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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 43

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 25 September 1767[43.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One might well imagine such a thing.[43.2] But I would rather prove what I have said myself, than guess what others could have said.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 To begin with, Lindelle’s criticism can be softened on nearly every point. If Maffei has erred, he certainly has not always erred as grossly as Lindelle would have us believe. He says, for example, that when Merope is about to stab him, Aegisthus cries out: “Oh my old father!” And that the Queen is so moved by these words, “old father,” that she abandons her purpose and conceives the suspicion that Aegisthus could be her son. Is this not, he adds scornfully, a very well-founded suspicion? For it is something quite unusual indeed for a young man to have an old father! “Maffei,” he continues, “wanted to use this mistake, this lack of art and genius, to improve on another mistake he had made in the first edition of his play. There Aegisthus cries out: ‘Ah, Polydorus, my father!’ And this Polydorus was the very man to whom Merope had entrusted her son. At the name Polydorus the Queen would no longer have doubted whether Aegisthus was her son and the play would have been over. Now this mistake has been removed, but a much clumsier one has taken its place.”[43.3] It is true, in the first edition Aegisthus calls his father Polydorus, but in later editions there is no mention of a father at all. The Queen hesitates only upon hearing Polydorus namedd as the man who had warned Aegisthus not to set foot in the area of Messene. Moreover she does not give up her purpose because of this, she merely demands further explanation, and before she can receive that, the king comes in. The king has Aegisthus unbound, and because he sanctions and praises the deed for which Aegisthus was brought in and promises to reward it as a real heroic deed, Merope must fall back on her original suspicion. Can the person Polyphontes wants to reward for having killed her son actually be her son? This inference must necessarily seem more valid to her than a mere name. And now she regrets that for the sake of a name, one that of course many could bear, she has hesitated in her revenge:

Che dubitar? misera, ed io da un nome

Trattener mi lasciai, quasi un tal nome

Altri aver non potesse . . . [43.4]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 And the tyrant’s subsequent remarks can only confirm her opinion that he must have completely reliable and complete information concerning her son’s death. Is this then so completely outlandish? I do not think so. Rather, I must confess that I do not find Maffei’s improvement to be very necessary in the first place. Let Aegisthus say that his father’s name is Polydorus after all! Whether it was his father or his friend who had that name and warned him against Messene does not matter much. It is enough that Merope, knowing that the tyrant has hunted her son so eagerly for so long, must presume despite any contradictions that the king’s belief about him is more likely than what she could infer from the mere coincidence of a name. Of course, if she knew the tyrant’s belief – that Aegisthus is her son’s murderer – was based on nothing more than her own suspicion, then that would be something else. But she does not know that; on the contrary, she has every reason to believe that he knows what he is talking about. – It goes without saying that I am not trying to pass off as beautiful something that can only be excused as necessity; the poet could certainly have constructed his plot with more subtlety. However, I do want to say that even the way he has arranged things, Merope acts with sufficient grounds, and it is quite possible and probable that Merope could persist in her resolution of revenge and wage another attempt to execute it at the first opportunity. What I confess that I find offensive, is not that she comes a second time to kill her son as the murderer of her son, but rather that she is prevented a second time from doing so by mere lucky chance. I would forgive the playwright for not developing Merope along principles of greater probability, because the passion she is in could well bestow a heavier weight on principles that are less probable. But I cannot forgive him for taking such liberty with coincidence and for being so lavish with the marvelous, as if these were the most common, ordinary occurrences. That chance would render the mother such a pious service one time, maybe; the more we like surprise, the more likely it is that we will believe it. But to have the same hastiness prevented a second time in the same way no longer resembles chance; a surprise that is repeated is no longer a surprise. Its uniformity offends, and we are annoyed by the playwright who may know quite well how to be as whimsical as chance, but who is not nearly as diverse.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I will only cite two of Lindelle’s obvious and intentional falsifications. – “The fourth act,” he says, “begins with a cold and unnecessary scene between the tyrant and Merope’s confidante; immediately afterward, this confidante encounters the young Aegisthus, I myself know not how, and persuades him to retire in the vestibule so that once he has fallen asleep, the Queen can slay him at her leisure. He really does fall asleep, just as he has promised. Oh lovely! and the Queen comes a second time, axe in hand, to slay the young man, who sleeps expressly for that purpose. This same situation, repeated twice, betrays the most extreme sterility, and this young man’s sleeping is so ridiculous that nothing could be more laughable.”[43.5] But is it really true that the confidante persuades him to this sleep? Lindelle lies about that.[*] Aegisthus meets the confidante and asks her to reveal to him why the Queen is so furious with him. The confidante answers that she will gladly tell him everything, but important business calls her to be elsewhere right now; he should wait here a bit, she will be back soon. Without question, the confidante intends to deliver him into the Queen’s hands; she persuades him to stay, but not to sleep, and Aegisthus, who (in accord with his promise) stays, sleeps – not because he promised to sleep, but because he is tired, because it is night, because he does not see where else he will be able to spend the night but here.[†][43.6] – Lindelle’s second lie is of the same sort. “After the old Polydorus prevents her from the murder of her son,” he says, “Merope asks him what kind of a reward he wants for it, and the old fool begs her to make him young again.”[43.7] Begs her to make him young again? “The reward for my service,” the old man answers, “is this service itself; is that I see you content. What more could you give me? I need nothing, I ask for nothing. I could wish just one thing for myself, but it is neither in your power nor in the power of any mortal to grant it to me – that the burden of my years which weigh me down would be lightened, etc.”[‡][43.8] Does that mean: lighten this burden of mine? Give me strength and youth again? I am not saying by any means that such a complaint about the discomforts of old age occurs here in the most suitable place, even though they are completely in character for Polydorus. But is every bit of awkwardness necessarily madness? And wouldn’t Polydorus and his playwright have to be mad in the truest sense of the word, if the latter actually put in the former’s mouth the request that Lindelle brazenly fabricates? He fabricates! Lies! Do such trivialities deserve such hard words? – Trivialities? If they were important enough to Lindelle to lie about, shouldn’t they be important enough to a third person to point out that he has lied?


