Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Persons in the Drama

Saladin, the Sultan
Sittah, his sister
Nathan, a rich Jew
Hafi, a Dervish
Recha, Nathan's adopted daughter
Daya, a Christian woman, companion to Recha
Conrade, a young Templar
Athanasios, Patriarch of Palestine
Bonafides, a friar

Act I

Scene I.Jerusalem. A hall in Nathan's house. Nathan, in travelling dress. Daya meeting him.

Daya: 'Tis he, 'tis Nathan, thanks to God, returned,
At last!

Nathan: Yes, Daya, thanks; but why "at last"?
'Tis far to Babylon, and gathering in
One's debts makes tardy journeying.

Daya: Oh, Nathan! How near you came to misery; when afar,
The house took fire, and Recha, 'mid the flames,
Had all but perished.

Nathan:          Recha, O my Recha!

Daya: Your Recha, yours? My conscience bids me speak——

Nathan: See what a charming silk I bought for you
In Babylon, and these Damascus jewels.

Daya: I shall be silent.

Nathan:            Say, does Recha know
I am arrived?

Daya: This morn of you she dreamed;
Her thoughts have only been with you and him
Who saved her from the fire.

Nathan:                Ah, who is he?

Daya: A young knight Templar lately captive ta'en,
But pardoned by the sultan. He it was
Who burst through flame and smoke; and she believes
Him but a transient inmate of the earth—
A guardian angel! Stay, your daughter comes!

[Enter Recha.

Recha: My very father's self! Oh, how I feared
Perils of flood for thee, until the fire
Came nigh me. Now, I think it must be balm
To die by water! But you are not drowned:
I am not burned! We'll praise the God Who bade
My angel visibly on his white wing
Athwart the roaring flame——

Nathan (aside): White wing? Oh, ay.
The broad white fluttering mantle of the Templar.

Recha: Yes, visibly he bore me through the fire
O'ershadowed by his pinions—face to face
I've seen an angel, father, my own angel!

Nathan: A man had seemed an angel in such case!

Recha: He was no real knight; no captive Templar
Appears alive in wide Jerusalem.

Daya: Yet Saladin granted this youth his life,
For his great likeness to a dear dead brother.

Nathan: Why need you, then, call angels into play?

Daya: But then he wanted nothing, nothing sought;
Was in himself sufficient, like an angel.

Recha: And when at last he vanished——

Nathan: Vanished! Have you not sought him?
What if he—
That is, a Frank, unused to this fierce sun—
Now languish on a sick-bed, friendless, poor?

Recha: Alas, my father!

Nathan:              What if he, unfriended,
Lies ill and unrelieved; the hapless prey
Of agony and death; consoled alone
In death by the remembrance of this deed.

Daya: You kill her!

Nathan:          You kill him.

Recha:               Not dead, not dead!

Nathan: Dead, surely not, for God rewards the good
 E'en here below. But ah, remember well
That rapt devotion is an easier thing
Than one good action. Ha! What Mussulman
Numbers my camels yonder? Why, for sure,
It's my old chess companion, my old Dervish,
Al Hafi!

Daya:      Treasurer now to Saladin.

[Enter Hafi.

Ay, lift thine eyes and wonder!

Nathan:                  Is it you?
A Dervish so magnificent?

Hafi:                Why not?
Is Dervish, then, so hopeless? Rather ask
What had been made of me. I'm treasurer
To Saladin, whose coffers ever ebb
Ere sunset; such his bounty to the poor!
It brings me little, truly; but to thee
'Twas great advantage, for when money's low
Thou couldst unlock thy sluices; ay, and charge
Interest o'er interest!

Nathan:        Till my capital
Becomes all interest?

Hafi:          Nay, but that's unworthy,
My friend; write finis to our book of friendship
If that's thy view. I count on thee for aid
To quit me of my office worthily.
Grant me but open chest with thee. What, no?

Nathan: To Hafi, yes; but to the treasurer
Of Saladin, Al Hafi, nay!

