¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “Those who love literary history will be pleased to know how this play originated,” M. de Voltaire says.[15.2] “Certain ladies had accused the author of not having enough love in his tragedies. He answered them that, in his opinion, tragedy was not the most fitting place for love, but if they absolutely had to have amorous heroes, he would gladly make some as good as the next writer. The play was completed in eighteen days and was a great success. In Paris they called it a Christian tragedy, and it is often presented instead of Polyeucte.” [15.3]
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 We have the ladies to thank for this play, then, and it will long remain the ladies’ favorite. A young passionate monarch, subject only to love; a proud victor, conquered only by beauty; a sultan without polygamy; a seraglio, transformed into the freely accessible abode of a sovereign governess; an abandoned girl, raised to the highest degree of happiness through nothing but her beautiful eyes; a heart caught between affection and religion, divided between its god and its idol, and willing to be pious, if it does not have to stop loving; a jealous man who recognizes his injustice and revenges it on himself – if such pleasing ideas do not dazzle members of fair sex, what will they be dazzled by?
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 “Love itself dictated Zaïre to Voltaire,” a critic courteously claims.[15.4] More correctly he should have said: “Gallantry.”[15.5] I only know of one tragedy whose work was helped by love itself, and that is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is true, Voltaire has his enamored Zaïre express her feelings very delicately, very properly – but what is this expression when compared to that living picture of all the smallest, most secret intrigues that love uses to steal into our souls, of all the imperceptible advantages it gains thereby, of all the stratagems it uses to bring every other passion under its sway, until it becomes the sole tyrant of all we desire and detest? If I may put it this way, Voltaire has an excellent understanding of the court-style of love, that is, the language and tone that love employs when it wishes to express itself in the most careful and measured manner, when it wishes to say only what it can justify to the priggish lady sophist or the cold art critic. But even the best court clerk does not always know the most about the secrets of the government; or, in any case, if Voltaire has the same deep insight into the nature of love that Shakespeare did, then he does not seem to have wanted to display it here, and the poetry has remained far beneath the abilities of the poet.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Pretty much the same can be said about jealousy. In contrast to Shakespeare’s jealous Othello, the jealous Orosman is a very threadbare character. And yet apparently Othello was the model for Orosman.[15.6] Cibber says that Voltaire has usurped the fire that lights Shakespeare’s tragic pyre.[*] I would have said – a flame from that burning pyre, and moreover one that smokes more than it illuminates or warms. We hear Orosman speak the words of a jealous man, we see him commit the rash deed of a jealous man, but of jealousy itself we learn nothing more or less than we already knew. Othello, on the other hand, is a perfect primer for this sad delirium; we can learn from him everything about it, everything that awakens it, and how to avoid it.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But some of my readers will ask, is it always and forever Shakespeare who has understood everything better than the French? That irritates us; we cannot read him. – I take this opportunity to remind the public of something that it seems to deliberately wish to forget. We have a translation of Shakespeare. It has just barely been finished, and already no one pays it any attention. The critics have said many bad things about it. I have a good mind to say many good things about it.[15.7] Not to contradict these learned men, nor to defend the mistakes that they have noted in it, but rather because I believe that they should not have made such a fuss over those mistakes. The undertaking was difficult; someone other than Herr Wieland would have blundered more often in haste and have omitted even more out of ignorance or laziness, but no one could improve on what he did well. His presentation of Shakespeare remains a book that cannot be recommended enough among us. We will continue to learn from the beauties it provides us for a long time before the blemishes that come with it offend us so much that we require a better translation.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 But back to Zaïre. The author brought it to the Paris stage in 1733, and three years later it was translated into English and also played in London at the Theater in Drury-Lane.[15.8] The translator was Aaron Hill, himself a playwright, and not the worst kind. Voltaire was very flattered by this, and what he wrote about it (in his distinctive tone of proud modesty) in his dedication of the play to the English statesman Fawkener deserves to be read.[15.9] Only we must not assume everything he says is true. Woe to the person who does not generally read Voltaire’s writing with the skeptical spirit in which he wrote much of it!
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 For example, he says to his English friend: “Your writers have a custom to which even Addison[**] submitted, for custom is as powerful as reason and law.[15.10] This rather unreasonable custom demanded that every act end in verses that were in a completely different taste than the rest of the play; moreover, these verses also necessarily had to contain a comparison. Phèdre, as she exits, compares herself very poetically to a deer, Cato compares himself to a rock, and Cleopatra herself to children who cry themselves to sleep.[15.11] The translator of Zaïre is the first who has dared to assert the rights of nature against a taste so foreign to it. He abolished this custom, perceiving that passion must speak its own true language, and the poet must hide himself everywhere in order to allow us to know the heroes.”
