A New and Complete Translation

Essay 31

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 14 August 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Cleopatra revenges herself only on her husband in Appianus’s history; she could not or would not revenge herself on Rodogune.[31.1] When the play opens, the revenge upon her husband is already in the distant past; Demetrius’s murder is simply narrated, and all of the action of the play centers on Rodogune. Corneille does not abandon his Cleopatra with the job half done; she must not believe that she has had her revenge at all until she also revenges herself on Rodogune. It is absolutely natural for a jealous woman to be even more unforgiving toward her rival than she is toward her faithless husband. But as already mentioned, Corneille’s Cleopatra does not possess much, if any, jealousy; she is simply ambitious, and the revenge of an ambitious person should never resemble the revenge of a jealous one. The two passions are too different for their effects to be the same. Ambition is never without a kind of nobleness, and revenge conflicts so much with nobility that the revenge of the ambitious person cannot lack all restraint. As long as he pursues his goal, his revenge knows no limits; but as soon as he has reached it, as soon as he has gratified his passion, his revenge starts to become colder and more deliberate. He proportions his revenge not so much according to the disadvantages already suffered, but rather according to those yet to be feared. He forgets that a person has harmed him if that person cannot cause him further harm. He despises anyone he does not need to fear, and anyone he despises is unworthy of his revenge. Jealousy, on the other hand, is a kind of envy; and envy is a petty, sneaky vice that knows no other gratification than the complete destruction of its object. Jealousy rages forth in a fiery manner; nothing can placate it. Because the offense that awakened it never stops being the same offense, and because it continues to grow the longer it lasts, jealousy’s thirst for revenge can never be quenched and will sooner or later be carried out with equal fury. This is precisely what Cleopatra’s revenge in the Corneille play resembles, and the discordance between her revenge and her character can only be extremely offensive. Her proud attitudes and unbridled desire for honor and independence lead us to view her as a great and elevated soul who deserves our admiration. But then her spiteful resentment, her malicious vindictiveness against a person from whom she has nothing more to fear, whom she has in her power and would have to forgive had she the least spark of nobility, and the recklessness with which she not only commits crimes herself, but also brazenly and matter-of-factly asks others to commit the most senseless crimes – all these make her so small that we cannot despise her enough. In the end this disdain will invariably erode any admiration, and then nothing else remains of Cleopatra but an ugly disgusting woman who is always spluttering and raging and who deserves the first place in the madhouse.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But it is not enough for Cleopatra to revenge herself on Rodogune; the playwright insists she do so in a wholly exceptional way. How does he manage this? If Cleopatra gets rid of Rodogune herself, the thing is far too natural, for what is more natural than to kill one’s enemy? What if her murder were, at the same time, the execution of a mistress? And if she were killed by her lover? Why not? Let’s imagine that Rodogune never actually married Demetrius; let’s imagine that after his death, both sons fell in love with their father’s betrothed; let’s imagine that the sons are twins, that the throne belongs to the elder, but that the mother has always kept hidden from them which son is older; let’s imagine that the mother has finally decided to reveal the secret, or, rather, not to reveal it but instead to declare the one who is willing to agree to a certain condition the oldest, and thus put him on the throne; let’s imagine that this condition is Rodogune’s death. Now we would have what we wanted: both princes are incurably in love with Rodogune, and the one of the two who kills his beloved will rule.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Nice, but could we not complicate the plot further? Could we not make things even more difficult for the good princes? We will try. Let us imagine further that Rodogune learns of Cleopatra’s plot; let’s go on to imagine that she, in fact, loves one of the princes more than the other, but has not told him, has not told anyone, nor will she, for she has firmly decided that she will choose for her husband neither the prince she loves, nor the one to whom the throne might revert, that she will only choose the one who proves himself the most worthy. Rodogune must be avenged, she must take revenge on the princes’ mother; Rodogune must declare to them: whichever of you wants me will have to murder your mother!