Hafi:              These twain
Shall soon be parted: by the Ganges strand
I'll with my Dervish teachers wander barefoot,
Or play at chess with them once more!

Nathan:                 Al Hafi,
Go to your desert quickly. Among men
I fear you'll soon unlearn to be a man.      [Goes out.
What? Gone? I could have wished to question him
 About our Templar. Doubtless he will know him.

Daya (bursting in): Nathan, the Templar's yonder, 'neath the palms.
Recha hath spied him, and she conjures you
To follow him most punctually. Haste!

Nathan: Take him my invitation.

Daya:                  All in vain.
He will not visit Jews.

Nathan:          Then hold him there
Till I rejoin you. I shall not be long.

Scene II.A place of palms. Enter the Templar, followed by a Friar.

Templar: This fellow does not follow me for pastime.

Friar: I'm from the Patriarch: he is fain to learn
Why you alone were spared by Saladin.

Templar: My neck was ready for the blow, when he
Had me unbound. How all this hangs together
Thy Patriarch may unravel.

Friar:              He concludes
That you are spared to do some mighty deed.

Templar: To save a Jewish maid?

Friar:                  A weightier office!
He'd have you learn the strengths and weaknesses
Of Saladin's new bulwark!

Templar:            Play the spy!
Not for me, brother!

Friar:          Nay, but there is more.
It were not hard to seize the Sultan's person,
And make an end of all!

Templar:            And make of me
A graceless scoundrel! Brother, go away;
Stir not my anger!

Friar:          I obey, and go.

[Exit. Enter Daya.

Daya: Nathan the Wise would see you; he is fain
 To load you with rewards. Do see him—try him!

Templar: Good woman, you torment me. From this day
Pray know me not; and do not send the father!
A Jew's a Jew, and I am rude and bearish.
I have forgot the maiden; do not make
These palm-trees odious where I love to walk!

Daya: Then farewell, bear. But I must track the savage.


Act II

Scene I.The palace. Saladin and his sister Sittah, playing chess.

Sittah: Check!

Saladin: And checkmate!

Sittah: Nay, nay; advance your knight.

Saladin: The game is yours. Al Hafi pays the stake.

[Enter Hafi, who examines the board.

Hafi: The game's not over yet; why, Saladin,
Your queen can move——

Sittah: Hush, hush! There, go, Al Hafi!
I'll send to fetch my money.

Hafi:              She hath never
Claimed aught of what you lose; it lies with me.
While we wait the treasure out of Egypt,
Your sister hath maintained the state alone.

Saladin: Was there none else could lend me, save my sister?

Hafi: I know none such.

Sittah:            What of thy friend, the Jew?
The town is ringing with the news of gems
And costly stuffs he hath brought home with him.

Hafi: He would not lend to Saladin. Ah, Prince,
He's envious of your generosity.
That is the Jew! I'll knock at other doors.


Scene II.The place of palms. Daya and Recha with Nathan.

Daya: He's still beneath the palms.

Recha:                Just one peep more.

Nathan: Don't let him see you with me. Best go in.

[Exeunt Daya and Recha. Enter the Templar.

Forgive me, noble Frank.

Templar:            Well, Jew; your will?

Nathan: I'm Nathan, father to the maid you saved.
In what can I be useful? I am rich. Command me.

Templar: Nay, your wealth is naught to me.
Yet, this, a coin or cloth for a new mantle,
When this is done. Don't quake; it's strong and good
To last awhile; but here it's singed with flame.

Nathan: This brand. Oh, I could kiss it! Would you send
This mantle to my daughter that her lips
May cling to this dear speck?

Templar:              Remember, Jew,
My vows, my Order, and my Christian faith!

Nathan: All lands produce good men. Are we our nation's?
Were Jews and Christians such ere they were men?
And I have found in thee one more who stands
A man confest.

Templar:       Nathan, thy hand; I blush
To have mistaken thee. We will be friends.
Hark you, the maid, your daughter, whom I saved,
Makes me forget that I am partly monk.
How say you; may I hope?