9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [*] And M. de Voltaire as well. For it is not just that Lindelle says: “ensuite cette suivante rencontre le jeune Egiste, je ne sais comment, et lui persuade de se reposer dans le vestibule, afin que, quand il sera endormi, la reine puisse le tuer tout à son aise” but M. de Voltaire himself also writes: “la confidente de Mérope engageât le jeune Egiste à dormir sur la scène, afin de donner le tems à la reine de venir l’y assassiner.” I need not even say what can be deduced from this concurrence. It is rare for a liar to agree with himself, and when two liars agree with each other, it is surely a stacked deck.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [†] Atto IV. Sc. II
EGI.    Ma di tanto furor, di tanto affanno
Qual’ ebbe mai cagion? – –
ISM.                                                    Il tutto
Scoprirti io non ricuso; ma egli è d’uopo
Che qui t’arresti per brev’ora: urgente
Cura or mi chiama altrove.
EGI.                                                    Io volentieri
T’attendo quanto vuoi.
ISM.                                                    Ma non partire
E non far poi, ch’io qua ritorni indarno.
EGI.    Mia fe do in pegno; e dove gir dovrei? –

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [‡] Atto IV. Sc. VII
MER. Ma quale, o mio fedel, qual potrò io
Darti già mai mercè, che i merti agguagli?
POL.   Il mio stesso servir fu premio; ed ora
M’è, il vederti contenta ampia mercede.
Che vuoi tu darmi? io nulla bramo: caro
Sol mi saria ciò, ch’ altri dar non puote.
Che scemato mi fosse il grave incarco
De gli anni, che mi sta sul capo, e a terra
Il curva, e preme sì, che parmi un monte –

  • 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  • [43.1] Actually published 22 December 1767.
  • [43.2] 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 has just wondered, in [42], whether Maffei responded to criticisms of Merope made by Voltaire (both as himself and as the pseudonymous M. de La Lindelle).
  • [43.3] Lessing’s translation is loose. See Voltaire, “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” 238, and “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire” 270.
  • [43.4] “What doubt remains? Wretch that I am, and yet / I let myself be amused about a name, / As if there was no other Polidore.” Merope (Ayre trans.) 37.
  • [43.5] Here again, Lessing’s translation is loose. Lessing provides a portion of the cited passage in his footnote; for the entire passage, see “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle” 239; “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle” 271. For the line by Voltaire included in Lessing’s footnote, see his “Lettre à Monsieur le Marquis Scipion Maffei” 225–6, “A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei” 256. Lessing correctly suspects that Lindelle and Voltaire are the same person; see [41].
  • [43.6] For the text included in Lessing’s footnote, see Maffei, Merope 53; for the English, see page 43 in Ayre’s translation.
  • [43.7] Lessing again takes minor liberties with his French source. See “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle” 239–40; “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle” 272.
  • [43.8] See Maffei, Merope 65. In Ayre’s translation, this speech is rendered: “Me, / My own service pays, I have enough reward / In seeing thee content. What wouldst thou give me? / I covet nothing: that alone to me/ would be most grateful none have pow’r to give. / The heavy weight of years I would have lighten’d, / Which lye upon my head, and crouch me down, / And press me so […]” (52–3).
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-43/