A New and Complete Translation

Essay 45

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 2 October 1767[45.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 2. M. de Voltaire has played equally fast and free with the unity of time.[45.2] Simply consider everything that he has occur in his Merope in one day, and tell me how much absurdity one has to imagine in the process. Let’s take one full, natural day; let’s even give it the extension to thirty hours that Corneille is willing to grant.[45.3] It is true, I see no physical limitations that would prevent all of the events from happening in this time period; but there are many moral ones. Admittedly, it is not impossible for a man to propose to a woman and marry her within twelve hours, particularly if he can use force to drag her to the altar. But when this happens, do we not need to know that such violent haste is justified by the most compelling and urgent reasons? If, on the contrary, there is no hint of such reasons, by what means, then, should what is merely physically possible become plausible to us? The state intends to choose a king; only Polyphontes and the absent Aegisthus can come into consideration; in order to nullify Aegisthus’s claims, Polyphontes intends to marry his mother; on the very day the election is to happen, he makes his proposal; the election proceeds and comes out in his favor; Polyphontes is now king, and we should understand that Aegisthus might now reappear when he will, and the newly elected king could put up with it for a time. But instead, Polyphontes insists on the marriage and insists, moreover, that it be performed that very day, the very same day he offered his hand to Merope for the first time, the very same day that the people proclaimed him king. Such an old soldier, and such a hot-blooded suitor! But his courtship is nothing but politics. So much the worse that he so badly mistreats those he wants to use to his benefit. Merope had denied him her hand before he was king, when she had to believe that her hand in marriage would be instrumental to helping him to the throne. But now he is king, and became so without basing it on the title of being her husband; he repeats his proposal, and perhaps she submits; he gives her time to forget the distance that previously existed between them and to get used to considering him as her equal, and maybe only a little time is needed for this. If he cannot win her, what is the point of forcing her? Will it remain a secret to her supporters that she has been forced? Will they not think themselves compelled to hate him for this? Will they not also regard themselves as bound to join in Aegisthus’s cause, as soon as he appears, and, for his sake, to fight for his mother’s cause as well? It is all in vain that after fifteen long years of diligent seeking, fate has now delivered this Aegisthus himself into the hands of the tyrant and has thereby offered him a means to possess the throne, free of all other claims, a means that is much quicker and much more infallible than the marriage with the mother; no, he should and must be married, today, this evening; the new king will sleep with the old queen this very night, or else. Can we imagine anything more preposterous? In theory, I mean; for it is obviously out of the question that a person with even a spark of sense could behave this way. Now how does it help the playwright, if the particular events of a given act do not need much more time to occur than it takes to present the act itself, and that this time, together with what must be added in for the intervals, is far from requiring a full circuit of the sun: has he thereby observed the unity of time? He has fulfilled the letter of the law, but not its spirit. For what he makes happen in one day can indeed be done in one day, but no reasonable person will do it in one day. It is not enough to observe the physical unity of time; the moral unity must be considered as well, as each and every one of us is sensitive to its violation. In contrast, the violation of the physical unity of time is not always as generally offensive, even though it usually involves an impossibility, because this impossibility can remain unknown to many. If, for example, there is a journey from one place to another in a play, and this journey alone requires more than one day, the error is only noticeable to those who know the distance from the first place to the second. Not every person knows geographical distances, but everyone can feel for himself what kind of actions need just one day, and what kind deserve more. The playwright who only understands how to observe the physical unity of time through a violation of the moral unity and does not scruple to sacrifice the latter to the former does not know which side his bread is buttered on and sacrifices the essential to the coincidental. – Maffei at least brings in a night to help out, and the wedding that Polyphontes suggests to Merope today is not performed until the following morning. In addition, in his play this does not happen on the same day that Polyphontes ascends to the throne; as a result, the events are not as closely condensed; they hurry along, but they are not over-rushed. Voltaire’s Polyphontes is a mayfly of a king, who does not deserve to rule a second day because he begins his first day in such a completely inept and stupid manner.[45.4]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 3. Lindelle says that Maffei often does not join his scenes together, and the stage remains empty; a mistake that nowadays is no longer tolerated in even the most minor poets.[45.5] “The connecting of scenes,” Corneille says, “is a great ornament of a poem, and nothing can better assure us of the continuity of action than the continuity of presentation. But it is only an ornament, and not a rule, for the ancients did not always subject themselves to it, etc.”[45.6] What? Has tragedy among the French become so much more perfected since their great Corneille, that what he simply regarded as a missing ornament is now an unforgivable mistake? Or have the French, since his time, learned to misunderstand the essentials of tragedy so much further that they give enormous value to things that are, at base, worthless? Until this question is resolved, Corneille should be at least as credible as Lindelle, and that which, according to Corneille, is no outright error in Maffei can be balanced against the less debatable one in Voltaire, which is that he often leaves the stage full for a longer time than he should. When in the first act, for example, Polyphontes comes to the Queen, and she exits at the end of the third scene, what right does Polyphontes have to remain in the Queen’s chamber? Is this chamber the place where he should so freely express himself to his confidante? The playwright’s need betrays itself all too clearly in the fourth scene; we learn things that we certainly need to know, it is just that we learn them in a place where we never would have expected to do so.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 4. Maffei often does not give any motivation for the entrances and exits of his characters; just as often, Voltaire gives a false motivation, which really is worse. It is not enough for a person to say why he comes in; we must also perceive from the context that he must come in for that reason. It is not enough for him to say why he exits; we must also see in what follows that he really has left for that purpose. Otherwise what the playwright puts in the character’s mouth is just an excuse and not a cause. For example, when Euricles exits in the third scene of the second act in order to, as he says, gather the Queen’s friends, then we ought to hear something afterwards about these friends and this gathering.[45.7] But because we do not hear anything of the sort, what he says is an immature Peto veniam exeundi with the first best lie that occurs to the boy.[45.8] He does not leave in order to do what he says, but rather in order that, a few lines later, he can return with news that the poet could find no other way to share. Voltaire is even more clumsy in his handling of the ends of whole acts. At the end of the third, Polyphontes tells Merope that the altar awaits her, that everything is ready for their solemn union; and he exits with a “Venez, Madame.”[45.9] But Madame does not follow him, and instead exits with an exclamation through another wing. Then Polyphontes begins the fourth act, and, rather than expressing his displeasure that the Queen did not follow him into the temple (for he had been mistaken, there was still time before the marriage ceremony), he instead blabbers again with Erox about things that he should have chitchatted about in the privacy of his own house and his own rooms, and not here.[45.10] The fourth act then ends exactly like the third. Polyphontes summons the queen to the temple again, Merope herself cries out,

