As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s final dramatic work, completed only two years before his death, Nathan the Wise has invited speculation that it is a summing up of its author’s life and thought. Such scrutiny is intensified by Lessing’s reputation as possibly the German Enlightenment’s most outstanding figure. Confronting fundamental issues in philosophy, literature, and drama at a critical period in Western culture, Lessing’s writings have invariably provoked debate.
A theological controversy that embroiled Lessing in 1778 is considered the inspiration for Nathan the Wise. After failing in his dream of creating a national theater, Lessing accepted an invitation to head the highly regarded and amply stocked library in Wolfenbuttel. In this position, he undertook a series of publishing projects, which he was assured would escape the censor’s desk. Lessing’s subsequent publication of a posthumous apologia for the Deist position by Hermann Samuel Reimarus unleashed a series of attacks against him by the religious orthodoxy. Lessing was accused of championing Deism, which challenged religious dogma from the perspective of rationalism. Consequently, the exemption from censorship that his projects had been granted was revoked. Under these conditions, Lessing began reworking an old sketch whose situation, he wrote in a letter to his brother Karl, presented an analogy to his own, that of a man embattled by the forces of prejudice and fanaticism.
As Lessing predicted in another letter to Karl, theaters were reluctant to perform the resulting drama. Censorship was an impediment, but not the only one. The play’s length and the demands it made on audiences and on actors posed practical problems. Subtitling his work “a dramatic poem,” Lessing invented a form suited to his metaphysical purposes, which diminished the play’s theatricality. This form consisted of a succession of scenes that prompted the characters to reveal themselves through a dialectical exchange of ideas, rather than through actions.
Consistent with its elevated aim, the play is written in verse, specifically iambic pentameter, or blank verse. This metered, poetic style, along with the poem’s philosophic ambitions, marks Nathan the Wise as an innovation. Such qualities also distinguish it as a forerunner of classical idea dramas such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris (pr. 1779;...
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