¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 If the character of Corneille’s Elizabeth is the poetic ideal of the true character that history attributes to the Queen bearing this name; if there we find depicted in true colors the indecision, contradictions, fear, regret, and doubt into which a proud and tender heart like Elizabeth’s – I will not say “has degenerated” but merely “could be believed to have degenerated” – then the writer has done everything it behooves him to do as a writer. [24.1] To scrutinize his work with a chronology in hand, to take him before the court of history in order to make him prove every date, and every incidental reference – even those to people about whom history itself has doubts: this is to misunderstand both the poet and his calling. And when it comes from someone who cannot be accused of such a misunderstanding, it is, in a word, chicanery.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 To be sure, in the case of M. de Voltaire it could easily be neither misunderstanding nor chicanery. For Voltaire himself is a tragic poet and unquestionably a far greater one than the younger Corneille. It seems that one can be master of an art and yet still have false ideas about the art. And as to chicanery – the whole world knows that this is not his style. That which seems to resemble it here and there in his writings is nothing other than caprice: from time to time he plays the historian in poetry, the philosopher in history, and the wit in philosophy, all from mere caprice.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Should it be for nothing that he knows Elizabeth was sixty-eight when she had the Earl beheaded? Still in love, still jealous, in her sixty-eighth year! Add to this Elizabeth’s big nose, and what kind of hilarious ideas must arise! [24.2] Of course, these hilarious ideas are written in the commentary on a tragedy; that is, just where they do not belong. The writer would have been justified to say to his annotator: “My dear Mr. Notetaker, these droll stories belong in your general history, not below my text. For it is not true that my Elizabeth is sixty-eight years old. Show me where I say that. What is in my play that keeps you from assuming she is approximately the same age as Essex? You say: ‘But she was not the same age.’ Which she? Your Elizabeth in Rapin de Thoyras? [24.3] That might be. But why did you read Rapin de Thoyras? Why are you so learned? Why mix up his Elizabeth with mine? Do you seriously believe that the memory of what some spectator read in Rapin de Thoyras some time ago will be more vivid than the sensuous impression that a well-formed actress in her best years makes on him? He sees my Elizabeth and his own eyes will convince him that it is not your sixty-eight-year-old Elizabeth. [24.4] Or will he believe Rapin de Thoyras better than his own eyes?”
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The poet could similarly explain the role of Essex. “Your Essex in Rapin de Thoyras,” he could say, “is just the embryo of mine. What he believes himself to be in yours, he really is in mine. What he perhaps might have done for the Queen under happier circumstances, mine has done. Indeed, you hear that the Queen herself admits this; do you not want to trust my Queen as much as you trust Rapin de Thoyras? My Essex is a great and worthy man, but also a proud and inflexible one. Yours was in reality neither so great nor so inflexible: so much the worse for him. Enough for me, that he was in fact still great enough and inflexible enough to lend his name to the character I abstracted from him.”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In short: tragedy is not history rendered in dialogue form. For tragedy, history is nothing but a repertory of names with which we are accustomed to associate certain characters. If the poet finds historical details that are convenient to the embellishment and individualization of his material, then good, he should use them. Except that we should give him as little credit for this as we make a crime of the opposite!