Nathan:            Your suit, young man,
Must be considered calmly. Give me time
To know your lineage and your character.
A parent must be careful of his child.

[Enter Daya.

Daya: The sultan sends for thee in haste.

Nathan:                  I'll go.
 Knight, take it not amiss.

Templar:          I'll quit you first.
Farewell! [Exit.

Nathan: 'Tis not alone my Leonard's walk,
But even his stature and his very voice.
Filnek and Stauffen—I will soon know more.

Scene III.A room in Nathan's house. Recha and Daya. A slave shows in the Templar.

Recha: 'Tis he, my saviour! Ah!

Templar:              Thou best of beings,
How is my soul 'twixt eye and ear divided.

Recha: Well, knight, why thus refuse to look at me?

Templar: Because I wish to hear you.

Recha:                  Nay, because
You would not have me notice that you smile
At my simplicity.

Templar:      Ah, no; ah, no.
How truly said thy father, "Do but know her."
Yet now I must attend him. There is danger.

Scene IV.Saladin's audience chamber. Saladin and Nathan.

Saladin: Draw nearer, Jew. Your name is Nathan?

Nathan: Yea.

Saladin:      Nathan the Wise?

Nathan:              Ah, no.

Saladin:                 Of modesty
Enough, your words and bearing prove you wise.
Now, since you are so wise, tell me which law
Appears to you the better.

Nathan: Once on a time, eastward, there dwelt a man
Who prized a ring, set with a wondrous opal
That made the owner loved of God and man.
This ring he willed should ever more remain
The heirloom of his house; and to the son
 He loved the best bequeathed it, binding him
To leave it also to his best beloved,
And forward so. At length the ring descended
To one who had three sons he loved alike.
To each in turn the doting father promisèd
The ring, and on his death-bed, sorely grieving
To disappoint two heirs, he had two rings
Made like the first, so close that none could tell
The model from the copies. These he gave
To his three sons in secret, and so passed.
The sequel may be guessed, the strifes, complaints—
For the true ring no more could be distinguished
Than now can—the true faith. Each to the judge
Swore that he had the bauble from his father,
And called his brother forger. Quoth the judge:
"Which of you do his brothers love the best?
You're silent all. You're all deceived deceivers!
None of your rings is true, the true is gone.
Your father sought to end its tyranny.
Let each believe his own the real ring
And vie with others to display its virtue.
And if its power a thousand thousand years
Endure in your descendants, let them then
Before a wiser judge than I appear,
And he'll decide the cause."

Saladin:            Even God Himself!

Nathan: Art thou, O Saladin, this wiser judge?

Saladin: Not yet have sped the thousand thousand years.
His judgment seat's not mine. Go, go, but love me.

Nathan: Hath Saladin no further need of me?
Perchance my stores might furnish forth thy wars.

Saladin: Is this Al Hafi's hint? I'll not disown
My object was to ask——

Nathan:            Thou shouldst have all
But that I owe a weighty debt to one—
The Templar thou didst spare.

Saladin: I had forgot him.

Nathan: He saved my daughter from the flames.

Saladin: Ah, so? He looked a hero. Bring him hither;
Sittah must see our brother's counterfeit.

Nathan: I'll fetch him. For the rest, we are agreed.

Scene V.The Place of Palms. Daya and the Templar.

Daya: Knight, swear to me that you will make her yours;
Make both her present and eternal welfare.
Listen. She is a Christian, and no child
Of Nathan's.

Templar: Are you sure of what you say?

Daya: It cost me tears of blood. She does not know
She is a Christian born.

Templar:            And Nathan reared
Her in this error, and persists in it?
Oh, it confounds me—go; and let me think.



Scene I.The cloisters of a convent. Athanasios the Patriarch, and the Templar.

Athanasios: Heaven keep you in your valour, good Sir Knight!
You seek my counsel? It is yours; say on.

Templar: Suppose, my reverend father, that a Jew
Brought up a Christian child, in ignorance
Of her own faith and lineage, as his daughter,
What then?

