Nathan the Wise Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: 1783

First published: Nathan der Weise, 1779 (English translation, 1781)

Type of work: Play

Type of plot: Philosophical

Time of work: Twelfth century

Locale: Jerusalem

Characters DiscussedNathan

Nathan, Nathan the Wisea Jewish merchant and sage who suffers the loss of his family and fortune during the Third Crusade. As a tragic hero, he always repays evil with good, as he does when he adopts an orphan girl immediately after losing his own family. Although he seems more Christian than Jew–indeed, he acts the part of Christ in his devotion and wisdom–he is really a humanitarian who believes there are many ways either to enter heaven or to establish heaven on Earth. Self-reliant, generous, fearless, and tolerant, he serves as a contrast to the wily Christians and the rather vengeful Muhammadans.

Recha

Recha, his adopted daughter, in reality the orphaned niece of the Sultan Saladin. Under her devoted foster father’s tutelage, she shares many of his virtues. She is beautiful within and without. Her attraction for the young knight, Conrad von Stauffen, is merely sentimental and not romantic, a fact that is more understandable when they prove to be brother and sister. Grateful to Conrad for saving her life, she and Nathan wish to reward the young man, but he, though poor and a stranger, takes a strange view of charity and rebuffs all attempts to aid him. Recha’s touching naïveté and innocence form an interesting contrast to the intrigue and cruelty that exist in a world torn by religious prejudice and conflict.

Conrad von Stauffen

Conrad von Stauffen, a disillusioned young Templar who strongly opposes religious wars, in reality a Saracen prince. High-minded, open-hearted, and yet reserved, the Templar seems truculent at first, especially in his boorish refusal to accept a reward after he saves from death by fire the girl who later proves to be his own sister. He questions, though he also admires, the Jewish merchant; at the same time, he honors, though he does not understand, the sultan who spares his life. As events turn out, his stubborn pride reveals his exalted birth, and his impetuosity proves more pagan than Christian.

The Sultan Saladin

The Sultan Saladin, the son of the Saracen ruler and a generous, impulsive prince who is revealed as Conrad von Stauffen’s uncle. Although seemingly prejudiced against the Jewish merchant, he is in reality only testing Nathan’s wisdom and lamenting his own reliance on the merchant’s generosity. His wisdom in saving the knight’s life because of a family resemblance is further noted in his ability to live among the many factions that plague Jerusalem. He is quick-witted in dispute and often stern in action but always capable of magnanimity when it is deserved.

Sittah

Sittah, his sister and royal housekeeper. What her brother lacks in common sense, she makes up for without being particularly shrewish, though she is shrewd in business dealings and has a quick tongue. Although she suggests the trap to ensnare Nathan, the parable that he tells moves her as much as it does her brother. She is devoted to her generous brother and tries to protect him.

Daja

Daja, the Christian servant in Nathan’s house and companion to Recha. Essentially a good person, grateful for a good home, and fond of her Jewish master and his adopted daughter, Daja is nevertheless a bigot who believes there is only one true faith. She very nearly causes a tragedy through her divided allegiance.

The patriarch of Jerusalem

The patriarch of Jerusalem, a sycophantic fanatic who plots the destruction of Nathan the Jew. He arouses the ire of the Templar and the rebellion of a lay brother, who are to assist him in taking Recha from her kind benefactor.

Al Hafi

Al Hafi, a dervish who humorously and ineptly attempts to manage the sultan’s affairs. His thoughts dwelling constantly on his home in India, he wishes to exchange the luxury of the court for the rigors of the wilderness where he can renounce the worldly to realize the contemplative life.

Bibliography:Brown, Francis. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. New York: Twayne, 1971. Surveys Lessing’s accomplishments as dramatist, critic, and theologian. Sees in Nathan the Wise his signature emphasis on the virtue of acting with conscious intent. Concludes that Lessing was a product and a prophet of his era.Eckardt, Jo-Jacqueline. Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise” and the Critics, 1779-1991. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. Presents analysis of the work chronologically, revealing the recurrence of motifs and themes as well as the historical development of certain interpretations. Very helpful in shedding light on the idealogical orientation of various critics.Garland, H. B. Lessing: The Founder of Modern German Literature. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1962. Determines Lessing’s primary role as a dramatist to be that of an innovator. Finds that what matters most in the play is its underlying ethical content.Graham, Ilse. Goethe and Lessing: The Wellsprings of Creation. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1973. Analyzes the play’s structure in terms of central, unifying symbols. Focuses on poetic elements, such as image patterns and language. Writes passionately if, at times, excessively.Leventhal, Robert S. “The Parable as Performance: Interpretation, Cultural Transmission, and Political Strategy in Lessing’s Nathan der Weise.” The German Quarterly 61, no. 4 (Fall, 1988): 502-527. Argues compellingly that Lessing questioned basic premises of eighteenth century interpretive theory. Stresses Lessing’s skepticism of absolute principles.
Categories: Characters