Nathan der Weise
By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work
.......Nathan the Wise is a stage drama written in German as Nathan der Weise in the Shakespearean format of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). It is a didactic work in that it preaches a message of harmony and tolerance among adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—and, by implication, all religions.
.......Gotthold Ephraim Lessing completed the first draft of the play in 1778. The firm of C.F. Voss published it in Berlin in 1779. The Berliner Theater in Berlin presented the first performance of the play on April 14, 1783.
.......The action takes place in Jerusalem in the twelfth century during a respite in fighting between Muslims and Christian Crusaders.
.......Lessing's purpose in writing Nathan the Weise was to (1) produce a worthy literary and stage achievement, (2) promote religious tolerance and humanitarianism in general, and (3) to refute the ideas of Johann Melchior Goeze (1717-1786) in particular.
Nathan: Wealthy Jewish resident of Jerusalem. He is generous, morally upright, and—as the title suggests—wise.
.......Lessing modeled his central character, Nathan, on Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a German-Jewish philosopher, writer, and good friend of Lessing. Mendelssohn helped Jews integrate into German society. His reputation as a thinker earned him a reputation as the "German Socrates." His most famous work is Phaedo, or on the Immortality of the Soul.
.......Lessing wrote Nathan the Weise in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), the same format Shakespeare used in his plays. Lessing was an admirer of Shakespeare and urged other writers to imitate the English writer's format. The first two lines of Lessing's play demonstrate the iambic-pentameter verse format.
By Michael J. Cummings
Based on William Taylor's English translation, now in the public domain
.......During the Third Crusade in the Holy Land, Nathan, a Jewish merchant, returns home to Jerusalem from business in Babylon and Damascus. Upon entering his house, he learns from Daya—a Christian woman and companion of his adopted daughter, Recha—that a young Christian warrior, a Knight Templar from Germany, had saved
Recha from a fire in the home. (Knights Templars were highly trained members of a religious military order that protected pilgrims visiting the Holy Land and fought Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem and other cities in the Middle East.)
. . . . . . . . . . . . he bore me through the fire,.......When Nathan asks Daya what she knows about the knight, she says the young man bears a striking resemblance to Saladin's favorite brother, Assad, now deceased. For this reason, he pardoned the Templar. Daya does not now know where the knight is. Nathan wonders whether he is ill, perhaps because he is not used to the climate of the Middle East. This possibility upsets Recha.
.......Nathan sees his old chess companion, Al-Hafi, coming toward the house. When he enters, Daya and Recha leave the room. Al-Hafi then proudly announces that Saladin has appointed him treasurer of the Muslim leader's purse. However, he points out that Saladin's father holds a higher position as purser of the household. Nathan assures him that his position is a great honor nonetheless. They talk further before Al-Hafi leaves.
.......Daya returns to inform Nathan that Recha saw the knight while she was looking out a window. He was wandering beneath palm trees and gathering dates. Nathan tells her to hurry out and bring him to the house. But she says he will have nothing to do with Jews. When she arrives on the scene, she asks the Templar to visit Nathan. But the knight again refuses, saying,
A Jew's a Jew, and I am rude and bearish........The scene shifts to Saladin's palace, where he is playing chess with his sister, Sittah. At the end of the game, he says new fighting will soon break the current truce. If the truce were to last longer, he would betroth Sittah to the brother of the Christian leader, King Richard, and Richard's sister to a Muslim, Melek.
O what a house that would have formed—the first—.......Hafi comes in, and Saladin tells him to pay a thousand dinars to Sittah for winning the chess game. She wins often, only because Saladin lets her win. Then Hafi discloses that it has been Sittah's own money that has been sustaining Saladin as he awaits the arrival of treasure from Egypt. But Saladin declines to accept any more of his beloved sister's money; instead, he asks Al-Hafi to borrow money. Sittah notes that the entire town talks of the jewels and other treasures Nathan the Jew brought back from his business trip. Hafi says he would rather attempt to borrow from an old Moor of considerable means. (He does not want to burden Nathan.)
