Nathan the Wise
is a play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist, and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era. His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature...
, published in 1779. It is a fervent plea for religious tolerance. Its performance was forbidden by the church during Lessing's lifetime.
Set in Jerusalem
during the Third Crusade
The Third Crusade , also known as the Kings' Crusade, was an attempt by European leaders to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin...
, it describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan
Sultan is a title with several historical meanings. Originally, it was an Arabic language abstract noun meaning "strength", "authority", "rulership", and "dictatorship", derived from the masdar سلطة , meaning "authority" or "power". Later, it came to be used as the title of certain rulers who...
Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb , better known in the Western world as Saladin, was an Arabized Kurdish Muslim, who became the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and founded the Ayyubid dynasty. He led Muslim and Arab opposition to the Franks and other European Crusaders in the Levant...
and the (initially anonymous) Templar
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon , commonly known as the Knights Templar, the Order of the Temple or simply as Templars, were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders...
bridge their gaps between Judaism
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...
Islam . The most common are and . : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...
. Its major themes are friendship, tolerance, relativism of God, a rejection of miracles and a need for communication.
The centerpiece of the work is the Ring Parable
), narrated by Nathan when asked by Saladin which religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...
: An heirloom ring with the magical ability to render its owner pleasant in the eyes of God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....
and mankind had been passed from father to the son he loved most. When it came to a father of three sons whom he loved equally, he promised it (in "pious weakness") to each of them. Looking for a way to keep his promise, he had two replicas made, which were indistinguishable from the original, and gave on his deathbed a ring to each of them.
The brothers quarrelled over who owned the real ring. A wise judge admonished them that it was impossible to tell at that time – that it even could not be discounted that all three
rings were replicas, the original one having been lost at some point in the past; that to find out whether one of them had the real ring it was up to them to live in such a way that their ring's powers could prove true, to live a life that is pleasant in the eyes of God and mankind rather than expecting the ring's miraculous powers to do so. Nathan compares this to religion, saying that each of us lives by the religion we have learned from those we respect.
The character of Nathan is to a large part modeled after Lessing's lifelong friend, the eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn was a German Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the renaissance of European Jews, Haskalah is indebted...
. Similar to Nathan the Wise and Saladin, whom Lessing makes meet over the chess-board; they both shared a love for the game.
The motif of the Ring Parable is derived from a complex of medieval tales which first appeared in the German language in the story of Saladin's table in the Weltchronik
of Jans der Enikel
Jans der Enikel, i.e. "Jans the Grandson" was a Viennese poet and historian of the late 13th century. He wrote a Weltchronik and a Fürstenbuch , both in Middle High German verse....
. Lessing probably had the story in the first instance from Boccaccio's Decameron
In the early 21st century, the Ring Parable of Nathan the Wise
was taken up again in Peter Sloterdijk
Peter Sloterdijk is a German philosopher, television host, cultural scientist and essayist. He is a professor of philosophy and media theory at the University of Art and Design Karlsruhe. He currently co-hosts the German show Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett.-Biography:Sloterdijk's father...
's Gottes Eifer: Vom Kampf der drei Monotheismen
More recently the play was adapted into English by Paul D'Andrea
, a Robinson Professor of Theater and English at George Mason University
George Mason University is a public university based in unincorporated Fairfax County, Virginia, United States, south of and adjacent to the city of Fairfax. Additional campuses are located nearby in Arlington County, Prince William County, and Loudoun County...
, based on a translation by Gisela D'Andrea. This adaptation has been produced in theaters across the United States as well as in Rome, and was broadcast on PBS television.
(English translation by William Taylor
William Taylor was a British scholar, polyglot, and translator of German romantic literature.-Early life:He was born in Norwich, East Anglia, England on 7 November 1765, the only child of William Taylor , a wealthy Norwich merchant with European trade connections, by his wife Sarah , second...