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Nathan the Wise


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A: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Pf: 1783, Berlin Pb: 1779 Tr: 1868 G: Drama in 5 acts; German blank verse S: Nathan's house, a town square, the Sultan's palace, monastery, and Sittah's harem, Jerusalem, c.1190 C: 7m, 3f, extrasNathan, a rich and virtuous Jewish merchant, adopted a Christian orphan Recha, after his seven sons had been murdered by the Crusaders. Recha, unaware that she is adopted, is saved from a fire by the bravery of a young German Knight Templar, who has been captured by the Saracens. All attempts by the old Jew to reward the Templar by inviting him to his house are spurned, until a chance encounter moves the Templar to a more tolerant attitude. Meanwhile the Sultan Saladin, who had recaptured Jerusalem from the Christians, discusses his financial problems with his clever sister Sittah and decides to seek help from Nathan the Wise. Saladin asks Nathan which of the three religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, is the true faith. Nathan answers with a parable: a valuable ring had been passed down from father to son, until one day it was to be bequeathed by a father who loved his three sons equally. He therefore had two more identical rings made, so that no son could ever know which was the original. Saladin's caravan arrives, and he is able to repay his debt to Nathan. By a series of astonishing revelations it is revealed that Recha is the Templar's sister and that the Templar is the long-lost nephew of Saladin. The play ends in general rejoicing, with members of the three faiths embracing.

A: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Pf: 1783, Berlin Pb: 1779 Tr: 1868 G: Drama in 5 acts; German blank verse S: Nathan's house, a town square, the Sultan's palace, monastery, and Sittah's harem, Jerusalem, c.1190 C: 7m, 3f, extras

This ‘dramatic poem’ was the first play in German to be written in Shakespearian blank verse, establishing a precedent for the verse dramas of Goethe, Schiller, and Kleist. Predictably banned during the Nazi period, this plea for religious tolerance, though clearly a product of the century of Enlightenment, still carries a powerful message in a world where bigotry derived from religious extremism continues to cause so much suffering.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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