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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 35

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 28 August 1767[35.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†]In all honesty, that last bit of business belonged solely to Favart; Marmontel did not venture it.[35.2] Moreover, the previous bit is more refined in Marmontel than in Favart. For in Favart, Roxelane gives away the handkerchief that the Sultan had given her. She pretends that Delia deserves it more than she; she appears to reject it – it is an insult. In Marmontel, on the other hand, Roxelane has the Sultan give her the handkerchief and then gives it to Delia in his name, thereby dodging a token of favor that she is not yet willing to receive, and she does so with the most generous and kindhearted air – the Sultan cannot hold anything against her other than that she perceives his sentiments so poorly (or does not want to perceive them better).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Doubtless Favart believed he could make Roxelane’s performance even more lively through these embellishments; he saw the tendency to impertinence already in the role, and one more or less could do it no harm, especially if he already had in mind the change he wanted to make with this character at the end. For in spite of the fact that his Roxelane is more reckless in her antics and more brazenly wanton in behavior, he nonetheless made her into a better and more noble character than the one we see in Marmontel’s Roxelane. And why is that?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It is this change that I wanted to address above, and it seems to me that it is so successful and advantageous that it deserved to be noticed by the French, and its creator should have been given credit for it.[35.3]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Marmontel’s Roxelane is really what she seems to be: a foolish, presumptuous little thing who has the good fortune to appeal to the Sultan’s taste, and who understands the art of increasing that taste through increasingly voracious hunger that she knows not to satisfy until she has reached her goal. Behind Favart’s Roxelane, however, there is more: she seems to play the saucy temptress rather than actually to be it, and seems to have tested the Sultan through her effrontery, rather than to have exploited his weaknesses. For no sooner has she brought the Sultan to where she wants to have him, no sooner does she see that his love is boundless, than she immediately drops her mask and gives him an explanation that, while seeming somewhat out of the blue, nonetheless shines a light on her previous conduct that reconciles us to her completely. “Now I know you, Sultan; I have probed your soul to its most utmost depths. It is a noble, grand soul, fully open to honorable sentiments. So much virtue enchants me! Now learn to know me. I love you, Soliman; I cannot help but love you! Take back all your rights, take back my freedom, be my Sultan, my hero, my master! You must otherwise think me very vain and unjust. No, do nothing other that what your law allows. There are prejudices one must respect. I want a lover who need not blush on my account. See here in Roxelane nothing but your obedient slave.”[*] [35.4] This is what she says, and she suddenly becomes completely different to us; the coquette disappears, and a dear girl stands before us, as sensible as she is whimsical. Soliman ceases to seem contemptible to us, because this better Roxelane is worthy of his love. Indeed, in that moment, we begin to worry that he might not love her enough, this girl he seemed to love far too much before, and that he might take her at her word – the lover might once again become the despot as soon as his mistress becomes a slave; instead of a fiery confirmation of his decision, he might give her a cold acknowledgment of gratitude for preventing him, in the nick of time, from taking such a dangerous step, and the good child might suddenly lose, through her generosity, everything she had so painstakingly achieved through willful arrogance. But these fears are in vain, and the play ends to our complete satisfaction.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 So what brought Favart to this change? Is it merely whimsical, or did he feel compelled by the particular rules of the genre in which he was working? Why didn’t Marmontel also give his story this more satisfactory outcome? Is the opposite of that which is beautiful in the former, an error in the latter?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I recall having written elsewhere about the differences between the plot of Aesopian fables and the drama.[35.5] What is true of the former is true of any moral tale that has the intention of guiding us to intuit a universal moral principle.[35.6] We are satisfied if this intention is achieved, and it makes no difference to us whether or not that happens by way of a complete story that constitutes a well-rounded whole; the writer can break it off where he wants to, once he reaches his goal. He is not concerned about the interest we take in the fate of the characters he uses to tell the story; he did not intend to interest us, but to instruct us. He is concerned only with our minds, not with our hearts, and the latter might be satisfied or not, so long as the former is illuminated. The drama, on the other hand, makes no claim to a single specific lesson flowing out of its story. It is either about the passions kindled and entertained by the course of events and changes of fortunes presented in its plot, or about the pleasure afforded by a true and lively depiction of mores and characters. Both of these require a certain completeness of action and a certain satisfying conclusion that we do not miss in the moral tale, because all of our attention is directed to the universal moral principle illuminated by the obvious example of one singular case.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 If, then, it is true that Marmontel wanted to use his story to teach that love cannot be forced, that it must be obtained through indulgence and accommodation, not through authority and violence, then he was right to end as he did.[35.7] The unruly Roxelane is conquered only through yielding; he does not care what we think of her character or the Sultan’s, even if we continue to take her for a fool and him for nothing better. Moreover, Marmontel has absolutely no reason to reassure us about the consequences; it can still seem probable to us that the Sultan will soon regret his blind acquiescence – what is that to him? He wanted to show us, in general, the effect acquiescence can have on a woman, so he used one of the wildest women, unconcerned about whether she was worth such acquiescence or not.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 But when Favart wanted to bring this story to the theater, he quickly perceived that for the most part the intuition of the moral principle was largely lost as a result of the dramatic form, and that, if it could be completely retained, the pleasure that arose from it was not so great and lively that it would be worth sacrificing a different pleasure that is more intrinsic to the drama. I mean here the pleasure provided by characters that are both clearly imagined and well drawn. Nothing offends us more in this respect than the contradiction we find between their moral worth or worthlessness and the author’s treatment of them; that is, when we find that he has either deceived himself, or at least wants to deceive us, by putting what is small up on stilts, giving willful foolishness the veneer of cheerful wisdom, and outfitting vice and absurdity with all of the deceptive charms of fashion, refined behavior, and the sophisticated trappings of persons of quality. The more our first impressions are misled by this, the more severely do we judge; we declare the ugly face that we see so beautifully painted to be even uglier than it really is, and nothing is left to the writer but to choose whether he would rather be considered a preparer of poison or an imbecile. This is how Favart and his characters Soliman and Roxelane would have fared, and Favart understood this. But since he could not change these characters from the beginning without spoiling an abundance of theatrical scenes that he judged to be perfectly suited to the taste of his parterre, there was nothing else for him to do but what he did. Now we are glad not to have to taken pleasure in anything that we could not also respect, and at the same time this respect satisfies our curiosity and concern about the future. Since the drama’s illusion is much stronger than that of a mere story, we are far more interested in the characters of the former and are not content to see their fate decided merely for the present moment; rather, we want to feel satisfied on their account once and for all.


