NATHAN THE WISE. Lessing's imme diate occasion for writing der Weise' ("Nathan the Wise) (17n) 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 ortho doxy of his day; and, on the other hand, his dear friend Moses Mendelssohn gave him an example of one of the gentlest, most enlight ened of spirits in a member of a despised and persecuted sect. The idea of a dramatic on the subject of 'Nathan' goes back, poem ever some 25 years before this time.
The central motif Leasing ae tpted to his purposes from one of the stories of Boccaccio ('Decameron,' first day, third novel): Saladin, desiring to extort money from the Jew Mel chizedek, 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. Les sing's version attributes to the true wing 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 de sired. The dialogue is too rationalistic and the versification too mechanical. These very de fects, however, being in the direction of .real ism, secured for the German drama after Les sing 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 in terests on the part of the other characters are also resolved in dramatic manner by a change of heart; but the discovery of blood relation ship between some of the more inportant, while it enhances the potential tragedy in the previ ous state of misunderstanding, takes from the dramatic impressiveness of the denouement somewhat to add to the impressiveness of that doctrine of human brotherhood which the whole piece inculcates. Accordingly, the Wise) has been theatrically most successful in times when its doctrine was particularly at issue. But never has it lost its claim to re spectful 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. Curiae (New York 1898) and by J. G. Robertson (Cambridge, England, 1912). Consult Gustav Kettner, 'Lessings Dramen) (Berlin 1904).
Wni.um G. HOWARD,