Places: Nathan the Wise

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

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

First produced: 1783

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Philosophical

Time of work: Twelfth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedNathan’s House

Nathan’s Nathan the WiseHouse. Jerusalem home of the play’s central Jewish character. In addition to indicating that he is a merchant, a common occupation for Jews in the Middle Ages, the goods piled up in front of Nathan’s house when he returns from a business trip are emblems of his most precious possession, his foster daughter Recha, as well as an occasion for him to show his generosity. Nathan offers sumptuous cloth and jewelry, which he spreads out on stage, freely as gifts, not only for his household, but also for Conrad von Stauffen, a young knight templar who has rescued his daughter, and for the sultan, who needs ready cash. Visits by the templar and Al-Hafi the dervish provide opportunities for contact among the faiths.

*Holy Sepulcher Square

*Holy Sepulcher Square. Purported burial place of Jesus Christ and site of other Christian shrines. Under the palm trees on this square, the templar is pictured repeatedly pacing back and forth, as if to illustrate his awkward position. For he is a Christian knight who has rescued a Jew’s daughter and has been inexplicably pardoned by another sworn enemy, the Muslim ruler Saladin. Nathan seeks out the templar here to express his gratitude to his daughter’s rescuer. The monastery on the square serves as the backdrop for the Christian patriarch, a fat prelate dressed ostentatiously, whose patent intolerance is echoed by his confinement to this area and refusal to interact with people of other faiths.

Saladin’s palace

Saladin’s palace. Lavishly furnished, the palace rooms speak of Saladin’s wealth, although like Nathan, Saladin indicates he could be content with much less. The bags of money piled onto the floor, courtesy of Nathan, indicate the budding friendship between the Jewish trader and the Muslim ruler. Later, the delivery of Egyptian tribute enables Saladin to return Nathan’s gift and exhibits wealth that matches Nathan’s own. Shown playing chess with his sister, Saladin is again linked to Nathan, whose chess partner is a dervish in Saladin’s service. The templar and Nathan come freely to Saladin for the play’s culmination, which shows the three faiths brought under one roof and into one family.

BibliographyBrown, 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.
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