A New and Complete Translation

Essay 30

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 11 August 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the history, Cleopatra kills her husband, shoots one of her sons, and tries to poison the other.[30.1] Without doubt one crime followed upon the other, and essentially they all had one and the same origin. At least we can assume with some probability that this singular jealousy could turn a raging wife into an equally raging mother. To see herself set aside in favor of a second wife and made to share the love of her husband and the grandeur of her rank, quickly brought resolve to her sensitive and proud heart not to possess at all what it could not possess alone. Demetrius cannot be permitted to live because he will not live for Cleopatra alone. The guilty husband falls; but with him a father also falls, leaving vengeful sons behind. In the heat of her passion the mother had not thought of them, or she had only thought of them as her sons, of whose devotion she was assured, or at least whose childish zeal would, if it had to choose between parents, unfailingly declare itself in favor of the party that was injured first. But she found this was not so; the son became king, and the king did not see the mother in Cleopatra, only the regicide. She had everything to fear from him, and, from that moment on, he had everything to fear from her. Jealousy still boiled in her heart; the faithless husband still remained in his son; she began to hate everything that reminded her she once loved him; self-preservation strengthened this hatred; the mother was better prepared than the son, the offender better prepared than the offended; she committed the second murder in order to escape punishment for the first; she perpetrated it against her son and consoled herself with the idea that she had only perpetrated it on someone who was fixed upon her own ruin, that she did not actually murder, but only preempted her own murder. The fate of the older son would also have been the fate of the younger; but the latter was swifter or luckier. He forces the mother to drink the poison that she had prepared for him; one inhumane crime revenges the other, and it just comes down to circumstances to determine whether we ought to feel more disgust or compassion for one side or the other.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This triple murder would make up only one action that has its beginning, middle, and end in the same passion of the same person. What is still missing as material for a tragedy? For the genius, nothing is missing; for the bungler, everything.[30.2] There is no love, no complication, no recognition, no unexpected miraculous event; everything goes its natural way. This natural way inspires the genius, and it frightens the bungler. Genius concerns itself only with incidents that are grounded in each other, with chains of cause and effect. To trace one back to another, to weigh one against another, to consistently exclude chance, to let everything that happens, happen in such a way that it could not happen otherwise: this is his task, when he works in the field of history, in order to transform the useless hordes of memory into nourishment for the spirit. On the other hand, if a wit attempts the kind of work that should be reserved to genius alone, because he is not concerned with events that are grounded in each other but rather only with what is similar or dissimilar, he dwells on events that have nothing more in common with each other than that they happen at the same time. The only thing the wit can do is join these together, weaving and tangling their threads so that from one moment to the next we lose one among the others and are toppled from one perplexity into another. From this constant intersecting of such threads of wholly different colors a fabric emerges that is to art what the weavers call changeant: a material that we cannot call blue or red, green or yellow; it is both, it seems one thing from one side, and something else from the other.[30.3] A toy for fashion, trick-attire for children.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Now judge whether the great Corneille adapted his material more like a genius or like a wit. The only thing needed for this judgment is to apply a principle that no one would doubt: the genius loves simplicity, the wit, complexity.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In the history, Cleopatra kills her husband out of jealousy. “Out of jealousy?” thought Corneille: that would be a very common woman indeed. No, my Cleopatra must be a heroine, who might have gladly lost her husband, but never the throne. The fact that her husband loves Rodogune would not hurt as much as Rodogune becoming queen like her; that is much grander. –

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Precisely: far grander – and much less natural. For one thing, pride is essentially a less natural, more artificial vice than jealousy. Secondly, the pride of a woman is even less natural than the pride of a man. The female gender is equipped by nature for love, not for violence – it should awaken tenderness, not fear; it should be powerful only through its attraction; it should rule only through caresses, and should not wish to rule any more than it can enjoy. A woman who likes to dominate simply for the sake of dominance, whose every desire is subordinate to ambition, who knows no other happiness than to order, to tyrannize, and to place her foot upon the neck of an entire populace; such a woman may once, even more than once, have really existed, but she is nevertheless an exception, and whoever represents an exception, definitely represents something less natural. Corneille’s Cleopatra, who is just such a woman, who indulges all crimes to satisfy her ambition, her wounded pride, who flings about nothing but Machiavellian maxims, is a monster of her gender, and in comparison Medea is virtuous and loveable.[30.4] For all of the horrors that Medea commits are committed out of jealousy. I will forgive a tender, jealous woman everything; she is just as she should be, only more intense. But one’s whole heart rises up against a woman who perpetrates crimes out of cold pride, out of calculated ambition; and all the art of a playwright cannot make her interesting to us. We gape at her as we gape at a monster; and when we have satisfied our curiosity, we then thank heaven that nature only errs thus once in a thousand years, and we complain about the poet who wants to pass off such miscreants as human beings whose acquaintance might benefit us. Look through all of history: among fifty women who toppled their husbands from a throne and murdered them, there is hardly one concerning whom we could not prove that only wounded love drove her to this act. Hardly a one went so far as to seize the scepter that a loving husband held merely out of naked desire to rule, out of pure pride. Many of these injured spouses, after having seized power, went on to govern the realm with masculine pride; this is true. They had learned all too well from their cold, ill-tempered husbands how mortifying subservience was; so much so that their subsequent independence, achieved only with utmost risk, would have been that much more precious to them. But surely no one ever thought or experienced what Corneille has his Cleopatra say about herself: the most preposterous bravado of vice. The greatest villain tries to justify himself, tries to persuade himself that the evil he commits is not such a great evil, or that unavoidable necessity forces him to commit it. It flies in the face of nature that he would pride himself on vice as vice; and we should chastise the playwright who, out of a desire to say something dazzling and strong, leads us to misread the human heart, as if its basic tendencies could tend toward evil for the sake of evil.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 No playwright gives us such misshapen characters, such shocking tirades more frequently than Corneille, and it could well be that this is the basis in part for his epithet, “the Great.” It is true, everything he does breathes heroism; but that includes vice, which should not be capable of heroism, and which is really not capable of it. One should have named him “the Behemoth,” “the Gigantic,” but not “the Great.” Nothing is great that is not true.

  • 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  • [30.1] Lessing continues, from [29], his discussion of Pierre Corneille’s Rodogune (1644) and its relation to the historical account of Appianus Alexandrinus.
  • [30.2] Genius: Lessing did not subscribe to the increasingly popular “cult of genius” of the late eighteenth century. For him, genius was not generative (as it would be for the Romantics), but rather an indication of an individual’s intuitive grasp of the laws of nature.
  • [30.3] Changeant: fabric, usually cotton or silk, woven with contrasting colors to create an iridescent effect depending on the light and direction viewed.
  • [30.4] Machiavellian maxims: proverbs of the Italian diplomat and author Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527); his famous treatise The Prince (1513) argues that a prince who wishes to maintain his position must learn how not to be good, and to use his goodness – or not – as necessity requires. The term “Machiavellian” now implies scheming, deceitfulness, cunning, and a lack of scruples. Here Lessing echoes both Corneille and Voltaire. Corneille describes Cleopatra as a “second Medea” in the play’s preface (“Appian Alexandrin” 6), while Voltaire, in his criticism of the play, refers to “sentences in the style of Machiavelli” [Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 498] and calls Cleopatra a monster [Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 508, 550].
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-30/