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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 32

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 18 August 1767 [32.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Corneille could have gone further back in history for examples from the ancients.[32.2] Many imagine that tragedy was invented in Greece to revive the memory of great and extraordinary events, that therefore its primary purpose was to walk precisely in the footsteps of history, veering neither to the left nor to the right. But they are wrong. For even Thespis[*] didn’t concern himself in the least with historical accuracy.[32.3] It is true, he earned a sharp rebuke from Solon for that.[32.4] But without saying that Solon was more skilled in legislation than poetry, one can avoid the consequences that could be drawn from his disapproval in a different way. In Thespis’s hands the art already took liberties that it could not yet fully justify, based on how they were used. Thespis concocted, invented, had the most famous people say and do what he wanted, but it seems he did not understand how to make his fabrications either probable or instructive. Solon noticed only what was untrue in them, without gaining the least impression of what was useful. He inveighed against a poison that, lacking its antidote, easily could have ill effects.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I very much fear that Solon might well have called the great Corneille’s fabrications nothing but wretched lies, too. For what is the purpose of all these inventions? Do they make the history that gets saddled with them the least bit more probable?[32.5] They are not even probable in and of themselves. Corneille boasted that they were very wonderful efforts of his power of invention, and yet he really should have known that it is not the mere act of invention, but rather invention with a purpose, that gives proof of a creative mind.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In history the poet finds a woman who kills her husband and sons. Such a deed can awaken terror and compassion, and he decides to handle it as tragedy.[32.6] But history tells him nothing more than mere fact, which is as horrid as it is extraordinary. It provides at most three scenes, which, stripped of any extenuating circumstances, are three improbable scenes. – What is the poet to do?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Depending on how much he deserves this name, either the improbability, or the insufficient length, will seem the greater shortcoming for his play.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 If he falls into the first category, then he will be anxious above all to invent a series of causes and effects that make it absolutely necessary for those improbable crimes to have occurred. Dissatisfied with basing their possibility merely on historical authenticity, he will try to construct his characters in such a way as to make the events that set these characters into action arise necessarily from each other; he will try to measure the passions of each character precisely and to develop these passions through gradual steps; he will do all this so that overall we perceive nothing but the most natural, orderly course of events. With every step his characters take, we would have to acknowledge that in the same heat of passion, the same state of affairs, we ourselves would have done the same. Nothing in all this would disconcert us except the imperceptible approach of an end from which our imaginations recoil. Once there, we find ourselves full of the most sincere compassion towards those who are carried away by such a fatal current, and full of terror knowing that a similar current could carry us away to commit deeds that in cold blood we imagine to be completely farfetched. – And if the writer takes this path, if his genius tells him that he will not falter shamefully upon it, then all at once that meager brevity of his plot has also disappeared, and it no longer worries him how he will fill five acts with so few incidents. Now he only worries that five acts will not encompass all of the material that, as he works on it, keeps increasing more and more on its own, now that he has finally figured out its hidden organization and understood how to develop it.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 On the other hand, the poet who deserves this name less, who is nothing more than a wit and a good verse writer, he, I say, will object so little to the improbability of his material that, on the contrary, he thinks this is precisely what is astonishing about it, and he would not minimize it at all lest he rob himself of his most certain means for arousing terror and compassion. For he understands so little what this terror and compassion really consist of, that he thinks he cannot pile up enough unusual, unexpected, unbelievable, and monstrous things in order to call forth terror, and believes he must constantly resort to the most extraordinary and grisly accidents and crimes to awaken compassion. He has thus scarcely flushed from history a Cleopatra, murderess of her husband and sons, than he sees that there is nothing more to do to make a tragedy out of it than to fill in the gaps between the two crimes, and to fill them in with things that are at least as repulsive as the crimes themselves. He then kneads all of this – his inventions and the historical material – together into a quite long, quite incomprehensible romantic fiction, and when he has kneaded this together as well as straw and flour might be kneaded together, then he stretches his dough over the wire frame of acts and scenes, has his characters explain and explain, rant and rhyme, and in four, six weeks, depending on whether the rhyming is easy or difficult for him, the miracle is done: it is called a tragedy. It is printed and performed, read and seen, admired or catcalled, retained or forgotten – as kind Fortune will have it. For “& habent sua fata libelli.[32.7]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Dare I apply this to the great Corneille? Or do I really need to? – According to the mysterious fate that governs literary works as well as people, his Rodogune has been admired throughout France, and sometimes throughout Europe, for more than one hundred years as the greatest masterpiece of the greatest tragic playwright. Can one hundred years of admiration be without basis? Where have people kept their eyes, their sensibilities for so long? From 1644 to 1767, was it left exclusively to the Hamburg dramaturg to see spots in the sun, to demote a star to a meteor?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Oh no! In just the previous century an honest Huron sat in the Bastille in Paris.[32.8] Time grew heavy on his hands, even though he was in Paris, and he studied the French poets out of boredom. This Huron did not like Rodogune at all.[32.9] Later, at the beginning of this century, a pedant somewhere in Italy had his fill of the Greek tragedies and of the works of his countrymen from the sixteenth century, and he too found much to criticize in Rodogune.[32.10] Finally a few years ago even a Frenchman who was otherwise a tremendous admirer of the Corneille name (for, being rich and of a very good heart, he had befriended a poor abandoned granddaughter of this great poet, had her raised under his care, taught her to write pretty verses, collected charity for her, wrote a big, lucrative commentary on her grandfather’s works to fund her dowry, etc.) nevertheless declared Rodogune to be a very nonsensical poem, and wondered himself to death how such a great man as the great Corneille could have written such absurd junk.[32.11] – The dramaturg has undoubtedly been influenced by one of these, and probably by the last, for after all it is generally a Frenchmen who opens the eyes of foreigners to the mistakes of a Frenchman. Most certainly he echoes this man, or if it is not this one, then at least the Italian, if not the Huron. In any case, he must be repeating the words of one of them. For who could imagine that a German, on his own, would think to – have the audacity to – doubt the excellence of a Frenchman?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [†]I will discuss these predecessors of mine more the next time Rodogune is performed.[32.12] My readers wish to move on, and so do I. For now just one more word about the translation used for the performance of this play. It was not the old Wolfenbüttel edition by Bressand, but rather a brand new one, in rhymed Alexandrine verse, that was done here and has not yet been published.[32.13] It need not blush in comparison to the best of this type; it is full of powerful, felicitous passages. However, I know that the translator has too much discretion and taste to undertake such a thankless task again.[32.14] To translate Corneille well, one must be able to make better verses than he himself did.


