Nathan the Wise: A Play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Nathan the Wise: A Play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

(Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245, published July 1, features entries on Athanasius Kircher and the Gotthold Ephraim Lessing plays Emilia Galotti and Nathan the Wise. This is the opening passage of the Nathan the Wise entry)

Nathan the Wise

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

German playwright, critic, essayist, and translator. The following entry provides criticism of Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise (1779; published as Nathan the Wise).

 

Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) is an enduring literary statement on religious conflict widely regarded as a central work of the German Enlightenment and part of a broader European cultural movement promoting individualism, rationality, and free intellectual exchange. Set in Jerusalem shortly after the Third Crusade (1190-92) and involving the interactions between a Jew, a member of the Christian military order of the Knights Templar, and the Muslim sultan Saladin, the work is a conciliatory plea for religious tolerance, emphasizing the commonalities of the three faiths and positing that good works and noble conduct are of greater consequence than the specifics of a given faith.

Lessing and Johann Kaspar Lavater as guests in the home of Moses Mendelssohn (Lessing's friend and inspiration for Nathan the Wise's titular character). Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim 1856. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lessing and Johann Kaspar Lavater as guests in the home of Moses Mendelssohn (Lessing’s friend and inspiration for Nathan the Wise’s titular character). Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim 1856. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lessing composed the play after facing censorship for his controversial religious writings, electing to convey his theological beliefs in dramatic form rather than as polemic. The text is in unrhymed iambic pentameter and was referred to by Lessing as a “dramatic poem,” a designation that has led to much debate about the work’s proper generic classification. Although many critics have faulted the play’s didactic and undramatic nature in contrast both to Lessing’s other plays and to theatrical conventions of his time, Nathan the Wise was nonetheless popular, eventually becoming a beloved mainstay of the German stage. It is frequently revived and attracts scholarly attention both as a major literary work and as a significant contribution to eighteenth-century theological debates.

 

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(read the full 112-page Nathan the Wise entry in Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Volume 245. The academic advisor for this entry is James Hardin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina)

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