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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 23

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 17 July 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 M. de Voltaire criticized Essex in a peculiar way.[23.1] I should not like to contradict him by claiming that Essex is a first-rate play, but it is easy to show that many of the errors he condemns in it are either not found there at all, or are such irrelevant trivialities as to imply a concept of tragedy that is neither the best nor the worthiest.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 One of M. de Voltaire’s weaknesses is that he wants to be a very profound historian. With Essex he leapt onto this warhorse of his and exercised it violently. It is only a shame that all of the deeds he accomplishes thus mounted are not worth the dust he raises.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 He claims Thomas Corneille knew little of English history, and it was fortunate for the poet that the audience of the time knew even less. Now, he says, we know Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex better; nowadays a poet who made similar gross offences against historical truth would be more sharply reproached. [23.2]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 And what, then, are these offences? Voltaire has calculated that the Queen was sixty-eight years old at the time that she had the Earl put on trial. It would thus be ridiculous, he says, for someone to imagine that love could have played the least part in this episode. [23.3] Why? Does nothing ridiculous ever happen in the world? Is it so ridiculous to imagine that something ridiculous might have happened? After the verdict over Essex was pronounced, Hume writes, the Queen was in a state of “most real agitation and irresolution. She felt a perpetual combat between resentment and inclination, pride and compassion, the care of her own safety and concern for her favourite; and her situation, during this interval, was perhaps more an object of pity, than that to which Essex himself was reduced. She signed the warrant for his execution; she countermanded it; she again resolved on his death; she felt a new return of tenderness. Essex’s enemies told her, that he himself desired to die, and had assured her, that she could never be in safety while he lived: It is likely, that this proof of penitence and of concern for her would produce a contrary effect to what they intended, and would revive all the fond affection, which she had so long indulged towards the unhappy prisoner. But what chiefly hardened her heart against him was his supposed obstinacy, in never making, as she hourly expected, any application to her for mercy; and she finally gave her consent to his execution.” [23.4]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Why should Elizabeth, in her sixty-eighth year, not still have loved, she who so loved to be loved? She who was so flattered when someone extolled her beauty? She who liked it so much when someone seemed to wear her chains? The world has likely never seen a more vain woman in this respect. Her courtiers all pretended to be in love with her and employed, with all appearance of earnestness, manners of the most ridiculous gallantry when addressing Her Majesty. When Raleigh fell into dishonor he wrote a letter to his friend Cecil – which he doubtless intended to be shown to the Queen – in which he said the Queen was his Venus, his Diana, and I don’t know what else. [23.5] This goddess was nevertheless sixty years old at the time. Five years later Heinrich Unton, her emissary in France, conducted the same discourse with her. In short, Corneille was perfectly justified in attributing to her all the weaknesses of being in love, which allowed him to bring the tender woman into such interesting conflict with the proud Queen. [23.6]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Furthermore, he neither distorted nor falsified the character of Essex. Essex, Voltaire claims, was not the hero Corneille makes him out to be; he never did anything remarkable. [23.7] But even if he was no hero, he certainly believed himself one. The destruction of the Spanish Armada and the capture of Cadiz – events in which Voltaire believes he played little or no part – he held to be so very much his own work that he could not stand it when anyone else claimed the least bit of honor from them. He offered to prove with sword in hand that these honors belonged to him alone, in single combat against the Earl of Nottingham (under whom he had held his command), or his son, or any of his relatives. [23.8]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Corneille has the Earl speak very disparagingly of his enemies, particularly Raleigh, Cecil, and Cobham. [23.9] Voltaire disapproves of this as well. It is not permitted, he says, to falsify modern history so grossly and to abuse men of such noble birth and great merits so undeservingly. [23.10] But it does not matter here what these men were, only what Essex thought they were, and Essex was proud enough of his own merits not to allow them any whatsoever.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 When Corneille has Essex say that the only thing keeping him from ascending the throne himself was a lack of will, he certainly has him say something that is quite far from the truth. [23.11] But even so, Voltaire had no need to exclaim over it: “What? Essex on the throne? By what right? Under what pretexts? How would that have been possible?” [23.12] For Voltaire should have remembered that Essex descended from the royal house on his mother’s side, and that he in fact had supporters who were imprudent enough to count him among those who could make a claim to the crown. Consequently, when he entered into secret negotiations with King James of Scotland, the first thing he did was to reassure the king that he himself had never had such ambitions. What he distances himself from here is not considerably different from what Corneille has him imply.[23.13]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Thus, while Voltaire finds nothing but historical inaccuracies throughout the whole play, he perpetrates some himself that are not insignificant. Walpole[*] has already made fun of one of them. [23.14] Namely, when Voltaire goes to name the favorites of Queen Elizabeth, he names Robert Dudley and the Earl of Leicester. [23.15] He did not know that they were both the same person, and that one could with the same justification make two different persons out of the poet Arouet and the Chamberlain de Voltaire. [23.16] Just as unforgiveable is the hysteron proteron he lapses into with the box on the ear the Queen gave Essex. [23.17] It is false that he received it after his unsuccessful expedition in Ireland; he had received it long before then. Moreover, it is just as untrue that at the time he tried to soften the Queen’s anger through any humility; rather, he expressed his feelings about the matter both verbally and in writing in the most lively and noble manner. He also did not take the first step toward his own pardon; the Queen had to take it. [23.18]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 So to what degree does M. de Voltaire’s historical ignorance concern me? As little as Corneille’s historical ignorance should have concerned him. And actually I just want to defend the latter against the former.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Corneille’s whole tragedy is a fiction: if it is moving, does it then become less moving because the poet has made use of real names?

