A New and Complete Translation

Essay 22

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 14 July 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†]On the twenty-eighth evening (Tuesday, June 2nd), The Village Lawyer was repeated, and the evening ended with Herr Gellert’s The Sick Woman. [22.1]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Of all our comic playwrights Herr Gellert is without doubt the one whose plays are the most originally German. They are true family portraits in which we feel immediately at home. Every spectator imagines recognizing in them a cousin, a brother-in-law, or an auntie from his or her own family. They also provide proof that there is no shortage of original fools among us, it is just that they show themselves in their true light to relatively few eyes. Our follies are more observable than observed: in everyday life we look past many of them out of kindheartedness, and our virtuosi have become accustomed to using a one-dimensional style in imitating them. The actors bear a resemblance to fools, but do not bring them to life. They affect, but because they do not know how to shine an advantageous light on their subject, their portrait lacks rounding, corporality. We see only one side, which we quickly tire of looking at, and when we try to imagine its other sides, its all-too-sharply defined contours immediately remind us that we are watching an illusion. Fools the world over are stupid and cold and disgusting; if they are going to make us laugh, the poet must give them something of himself. He must not bring them onto the stage in their everyday dress, in the dirty carelessness in which they absently wander their own little world. They must reveal nothing of the narrow sphere of worrisome concerns from which each might want to work his way out. He has to clean them up; he has to lend them wit and understanding in order to be able to cover up their miserable follies; he has to give them enough ambition to want to shine.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 “I have no idea,” said one of my female acquaintances, “what kind of a couple this is, this Herr Stephan and this Frau Stephan! Herr Stephan is a rich man and a good man. Nevertheless his beloved Frau Stephan has to make such a fuss about a shabby Adrienne dress. [22.2] Granted, we often get sick over nothing, but not over such a big nothing. A new Adrienne! Can she not simply send out, choose, and have one made? The husband will pay, of course; he must.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 “Absolutely right!” says another. “But I have something else to add. The writer was writing during our mother’s time. An Adrienne! What tailor’s wife still wears an Adrienne? Is it not permitted for the actress to help the good man out a bit? Could she not substitute Robe Ronde, Benedictine, Respectueuse” (I have forgotten the other names, I would not know how to spell them anyway) “instead! Just imagining myself in an Adrienne could make me sick. If Madame Stephan is panting for the newest things, it has to be the newest style of dress. How else are we to find it probable that she has become sick over it?”   [22.3]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “And I,” said the third (this was the most learned of them), “find it very improper that the Stephan woman tries on a dress that was not tailor-made for her. But we can easily see what forced the author into this – what should I call it? – misunderstanding of our delicacy. The unity of time! The dress has to be finished, Stephan must try it on, and a dress cannot be finished in twenty-four hours. In fact he could barely permit himself twenty-four hours for a little afterpiece. For Aristotle says – ”And here my critic was interrupted.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 On the twenty-ninth evening (Wednesday, the 3rd of June) The Man of the Clock, or the Regular Man was performed after de la Chaussee’s Melanide. [22.4]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The author of this piece is Herr Hippel, from Danzig. It is full of funny incidents; too bad that as soon as we hear the title we predict them all. It is also sufficiently national, or rather more provincial. And this can easily become the other extreme into which our comedic playwrights fall when they wish to depict real German customs. I fear that each may treat the paltry habits from the corner of the world in which he was born as the authentic custom of our common fatherland. [22.5] But whose job is it to discover how often one eats green cabbage during the year in this place or that?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 A comedy can have a double title; it is a given that each says something different. This is not the case here: The Man of the Clock, or the Regular Man – these say basically the same thing, other than that the first is roughly a caricature of the second.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 On the thirtieth evening (Thursday, the 4th of June), Thomas Corneille’s Earl of Essex was performed. [22.6]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This tragedy is perhaps the only one of the impressive number of plays by the younger Corneille that survives on the stage. And I believe it is revived even more frequently in the German theater than in the French. It was written in 1678, forty years after Calprenede had already worked on the same story. [22.7]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “It is well known,” writes Corneille, “that the Earl of Essex stood in particular favor with Queen Elizabeth. He was proud by nature. The great services that he rendered England swelled him up even more. His enemies accused him of conspiring with the Earl of Tyrone, who was chosen to lead the rebels in Ireland. The suspicion that attached to him on this account caused him to lose command of the army. He was embittered, came to London, stirred up the populace, was thrown into prison, was condemned, and – after he refused to beg for pardon – was beheaded on the 25th of February 1601. This much I gleaned from history. I am very much surprised to be charged with falsifying an important historical point because I did not make use of the incident with the ring that the Queen had given the Earl as a token of her unfailing favor, in case he should make himself guilty of treason. I am assured that this ring is an invention of Calprenede, at least I can say I have never read the slightest thing about it by any historian.” [22.8]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In any case, Corneille was free to use or not to use this incident with the ring; but he went too far when he identified it as a poetic invention. Its historical accuracy has recently been acknowledged to be nearly without doubt, and those most cautious, skeptical writers of history, Hume and Robertson, have included it in their works. [22.9]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 When Robertson writes in his History of Scotland about the melancholy into which Elizabeth fell before her death, he says: “The most common opinion at that time and perhaps the most probable was that it flowed from grief for the Earl of Essex. She retained an extraordinary regard for the memory of that unfortunate nobleman; and though she often complained of his obstinacy, seldom mentioned his name without tears. An accident happened soon after her retiring to Richmond, which revived her affection with new tenderness, and imbittered her sorrows. The Countess of Nottingham, being on her death bed, desired to see the Queen, in order to reveal something to her, without discovering which, she could not die in peace. When the Queen came into her chamber, she told her, that while Essex lay under sentence of death, he was desirous of imploring pardon in the manner which the Queen herself had prescribed, by returning a ring, which during the height of his favour she had given him, with a promise that, if in any future distress, he sent that back to her as a token, it should intitle him to her protection; that Lady Scroop was the person he intended to imploy in order to present it; that by a mistake, it was put into her hands instead of Lady Scroop’s; and that she having communicated the matter to her husband, one of Essex’s most implacable enemies, he had forbid her either to carry the ring to the Queen, or to return it to the Earl. The Countess, having thus disclosed her secret, begged the Queen’s forgiveness; but Elizabeth, who now saw both the malice of the Earl’s enemies, and how unjustly she had suspected him of inflexible obstinacy, replied, ‘God may forgive you, but I never can;’ and left the room in great emotion. From that moment, her spirit sunk entirely; she could scarce taste food; she refused all the medicines prescribed by her physicians; declaring that she wished to die, and would live no longer. No intreaty could prevail on her to go to bed; she sat on cushions, during ten days and nights, pensive, and silent, holding her finger almost continually in her mouth, with her eyes open, and fixed on the ground. The only thing to which she seemed to give any attention, were the acts of devotion, performed in her apartment, by the Archbishop of Canterbury; and in these she joined with great appearance of fervour. Wasted, at last, as well by anguish of mind, as by long abstinence, she expired without a struggle, on Thursday the 24th day of March, in the 70th year of her age, and in the 45th of her reign.” [22.10]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0  