.......After Hafi leaves, Sittah tells Saladin, “His [Nathan's] source of opulence is more productive / And more exhaustless than a cave of Mammon” (Act II). Hafi told her long ago that Nathan was a generous man, without prejudice, she says. She plans to keep Nathan in mind as a source of money.
.......When Nathan and Recha are on the streets looking for the Templar, they run into Daya, who points out that the knight is walking their way. Daya and Recha leave the scene so as not to provoke him in the way that Daya earlier did.
.......Nathan introduces himself as the grateful father of the woman the knight saved and asks whether there is anything he can do for the Templar. The knight replies that he could use a new cloak. The one he now wears was partly burned in the fire. Nathan cries a tear on the cloak, and the Templar begins to soften toward him. After they converse further, the knight agrees to be Nathan's friend.
.......Daya returns to the scene just with a message for Nathan. She has received word that Saladin wishes to see him immediately. Nathan says he must heed Saladin's wishes. If Saladin had not saved the Templar, he says, then the Templar could not have saved his daughter. Nathan feels bound to go to Saladin and tells the Templar he must excuse himself. But he first asks the knight his name. The knight replies, “Conrade of Stauffen” (Act II). The knight leaves and Hafi enters. When Nathan tells him that he is going to see Saladin, Hafi notes that Saladin needs money—the probable reason that he sent for Nathan.
.......At Nathan's house, Daya tells Recha that her father made friends with the Templar. Recha is overjoyed. A moment later, the knight arrives at the house. When he enters, Recha fawns over him, saying, “'Tis he—my saviour! ah!” (Act III).
.......Recha enraptures him. In the moment that he stands gazing at her in wonder, he falls hopelessly in love with her. He apologizes for his earlier refusal of the family's gratitude, calling her, "Thou best of things." Recalling what Nathan told him, he says, "How truly said thy father, 'Do but know her' " (Act III). Then he asks whether her father is with Saladin, and Recha says she supposes so. He then leaves.
.......Recha is disappointed that he has left so soon and says, "To me he will be ever dear, will ever / Remain more dear than my own life. . ." (Act III). However, she adds a perplexing statement:
My pulse no longer flutters at his name,.......Upon greeting Nathan at the palace, Saladin says he has longed to meet the man that people call Nathan the Wise. To Nathan's surprise, Saladin says he did not send for him to obtain money or intelligence about his enemies. Rather, he sent for him
To gain instruction quite on other points........Nathan then tells him the story of a man of the east who received a gift of an opal ring of extraordinary value. Within it was the power to render the wearer pleasing to God. So that it would remain within his family, he bequeathed it to his most beloved son and directed that he should, in turn, bequeath it to the most precious of his children. The wearer of the ring was always to be lord of his house.
.......Over succeeding generations, the ring was bequeathed to a father with three sons. Because he loved each of them with equal fervor, he unwisely promised the ring to each. To fulfill his promise, he hired a jeweler to make two rings identical to the first with instructions to spare no expense in crafting them. When the jeweler completed his task, not even the father could tell which ring was the original. Before he died, he met with each son separately and gave him a ring. When the father was in the grave, each son claimed to be lord of the house. But none of them could prove his ring was the true and genuine one, any more than people could prove which religion is true and genuine.
.......The three sons asked a judge to decide the case. If the wearer of the true ring enjoyed the special favor of God and of his fellowmen, the judge said, the matter could be decided. He asked which two brothers loved the third brother the most. They said nothing. The judge concluded that the real ring had disappeared. The other three were forgeries. However, the judge advised each of them to wear his ring as if it were the real one and to display the virtue of the ring, leading lives characterized by “gentleness, benevolence, forbearance, / With inward resignation to the godhead” (Act III). In other words, all three brothers would be equal if they remained upright men who honor and respect God.