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Aside from this point about historical truth, I am very prepared to subscribe to the rest of M. de Voltaire’s criticism. Essex is a mediocre play, with regards to both its plot and its style. To make the Earl into Ireton’s sighing lover, to have him end up on the scaffold more out of despair that he cannot be hers, than from a magnanimous pride that will not allow him to sink to excuses and pleas – this was the most unfortunate idea that Thomas could have had, but one which, as a Frenchman, he probably had to have. [24.5] The style is weak in the original language; in the translation it often becomes cringeworthy. But, in general, the play is not without interest and has successful verses from time to time; these are, however, more successful in French than in German. “Actors,” adds M. de Voltaire, “particularly those in the provinces, play the part of Essex far too gladly because they can appear in it with an embroidered ribbon under the knee and a big blue ribbon over the shoulders. The Earl is a hero of the first class who is dogged by envy: that makes an impression. Besides, the number of good tragedies from all nations in the world is so small that those that are not completely bad always draw an audience just so long as they are supported by good actors.” [24.6]
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 He defends this general judgment with several specific comments that are as correct as they are perceptive, and which we may want to recall with pleasure at a repeat performance. Thus I share the best of them here, in the firm belief that criticism does not compromise enjoyment, and that those who have learned to judge a play most sharply are always those who visit the theater most diligently.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “The role of Cecil is a minor role, and a very cold minor role. To paint such a cringing flatterer, one must have the same colors in his paint box that Racine used to portray Narcissus.” [24.7]
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “The fictional Duchess of Ireton is a rational virtuous woman who, in her love for the Earl, wants neither to bring the Queen’s disfavor upon herself nor to marry her lover. This character would be very beautiful if it had more life and if it contributed more to the complication; but here she merely fills the place of a friend. This is not sufficient for the theater.” [24.8]
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 “It seems to me that everything that is said and done by the persons in this tragedy remains very cockeyed, confused, and uncertain. The plot must be clear, the entanglements must be understandable, and every sentiment must be plain and natural: those are the first and most essential rules. But what does Essex want? What does Elizabeth want? What does the Earl’s crime consist of? Is he guilty, or has he been falsely accused? If the Queen holds him innocent, then she must help him. But if he is guilty, then it is very unreasonable to have the confidante say that he will never again plead for mercy, that he is far too proud for that. This pride is well suited to a virtuous innocent hero, but not to a man who has been convicted of high treason. The Queen says he should throw himself at her feet. But if she loves him, is that really the attitude she would have? Once he has subjugated himself, when he has accepted her forgiveness, will Elizabeth then be more loved by him than before? The Queen says: “I love him a hundred times more than I love myself.” Ah, Madame, if it has come to this, if your passion has become so fierce, then you should investigate the accusations against your beloved yourself and not allow his enemies to persecute him and oppress him in your name, the way they do throughout the whole play, without any cause.” [24.9]
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “We also cannot figure out whether the Earl’s friend Salisbury thinks he is guilty or innocent. He suggests to the Queen that appearances often deceive, and that one should take heed of the partisanship and unfairness of his judges. Nonetheless he seeks refuge in the Queen’s mercy. Why would he need this if he believes his friend not to be guilty? But what should the audience member believe? He does not know what to make either of the Earl’s plot or of the Queen’s tenderness towards him.” [24.10]
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “Salisbury informs the Queen that someone has forged the Earl’s signature. But it does not occur to the Queen to investigate such an important fact more closely. Nonetheless she was bound to do so, as Queen and as lover. She doesn’t even respond to this disclosure, which she should have seized with the greatest eagerness. She merely replies that the Earl is far too proud, and that she absolutely desires him to plead for mercy.” [24.11]
- ¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
- [24.1] Lessing continues his discussion from  of Voltaire’s critique of Thomas Corneille’s Le Comte d’Essex [The Earl of Essex].
- [24.2] For Voltaire’s comments about Elizabeth’s age and nose, see his preface to Corneille’s play (“Le Comte d’Essex,” 1004).
- [24.3] French historian Paul Rapin de Thoyras (1661–1725) recounts Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex in his Histoire d’Angleterre [History of England] 7: 508ff. As Rapin de Thoyras indicates, there was a thirty-four-year age difference between the monarch and her young favorite.
- [24.4] “Eighty-year-old Elizabeth,” in the first and some subsequent editions.
- [24.5] The Duchess of Irton [sic] is a fictional creation of Corneille; Jane Conroy suggests the name may have been inspired by Henry Ireton, son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell (Terres tragiques, 309).
- [24.6] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1025.
- [24.7] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1010. Narcissus (Narcisse): an opportunistic advisor to the titular character in Racine’s tragedy Britannicus (1669).
- [24.8] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1013.
- [24.9] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1015.
- [24.10] This quotation is paraphrased; see Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1016.
- [24.11] Voltaire, “Le Comte d’Essex,” 1016-17.
- [24.12] This precise sentence does not appear in Voltaire’s preface.