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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 47

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 9 October 1767[47.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 And how is that? – If it is indisputable that we must judge people more by their actions than by their words, and that a rash word uttered in the heat of passion indicates little about a person’s moral character, whereas a premeditated action indicates everything, then I am likely right.[47.2] A Merope who succumbs to the most anxious misery in her uncertainty over the fate of her son, who always prepares for the worst, and in imagining how unhappy her absent son might be, extends her compassion to all unhappy people; this is the beautiful ideal of a mother. A Merope who, in the moment that she learns of the loss of the object of her devotion, sinks to the ground in a cloud of pain, then suddenly rallies again as soon as she hears that the murderer is in her power, and rants and raves and threatens to perform the most bloody and terrible revenge on him, and would really carry it out if he ever fell into her hands: this is also the same ideal, only in a state of violent action that gains in expression and power what it loses in beauty and emotion. But a Merope who takes her time for this revenge, prepares for it beforehand, arranges ceremonies for it, and wants herself to be the executioner, not to kill but to torture, not to punish but so that her eyes can feast on punishment: is this still a mother? Yes, perhaps, but a mother as we might imagine one to be among the cannibals; a mother like every she-bear is. – A person may like Merope’s action if he wants; he should just not tell me that he does, if I am not to despise him as much as I loathe him.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Perhaps M. de Voltaire would like to attribute this, as well, to a fault inherent in the source material; perhaps he would like to say, Merope must want to kill Aegisthus with her own hands or the whole coup de théâtre so praised by Aristotle, which so enraptured the sensitive Athenians of his times, would fall away. But M. de Voltaire would be wrong once again, and have once again taken Maffei’s arbitrary changes for the original subject itself. The original material does indeed demand that Merope should wish to murder Aegisthus with her own hand, but it by no means demands that she must do it with full deliberation. Notably, she does not appear to have done it in such a way in Euripides, if we are permitted to assume Hyginus’s fable is an excerpt from his play.[47.3] The old man comes weeping to the queen and says that her son has left him; she had just heard that a stranger has arrived who boasts of having killed him, and that this stranger is sleeping peacefully under her roof; she seizes the very first thing that comes to hand, hurries angrily to the sleeper’s room, the old man following her, and the recognition happens in the moment in which the crime should occur. That was very simple and natural, very moving and human! The Athenians trembled for Aegisthus without being allowed to loathe Merope. They trembled for Merope herself, who ran the risk of becoming her son’s murderer through the most well-intentioned haste. But Maffei and Voltaire only make me tremble for Aegisthus, because I am so annoyed with their Merope that I almost wish she had completed the deed. If only she had! If she can take time for her revenge, she should have also taken time for investigation. Why is she such a bloodthirsty beast? He killed her son: good, she can do what she wants to the murderer in the first heat of the moment, I forgive her, she is a person and a mother, and I will readily lament and despair with her when she realizes how much she regrets her first rash passion. But Madame, a young man, who had interested you so much a moment earlier, and in whom you recognized so many signs of honesty and innocence – to want to strike him down with your own hand as your son’s murderer on his father’s tomb, to call on the aid of guards and priests, because he is found possessing an old suit of armor that only your son ought to wear – oh, fie, Madame! If I am not much mistaken, you would have been booed off the stage in Athens.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I have already mentioned that the awkwardness with which Polyphontes demands marriage after fifteen years with the now much older Merope is not a fault inherent in the source material.[47.4] For according to Hyginus’s fable, Polyphontes had married Merope right after the murder of Cresphontes, and it is easy to believe that even Euripides had adopted this circumstance. And why should he not have? The very same reasons that Voltaire’s Euricles gives to coax Merope to marry the tyrant now, after fifteen years, might have coaxed her to it fifteen years before.[*][47.5] It was very common among ancient Greek women to overcome their disgust toward the murderers of their husbands and take them as their second husbands when they saw that the children from their first marriage could gain an advantage thereby. I remember having read something similar in the Greek romance by Chariton that was published by d’Orville, in which a mother makes the decision for the sake of her unborn baby in a very moving way.[47.6] I think the passage deserves to be cited but I do not have the book to hand. Enough that what Voltaire himself gives Euricles to say would have been sufficient to justify his Merope’s behavior, had he introduced her as Polyphontes’ wife. As a result the cold scenes of political love would have been dropped, and I see more than one means by which our interest could have been far better engaged, and the situations made much more intriguing, because of this circumstance.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But Voltaire absolutely wanted to stay on the trail Maffei had blazed for him, and because it did not even once occur to him that there could be a better one, that this better one was in fact the one that had been trod in ancient times, he contented himself with clearing from its track a couple of minor stones over which he believed his predecessor had nearly stumbled. Would he otherwise have also retained this from Maffei – that Aegisthus, unaware of his true identity, must land completely by chance in Messene, and then, in that very place, and as a result of minor, ambiguous clues, fall under suspicion of being his own murderer? In Euripides, Aegisthus knew exactly who he was, and came to Messene with revenge as his express purpose, and gave himself out to be the murderer of Aegisthus; he only failed to reveal himself to his mother, whether out of caution or mistrust or some other reason – the poet will certainly not have left him wanting for reasons.[47.7] Previously I lent Maffei some reasons of my own for all of the changes he made to Euripides’ plot.[47.8] But I am very far from declaring the reasons sufficiently important and the changes sufficiently successful. Rather, I contend that every step he ventured that strayed from the footsteps of the Greeks became a misstep. That Aegisthus does not know who he is, that he comes to Messene by accident and is taken for Aegisthus’s murderer “per combinazione d’accidenti” (as Maffei puts it): this does not only give the whole story a very confused, ambiguous, and fanciful character, but also profoundly weakens the impact.[47.9] In Euripides the spectator knew from Aegisthus himself that he is Aegisthus, and the more certainly he knew that Merope was coming to kill her own son, the necessarily greater must have been the terror that seized him, and the more afflicting must have been the compassion he knew he would feel if Merope were not prevented in time from executing the deed. In Maffei and Voltaire, on the other hand, we only suppose that the presumed murderer of the son might well be the son himself, and our greatest terror is saved for the one moment in which it ceases to be terror. The worst thing about it is this: the reasons that lead us to guess that the young stranger is Merope’s son are precisely the reasons why Merope herself should guess it, and that, especially in Voltaire’s play, we do not know him in any way, shape, or form better than she herself could. So we either trust these reasons just as much as Merope trusts them, or we trust them more. If we trust them just as much, then, along with her, we take the young man for a liar, and the fate she intends for him cannot move us very much. If we trust them more, then we blame Merope for not paying better attention to them and for allowing herself to be carried away by far shallower reasons. Neither suffices.