10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [*] Sultan, j’ai pénetré ton ame;
J’en ai demêlé les ressorts.
Elle est grande, elle est fiere, & la gloire l’enflame,
Tant de vertus excitent mes transports.
A ton tour, tu vas me connoitre:
Je t’aime, Soliman; mais tu l’as mérité.
Reprends tes droits, reprends ma liberté;
Sois mon Sultan, mon Heros & mon Maitre.
Tu me soupçonnerois d’injuste vanité.
Va, ne fais rien, que ta loi n’autorise;
Il est de préjugés qu’on ne doit point trahir,
Et je veux un Amant, qui n’ai point à rougir:
Tu vois dans Roxelane une Esclave soumise.

  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [35.1] Essay actually published 8 December 1767.
  • [35.2] Lessing continues his discussion, begun in [33], of Favart’s play Soliman second [Soliman the Second], an adaptation of Marmontel’s story “Soliman II;” here Lessing responds to French criticism of stage business involving Roxelane’s rejection of Soliman’s handkerchief. See [34].
  • [35.3] In [33], Lessing interrupts his analysis of Favart’s changes to Marmontel’s story (“I want to dwell on just one of these changes. But first I must quote the criticism that the French themselves made regarding this play.”).
  • [35.4] Here we provide a translation of Lessing’s rendering of Favart’s text; Lessing appends a (mostly faithful) quote of the original French in his footnote (Favart, Soliman second, 58–9).
  • [35.5] Lessing, “Fabeln und Fabelabhandlungen,” Werke und Briefe 4: 362 ff.
  • [35.6] See Lessing, “Fabeln und Fabelabhandlungen,” Werke und Briefe 4: 376.
  • [35.7] See Marmontel, “Préface” iv.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-35/?replytopara=10