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 There are no more than three falsehoods in this passage, and for M. de Voltaire that is actually not many. It is true that since the time of Shakespeare, and perhaps even longer, the English have had the custom of ending acts that are in unrhymed blank verse with a few rhymed lines. But to say that these rhymed lines contained only comparisons – that they necessarily had to be comparisons – this is completely wrong, and I do not understand how M. de Voltaire can rub such a thing in the face of an Englishman whom he would have to presume had also read the tragic poets of his country. Second, it is simply not true that Hill has abolished this custom in his translation of Zaïre. It is in fact almost unbelievable that M. de Voltaire should not have looked more closely at the translation of his play than I or any other person. Nonetheless, it must be, for as surely as it is in blank verse, just as surely each act ends with two or four rhymed lines. True, they do not contain comparisons, but as noted, among all such rhymed passages with which Shakespeare, and Jonson, and Dryden, and Lee, and Otway, and Rowe, and all the rest conclude their acts, there are plenty that also do not have them.[15.12] What has Hill done that is so special, then? And if he had really done this unique thing that Voltaire claims he did, then thirdly it would not be true that his example had the influence that Voltaire gives it. Even now there are just as many plays whose acts conclude with rhymed verses as those whose acts do not (though the plays nowadays are not tragedies). Hill himself has not completely relinquished this old fashion in any one of the various plays he wrote after his translation of Zaïre. And what difference does it make, if we hear rhymes or not in the end? If they are there, they can perhaps still be of use to the orchestra, namely as a signal to pick up their instruments, a signal that would thus be taken more suitably from the play itself than that given by the whistle or some other sign.[15.13]
Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
[*] From English Plays, Zara’s French author fir’d
Confess’d his Muse, beyond herself, inspir’d;
From rack’d Othello’s rage, he rais’d his style
And snatch’d the brand, that lights this tragic pile.
[From the prologue to Hill’s Tragedy of Zara by actor, playwright, and theatrical manager Colley Cibber (1671–1757). See Hill, xiv–xiv. – Ed.]
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [**] “Le plus sage de vos ecrivains,” Voltaire adds. How should that best be translated? Sage means wise; but “the wisest of English playwrights” – who would identify Addison as such? I recall that the French also call a girl sage who cannot be accused of any indiscretion, or at least of any of the rude indiscretions. Perhaps this meaning would fit here. And accordingly, one could probably translate this as: Addison, the one among your writers who most resembles us harmless, sober French.
- ¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
- [15.1] Five-act tragedy from 1732. The company used J. J. Schwabe’s German translation in alexandrines, Zayre (1741). A tremendous success (throughout Europe and in America), in Germany Zaïre was arguably the most popular of Voltaire’s tragedies. See Jacobs, “Introduction to Zaïre” 282–92.Zaïre, a slave to Orosmane (the Sultan of Jerusalem), has been raised Muslim, despite her Christian origins. Zaïre and Orosmane fall in love and prepare to marry. Liberated by Orosmane, Lusignan, the aged former king of Jerusalem, discovers that Zaïre and Nérestan, a French knight, are his children. Before he dies, Lusignan has Zaïre swear to become Christian and to hide her parentage; Zaïre is now torn between love and Christian filial duty. Orosmane becomes suspicious of her secrecy, then jealous when he intercepts a letter from Nérestan; Zaïre avows her fidelity but will not reveal her secrets. Orosmane kills her, and then, after Nérestan reveals himself as Zaïre’s brother, kills himself.
- [15.2] Lessing quotes the majority of the “Avertissement” added by Voltaire to the 1738 edition of Zaïre. (Voltaire earlier claimed to have written the play in 22 days).
- [15.3] Polyeucte (1643): “Christian tragedy” by Pierre Corneille, inspired by the Roman martyr Polyeuctus.
- [15.4] Sainte-Albine, Le Comédien 208.
- [15.5] Here Lessing takes a swipe at Voltaire, who, both before and after Zaïre, had criticized what he perceived as an overemphasis on love in French tragedy; rather than appear to be abandoning this view, Voltaire describes Zaïre in terms of “gallantry” rather than love, a distinction that he employs elsewhere as well. See Voltaire, Discours sur la tragédie 179–183; A Discourse on Tragedy 189–91; and Jacobs 399.
- [15.6] Voltaire never mentions a debt to Othello; this issuewas (and continues to be) strongly debated. See Jacobs 302–11.
- [15.7] Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813) provided the first German overview of Shakespeare’s work with his prose translation of 22 plays in eight volumes (1762–6). Critics have taken Wieland to task for both his style and his errors in translation; Wieland also considerably altered Shakespeare to fit more staid eighteenth-century tastes, purging the plays of their “less tasteful” elements. See Paulin, “Shakespeare and Germany” 317.
- [15.8] Zaïre premiered at the Comédie-Française in 1732. Adapted as The Tragedy of Zara (1736) by Aaron Hill (1685–1750), an English playwright and essayist, it was first performed in London in 1735, appearing at Drury Lane in 1736.
- [15.9] Sir Everard Fawkener (1694–1758): English merchant, diplomat, and statesman. Voltaire’s “Épître Dédicatoire à M. Fakener [sic]” [“Dedicatory Epistle to Monsieur Fawkener”] appeared with the 1732 printing of Zaïre; the “Seconde Lettre au même monsieur Fakener [sic]” [“A Second Letter to Mr. Falkener”] was appended to the second 1736 edition.
- [15.10] This paragraph is taken from the second letter to Fawkener (“Seconde Lettre” 412–13; “A Second Letter to Mr. Falkener [sic]” 16). Joseph Addison (1672–1719): influential English essayist and playwright, known for his literary/social periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator, as well as for his classical tragedy Cato (1713).
- [15.11] Phèdre, Cleopatra: scholars remain uncertain as to which English plays Voltaire might be referencing here. Cato: a reference to Addison’s tragedy (although the character does not in fact compare himself to a rock).
- [15.12] Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Nathanial Lee, Thomas Otway, and Nicholas Rowe: all prominent English dramatists of the seventeenth century.
- [15.13] Eighteenth-century audiences were accustomed to musical entertainment between the acts of a play.