Athanasios: Is this mere supposition, sir?
If in our diocese such impious act
 Were done in truth, the Jew should die by fire.
You will not name the man? I'll to the sultan,
Who will support us.

Templar:          I'll to Saladin,
And will announce your visit.

Athanasios:            Was it then
A problem merely? Nay, this is a job
For Brother Bonafides. Here, my son!

[Exit Athanasios, talking with the friar.

Scene II.A room at the palace of Saladin. Slaves bring in money-bags to Saladin and Sittah.

Saladin (to Sittah): Here, pay yourself with that.
And look, I found
This portrait 'midst the heap of plate and jewels.
It is our brother Assad. I'll compare
The likeness with our Templar. Ah, who's there?
The Templar? Bid him enter.

[Enter the Templar.

Templar: Saladin,
Thy captive, sire, who's life is at thy service!

Saladin: Ah, brave young man, I'm not deceived in thee.
Thou art indeed, in soul and body, Assad!
Came Nathan with thee?

Templar:            Who?

Saladin:                  Who? Nathan

Templar (coldly): No.

Saladin:              Why so cold?

Templar:            I've nothing against Nathan,
But I am angry with myself alone
For dreaming that a Jew could be no Jew.
He was so cautious of my suit that I,
In swift resentment, though unwitting, gave
Him over to the Patriarch's bloody rage.
Sultan, the maiden is no child of his;
 She is a Christian whom the Jew hath reared
In ignorance of her faith. The Patriarch
Foredooms him to the stake.

Saladin:              Go to, go to.
The case is scarcely hopeless. Summon Nathan,
And I shall reconcile you. If indeed
You're earnest for the maid, she shall be thine.

Scene III.The hall in Nathan's house. Nathan and the friar, Bonafides.

Bonafides: The Patriarch hath ever work for me,
And some I like not. Listen. He hath heard
That hereabouts there dwells a certain Jew
Who hath brought up a Christian as his child.

Nathan: How?

Bonafides: Hear me out. I fear me that I gave
Occasion for this sin, when I, a squire,
Brought you, full eighteen years ago, the babe,
The orphan babe of Leonard, Lord of Filnek.
He fell at Askalon.

Nathan:          Ay so; and I,
Bereft by Christians of my wife and sons,
Received the infant as a gift from Heaven,
And made it mine. And now, belike, I suffer
For this my charity. But tell me now,
Was not the mother sister to a Templar,
Conrade of Stauffen?

Bonafides:          Let me fetch a book,
In Arabic, I had from my dead lord.
'Tis said to tell the lineage of the babe.

Nathan: Go, fetch it quickly.


Scene IV.A place of palms. Nathan and the Templar.

Nathan: Who hath betrayed me to the Patriarch?

Templar: Alas! 'twas I. You took my suit so coldly
 That when from Daya I had learned your secret,
I fancied you had little mind to give
A Christian what from Christians you had taken.
I thought to use my knowledge as a lever,
And so, not having you, I put the matter
In problem-wise before the Patriarch.
Suppose he find you out. What then? He cannot
Seize Recha, if she be no longer yours.
Ah! give her then, to me, and let him come.

Nathan: Too late! You are too late, for I have found
Her kinsfolk. Hark you, Recha has a brother.

Templar: Well, he's the man to fit her with a husband.
Of thee and me she'll have no longer need.

Scene V.Saladin's palace. Saladin and his sister, Sittah, are talking with Recha.

Sittah: Ah! I guessed it.

Recha:              Guessed it? What? that I
Am Christian and not Nathan's daughter?

[She swoons.

Saladin:                    What!
Whose cruelty hath sown this sharp suspicion
In thy fond heart? Ah! if there be two fathers
At strife for thee, quit both, and take a third.
Take Saladin for father! I'll be kind.

Sittah: Brother, you make her blush.

Saladin: In a good hour. Blushing becomes the fair.
But see, our Nathan's coming, with another.
Canst guess, sweet girl? Ay, when he comes, blush crimson.

[Enter Nathan and the Templar.