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Bravo! Now that is what I call a real intrigue! These princes are in luck! They will have a lot to do if they want to disentangle themselves! The mother tells them: whichever of you wants to rule will have to kill his beloved! And the beloved says: whoever wants me has to kill his mother! It goes without saying that these must be very virtuous princes, who love each other from the bottom of their souls, who have great respect for their devil of a mama, and just as much tenderness for their flirting fury of a mistress. For if they are not both very virtuous, then the complication is not nearly as bad as it seems; or it is so bad that is impossible to unravel it. One of them goes and strikes the princess dead in order to have the throne: the story is over. Or the other goes and strikes the mother dead, in order to have the princess: again, the story is done. Or both of them go and strike the beloved dead, and both want the throne: there is no ending here. Or they both strike the mother dead, and both want to have the girl: again, there is no ending. But if they are both genteel and virtuous, then neither will want to strike anyone dead, and so they both stand there prettily, mouths agape, not knowing what they should do, and that is precisely the beauty of it. Admittedly the play will get a very strange reputation from the fact that its women behave more dreadfully than furious men, and its men more effeminately than the feeblest of women: but what harm in that? Rather, this is yet another advantage for the play, insofar as the opposite is so common, so hackneyed! –

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But seriously: I do not know if it takes a great deal of effort to make up such fabrications; I have never tried it, and I hope I never have to. But I do know this: such fabrications are very painful to digest.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 To be sure, this is not because these are pure fabrications – because there is no trace of them to be found in history. Corneille could have spared himself these concerns. “Perhaps,” he says, “one might doubt if the freedom of poetry extends so far that it may concoct a whole story using famous names, as I have done here, where, after the narration in the first act which lays the foundation for what follows up until the outcomes in the fifth act, nothing occurs that has even the least historical basis.[31.2] However,” he continues, “it seems to me that as long as we retain the outcomes of history, then all of the circumstances leading up to them, all of the preambles to these results are in our power. At least I cannot recall any rule against this, and the practice of the ancients is wholly on my side. For just compare Sophocles’ Electra to Euripides’ Electra and see if they have anything more in common than just the result, the final outcomes of their heroine’s adventures, to which each arrives via a particular path and idiosyncratic means, so that at least one of them had to be wholly the invention of her author. Or just look at Iphigenia in Tauris, which Aristotle points to as a model of a perfect tragedy, and which nonetheless looks very much as if it is nothing more than a fabrication, insofar as it bases itself merely on the supposition that Diana spirited Iphigenia away from the altar on which she was to be sacrificed in a cloud, and slipped a deer in her place.[31.3] Above all, however, Euripides’ Helen deserves note, where the principle plot, the episodes, the complication, and the resolution are all completely invented, and nothing is taken from history but the names.”[31.4]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 To be sure, Corneille had the right to proceed as he saw fit with the facts of history. For example, he could make Rodogune as young as he wanted, and Voltaire is once again very wrong to calculate from the historical record that Rodogune could not have been so young, because she married Demetrius when the princes (who must now be at least twenty) were still children.[31.5] What is that to the poet? His Rodogune did not even marry Demetrius; she was very young when she wanted to marry the father, and not much older when the sons fell in love with her. Voltaire’s need for historical control is insufferable. If instead he would just verify the dates in his own general history of the world![31.6]

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [31.1] Lessing continues his discussion from [30] of P. Corneille’s tragedy Rodogune. For the plot of Rodogune, see [29].
  • [31.2] In this paragraph, Lessing quotes rather freely from Corneille’s introduction to Rodogune. See P. Corneille, “Appian Alexandrin” 7-8.
  • [31.3] Iphigenia in Tauris: Euripides’ tragedy, Iphigeneia en Taurois (c. 413 BCE). Lessing translates the title as Iphigenia in Taurika, following perhaps Dacier’s Iphigenia Taurique (see Robertson 171). Aristotle does not describe Iphigenia as a perfect tragedy per se, but uses the play to illustrate the best method for inciting pity and fear, as well as the best form of recognition and plot construction; see, respectively, Parts XIV, XVI, and XVII in Section 2 of Butcher’s translation of Poetics. In Parts XVI and XVII, Aristotle also speaks favorably of a different Iphigenia in Tauris by Polyidus the Sophist.
  • [31.4] Euripides: Helen (412 BCE), in which a phantom Helen is taken to Troy. The real Helen languishes in Egypt until she is reunited with Menelaus after the war’s end.
  • [31.5] In the Hamburg Dramaturgy, Lessing repeatedly challenges Voltaire’s need for historical accuracy in drama, as well as Voltaire’s own accuracy as a historian; see, for example [23] and [24]. For Voltaire’s comments on Rodogune’s age, see Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 501.
  • [31.6] Lessing alludes to French and German critiques of the Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations [Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations] (1756) and other historical works by Voltaire.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-31/