The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Nathan the Wise

NATHAN THE WISE. Lessing's immediate occasion for writing ‘Nathan der Weise’ (“Nathan the Wise”) (1779) was the necessity of finding a form, to which the censor could take no exception, for final utterance of some sentiments on the subject of personal religion which he had very much at heart. During a controversy with the Pastor Goeze in Hamburg he had had abundant experience of the pharisaical intolerance of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day; and, on the other hand, his dear friend Moses Mendelssohn gave him an example of one of the gentlest, most enlightened of spirits in a member of a despised and persecuted sect. The idea of a dramatic poem on the subject of ‘Nathan’ goes back, however, some 25 years before this time.

The central motif Lessing adapted to his purposes from one of the stories of Boccaccio (‘Decameron,’ first day, third novel): Saladin, desiring to extort money from the Jew Melchizedek, invites him to declare which is the true religion. The Jew begs leave to tell a story: a father, possessed of a precious ring and having three sons equally dear to him, causes two rings to be made so nearly like the true one that he himself can hardly tell which is which, gives each son one ring, and nobody can decide who is heir of the original. So it is with the three principal religious faiths. Lessing's version attributes to the true ring the special virtue of making its wearer acceptable in the sight of God and man, provided he wears it confident of that effect. Proof, then, for each son that his ring is genuine will appear in the use that he makes of it. The moral is obvious: faith is the working out of salvation, not the possession of the truth. And from this follows a sufficient principle of conduct: act so as to deserve, and the right that you earn is right indeed, so far at least as any human being can judge.

As a dramatic poem this noble plea for humanitarianism certainly leaves much to be desired. The dialogue is too rationalistic and the versification too mechanical. These very defects, however, being in the direction of realism, secured for the German drama after Lessing the opportunity for a new development in verse, of which the artificial Alexandrines of the school of Gottsched contained no promise. And on the stage the great scene (III, vii) between Nathan and Saladin is as dramatic in effect as it is sublime in idea. Conflicting interests on the part of the other characters are also resolved in dramatic manner by a change of heart; but the discovery of blood relationship between some of the more inmportant, while it enhances the potential tragedy in the previous state of misunderstanding, takes from the dramatic impressiveness of the dénouement somewhat to add to the impressiveness of that doctrine of human brotherhood which the whole piece inculcates. Accordingly, ‘Nathan the Wise’ has been theatrically most successful in times when its doctrine was particularly at issue. But never has it lost its claim to respectful attention as one of the classic plays to be regularly presented as a matter of course.

Translated by Ellen Frothingham (New York 1892), and by E. K. Corbett (London 1883). Edited by G. O. Curme (New York 1898) and by J. G. Robertson (Cambridge, England, 1912). Consult Gustav Kettner, ‘Lessings Dramen’ (Berlin 1904).