Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
and First Performance
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.
action takes place in Jerusalem in the twelfth century during a respite
in fighting between Muslims and Christian Crusaders.
forces under Saladin (born, 1137; died circa 1193) had captured the cities
of Acre and Jerusalem in 1187. Armies under King Richard I of England and
other Christian leaders recaptured Acre in July 1191 during the Third Crusade
(1189-1192). After his allies—Leopold V of Austria and Philip II of France—left
the Middle East, Richard continued to advance, defeating Saladin every
time they fought and taking key cities along the Mediterranean coast. But
in September 1192, Richard and Saladin signed a peace accord that left
Jerusalem under Muslim control and Cyprus and coastal cities under Crusader
control. The treaty granted Christian pilgrims the right to visit holy
places. Nathan the Wise takes place during the uneasy peace, which
lasted until the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204).
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)
was a doctrinaire Lutheran pastor in Hamburg, Germany. Before Lessing wrote
the Weise, Goeze verbally attacked Lessing and other Enlightenment
thinkers for their unorthodox theological and moral views. Lessing responded
with a series of eleven pamphlets attacking Goeze for what Lessing considered
narrow-minded thinking. After Protestant supporters of Goeze persuaded
the government to order Lessing—himself the son of a Protestant minister—to
cease publishing his pamphlets, Lessing wrote Nathan the Weise to
continue his argument against intolerance. In the play, the patriarch represents
Nathan: Wealthy Jewish
resident of Jerusalem. He is generous, morally upright, and—as the title
Templar: Young Christian
knight from Germany who at first despises Jews but later—after meeting
Nathan and his daughter—changes his attitude.
Recha: Baptized Christian
maiden reared lovingly from infancy by Nathan.
Daya (or Daja):
Recha's Christian attendant and companion.
ruler of Egypt and Syria and leader of the Muslim armies.
Sister of Saladin.
church leader in Jerusalem.
Manager of a portion of Saladin's Jerusalem treasury. Hafi is a dervis
(dervish), a member of an Islamic sect who leads a life of chastity and
Manager of Saladin's treasury in Lebanon.
Friar: Hermit monk
named Brother Bonafides.
(slave) of Saladin.
(slave) of Saladin.
Head of the convoy that brings treasure to Saladin from Egypt.
announcing the arrival of the convoy from Egypt.
Assad: Deceased brother
Lilah: Deceased sister
of Saladin and Sittah.
in the service of Saladin.
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.
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.
he, 'tis Nathan! Thanks to the Almighty,)
you're at last returned.)
Michael J. Cummings
Based on William Taylor's
English translation, now in the public domain
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.)
a few days before, the Templar had been taken captive by Muslim forces
at Tebnin. However, the Muslim leader, Saladin, pardoned him at the moment
when the young man's neck was bared for beheading.
wants to reward the young man. Daya says she made repeated efforts to convey
her gratitude to him, but he scorned her. Nathan wonders how Recha must
feel about a man who saved her but refuses to accept thanks for doing so.
Daya says that Recha imagines that the knight is a guardian angel. Recha
comes in just then to greet her father on his return. She says of the Templar,
. . . . . . . .
. . . . he bore me through the fire,
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
O'ershadowed by his pinions.
—Face to face
I've seen an angel, father,
my own angel. (Act I)
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.
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.
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.
The image of the maid is
Out of my soul—if it was
ever there— (Act I)
O what a house that
would have formed—the first—
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.)
The best—and what is more—of
earth the happiest! (Act II)
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.
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.
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.
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'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).
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.
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,
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
My heart no longer, when
I think about him,
Beats stronger, swifter.
(An explanation of this
statement appears below, under Foreshadowing.)
To gain instruction
quite on other points.
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.
Since you are a man so wise,
tell me which law,
Which faith appears to you
the better? (Act III)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Then will your sin,
which I can hide no longer,
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
Be at an end. The maid will
come once more
Among the Christians, will
be once again
What she was born to, will
be what she was. (Act IV)
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.
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.
the monk leaves, Daya meets with Nathan and tells him Saladin's sister
has sent for Recha.
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.
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.
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.
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).
says, "Thy father shall remain to thee” (Act V).
then says another must be heard from—her brother. Recha is surprised to
learn that she has a brother.
Templar says, “He has imposed a father on the girl, / He'll find her up
a brother” (Act V).
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.
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
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.
My heart no longer, when
I think about him,
Beats stronger, swifter.
Respect for the Beliefs
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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,
most obvious example of dramatic irony is Recha's ignorance of her Christian
The three rings: The
three rings in the story that Nathan tells Saladin represent Christianity,
Islam, and Judaism.
The three sons: The
three sons in the story that Nathan tells Saladin represent the adherents
of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Damaged cloak: The
Templar's cloak, singed in the fire when he saved Recha, is an outward
sign of the following:
(1) The Templar's willingness
to risk peril for a fellow human being, regardless of his or her beliefs.
Early in the play, the Templar scorns Jews. However, the fact that he risked
his life to save Recha indicates that he has the potential to become a
better, more tolerant man. Nathan says of the damaged cloak:
'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,
Bears better testimony to
Than his own mouth. This
brand—Oh I could kiss it! (Act II)
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.
And spite of darning will
not hold together,
I'll come and borrow cloth,
or money of thee,
To make me up a new one.
Don't look solemn;
The danger is not pressing;
'tis not yet
At the last gasp, but tight
and strong and good,
Save this poor corner, where
an ugly spot
You see is singed upon it.
It got singed
As I bore off your daughter
from the fire. (Act II)
Study Questions and Essay
Besides Nathan, who is the most
admirable character in the play? Who is the least admirable?
Who were the Knights Templars?
What were their duties?
In an informative essay, compare
and contrast the Saladin of Lessing's play with the Saladin of real life.
Write an informative essay about
Moses Mendelssohn, the German Jew on whom Lessing based Nathan.
What is the most impressive
humanitarian undertaking in Nathan the Wise?