Nathan the Wise

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Nathan the Wise is a play by the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Written by Lessing in 1779 and set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, it is presented in five acts. Following are the opening lines from each of the five acts.

The play begins in the house of the titular character, Nathan, and it is Nathan's daughter's companion, Daya, who delivers the first line:

’Tis he, ’tis Nathan! Thanks to the Almighty,
That you’re at last returned.

Act 2 of the play opens in the sultan's palace and finds the Sultan Saladin and his sister Sittah together in Sittah's chambers. She inquires about her brother's disposition:

Wherefore so absent, brother? How you play!

Act 3 returns to the first setting, Nathan's house. Nathan's adopted Christian daughter, Recha, speaks to Daya:

What, Daya, did my father really say
I might expect him, every instant, here?
That meant—now did it not? he would come soon.
And yet how many instants have rolled by!—
But who would think of those that are elapsed?—
To the next moment only I’m alive.—
At last the very one will come that brings him.

At the start of act 4, the friar delivers a short monologue in the convent.

Aye—aye—he’s very right—the patriarch is—
In fact of all that he has sent me after
Not much turns out his way—Why put on me
Such business and no other? I don’t care
To coax and wheedle, and to run my nose
Into all sorts of things, and have a hand
In all that’s going forward. I did not
Renounce the world, for my own part, in order
To be entangled with ’t for other people.

The play's final act, act 5, opens in a room of the sultan's palace. As he enters, the Sultan Saladin announces,

Here lies the money still, and no one finds
The dervis yet—he’s probably got somewhere
Over a chess-board. Play would often make
The man forget himself, and why not, me.
Patience—Ha! what’s the matter.

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