What is the meaning of the ring parable in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's play Nathan the Wise?

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The Parable of the Ring in Nathan the Wise is an expression of the play's main theme—the necessity of religious toleration. After defeating the Crusaders, the mighty sultan Saladin summons a local Jewish merchant by the name of Nathan for a personal audience. Nathan is a little uneasy at hearing...

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The Parable of the Ring in Nathan the Wise is an expression of the play's main theme—the necessity of religious toleration. After defeating the Crusaders, the mighty sultan Saladin summons a local Jewish merchant by the name of Nathan for a personal audience. Nathan is a little uneasy at hearing the news. Since Saladin's victory relations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been rather tense. Nathan questions Saladin's motivations in sending for him.

When they meet, Saladin asks Nathan which is the best religion. Nathan is a Jew, Saladin a Muslim, and of course there's also Christianity. They can't all be true, says Saladin. Nathan isn't called wise for nothing; he senses that he's been led into a gigantic elephant trap. Any answer other than "Muslim" is likely to offend the great sultan.

Nathan cannot, then, give a direct answer to Saladin's question, so he gives him an indirect one instead by way of the Parable of the Ring. In the story, a father with three sons has a very precious ring. Whoever wears the ring is beloved of both God and man. Try as he might, the father simply can't decide which of his sons should receive this most precious gift. So he gets a master craftsman to make two copies of the original; that way, each son will have a ring of his own.

Instead of satisfying his three sons, the father's novel idea only causes discord between them. Each one believes himself to be the rightful heir; all the rings look identical and so there's no way to determine who has the original. The matter is brought before a judge to decide. He rules that none of the three sons has the ring, because they are not beloved of God and man; they are mired in hatred and strife, thinking only of themselves. Perhaps the original ring was lost, says the judge; perhaps the father had duplicates made. No one really knows.

But that's the whole point; and it's here that we see how the parable illustrates the theme of religious toleration. No one knows for sure if they own the original ring, but must always act as if they do, as if they possess something that makes them beloved in the eyes of God and man. Whatever religion we wish to follow, we must conduct our lives in such a manner that we fully merit the love of God and man. If we do so, then the distinctions between the various religious traditions will come to seem less important, and also less prone to lead to conflict and strife.

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In Lessing's play Nathan the Wise, Nathan is summoned by Muhammadan (Muslim) Saladin in order that Saladin might borrow money to continue fighting against the Crusader knights. Saladin wanted to unnerve Nathan and thereby put him at a disadvantage in the money lending negotiations, therefore he asked Nathan, who was also called "the Wise," to explain the paradox of there being three very different but self-attributed "true" religions. Saladin's paradox of course referred to Jewish, Christian, and Muhammadan (Islam) faiths.

To answer how three equally true yet different religions could exist, Nathan told the parable of the ring in which a father who loves all three sons equally gives each a copy of the authoritative family ring that bestows the right to rule upon the wearer. The moral of the parable was that in another time far removed from the time in the parable, the answer to the paradox would be fully revealed. The implication is that humankind's knowledge and capacity for knowledge are limited and imperfect, therefore one must do the best one can to rule justly and with compassion and love within one's own province. Nathan equated this parable with God's equal love for all people and God's expectation that all people live according to justice, mercy, compassion, kindness, and love.

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