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Why does the tragic playwright choose real names? Does he take his characters from these names, or does he take these names because the characters that history attributes to them are more or less similar to the characters that he has undertaken to show in his story? I speak here not of the way that most tragedies probably have originated, but rather of how they really should originate. Or, to express myself in better accordance with the usual praxis of poets: does the writer choose one given incident over another because of the mere facta, the circumstances of the time and place, or because of the character of the persons through whom those facta become real? If it is because of the characters, then does that not immediately decide the question of how far the writer can depart from historical truth? As far as he wants in everything that does not concern the characters. Only the characters are sacred to him: to strengthen these, to show these in their best light, is all he may be permitted to do on his own. The smallest substantial change would void the reasons why they have these names and not others, and nothing is more offensive than something for which we ourselves cannot give a reason.


14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [*] The Castle of Otranto, Preface.

  • 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  • [23.1] Lessing continues his discussion, from [22], of Thomas Corneille’s Le Comte d’Essex [The Earl of Essex] (1678). Voltaire, in his collected works of Pierre Corneille, includes two plays by Thomas Corneille, including Le Comte d’Essex, which he critiques in his prefatory material entitled “Le Comte d’Essex, Tragédie de Thomas Corneille, 1678. Préface de l’Éditeur” (1761).
  • [23.2] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1007, 1013.
  • [23.3] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1004.
  • [23.4] Lessing provides a loose translation of Hume (The History of England 4: 515). We reproduce Hume’s original.
  • [23.5] Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?–1618), the courtier-explorer, competed with Essex for Elizabeth’s favor. Sir Robert Cecil (1563–1612), 1st earl of Salisbury, became Elizabeth’s chief minister.
  • [23.6] Paragraph paraphrased from Hume, History of England, 4: 562-63.
  • [23.7] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1004.
  • [23.8] From Hume, History of England 4: 475. Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1013. Capture of Cadiz: in 1596, the Spanish port of Cadiz fell to a naval expedition led by Essex, Raleigh, and Charles Howard (1536-1624), commander of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada, later ennobled as the Earl of Nottingham.
  • [23.9] Corneille, Comte d’Essex, 3. Cobham: Henry Brooke (later Lord Cobham) (1527-97), brother-in-law of Robert Cecil.
  • [23.10] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1006.
  • [23.11] Corneille, Le Comte d’Essex, 27.
  • [23.12] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1012.
  • [23.13] From Hume, History of England 4: 508.
  • [23.14] Lessing read the 1767 French translation of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), the preface of which takes issue with Voltaire’s historical accuracy (see Walpole, 23).
  • [23.15] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1002. Robert Dudley (1532/33–88): created Earl of Leicester in 1564 by Queen Elizabeth I; stepfather of Essex.
  • [23.16] The poet Arouet: Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet; he was appointed a chamberlain of the court by Frederick II of Prussia in 1750.
  • [23.17] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1017. Hysteron proteron: rhetorical device in which temporal order is reversed.
  • [23.18] From Hume, History of England 4: 483–84.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-23/