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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 40

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 September 1767[40.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 However, I do not mean to imply thereby that, because the name of Euripides does not appear above the one hundred and eighty-fourth fable, it could not have been drawn from his Cresphontes.[40.2] On the contrary, I fully acknowledge that it has the course of action and development of a drama, so that even if it isn’t one, it could easily become one, one whose plot, in fact, would approach classical simplicity far more than all the new Meropes. Judge for yourself: Hyginus’s full story, which I only briefly summarized above, is as follows.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Cresphontes was King of Messene, and had three sons with his wife Merope, when Polyphontes raised the rebellion against him in which Cresphontes and his two older sons lost their lives. Polyphontes then took possession of the kingdom and Merope’s hand. During the upheaval Merope found an opportunity to have her third son, named Telephon, sent to a friend in Aetolien for safety. The older Telephon grew, the more anxious Polyphontes became. Polyphontes could expect nothing good from Telephon, and so he promised a great reward to the person who would get rid of him. Telephon heard of this, and because he now felt himself capable of undertaking his revenge, he secretly made his way out of Aetolien, went to Messene, came to the tyrant, said that he had killed Telephon, and demanded the promised reward. Polyphontes took him in as a guest and gave orders to entertain him in his palace until he could question him further. Telephon was brought into the guest room, where he fell asleep from fatigue. In the meantime, the old servant whom mother and son had employed till now for their exchange of messages came in tears to Merope and reported that Telephon was gone from Aetolian, and that no one knew where he had gone. Merope, who knew what the recently arrived stranger boasted of having done, immediately rushed to the guest room with an axe and would have killed him without fail, had the old man who followed her there not recognized the son in time and prevented the mother from committing the heinous crime. Now the two made common cause, and Merope pretended to be calm and reconciled to her husband. Polyphontes believed all his wishes had been granted and wanted to show his thanks to the gods through a ritual sacrifice. But when they were all gathered at the altar, Telephon directed the blow which he pretended was for cutting down the sacrificial animal towards the King; the tyrant fell, and Telephon attained possession of his paternal kingdom.[*][40.3]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In the sixteenth century two Italian poets, Joh. Bapt. Liviera and Ponponio Torelli, also took the material for their tragedies Cresphontes and Merope from this fable in Hyginus’s collection, and had thus, according to Maffei, followed in Euripides’ footsteps without knowing it.[40.4] But this conviction notwithstanding, Maffei himself was so little interested in making his work into a mere divination of Euripides whereby his Merope would resurrect the lost Cresphontes that, on the contrary, he deliberately deviated from many of the main features of Euripides’ supposed plot and only sought to use, in its full dimension, the one situation that had moved him the most:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Namely, the mother who loved her son with such passion that she wanted to avenge his murder with her own hand gave him the idea to depict maternal tenderness, and to animate his play through this one pure and virtuous passion, to the exclusion of all other forms of love. Thus whatever did not completely meet this purpose was changed; in particular, this affected the circumstances of Merope’s second marriage and the son’s foreign upbringing. Merope could not be Polyphontes’s wife, for it seemed to the poet to clash with the conscience of such a pious mother to have surrendered herself to the embraces of a second husband, whom she knew to have murdered her first, and whose own self-preservation required that he get rid of everyone who could have a nearer claim to the throne. The son must not be raised in complete safety and comfort, with full knowledge of his rank and destiny, by a noble guest and friend of his father’s house: for maternal love will naturally cool if not stimulated and exerted by constantly imagining the discomforts and continually new dangers into which its absent object can stumble. He must not come with the express purpose of revenging himself on the tyrant; he must not be held by his mother to be the murderer of her son because he gives himself out to be so, but rather because a certain chain of coincidences draws this suspicion upon him. For if he knows his mother, then her dilemma is over with the first verbal explanation, and there is not enough space to play out her moving anguish and tender despair.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 And given these changes, one can pretty well imagine Maffei’s plot. Polyphontes has been ruling for fifteen years, and yet he does not yet feel himself in firm enough possession of the throne. For the people are still devoted to the house of their previous king and count on its last salvaged offshoot. To pacify the discontented, he comes up with the idea of marrying Merope. He offers her his hand under the pretense of real love. But Merope rejects him and his pretense with too much delicacy, so he then tries to obtain through threats and violence what his deceptions could not accomplish. Just as he is pressuring her most fiercely, a young man seized on the highway for committing a murder is brought before him. Aegisthus, so the youth calls himself, had done nothing but defend his own life against a robber; his appearance reveals so much nobility and innocence, his speech so much truth, that Merope (who also notices a certain shape to his mouth that her husband had) is moved to plead with the King for him, and the King pardons him. Directly on the heels of this, Merope realizes her youngest son is missing; she had entrusted him, after her husband’s death, to an old servant named Polydorus, with orders that he be raised as Polydorus’s own son. He had secretly left the old man, whom he believed to be his father, to see the world; but now he is nowhere to be found. A mother’s heart always suspects the worst: someone has been killed on the highway, what if it were her son? This is what she thinks, and her anxious suspicions are strengthened by different circumstances, by the readiness of the King to pardon him, but primarily by a ring found on Aegisthus and which she is told Aegisthus took from the slain man. This is her husband’s signet ring, which she had given Polydorus to bestow on her son when he was grown and ready to learn of his rank. Straight away she has the youth, for whom she herself had earlier sought favor, bound to a column, with the intention of piercing his heart with her own hand. The youth takes this moment to remember his parents; the word Messene slips out of his mouth; he recalls his father’s command to cautiously avoid this place. Merope demands an explanation of this; meanwhile the King comes in and the youth is freed. As close as Merope was to the recognition of her mistake, when she sees how scornful the King is in triumph over her despair she falls even more deeply into error. Now Aegisthus is unquestionably her son’s murderer, and nothing shall protect him from her revenge. As night falls she learns that he has fallen asleep in a parlor, and she comes with an axe to split open his head. She has raised the axe for the blow when Polydorus, who had slipped into that same parlor moments earlier and recognized the sleeping Aegisthus, falls into her arms. Aegisthus awakens and flees, and Polydorus reveals to Merope that the presumed murderer of her son is her real son. She wants to follow him, and would have easily revealed his identity to the tyrant through her impetuous affection had the old man not held her back. In the early morning her marriage to the King is supposed to be finalized; she must go to the altar, but she would rather die than give her consent. In the meantime Polydorus has also taught Aegisthus to know his true identity; Aegisthus rushes to the temple, presses through the crowd, and – the rest is as told by Hyginus.


