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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 37

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 4 September 1767[37.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I have said that Voltaire’s Merope was written in response to Maffei’s Merope.[37.2] But response says too little, for the one originates wholly in the other. The story, plot, and morals belong to Maffei: without him Voltaire would have written no Merope at all, or quite certainly a very different one.[37.3]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 To judge the Frenchman’s copy correctly, then, we must first get to know the Italian’s original; and to properly appreciate the latter’s poetic accomplishment, we must first and foremost cast an eye on the historical facts which are the basis of his story.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In the dedication pages of his play, Maffei himself summarizes these facts in the following manner.[37.4] “That some time after the fall of Troy, when the Heraclids, that is, the descendants of Hercules, reestablished themselves in the Peloponnesus, the area of Messene fell to Cresphontes by lot; that this Cresphontes’s wife was named Merope; that, because he showed such favor toward the people, Cresphontes and all of his sons were murdered by powerful men of the state, with the exception of the youngest son, who was being raised by a relative of his mother away from home; that when this youngest son, named Aepytus, was grown, he reclaimed his father’s kingdom with the help of the Arcadians and the Dorians and took revenge on his father’s murderers – Pausanius tells us all this.[37.5] That, after Cresphontes and his two sons were killed, Polyphontes, who was also of the race of the Heraclids, seized power; that he also forced Merope to become his wife; that the third son, whom the mother had had removed to safety, later killed the tyrant and recovered the kingdom – Apollodorus relates this.[37.6] That Merope herself unwittingly sought to kill the escaped son, but that she was prevented from doing so in the nick of time by an old servant who revealed to her that the man she took for her son’s murderer was her son himself; that the now-recognized son found an opportunity to slay Polyphontes during a ritual sacrifice – Hyginus reports this, except he gives Aepytus the name Telephon.”[37.7]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It would be surprising if such a story, which has such unusual revelations and reversals of fortune, had not already been exploited by the ancient tragedians.[37.8] And who says it was not? In his Poetics Aristotle remembers a Cresphontes in which Merope recognizes her son just as she is about to kill him, thinking he is the murderer of her son; and Plutarch, in his second discourse on the eating of meat, points without doubt to this very play,[*] when he refers to the stir aroused in the whole theater when Merope raises the axe against her son and to the fear seizing each spectator that the blow will happen before the old servant can arrive.[37.9] Admittedly, Aristotle mentions this Cresphontes without naming the author, but because we find a Cresphontes by Euripides cited in Cicero and many other ancient authors, he can hardly have meant any other poet’s work.[37.10]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Father Tournemine says in the letter mentioned above: “Aristotle, that wise lawmaker of the theater, placed the subject of Merope in the highest rank of subjects for tragedy (a mis ce sujet au premier rang des sujets tragiques). Euripides had adapted it, and Aristotle reports that whenever Euripides’ Cresphontes was presented in the theater of the perceptive Athenians, these people so accustomed to tragic masterpieces were struck, seized, and transported by extraordinary emotion.”[37.11] – Pretty phrases, but not much truth! The Father is wrong on both points. With the last thing he says, he has confused Aristotle with Plutarch; with the first he has misunderstood Aristotle.[37.12] The former is trivial, but it is worth taking the trouble to devote a few words to the latter, since many have misunderstood Aristotle in the same way.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The matter is as follows. In Chapter 14 of his Poetics Aristotle examines what kinds of incidents will arouse terror and compassion. He says that all incidents must happen either between friends, between enemies, or between people who are indifferent to each other. If an enemy kills his enemy, neither the initiation nor the execution of the deed awakens anything more than the general compassion associated with the sight of pain and ruin. And it is the same with persons who are indifferent to one another. Consequently, tragic incidents must occur among friends: a brother must kill his brother, a son his father, a mother her son, or a son his mother – they must kill or want to kill, they must mistreat or want to mistreat the other in some painful way. This can happen with or without knowledge and premeditation; and because the deed must either be carried to completion or not, four categories of incidents emerge that more or less correspond to the aims of tragedy. The first: when the deed is initiated deliberately against a person whose identity is fully known to the perpetrator, but the deed is not completed. The second: when it is initiated with this knowledge, and it is actually completed. The third: when the deed is undertaken and executed without full knowledge, and the perpetrator learns too late the identity of the victim. The fourth: when the deed initiated in ignorance is not successfully executed because the people involved recognize each other in time. Aristotle gives preference to the last of these four categories, and because he cites Merope’s behavior in Cresphontes as an example of that type, Tournemine and others have taken this to mean that he declares the plot of this drama to be the one of the most perfect of tragic plots.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 However, just before that Aristotle says that a good tragic plot must not end happily but unhappily.[37.13] How can these two coexist? It should end unhappily, and yet the incident he favors over all the other tragic incidents, according to the above classification, ends happily. Is it not obvious that the great critic is contradicting himself?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Dacier notes that Victorius was the only one who perceived this difficulty; but because he did not understand what Aristotle was really trying to do throughout the fourteenth chapter, he did not venture the least attempt to resolve it.[37.14] Dacier says that Aristotle was writing not of plot in general; rather, he wanted to demonstrate the different ways a poet could treat tragic incidents without changing the essentials provided by history, and to show which of these ways was the best. For example, if the subject of the play is to be Orestes’ murder of Clytemnaestra, then, according to Aristotle, four ways of handling this material become apparent: that is, either as an incident of the first, second, third or fourth category. The poet must consider which is the best and most fitting for his purposes. He cannot treat this murder as an incident belonging to the first category because according to history it has to happen, and Orestes must do it. It can’t belong to the second, because it would be too horrible. It can’t belong to the fourth, because once again Clytemnaestra would be saved as a result, and she should never be saved. As a result nothing remains but the third category.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The third! But Aristotle gives preference to the fourth, and not just in individual cases, according to the circumstances, but overall. Honest Dacier often does this: he believes Aristotle to be right, not because he is right, but because he is Aristotle. In trying to cover up one gap, he creates another one for him that is just as compromising. Now if an adversary has the presence of mind to attack the latter instead of the former, then the infallibility of his old maestro is on the line, which seems to mean much more to him than the truth itself. When so much depends on conforming to history, when the poet is allowed only to moderate, but never completely change, history’s generally known facts, won’t there be some among these that absolutely must be treated according to the first or second plans? The murder of Clytemnaestra ought to be presented in accord with the second, for Orestes committed it with both knowledge and deliberation, but the poet can choose the third because it is more tragic and it does not directly contradict history. Good, so be it. But what about Medea, who murders her children? What other plan can the poet adopt but the second? For she must kill them, and she must do so intentionally; both are well-known from history. What hierarchy can there be among these plans? The one that is most preferable in one case does not even come into consideration in another. Or, to drive Dacier even further into a corner, let us consider not historical events but fictional ones. Let us suppose that Clytemnaestra’s murder was fictional, and it was up to the poet whether to have it carried out or not, with or without full knowledge. Which plan would he have had to choose to create the most perfect tragedy out of the situation? Dacier himself says: the fourth, for when he prefers the third it is only out of respect for history. The fourth then? The one that ends happily? But the best tragedies, says the very Aristotle who accords the greatest preference to this fourth plan over all the others, are the ones that end unhappily. And that is precisely the contradiction that Dacier wanted to resolve. Did he resolve it, then? On the contrary, he confirmed it.