Come, stickle not for niceties with him.
Make him thy offer, doing for him more,
Far more, than he for thee, for what was that
But make himself a little sooty. Come!

[Seeks to lead her to the Templar.

Nathan (solemnly): Hold, Saladin; hold, Sittah! There's another
Whom I must speak with first—the maiden's brother.

Templar (bitterly): He has imposed a father on her, now
He'll shark her up a brother! Where's the man?

Nathan:                    Patience sir.

Saladin: Christian, such words as yours had never passed
My Assad's lips.

Nathan:       Forgive him, Saladin.
Oh! Christian, you have hid from me your name.
Conrade of Stauffen is no name of yours,
But Guy of Filnek—mark. I tax you not
With falsehood; for your mother was a Stauffen.
Her brother's name was Conrade. He perchance
Adopted you?

Templar: Even so the matter stands.

Nathan: Your father was my friend. He called himself
Leonard of Filnek, but no German he.
He had espoused a German.

Templar:              Ah! no more,
I beg, but tell me who is Recha's brother.

Nathan: Thou art the man!

Templar:           What, I? I Recha's brother?

Recha: My brother—he?

Sittah:              So near akin—

Recha (offering to embrace him): My brother!

Templar: (withdrawing): Brother to her!

Recha (to Nathan): It cannot be. His heart
Knows nothing of it.

Saladin:          What! not acknowledge
A sister such as she? Go!

Templar:            Saladin!
Mistake not my amazement. Thy Assad
At such a moment, had done likewise.
 Oh, Nathan, you have taken, you have given—
Yes, infinitely more—my sister—sister!

[Embraces Recha.

Nathan: Blanda of Filnek! Guy! My children both!

Sittah: Oh! I am deeply moved.

Saladin:                And I half tremble
At thought of the emotion still to be.
Nathan, you say her father was no German.
What was he, then?

Nathan:          He never told me that.
But ah! he loved the Persian speech and owned
He was no Frank.

Saladin: The Persian! Need I more? Twas my Assad!

Nathan: Look in this book!

Saladin:              Ay! 'tis his hand, even his.
Oh, Sittah, Sittah, they're my brother's children.

[He rushes to embrace them. Sittah also embraces the pair.

Now, now, proud boy, thou canst not choose but love me.
(To Recha) And I to thee am all I sought to be,
With or without thy leave.

Templar: I of thy blood? Then all the tales I heard
In infancy were more than idle dreams.

[Falls at Saladin's feet.

Saladin (raising him): There's malice for you!
      Knew it all the time,
And yet he would have let me murder him.
Boy, boy! [They embrace in silence.

 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, one of the greatest names in German literature, was born January 22, 1729, at Kamenz, in Saxon Upper Lusatia, where his father was a clergyman of the most orthodox Lutheran school. After working very hard for five years at a school in Meissen, he proceeded to the University of Leipzig, in 1746, with the intention of studying theology, but he soon began to occupy himself with other matters, made the acquaintance of actors, and acquired a great fondness for dramatic entertainment. This sort of life, however, pained his strict relatives, who pronounced it "sinful," and for a short time Lessing went home. Later he proceeded to Berlin, and while there, formed many valuable literary friendships, and established the best literary journal of his time. "Nathan the Wise" ("Nathan der Weise") arose out of a bitter theological controversy in which Lessing had been engaged. It was written during the winter of 1778-79, and expresses ideas and theories its author had already largely developed in prose. Primarily the play is a strong plea for tolerance, the governing conception being that noble character belongs to no particular creed, but to all creeds, as set forth herein in the parable of the wonderful ring. And thus it follows that there is no sufficient reason why people holding one set of religious opinions should not tolerate others who maintain totally different doctrines. Purely as a drama the play may be disappointing, but regarded as a poem it ranks with the noblest dramatic literature of the eighteenth century. The characters abound in vitality, and some of the passages rise to heights of great splendour. Lessing died on February 15, 1781 (see also Vol. XX, p. 239).

Arthur Mee J. A. Hammerton