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [*] In Hyginus’s 184th fable, from which the story above is taken, incidents seem to have been mingled together that do not have the least connection to each other. It begins with the fates of Pentheus and Agave, and ends with the story of Merope. I cannot fathom how the editor could have left this confusion unannotated; unless it only exists in the edition that I have before me (Joannis Schefferi, Hamburgi 1674). I leave this investigation to someone who has the means for it at hand. Suffice it to say that here, in my edition, the 184th fable ends with the words “quam Licoterses excepit” [whom Lycotherses received] The rest either constitutes another fable, whose opening words have been lost, or – and this seems most probable to me – it belongs with the 137th, so that, both connected, I would read the whole fable of Merope as follows (and we could choose whether we want to make it the 137th or 184th). It goes without saying that in the latter the words “cum qua Polyphontes, occiso Cresphonte, regnum occupavit” [with whom Polyphontes, after slaying Cresphontes, seized the kingdom], being an unnecessary repetition, would have to be omitted, along with the “ejus” that follows, which is also already redundant.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 MEROPE

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Polyphontes, Messeniae rex, Cresphontem Aristomachi filium cum interfecisset, ejus imperium & Meropem uxorem possedit. Filium autem infantem Merope mater, quem ex Cresphonte habebat, absconse ad hospitem in Aetoliam mandavit. Hunc Polyphontes maxima cum industria quaerebat, aurumque pollicebatur, si quis eum necasset. Qui postquam ad puberem aetatem venit, capit consilium, ut exiquatur patris & fratrum mortem. Itaque venit ad regem Polyphontem, aurum petitum, dicens se Cresphontis interfecisse filium & Meropis, Telephontem. Interim rex eum jussit in hospitio manere, ut amplius de eo perquireret. Qui cum per lassitudinem obdormisset, senex qui inter matrem & filium internuncius erat, flens ad Meropem venit, negans eum apud hospitem esse, nec comparere. Merope credens eum esse filii sui interfectorem, qui dormiebat, in Chalcidicum cum securi venit, inscia ut filium suum interficeret, quem senex cognovit, & matrem ab scelere retraxit. Merope postquam invenit, occasionem sibi datam esse, ab inimico se ulciscendi, redit cum Polyphonte in gratiam. Rex laetus cum rem divinam faceret, hospes falso simulavit se hostiam percussisse, eumque interfecit, patriumque regnum adeptus est.

  • 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0
  • [40.1] Actually published 22 December 1767
  • [40.2] 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. Here Lessing continues to explore ancient sources of the Merope story; the question at hand is whether Hyginus’s 137th fable provides the plot of Cresphontes, Euripides’ lost version of the story.
  • [40.3] Lessing’s concern has been addressed in later editions of Hyginus’s fables, so that Merope’s story (137th fable) is separated from that of Pentheus and Agave (184th fable).
  • [40.4] Joh. Bapt. Liviera: Giambattista Liviera (b. 1565); author of Il Cresfonte (1588). Pomponio Torelli, Count of Montechiarugolo (1539–1608): author of La Merope (1589). See Maffei, Teatro del Sig. marchese Scipione xxxviii. For the English, see page 3 of the preface to Ayre’s translation of Merope. (In his preface, Maffei gives La Merope the date of its second edition, 1598.)
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