Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nathan der Weise

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
First Published: 1779

On the train, as I was travelling around southern Germany this past week, I read Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), a play that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote in 1778. From what I've heard, it's famous here, whereas it has never crossed my path in English books or articles. It is a true Enlightenment work, as a strong spirit of tolerance animates the whole, and a true 18th-century work, as the dramatist attempts to depict the most refined and exalted sentiments. To the extent that these sentiments are pure, unmixed, and histrionic, they are not true to life nor have ever been, and what has borne the vicissitudes of time and taste much better is the tolerance, as the question of peaceful coexistence among religions is as perplexing today as ever.

The hero of the story is Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant who lives in Jerusalem in the time of Saladin. He returns from a long journey to find that his home was on fire, but a Knight Templar had rescued his daughter. So he endeavours to make the acquaintance of the knight, and wants to present him with any assistance in his power. At first the knight is scornful, but then he is conquered by the magnanimity of Nathan, and agrees to become friends. Curd von Stauffen, for that is the rescuer's name, is then strangely attracted by the daughter whom he saved, and wants to marry her. One obstacle is that the daughter, with her finer instincts, is aware that she is not in love with the Templar. Another is that the two are brother and sister; Nathan suspects this and therefore holds back the parties who are eager to see them married, among them his daughter's maid, who believes that her mistress has no hope of heaven if she does not become a Christian. This plot element is disturbing, as (evidently) who knows what might have happened, but I think that Lessing weaves it in as part of the theme of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

There are many lesser threads to the narrative, for instance Saladin's debts as well as the friendship of Nathan and a dervish turned Saladin's treasurer, but the warp and woof of the plot are the way that prejudices are formed and disproven once the characters communicate and interact with one another. Representatives of each religion, Christianity and Judaism and Islam, evince generosity and forgiveness and loyalty, and the sole villain of the tale is the Patriarch, who is a hidebound hypocrite. Also, I am not sure why – though one explanation is that people at that time, socially as well as singly, took a very conscious aesthetic pleasure in fine morality, as they might in a fine painting or an exquisite dessert – but the characters in 18th-century moral tales (e.g. Samuel Richardson's Pamela) indulge in a great deal of public and mutual praise, and Nathan der Weise is no exception.

In my view, the play is weakened by central contradictions. For instance, Nathan is intended to be quiet, modest, and simple, but Lessing wants to display his character; so in a sense Nathan is the opposite of quiet, modest, and simple, as he must bare his every thought and feeling in the overstrained idiom of the stage. Also, he is intended to be a real character, founded on Moses Mendelssohn, and still the world of characters in which he is placed is composed of the artificial (and irritating) stock characters of 18th-century fiction and drama. The plot itself is not so original or restrained, either, given, for instance, the long-lost family device. But this device fits, again, into the theme of brotherhood; also, I surmise that mysterious parentage busied the minds of Lessing's contemporaries for a good reason, as people slept around secretly a great deal in those days, so myriad illegitimate children lived without knowing their parents or siblings.

* * *

Apart from the Parable of the Ring (which I wish to write about on Sunday), two passages struck me pleasantly in the play:

Templar: "Let time in its course, / And not curiosity, make our acquaintance."*
"Laßt die Zeit allmählich, / Und nicht die Neugier, unsre Kundschaft machen." (Act II, Sc. vii)

Sittah: "Every detail, too much / Despised, avenges herself, Brother."
"Jede Kleinigkeit, zu sehr / Verschmäht, die rächt sich, Bruder." (Act III, Sc. iv)

Nathan der Weise, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Stuttgart: Reclam, 1970

Nathan the Wise (Text in middling English translation)
Nathan der Weise (Text in original German)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Brief biography, overview of works, links)

*Approximate translations mine.

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