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [*] Acte II. Sc. I
MER: Non, mon fils ne le souffrirait pas.
L’exil, où son enfance a langui condamnée
Lui serait moins affreux que ce lâche hyménée.
EUR: Il le condamnerait, si, paisible en son rang,
Il n’en croyait ici que les droits de son sang;
Mais si par les malheurs son âme était instruite,
Sur ses vrais intérêts s’il réglait sa conduite,
De ses tristes amis s’il consultait la voix,
Et la nécessité, souveraine des lois,
Il verrait que jamais sa malheureuse mère
Ne lui donna d’amour une marque plus chère.
MER: Ah! que me dites-vous?
EUR:                                       De dure vérités
Qui m’arrachent mon zèle & vos calamités.
MER: Quoi! Vous me demandez que l’intérêt surmonte
Cette invincible horreur que j’ai pour Polifonte!
Vous, qui me l’avez peint de si noires couleurs!
EUR: Je l’ai peint dangereux, je connais ses fureurs;
Mais il est tout-puissant; mais rien ne lui résiste;
Il est sans héritier, et vous aimez Egiste.

  • 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0
  • [47.1] Actually published 29 December 1767.
  • [47.2] 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. Beginning with [41], Lessing has been addressing criticisms of Maffei’s Merope made by Voltaire (both as himself and as the pseudonymous M. de La Lindelle). Here Lessing supports his statement, made at the end of [46], that Voltaire’s Merope is as much a “cannibal” (i.e. savage) as Maffei’s.
  • [47.3] In [39] and [40] Lessing discusses the relationship between Hyginus’s fables and Cresphontes, Euripides’ lost version of the Merope story.
  • [47.4] See [44].
  • [47.5] For the passage in Lessing’s footnote, see Voltaire, Mérope 265–66. For the English, see page 22–3 of the Francklin translation.
  • [47.6] Chariton (fl. 1st century CE): ancient Greek novelist whose romance Chaereas and Callirhoë was published by Dutch classical scholar Jacques Philippe d’Orville (1696–1751) in 1750 as Charitonis Aphrodisiensis de Chaerea et Callirrhoë amatoriam narrationum [The Love Stories of Chareas and Callirhoë, by Chariton of Aphrodisias].
  • [47.7] Both here and below, when Lessing cites Euripides, he is in fact referencing Hyginus, whose 137th fable may have summarized Euripides’ Cresphontes.
  • [47.8] See [40].
  • [47.9] Per combinazioni d’accidenti: through a series of coincidences; see Maffei, Merope in Teatro del Sig. marchese Scipione Maffei xxxix.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0  

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-47/