¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It is one thing to acknowledge the rules; it is another to really observe them.[46.2] The French do the former; only the ancients seem to have understood the latter.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Unity of action was the first dramatic law among the ancients; the unity of time and unity of place were both only consequences of that first law, which they would not have observed more than absolutely necessary, had the incorporation of the chorus not occurred.[46.3] But because their actions required a crowd of people as witnesses, and because this crowd always remained the same and could neither distance themselves from their homes nor remain outside longer than one normally would out of mere curiosity, the ancients could hardly do otherwise than to limit the location to a single individual spot and the time to one single day. They then submitted to this restriction bona fide, but with a flexibility, with an understanding that seven times out of nine they won far more than they lost by doing so. For they let this constraint be an inducement to simplify the action itself so much, and to exclude everything superfluous with such care, that, reduced to its most essential elements, it became nothing other than an ideal of this action, which developed most successfully into precisely the form that demanded the very least addition of circumstances of time and place.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 On the other hand, the French – who developed no taste for the true unity of action and who had already been spoiled by the wild intrigues of Spanish plays before they became acquainted with Greek simplicity – saw the unities of time and place not as consequences of unity of action, but as absolutely essential requirements in and of themselves to the presentation of an action, which they would also have to make work in their richer and more complicated plots with the same strictness that only the use of the chorus (which they had already completely abolished) could require. But because they discovered how difficult, in fact how often impossible this was, they made a deal with the tyrannical rules that they did not have courage enough to break away from. Instead of a single place, they introduced an uncertain place, in which one might imagine himself now here, now there, as long as all these places were not too far apart and none needed particular scenery, so that the same scenery could serve the one just about as well as the other. Instead of the unity of a day they substituted the unity of duration, and allowed a certain period of time to count for a day as long as, however much and sundry might occur, we do not hear of a sunrise or sunset and nobody goes to bed (or at least does not go to bed more than once).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Nobody would have held this against them, for excellent plays can still be written accordingly, and as the proverb goes, drill the wood where it is thinnest. – But then I must at least allow my neighbor to drill there too. I must not always show him the thickest edge or the knottiest part of the board and shout: drill through it there for me! that’s where I usually drill! – Nevertheless that is how all the French critics cry out, especially when they write of dramatic works from England. What a fuss they make over conformity to the rules, which they have made infinitely easier for themselves! – But it is making me nauseous to linger on these items any longer.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As far as I am concerned, Voltaire’s Mérope and Maffei’s Merope could last for eight days and play out in seven locations in Greece! If only they had the refinements that would make me forget these pedantries!
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The most strict conformance to the rules cannot offset the smallest mistakes in the characters. It did not escape Lindelle how crudely Maffei’s Polyphontes often speaks and acts. He is right to mock the awful maxims Maffei puts into his tyrant’s mouth.[46.4] To eliminate the country’s best and most noble; to enthrall the people in all those sensual pleasures that could weaken them and make them effeminate; to let the worst crimes go unpunished under the pretense of compassion and mercy; and so on: if there is a tyrant who adopts this insane manner of governing, will he go so far as to boast of it? This is how one depicts tyrants in a school exercise, but no one to date has ever really spoken of himself in such a way.[*][46.5] – It is true, Voltaire does not have his Polyphontes declaim in such a cold, lunatic manner, but now and again he has him say things that no man of this type would ever allow to cross his lips. For example:
. . . Des Dieux quelquefois la longue patience
Fait sur nous à pas lents descendre la vengeance . . .[46.6]
Eh bien, encor ce crime! . . . [46.7]
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I have already touched on how carelessly and heedlessly he acts towards Merope. His behavior towards Aegisthus even less resembles the cunning and decisive man that the playwright depicts for us from the beginning. Aegisthus really should not have been compelled to appear at the sacrifice. What is he supposed to do there? Swear his obedience? Before the people? Amidst the cries of his despairing mother? Won’t precisely what Polyphontes himself had earlier feared now inevitably happen?[†][46.8] He has every reason to fear Aegisthus; Aegisthus need only demand his sword back to decide the battle between them at once; and he lets this daredevil Aegisthus come so near to him on the altar, where it’s likely that the first thing he’ll get his hands on will be a sword? Maffei’s Polyphontes is free from this absurdity; he does not know Aegisthus and takes him for his friend. So why wouldn’t Aegisthus have been allowed to approach him at the altar? Nobody was watching his movements; the blow had been struck and he was ready for the second before it could occur to anyone to avenge the first.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “When, in Maffei’s play, Merope learns that her son was murdered,” Lindelle writes, “she wants to rip the murderer’s heart from his chest and tear it to pieces with her teeth.[‡][46.9] In other words, to comport herself like a cannibal and not like a grieving mother; decency ought always be observed.”[46.10] Quite right, but although the French Merope is too delicate to bite straight away into a raw heart, it seems to me she is fundamentally just as much a cannibal as the Italian one. –
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[*] Atto III. Sc. II.