.......The story pleases Saladin, and he thanks Nathan for telling it. There is nothing more that he desires from the Jew, he says. Nathan then offers to lend Saladin money, saying he feels indebted to him. When Saladin asks why, Nathan explains that after the Muslim leader saved the Templar, the Templar in turn saved his daughter from a fire. Saladin asks Nathan to bring the knight to the palace, saying he has often spoken to Sittah of his deceased brother. Seeing the knight, the very image of his brother, will enable Sittah to picture Saladin's brother.
.......On the street, the Templar paces under the palm trees where Nathan earlier found him. He admits to himself that he has fallen in love with Recha and cannot live without her. The fact that she is a Jew no longer matters to him. Nathan then comes upon him and tells him Saladin wishes to speak with him. When the Templar confesses to him that he loves Nathan's daughter, Nathan informs him that he once knew a man named Conrade of Stauffen. That Conrade was also a Templar, Nathan says, but never married. Therefore, Nathan concludes, the elder Conrade could not have been the young knight's father. But the knight says the elder man was indeed his father, adding, “Does bastard wound thine ear?” (Act III). Nathan appears displeased and leaves abruptly. He says, however, that he will return.
.......Nathan then goes to his house while the knight awaits his return. Daya appears, saying she slipped by Nathan without being seen. She says she discerned from the knight's behavior in front of Recha that he was deeply in love with her. The Templar says she speaks the truth. Daya then reveals that Recha is not a Jew but a Christian. Nathan adopted her and reared her as a Jew; Recha herself is unaware that she was baptized into the Christian faith. The knight thinks Nathan may have committed a serious wrong in raising a Christian as a Jew and seeks the advice of the patriarch, an archbishop, at the latter's monastery.
.......The knight presents to him the case of Recha without referring to her by name. Suppose that a Jew had obtained a Christian child, he says, and lovingly reared her and permitted her to believe that she was his daughter by blood. The priest answers that the penalty for such a deed is to die by fire.
.......The knight leaves and decides to go alone to see Saladin. Meanwhile, the patriarch directs a monk—Brother Bonafides—to investigate the case presented by the Templar.
.......At the palace, bags of treasure arrive with slaves who pile it on the floor before Saladin. They tell him there is yet more—about the same quantity at Saladin's feet. He decides to give it to Sittah to pay her back for helping him to defray his expenses. Anything left over will be stored. Sittah shows him a small portrait of his brother she found among the jewels and other items. Saladin recognizes it as the one Sittah's sister, Lilah, gave to his brother, Assad, before he rode out unattended and was killed. She died of grief and blamed Saladin for allowing him to ride alone.
.......When the Templar enters, he and Saladin have a cordial and respectful talk. He tells Saladin of his love for Nathan's daughter but worries that Nathan may not approve of a relationship between him and Recha. He also wonders whether Nathan seeks “Christian children to bring up as Jews” (Act IV), noting that Recha is actually a Christian. Finally, he says, it appears that Nathan only pretends to be tolerant of the religion of others.
.......Saladin counters that Nathan is his friend, a friend who does not fit the picture that the Templar paints. He tells the knight to fetch Nathan, saying, “If thou be serious about the maid—Be calm, she shall be thine” (Act IV). The knight leaves. Sittah emerges, noting that the young man is in fact her brother's image. But she says Saladin should have inquired about his parents. The sultan then notes that Assad was friendly with Christian ladies, implying that the knight could have been the offspring of a union between Assad and a Christian. Sittah is curious about Recha, and Saladin says Sittah may send for the girl so that they may learn more.
.......At Nathan's house, Daya and Nathan are examining the goods Nathan acquired on his business trip when Daya asks Nathan to give Recha in marriage to the Templar.
Then will your sin, which I can hide no longer,.......Nathan answers that the Templar would be a worthy choice for Recha, but he urges Daya to be patient. A monk arrives. Daya admits him and goes off on her own business. Nathan is about to give him alms, but the friar (Brother Bonafides) declines. The friar says he once lived near Jericho as a hermit, but Arab robbers destroyed his cell and dragged him away. However, he escaped and found refuge with the patriarch. He asked him to help him find another quiet retreat where he could serve God in solitude. The patriarch promised him one on Mount Tabor, but never provided it and instead kept the monk busy doing chores. Now, he says, the patriarch has ordered him to find the Jew who has reared a Christian as his own child. The news startles Nathan.
