A New and Complete Translation

Essay 39

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 11 September 1767[39.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the end, Aristotle may or may not have contradicted himself, and Tournemine may or may not have understood him correctly: the plot of Merope is neither in the first nor second case purely and simply identifiable as a perfect tragic plot.[39.2] For if Aristotle has contradicted himself, then he has also just claimed the direct opposite about it, and we must examine first where he was more correct, there or here. If he has not contradicted himself, however – in accord with my explanation – then the good that he finds in it does not apply to the whole plot but rather to only one single part of it. Perhaps Father Tournemine’s misuse of his authority was also merely a Jesuit trick, an artful way of giving us to understand that such a perfect story, reworked by a great poet like Voltaire, would necessarily have to be a masterpiece.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But Tournemine and Tournemine – I fear my readers will ask: “Who is this Tournemine? We don’t know any Tournemine.” For many may really not know him, and some may ask such a question because they know him all too well, like Montesquieu.[*][39.3]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Kindly permit me, then, to substitute M. de Voltaire himself for Father Tournemine. For he, too, seeks to give us the same mistaken idea of Euripides’ lost play.[39.4] He too says that Aristotle, in his immortal Poetics, does not hesitate to declare the recognition between Merope and her son to be the most interesting moment of all Greek theater.[39.5] He also says that Aristotle gave preference to this “coup de théâtre” above all others. And he goes so far as to assure us that Plutarch held this play to be the most moving of all Euripides’ plays.[†] This last is pulled from thin air. For Plutarch does not even once mention by name the play from which he cites the story of Merope; he neither tells us what it is called nor who the author is, never mind declaring it to be the most moving of all Euripides’ plays.[39.6]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Aristotle supposedly did not hesitate to declare that the recognition between Merope and her son was the most interesting moment of all Greek theater! What an expression – did not hesitate to declare! What hyperbole – the most interesting moment, of all Greek theater! Should we not conclude from this that Aristotle sifts industriously through all of the interesting moments that a tragedy could have, compares them all, weighs the different examples that he finds from each particular poet against all the others, or at least among the famous poets, and in the end makes a claim that is as presumptuous as it is certain in favor of this moment from Euripides? Anyhow, he is only citing an example of a specific kind of interesting moment, and this is not even the only example of this kind. For Aristotle found similar examples in Iphigenia, where the sister recognizes the brother, and in the Helle, where the son recognizes the mother, in both cases just at the moment when they are about to go too far.[39.7]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The second example from Iphigenia does in fact come from Euripides, and if, as Dacier surmises, the Helle is also a work by this poet, then it would be quite remarkable for Aristotle to have found all three examples of such a happy recognition precisely in the work of the very poet who most frequently employs the unhappy peripeteia.[39.8] And why remarkable? We have seen that the one does not exclude the other, and although in Iphigenia the happy recognition follows on the unhappy peripeteia, and the play thus generally ends happily, who knows whether or not an unhappy peripeteia might have followed on the happy recognition in the other two, and thereby ended in precisely that manner that earned Euripides the title of being the most tragic of all tragic poets?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 With Merope, as I have shown, this could have gone two ways; whether or not it really happened cannot be concluded from the few fragments of the Cresphontes that are left to us. They contain nothing but moral attitudes and maxims occasionally quoted by later authors, and do not throw the least light on the structure of the play.[‡] From the one bit that appears in Polybius, which is an appeal to the goddess of peace, it seems evident that during the time in which the action takes place, peace had not yet been reestablished in the state of Messene.[39.9] From a couple of others we could almost conclude that the murder of Cresphontes and his two older sons either made up part of the action, or had occurred just before it began, neither of which agrees very well with the recognition of the younger son, who did not come to revenge his father and brothers until many years later. But it is the title itself that gives me the greatest difficulties. If the most significant content is this recognition and revenge of the younger son, why was the play called Cresphontes? Cresphontes was the name of the father. The son was, according to some, named Aepytus, and according to others, Telephon; perhaps the first was the correct name, and the second the assumed name he bore in foreign lands in order to remain unrecognized and safe from Polyphontes’ snares. The father must be long dead when the son retakes possession of the paternal kingdom. Has anyone ever heard of a tragedy being named after a person who does not even appear in it? Corneille and Dacier quickly set this difficulty aside by assuming that the son was also called Cresphontes[§], but with what likelihood?[39.10] For what reason?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 If, however, the discovery that Maffei claims to have made is correct, then we can know the plot of Cresphontes with some exactness.[39.11] He believes he has found it in Hyginus’s one hundred eighty-fourth fable.[**] For he considers Hyginus’s fables in general to be nothing more than the summaries of old tragedies, an opinion shared by Reinesius before him, and he thus recommends that contemporary poets look in this abandoned shaft for ancient tragic plots rather than inventing new ones for themselves.[39.12] The advice is not bad and should be followed. And many have followed it, even before Maffei gave it, or without knowing he had given it. Herr Weisse drew the material for his Thyestes from this mine, and there is still more down there that awaits a sensible eye.[39.13] Only it may be that it is not the largest part of Hyginus’s work, but rather the smallest part, that can be used for this purpose. Hyginus’s work may, in fact, not have been assembled from summaries of old tragedies at all; it might also have flowed directly or indirectly from the same sources in which the tragedians themselves sought material. Indeed, Hyginus, or whoever made this compilation, seems to have regarded the tragedies as diverted and polluted streams, insofar as in several places, he expressly separates that which had nothing more than the authority of a tragic poet in its favor from the older, more authentic tradition. For example, he tells the story of Ino and the story of Antiopa first according to tradition, and then, in a separate passage, according to Euripides’ handling.[39.14]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [*] Lettres familières.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [†] Aristote, dans sa Poëtique immortelle, ne balance pas à dire que la reconnoissance de Merope & de son fils étaient le moment le plus interessant de toute la scène Grecque. Il donnait à ce coup de Théâtre la preferance sur tous les autres. Plutarque dit que les Grecs, ce peuple si sensible, fremissaient de crainte que le vieillard, qui devait arrêter le bras de Merope, n’arrivât pas assez-tot. Cette pièce, qu’on jouait de son tems, & dont il nous reste tres peu de fragmens, lui paraissait la plus touchante de toutes las tragedies d’Euripide &c. Lettre à Mr. Maffei.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [‡] What Dacier quotes (Poetique d’Aristote, Chap. XV. Rem 23) without remembering where he read it, is in Plutarch’s essay “How to profit by one’s enemies.” [“De Capienda Ex Inimicis Utilitate”]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [§] Remarque 22. Sur le Chapitre IV. De la Poet. D’Arist. Une Mere, qui va tuer son fils, comme Merope va tuer Cresphonte &c.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [**] – Questa scoperta penso io d’aver fatta, nel leggere la Favola 184 d’Igino, la quale a mio credere altro non è, che l’Argomento di quella Tragedia, in cui si rappresenta interamente la condotta di essa. Sovvienmi, che al primo gettar gli occhi, ch’io feci già in quell’Autore, mi apparve subito nella mente, altro non essere le più di quelle Favole, che gli Argomenti delle Tragedie antiche: mi accertai di ciò col confrontarne alcune poche con le Tragedie, che ancora abbiamo; e appunto in questi giorni, [essendomi in questa Città di buoni libri sì ben fornita,] venuta a mano l’ultima edizione d’Igino, mi è stato caro di vedere in un passo addotto, come fu anche il Reinesio di tal sentimento. Una miniera è però questa di Tragici Argomenti, che se fosse stata nota a’Poeti, non avrebbero penato tanto in rinvenir soggetti a lor fantasia: io la scoprirò loro di buona voglia, perchè rendano col loro ingegno alla nostra età ciò, che dal tempo invidioso le fu rapito. Merita dunque, almeno per questo capo, alquanto più di considerazione quell’Operetta, anche tal qual l’abbiamo, che da gli Eruditi non è stato creduto: e quanto al discordar tal volta dagli altri Scrittori delle favolose Storie, questa avvertenza ce ne addita la ragione, non avendole costui narrate secondo la tradizione, ma conforme i Poeti in proprio uso convertendole, le avean ridotte.

