The play itself is an enigma, as Edward Dvoretzky entitled his study of the play's countless interpretations in 1963.
The beauty of the work is that the patterns followed are classical in style; but the result on stage is anything but traditional. Lessing's story has political and social commentaries about the hierarchical society at the time, but those features alone are not the defining attributes of the play and the text itself has confounded commentators since its debut 1772.
The great pull in this play is an absolute vagueness around the thoughts, feelings and desires of the characters. It seems that this play has a psychological depth unheard of at the time it was written. The idea that we can still question what does Emilia truly wants is testament to the subtleties of Lessing's text. There is so much under the surface of this play that it represents a true challenge to interpret and stage.
One known absolute is that Emilia Galotti is firmly about the middle-class and its relationship with the nobility. As one of the first bourgeois tragedies, the play is a scathing attack on unfettered autocracy in any form and even a barb on the aspirational middle class itself (Claudia Galotti); showing that the issues before us on stage are more complex than good versus evil.
However the play’s political and social commentary aside, the psychological depth provided by Lessing is remarkable for its time. His assessment of the treatment of women at this time is very acute, if completely atypical amongst his contemporaries. In interpretations as far apart as those from the Enlightenment, the sentimentalists, sturm und drang, Goethe and the later romanticists, no-one really knows what Gotthold Ephraim Lessing intended to communicate about his characters. With such depth in his concise text, the character motivations and drive are open for such wide-ranging interpretations.
Audiences are wholly free to believe what they will about such characters as Emilia, Claudia and The Countess Orsina. Each of the women face constructs which are imposed upon them. Their decisions are locked down, dictated by men, and their actions are constrained. Lessing offers up this 'lack of ownership of action' for a reason and shows the plight of each of the women as they face down their respective dilemma.
Ottisdotter's second staging of this remarkable play will bring new breath to these men and women and once more open this play up to interpretation.