Courons tous vers le temple ou m’attend mon outrage;[45.11]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 and says to the sacrificial priests, who are to take her there,

Vous venez à l’autel entrainer la victime.[45.12]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Consequently at the beginning of the fifth act they will surely be in the temple, if not already returned from it? Neither of these; good things take time. Polyphontes has forgotten something and returns one more time and then also sends the Queen away again. Excellent! Between the third and fourth, and between the fourth and fifth acts not only does what should happen, not happen, but in fact it never happens at all, and the third and fourth acts only end so that the fourth and fifth can begin.

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [[45.1] Actually published 29 December 1767.
  • [[45.2] 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, from [41] a critique of Voltaire’s Mérope, according to French neoclassical rules of playwriting. Unity of time: rule established with the codification of French neoclassicism that originated from Aristotle’s statement in Part 5 of Poetics that “[t]ragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit.”
  • [[45.3] Pierre Corneille suggests a more flexible interpretation of the unity of time in “Sur les trois unités” [“On the Three Unities”]; see Trois discours sur le poème dramatique [Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry] 101–27. For an English translation, see Discourses 235–6.
  • [[45.4] Mayfly: insect known for its extremely short life span.
  • [[45.5] Lindelle: pseudonym of Voltaire. See “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” 236, and “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire” 267.
  • [[45.6] P. Corneille, Trois Discours 105.
  • [[45.7] Euricles: “Favorite” of Merope in Voltaire’s play.
  • [[45.8] Peto veniam exeundi: “May I be excused?”
  • [[45.9] Venez, Madame: “Come, Madame.”
  • [[45.10] Erox: “Favorite” of Poliphontes, in Voltaire’s play.
  • [[45.11] “Let us all hurry to the temple, where my dishonor awaits me.”
  • [45.12] “You come to drag the victim to the altar.”
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