.......The monk then asks whether Nathan remembers a knight's squire who brought him an infant girl just two weeks old. Before Nathan answers, the monk says he was that squire. The mother's family name was Stauffen, and her brother's name was Conrade of Stauffer. After the mother died, the father—Leonard of Filnek—had to go to Gaza and later died in battle at Askalon. Nathan said this man more than once saved his life. Therefore, Nathan was most willing to take the child in. The friar adds that Nathan gave it love—something for which it had a greater need than religion at its age. He says it has always bothered him that Christians tend to forget that Christ was a Jew.
.......Nathan discloses that he received Recha only a few days before Christians killed his wife and seven sons. He then “swore unrelenting hate” (Act IV) for all Christians. But his bitterness eased as he reared Recha. The monk says that more information about Recha's background is contained in a book written in Arabic that he retrieved "from the bosom" of Leonard of Filnek while he was being buried at Askalon. Nathan asks the friar to fetch the book.
.......After the monk leaves, Daya meets with Nathan and tells him Saladin's sister has sent for Recha.
.......At the palace, a malemuke named Ibrahim informs Saladin that the treasure from Egypt has arrived. Saladin, pleased, dismisses the man. But Ibrahim waits, saying he expects payment as an errand boy. Saladin rewards him and Ibrahim leaves. Abdallah comes in with the same news. Saladin pays him as well even though the news is old. A courier arrives to announce that Emir Mansor, who managed the treasure convoy, has arrived. When Mansor comes in, he explains why the convoy was late: He and his men, led by Abulkassem wielding his sword, had to overcome enemies before returning to Jerusalem. Saladin then directs him to take the greater part of the treasure to his father in Lebanon.
.......As Nathan goes to Saladin's palace, the Templar sees and hails him. They then walk on together. The Templar notes that he saw Nathan with a friar that the knight knows. Nathan then says a Templar spoke ill words about him to the patriarch, according to the friar. The Templar acknowledges that it was he who spoke to the patriarch. He did so, he says, because he was confused about Nathan's behavior when they last talked. He thought Nathan had turned against him. When he saw the patriarch, the knight says, he told him about a Jew who had reared a Christian girl, then asked the patriarch's opinion of such a circumstance. He did not identify Nathan as the Jew, he says. The Templar then says he realizes the patriarch is a knave and asks Nathan to give him Recha in marriage. He will defend her, he says; it does not matter whether she is Christian or Jew.
.......But Nathan says he has discovered an impediment to the marriage: the patriarch has discovered a relation, a brother, to whom she must now be delivered. The knight wants to go to her, but Nathan says she is with Saladin's sister. Nathan and the knight then go to the palace.
.......Meanwhile, Sittah greets Recha warmly. Recha is in distress, saying Daya wishes to force another father on her. It seems Daya has told her that she is a baptized Christian and that Nathan is not her real father. Saladin comes in and asks what disturbs her. She explains the problem and says she wants only to be Nathan's daughter. Nathan arrives with the Templar and comforts Recha, saying “Thou are still, I trust, my daughter” (Act V).
.......“Father!” she replies.
.......Nathan says, "Thy father shall remain to thee” (Act V).
.......He then says another must be heard from—her brother. Recha is surprised to learn that she has a brother.
.......The Templar says, “He has imposed a father on the girl, / He'll find her up a brother” (Act V).
.......Nathan then approaches the knight and tells him his real name is Guy of Filnek; his mother was a Stauffen and the uncle in whose care the future knight was placed was named Conrade. Nathan then says he knew the knight's father, Leonard of Filnek. According to a book the friar, Brother Bonafides, gave Nathan, Assad—Saladin's brother—was Leonard of Filnek, the father of the knight and Recha. Recha's name, Nathan says, is Blanda of Filnek. Saladin and Sittah then acknowledge Recha and the knight as relatives, and everyone embraces.