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [*] Assuming this (and we certainly can make this assumption, because it was neither the practice of the ancients, nor allowed, to steal such distinct situations from each other), the cited passage from Plutarch could probably lead one to a fragment of Euripides that Joshua Barnes has not included, which would be of use to a new editor of the poet’s works.

  • 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  • [37.1] Actually published 15 December 1767.
  • [37.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from [36] to [50], of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7.
  • [37.3] See Vrooman and Godden 94–100; 127–141.
  • [37.4] The text Lessing very loosely quotes in the following can be found in Maffei’s dedication of the play to Rinaldo I, Duke of Modena (Maffei, Teatro, xxxiv–xxxv).
  • [37.5] Pausanius, Description of Greece Bk. 4, Ch. 3, Sec. 7–8.
  • [37.6] Apollodorus, Library Bk. 2, Ch. 8.
  • [37.7] Hyginus, The Myths of Hyginus Fab.137.
  • [37.8] Revelations and reversals of fortune: reference to Aristotle’s concepts of peripeteia and anagnorisis.
  • [37.9] Cresphontes: lost tragedy by Euripides. See Aristotle, Poetics (Part XIV); and Plutarch, “On the Eating of Flesh II (De esu carnium II)” 2.5. Lessing’s footnote refers to the collection Euripidou Sōzomena Apanta (Extant Works of Euripides) (1694) by English scholar Joshua Barnes (1654–1712); the fragment from Euripides’ Cresphontes was indeed later found and published by German classicist August Nauck (1822–92) in his Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Fragments of Greek Tragedy) (1856), 395–98 (Fragment 452–462).
  • [37.10] See Cicero, Tusculan Disputations I, 48 (“On the Contempt of Death”).
  • [37.11] Tournemine, “A Letter,” 239–40; “Lettre du Père de Tournemine,” 213.
  • [37.12] Lessing is correct that Aristotle’s comments are misrepresented and that Plutarch’s are misattributed. See Vrooman and Godden 94–5.
  • [37.13] See Aristotle, Poetics (Part XIII).
  • [37.14] André Dacier (1651–1722): influential French translator and interpreter of classical works; here Lessing refers to “Remarques sur le Chapitre XV” (“Notes on Chapter 15”) in Dacier’s 1692 translation of and commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. See Aristotle and Dacier, La poëtique d’Aristote 224–25. Petrus Victorius (Pietro Vittori) (1499–1585): important Italian classicist; provided a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics in 1560.
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