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages omitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [22.1] Die kranke Frau (1747), a one-act comic afterpiece by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–69). Frau Stephan, envious of her sister-in-law’s fashionable dress (an “Andrienne”), appears to be at death’s door. Herr Stephan explores numerous remedies to restore her health; eventually, he is persuaded to purchase the dress in question, which results in Frau Stephan’s immediate recovery. For The Village Lawyer, see [14].
  • [22.2] Adrienne: an alternate spelling of “Andrienne” (used by Gellert). An eighteenth-century dress popularized through the stage (see Robertson 78).
  • [22.3] Robe Ronde, Benedictine, Respectueuse: names of dresses.
  • [22.4] Der Mann nach der Uhr, oder der ordentliche Mann (1760), one-act comedy by Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1741–96), from Königsberg (not Danzig). For Melanide, see [8].
  • [22.5] Vaterland, an uncommon word for Lessing, did not yet have the political associations that it would garner after the unification of Germany in 1871. Sara Figal explains that, “For some, the German Vaterland meant Prussia; for others, it included various constellations of German-speaking regions. . . . The German Vaterland was far from being clearly identifiable, whether by geographic, political, philosophical, linguistic, or ethnic identity markers” (72). 
  • [22.6] Thomas Corneille (1625–1709), younger brother of Pierre Corneille. Le Comte d’Essex (1678): five-act verse tragedy, translated by L. Peter Stüven as Der Graf von Essex (1747). Based on Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex (1567–1601), a famous favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, later executed by her after an attempted coup.
  • [22.7] Calprenede: Gaultier de Coste, seigneur de La Calprenède (c. 1610–63), French playwright and novelist; his tragedy Le Comte d’Essex was published in 1638.
  • [22.8] Lessing quotes freely here from Corneille’s preface to Le Comte d’Essex.
  • [22.9] David Hume discusses this incident in the fourth volume of his six-volume History of England (528–30). Lessing would have read Hume’s history in English; a German translation of volume four would not appear until 1771. For the two-volume History of Scotland (1759) by Scottish historian William Robertson (1721–93), Lessing used the German translation published in 1762 by Matthias Theodor Christoph Mittelstedt.
  • [22.10] Quote here taken from Robertson, History of Scotland 2: 284–6, with original spelling retained. In the original German, Lessing quotes from the Mittelstedt translation (301–3).
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