Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

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 Consequently, the exemption from censorship that his projects had been granted was revoked.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; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1793).

During Lessing’s lifetime, the play, which caused a sensation in the literary world, was known primarily in its published form. Nathan the Wise finally premiered in Berlin on April 14, 1783, two years after Lessing’s death. There were only three performances. The general public became familiar with the work largely through a number of popular parodies. The majority of these satirized Lessing’s positive presentation of a Jewish character. Nathan the Wise, which was banned from school curricula under Nationalist Socialist rule, became the first play produced in postwar Germany. Presumably, it was revived to demonstrate that a tradition of tolerance existed in German culture.

While the play’s advocacy of religious tolerance is universally acknowledged, judgment varies regarding its legacy. Most Jewish critics commend it for allying itself with the cause of emancipation. Others, particularly in the Zionist camp, have assailed the play, contending that it promotes assimilation, which in the long run is destructive to Jewish culture.

Critics also disagree on the nature of Lessing’s religious convictions as articulated in the play. The focus of debate is the parable of the rings, which lies at the center of the drama, structurally as well as thematically. The first recorded version of the parable of the rings is found in Spanish Hebrew literature about the time of the Crusades, which Lessing chose for the setting of his play. Lessing’s primary source, however,...

(This entire section contains 997 words.)

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is probably Giovanni Boccaccio’s version in hisDecameron (1348-1353). While Lessing clearly expands the tale, conflict arises over the meaning and import of this development.

Some critics discern in Lessing’s account of the parable a utopian religious message. They highlight its mythic qualities and point to Lessing’s closing image: a loving circle comprising Jew, Christian, and Muslim. According to this conception, the magic of the ring in the parable parallels the magic that appears to generate Nathan’s inexhaustible riches. It is the triumphant power of active, divine love operating through human beings, no matter what faith.

Other critics find in the parable intimations of a modern ambivalence toward faith. They emphasize its implied skepticism toward absolute truth. In this view, the message of the parable is that the power of the ring, apart from any inherent quality of the ring itself, is the power of human beings to believe. Of note is that the father in the tale, who ordered the ring’s duplication, is himself unable to discern the original ring—suggesting that it no longer exists. Moreover, these critics point out, judgment in the parable is left open.

Such contradictory inferences are likely the result of the play’s absorption in doubts regarding the limits of knowledge, which was endemic to the eighteenth century. Nathan the Wise may thereby be anticipating Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838). Belief cannot be knowledge, Lessing apparently argues, so tolerance regarding matters of faith becomes a necessity. Religious faith, his parable demonstrates, is best understood in terms of tradition, which shapes and is shaped by history. Positively understood, the interpretation and application of tradition, which transmits culture and values, is the property of any and all religions. Lessing would appear to illuminate a paradoxical vision that sees unity in diversity.

Lessing’s designation of the parable as the kernel from which his play developed suggests the transforming power he intended for Nathan the Wise. A parable, while conveying an accessible message, does so indirectly. The listener or reader is thereby challenged to interpret and act on its meaning. Even as the parable in Nathan the Wise denies authoritative proof for the primacy of any particular faith, audiences are called upon to authenticate, in acts of beauty and substance, their own traditions.