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Eine tragische Liebesgeschichte, die manche Leser so ergriff, dass sie es dem Werther gleichtaten und ihrem irdischen Dasein ein Ende setzten.

As Werther is a name for a person, what does dem stand for here?

  • Werther is rather not a name here, but denotes a literary figure or role like in "Er gibt heute wieder den Don Carlos". – tofro May 16 '16 at 11:08
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    @tofro: I disagree. There is no generic “Werther” role. And of course both “dem Werther” and “der Philipp” are correct in some varieties of German. (That you reject it as “just wrong” makes you appear to come from Northern Germany.) – chirlu May 16 '16 at 12:01
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    @tofro: Now you are speaking about the book, not the person. That doesn’t work with Philipp simply because there is no well-known book named “Philipp”. – chirlu May 16 '16 at 12:49
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    @chirlu: But Zappelphilipp, und den Zappelphilipp kann man wieder gelesen/verstanden haben o. es dem ZP gleichtun, aber m.E. kann man es auch Zappelphilip gleich tun. – user unknown May 16 '16 at 14:20
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    @user unknown: Exactly. The sentence from the question would be fine without the article, too: dass sie es Werther gleichtaten. – chirlu May 16 '16 at 14:26
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In some German dialects, articles are used in conjuction with person names also.

For example in Bavaria, constructions like

Das ist der Peter.
Ich gehe zum (= zu dem) Klaus.

are perfectly normal. In other parts of Germany these will be frowned upon.

The expression you are referring to is

es jemandem gleichtun = das gleiche tun, wie jemand anderes.

Werther's suicide led readers in Goethe's times into suicide. The readers wollten es ihm [(dem) Werther] gleichtun.

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