.......Early in the play, Lessing foreshadows the ending when he tells the reader that Saladin spared the young Templar because he resembled Saladin's deceased brother, Assad. At the end of the play, the reader learns that Assad fathered the Templar.
.......Lessing leads his audience and readers to believe that the Templar has captivated Recha—and she, him—and that she and the knight are destined to marry. However, after meeting the knight, she says she holds him dear but adds,
My pulse no longer flutters at his name,Her reaction foreshadows the ending of the play, when Nathan reveals that Recha and the Templar are brother and sister.
Respect for the Beliefs of Others
.......Which is the true religion? Lessing's answer in Nathan the Wise is that what really matters in life is the disposition of the believer. If he lives a virtuous life, respecting God and his fellow human beings regardless of their religion, then he is on the true path. Nathan, Saladin, and the friar all demonstrate this theme with their actions, as does the ring parable with its story.
.......Nathan takes in Recha, a baptized Christian, only days after Christians killed his wife and seven sons. In doing so, he demonstrates that real love comes without conditions. That she is a Christian does not affect his decision; what does is that a child in need comes to his attention. He rears her with unconditional love, instilling in her the virtues that all religions value. Other major characters—Saladin, Sittah, the friar, and eventually the Templar—also recognize the importance of unconditional love.
Unity Amid Division and Diversity
.......Nathan the Wise demonstrates that unity and harmony are possible even among persons of diverse backgrounds. Consider that Saladin and Sittah are Muslims. The knight is the Christian son of Saladin's brother, Assad, a Muslim. Recha is the daughter of a Muslim, Assad, but was baptized a Christian and reared by a Jew. As Assad's brother, Saladin becomes the uncle of the knight and Recha, and Sittah becomes their aunt. Nathan is the adoptive father of Recha and thus a non-blood brother of Saladin and Sittah. They all become one family a the end of the play.
.......The climax occurs when Nathan reveals that the Templar and Recha are the children of Saladin's deceased brother, Assad. This development unites the Templar, a Christian knight; Recha, the adopted daughter of a Jew; and Saladin, a Muslim ruler. Thus, they—like the three religions—become members of the same family.
.......One may divide the plot structure into three divisions with the titles "Ignorance," "Enlightenment," and Unity." At the beginning of the play, the knight and Recha are ignorant of their own genealogical backgrounds and of the ties that bind them. Moreover, Saladin lacks the answer to an important question: Which of the three great religions in Jerusalem is the true religion? Nathan's story about the three rings enlightens Saladin, and his research into the background of Assad with the help of the friar enlightens the knight and Recha about backgrounds. After enlightenment replaces ignorance, the principal characters unite into a single family.
.......Maltreatment of Jews was commonplace among Christians and other non-Jews at the time of the Crusades, as it was in other eras of history. Ironically, however, the most Christlike character in Lessing's play is Nathan. He practices Christ's admonishments to "love thy neighbor" (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:25-28).and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).
.......When the Templar asks the permission of Nathan to marry his daughter, Recha, Nathan says he no longer has any claims on her. A relative of Recha has been found out, a brother, and she must be delivered into the brother's hands, Nathan says. The reader and playgoer learn at the end of the play that the brother is the Templar.
.......The Templar's military enemy is the Muslim army. At the end of the play, the reader learns that the Templar is the son of a Muslim. (See Foreshadowing, above.)
.......The most obvious example of dramatic irony is Recha's ignorance of her Christian background.
The three rings: The three rings in the story that Nathan tells Saladin represent Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
'Tis singular that such an ugly spot(2) The prejudice that mars an otherwise good man. The Templar's own words hint at this interpretation. When Nathan asks the young man whether there is anything he can do for him, the knight replies,
For my poor mantle's sake—when that is threadbare,Later, the Templar receives from Nathan something more important than cloth or money: kindness and wisdom. These virtues help the knight to overcome his prejudice.
Study Questions and Essay Topics