. . . Quando
Saran da poi sopiti alquanto, e queti
Gli animi, l’arte del regnar mi giovi.
Per mute oblique vie n’andranno a Stige
L’alme più audaci, e generose. A i vizi
Per cui vigor si abbatte, ardir si toglie
Il freno allargherò. Lunga clemenza
Con pompa di pietà farò, che splenda
Su i delinquenti; a i gran delitti invito,
Onde restino i buoni esposti, e paghi
Renda gl’iniqui la licenza; ed onde
Poi fra se distruggendosi, in crudeli.
Gare private il lor furor si stempri.
Udrai sovente risonar gli editti,
E raddopiar le leggi, che al sovrano
Giovan servate, e transgredite. Udrai
Correr minaccia ognor di guerra esterna;
Ond’ io n’andrò su l’atterrita plebe
Sempre crescendo i pesi, e peregrine
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[†] Acte I. Sc. 4.
Si ce fils, tant pleuré, dans Messene est produit,
De quinze ans de travaux j’ai perdu tout le fruit.
Crois-moi, ces préjugés de sang & de naissance
Revivront dans les coeurs, y prendront sa défense.
Le souvenir du pere, & cent rois pour ayeux,
Cet honneur prétendu d’être issu de nos Dieux;
Les cris, & le désespoir d’une mere éplorée,
Détruiront ma puissance encor mal assurée.
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[‡] Atto II. Sc. 6
Quel scelerato in mio poter vorrei,
Per trarne prima, s’ebbe parte in questo
Assassinio il Tiranno; io voglio poi
Con una scure spalancargli il petto
Voglio strappargli il cor, voglio co’ denti
Lacerarlo, e sbranarlo . . .
- ¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
- [46.1] Actually published 29 December 1767.
- [46.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from  to , of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7. Beginning with , Lessing has been critiquing Voltaire’s Mérope according to French neoclassical rules of playwriting.
- [46.3] Unity of action: neoclassical rule limiting plays to a single plot; the only of the neoclassical unities actually drawn from Aristotle’s Poetics (Part VIII). Lessing discusses Voltaire’s treatment of unity of place in , and unity of time in .
- [46.4] Lindelle: pseudonym of Voltaire. Here and in the lines that directly follow, Lessing is paraphrasing from “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” 240; “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire” 272–73.
- [46.5] This speech is in fact from III.i, rather than III.ii. See Maffei, Merope 37. For the English, see page 30 of the Ayre translation. “Lindelle” describes the interactions between Merope and Polyphontes as “scènes d’écolier” (“school boy scenes”). See “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle” 239; “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle” 271.
- [46.6] Voltaire, Mérope 259. In the Francklin translation: “heav’n / by slow and solemn steps, may bring down vengeance” (17).
- [46.7] Voltaire, Mérope 260. Francklin translates: “It must be so; this crime, and I have done” (18).
- [46.8] For the passage in Lessing’s footnote, see Voltaire, Mérope 258. For the English, see page 17 of the Francklin translation.
- [46.9] For the passage in Lessing’s footnote, see Maffei, Merope 33. For the English, see page 27 of the Ayre translation.
- [46.10] Lessing paraphrases here. See “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle” 237; “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle” 269.