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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

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Nathan the Wise is a German play from the eighteenth century. It’s written in blank verse, the same as many of Shakespeare’s plays. Nathan is a Jewish merchant who is returning to Jerusalem after being away on business. When he gets home, he realizes that his daughter, Recha, was rescued from a fire by a Templar from Germany. The Templar was a prisoner of the Saracens from the Third Crusade.

Nathan goes to thank the Templar, and a discussion of religion ensues. Initially, the Templar harbors some wariness of Nathan’s Judaism, but eventually, they come to be more accepting of each other’s religion. Then, Nathan is summoned by the Sultan Saladin on a business matter, and while there, Nathan tells a story about rings that allow the wearer to be loved by God and other people.

The moral of this story within a story ends up being that the rings themselves can’t be counted on to give this power, since you don’t know which rings are real and which are replicas. So, you just have to be a good person.

The overall play continues, and it turns out that Saladin is related to the Templar knight, cementing the idea that the religions are all connected and those within them can live together.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, has just returned to Jerusalem from Babylon when Daja, the deeply prejudiced Christian companion to Nathan’s adopted daughter, a woman orphaned during the Third Crusade, tells him of the dramatic rescue of his beloved Recha from their burning house. Nathan, in spite of having suffered severely at the hands of Christians and Saracens alike, wishes to reward the young man who had so courageously saved Recha’s life. The hero proves to be a young Templar who recently had been pardoned by the sultan.

Each day, at Recha’s urging, Daja attempts to thank and reward the young man as he makes a daily visit to Christ’s tomb, but each time he rudely repulses her. Recha, as the result of shock over her narrow escape as much as from gratitude to her benefactor, suffers hallucinations in which she believes that the young Templar is her guardian angel. Nathan thinks it miraculous that Sultan Saladin should spare a Christian knight’s life or that the Templar would desire to be so spared. The truth is that the Saracen’s leniency is based on the young man’s resemblance to his own dead brother, Assad.

Daja, told by Nathan to seek out the young man and invite him to their home, finds him in a bad mood after he rejects a friar’s request from King Philip that he spy on and murder Saladin. The young man vehemently refuses to consider performing such a deed. The knight again tells Daja that he had performed his rescue of Recha through happenstance and therefore would accept no reward. Nathan then meets with and begs the youth, a penniless stranger in a strange land, to accept aid and friendship. Boorish though the young knight is, he offers to let Nathan buy him a mantle to replace his own, which had burned in the fire. At this suggestion the Jew sheds a tear and dissolves the intolerant Templar’s disdain and suspicion. They shake hands, friends. Nathan learns that the young man is Conrad von Stauffen, a name somehow associated in the Jew’s mind with the name Filneck, but before he could inquire further the Jew receives a message demanding his presence at the sultan’s palace.

The young knight, in the meantime, calls on Recha. Something immediately draws them together, some mutual feeling not unlike romantic love. He hastens off, however, to avert any disaster that might befall Nathan at the hand of Saladin, who had summoned the Jew to obtain from him money to replenish the treasury so that the war against the crusaders might continue. To put the Jew somewhat at a disadvantage, Saladin asks enlightenment from Nathan, who is called the Wise (which Nathan denies he was), on the paradox of the several “true” religions.

Nathan then tells the story of a father who possesses a ring traditionally passed on to the favorite son, who would then be lord of the house. Since he loves his three sons equally well (as the Father in heaven loves all people, said Nathan), the father makes exact copies of the ring and gives one to each son. None knows which ring is the true ring, and after the father’s death a controversy arises. The problem of the “true” ring can be resolved no more than the argument over the “true” faith—Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. A judge suggests that each son act as if his were the true ring and live and rule as well as he can. Finally, generations hence, it is decided in a higher, greater court, with religions as with the ring, which ring is the true one.

When Nathan returns from the palace, young Conrad von Stauffen asks for Recha’s hand in marriage. Astounded, Nathan says that he cannot consent without due reflection. Daja, on an amorous mission, tells the Templar that Recha had been born Christian but was reared as a Jew, a crime punishable by death. The Templar assumes that Recha was stolen from her proper parents. Dismayed by Daja’s story, the knight guardedly asks counsel of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who says that in such a case the Jew must die at the stake for holding back salvation from an innocent child. Perplexed and unhappy, the young man confers with the sultan.

Saladin, amazed at such accusations, refuses to believe ill of Nathan and asks the Christian to exercise prudence and charity. As the young Templar leaves to save Nathan from the patriarch’s wrath, the sultan and his sister remark the resemblance the young man bore to their long-lost brother, believed dead.

In the meantime, a friar sent to spy on Nathan reveals that eighteen years ago he, the friar, then a squire, delivered Recha to the Jew for his master, Lord Wolf von Filneck, who was later killed in battle; the child’s mother, a von Stauffen, was already dead. Nathan confides that his own wife and seven sons had been killed by Christians only shortly before he adopted Recha as his own, an act that saved his sanity and restored his faith in God.

Saladin, who favors the marriage of the two young people, then learns from Nathan that Wolf von Filneck’s breviary, turned over to Nathan by the friar, contains a strange story. Crusader Filneck’s rightful name is Assad. The sultan’s brother, having married a Christian and accepted her faith, had left his son to his deceased wife’s brother, Conrad von Stauffen, after whom he was named. The boy’s sister he left indirectly to Nathan. The Jewish child and the Christian child both were Muslim; their uncle is a sultan, and their godfather is a wise man and a Jew.