volksdrama; and, on the ground of this affinity, Lessing hoped that Germany might be assisted to a national drama of her own by imitating Shakespeare. The other conclusion, which was similar to opinions that were being freely expressed by iconoclasts in France itself, was particularly attractive to the German literary world, weary as it was of the tyranny ofclassicism: it was to the effect that Shakespeare, in spite of his irregularities, was a greater and more Aristotelian poet—in other words, more akin to Sophocles—than the great Corneille. “After the Oedipus of Sophocles, no piece can have more power over our passions than Othello, King Lear, Hamlet.” These bold assertions, which form a landmark in the history of German Shakespeare appreciation, are to be found in number 17 of Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend, published on 16 February, 1759.

With this famous letter, Lessing’s significance as a pioneer of Shakespeare in Germany reaches its climax. After 1759, he occasionally turned to Shakespeare to demonstrate a point of dramatic theory, or to clinch an argument, or to discredit the French; in the Hamburgische Dramaturgie, which has disappointingly little to say about Shakespeare, he insisted on Shakespeare’s mastery as a delineator of character, on his kinship with the Greeks and on his essential observance of the Aristotelian canon; not for a moment would Lessing have admitted that Aristotle was a critic for all time because his theory of tragedy could be shown to be equally applicable to Sophocles and Shakespeare; rather, Shakespeare was a great poet because he could be proved to have obeyed the Greek lawgiver instinctively. In his later years, however, Lessing—as his own Nathan der Weise shows—was, at heart, more in sympathy with Voltaire’s conception of tragedy than with Shakespeare’s. Leadership in matters of Shakespearean criticism passed rapidly into other and younger hands.