  • 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
  • [39.1] Actually published 15 December 1767.
  • [39.2] 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. Lessing’s response to the Jesuit scholar Tournemine begins in [37].
  • [39.3] Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755): French philosopher and political theorist. In his letter of 5 December 1750 to the Abbé Count de Guasco, Montesquieu refers to the “despotic and turbulent spirit of Father Tournemine.” De Guasco provides a footnote describing the bitter feud between Tournemine and Montesquieu, noting that Montesquieu took his revenge on Tournemine, “who was passionately fond of fame,” by always asking “Who is this Father Tournemine? I have never heard of him.” Montesquieu, Lettres familières (1771) 160; Familiar Letters 4: 63.
  • [39.4] Cresphontes: Euripides’ version of Merope; only fragments remain.
  • [39.5] Lessing provides the original French in his footnote; for an English translation see Voltaire, “A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei” 245–6.
  • [39.6] See Aristotle, Poetics (Part XIV); and Plutarch, “On the Eating of Flesh II (De esu carnium II)” 2.5.
  • [39.7] Iphigenia in Tauris: see [31.3]. Helle: mentioned in Aristotle’s Poetics (Part XIV); the play’s author is unknown.
  • [39.8] Dacier: see [37.14]. Peripeteia (reversal, change in fortune): see Poetics (Parts XI, XIV, and XVI).
  • [39.9] Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 CE): Greek statesman and author of a history of Rome; quotes from Euripides’ Cresphontes in his Histories Book XII, § 26 (Polybius and Hultsch, Histories of Polybius 2: 110).
  • [39.10] Dacier attributes this sentiment to Pierre Corneille, but it does not in fact appear in his writings. See Robertson 313–14.
  • [39.11] This claim appears in Maffei’s dedication to the Duke of Modena; Lessing provides the Italian in his footnote. See Maffei, Teatro del Sig. marchese Scipione xxxvii–viii. For the English, see page 3 of the preface to Ayre’s translation of Merope.
  • [39.12] Thomas Reinesius (1587–1667): German physician, philologist, and critic.
  • [39.13] Christian Felix Weisse prefixed a translation of Hyginus’s 88th fable (“Atreus”) to his five-act tragedy Atreus und Thyest (1766).
  • [39.14] See Hyginus, “Ino” (2nd fable), “Ino of Euripides” (4th fable), “Antiopa” (7th fable), and “Antiopa of Euripides” (8th fable), in The Myths of Hyginus [Fabulae].
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