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [*] Diogenes Laertius, Bk. I § 59.

  • 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  • [†]Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [32.1] Essay actually issued 8 December 1767.
  • [32.2] Lessing continues his discussion from [31] of P. Corneille’s tragedy Rodogune. For the plot of Rodogune, see [29].
  • [32.3] Thespis (fl. 6th century BCE): Athenian playwright (and reputably the first actor in ancient Greece), commonly referred to as the inventor of tragedy.
  • [32.4] According to an anecdote recounted by both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, after seeing Thespis perform, Solon equated fiction with the presentation of lies. See Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Chapter 2, and Plutarch, Plutarch Lives I, Chapter 29. For a more nuanced exploration of Solon’s view of tragedy, see Fantuzzi 394–5.
  • [32.5] The concept of “probability,” derived from Aristotle, is a lynchpin of neoclassical dramatic theory. In Butcher’s translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, see Section 1, Part IX (“it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity”); Section 3, Part XXIV (“the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities”); and Section 3, Part XXV (“with respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible”).
  • [32.6] Tr. note: this is the first instance in the Hamburg Dramaturgy in which Lessing invokes the familiar Aristotelian coupling of phobos (fear) and eleos (pity). The terms Lessing uses in this essay, and in all of the subsequent essays until [74], are Schrecken and Mitleid; beginning in [74] he argues for the use of Furcht (fear) instead of Schrecken (terror). In [74] Lessing grounds his understanding of Mitleid in Mendelssohn’s theory, outlined in his Philosophische Schriften [Philosophical Writings], that Mitleid involves the capacity to “share all sorts of suffering or pathos” with another person, hence the word (mit = with, + Leid = suffering, pain). “Compassion” in English has a similar etymological construction, hence our choice to use “compassion” for eleos/Mitleid instead of the conventional term “pity.” Dahlstrom, Mendelssohn’s translator, chooses “sympathy.” See Mendelssohn, Philosophical Writings 141–2, and [74].
  • [32.7] “Books have their fates, according to their reader’s understanding” (Terentianus Maurus, “De syllabus” 93, 1286).
  • [32.8] An honest Huron: Lessing refers to the protagonist of Voltaire’s novella, L’Ingénu [The Innocent] (1767). French by birth, but raised by Hurons, the young man knows nothing of European civilization; after arriving in Paris, he is imprisoned in the Bastille for renouncing French suppression of religious freedom. Lessing may not have known that Voltaire was the author of L’Ingénu (see Robertson 171–2).
  • [32.9] In chapter 12, the imprisoned “Huron” reads ancient Greek and French drama. He enjoys the Greek works, Molière, and Racine, but finds Rodogune’s verse unmoving and its plot confusing, improbable, and sometimes disgusting.
  • [32.10] Some believe that Lessing refers to Francesco Scipione Maffei (1675–1755), the influential Italian playwright, critic, and archaeologist, who published his Osservazioni sopra la Rodoguna [Observations on Rodogune] (1700). Robertson, however, argues that Lessing refers instead to Count Pietro dei Conti di Calepio (1693–1762), the author of Paragone della Poesia tragica d’Italia con quella de Francia [Comparison of Italian Tragic Poetry with that of France] (1732); see Robertson 291–2.
  • [32.11] A reference to Voltaire and the origins of his edited collection of P. Corneille’s plays. Voltaire had indeed assumed guardianship of Marie Corneille, the impoverished granddaughter not of Pierre Corneille, but of his cousin (also named Pierre), and through his herculean publishing efforts, succeeded in providing her with income and a handsome dowry. For the complete backstory and fuller literary context, see Williams, “Prelude to the First Edition” in Commentaires sur Corneille (I). For Voltaire’s opinion of Rodogune, see Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 475–560.
  • [32.12] Rodogune was repeated on August 26, 1767, but Lessing provides no commentary on this performance, nor on the following half dozen performances in 1768 and 1769.
  • [32.13] Friedrich Christian Bressand (c. 1670–99): Rodogune, Princessin aus Parthien (Wolfenbüttel, 1691).
  • [32.14] For more on the new translation and possible identity of the translator, see [29.7].
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-32/