¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In a nutshell: where Euripides’ critics believe they see nothing but a poet who makes his work as easy as possible out of convenience, or ineptitude, or both, and where they believe they find the art of drama in its infancy, I see it as having reached the height of perfection and admire Euripides as a master who essentially adheres to rules exactly as much as necessary and only appears to diverge from those rules because he wants to give his plays an additional beauty that exceeds their bounds.[49.2]
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is clear that all of the plays whose prologues are such an irritation are perfectly complete and perfectly understandable without these prologues. For example, delete Mercury’s prologue from Ion, or Polydorus’s from Hecuba, and let the first begin with Ion’s morning prayers, the second with Hecuba’s complaints: are they in the least bit maimed thereby?[49.3] How would you miss what you have deleted if it were not there at all? Does the whole not retain the same course, the same coherence? Suppose we admit that, according to your way of thinking, the plays would be even more beautiful if we did not know from the prologue that Ion, whom Creusa wants to have poisoned, is Creusa’s son and that Creusa, who wants to drag Ion from the altar to a shameful death, is Ion’s mother, and if we did not know that on the very day that Hecuba must surrender her daughter in sacrifice, the unhappy old woman will also learn of the death of her last and only remaining son. For all of this would provide the most splendid surprises, and in addition these surprises would be properly prepared for; you could not say that they broke like lightning out of clear skies, or that they did not follow but simply arose, or that something was suddenly imposed upon you rather than discovered by you. And yet you still quarrel with the poet? You still accuse him of a lack of art? Forgive him a mistake that is rectified with the stroke of a pen. The gardener quietly prunes a rampant shoot without chiding the healthy tree that sprouted it. Assume for a moment – it is true, this means assuming a great deal – that perhaps Euripides could have had just as much insight and taste as you, and that you find it that much more surprising that he still could have made such a gross mistake with such great insight and refined taste; suppose all this with me and regard what you call a mistake from my point of view. Euripides saw just as well as we do that, for example, his Ion could exist without the prologue, that on its own it was a play that maintained the uncertainty and expectation of the audience to the end. But this uncertainty and expectation were of no importance to him. For if the audience first discovered in the fifth act that Ion is Creusa’s son: then, to them, it is not her son but a stranger, an enemy, whom she wants to get rid of in the third act; and it is not Ion’s mother against whom Ion wants vengeance in the fourth act, but merely an assassin. In that case, where shall terror and compassion come from? The mere conjecture that might be drawn somehow from coincidental circumstances, namely that Ion and Creusa might possibly be more closely related to each other than they think, would not have been sufficient for that purpose. This conjecture had to become certainty, and if the audience could only obtain this certainty from outside, if it was not possible to glean it from one of the characters themselves, was it then not better for the poet to convey it by the only means possible than not at all? Say what you will about this means; it suffices that it helped him achieve his goal. Because of it, his tragedy is what a tragedy should be; and if you are still indignant that he has sacrificed the form to the substance, then seek out for your learned criticism only plays in which the substance is sacrificed to the form, and you will be rewarded! Go ahead and enjoy Whitehead’s Creusa, in which no god predicts anything, in which you learn everything from a prattling old confidante who is interrogated by a crafty gypsy-woman; go ahead and like it better than Euripides’ Ion, and I will never envy you![49.4]
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 When Aristotle called Euripides the most tragic of all tragic poets, he was not merely looking at the fact that most of his plays have a miserable catastrophe (although I know that many interpret the Stagirite in this way).[49.5] This artistic device could have been quickly imitated, and the bungler who did a good job of strangling and murdering and allowed none of his characters to leave the stage sound or alive would be permitted to consider himself just as tragic as Euripides. No question about it, Aristotle had numerous qualities in mind that justified conferring this title on Euripides. Without doubt the aforementioned quality belonged among them, by virtue of which Euripides showed the spectators far in advance all of the misfortune that should surprise his characters, in order to fill the spectators with compassion for characters at a point when the characters themselves are far from believing they warrant compassion. – Socrates was Euripides’ teacher and friend, and many seem to hold the opinion that only thing the poet took from this friendship with the philosopher was the abundance of beautiful moral maxims that he scatters so lavishly throughout his plays. I think he was indebted to it for much more. Without it he might well have been just as rich in sayings, but he might never have been so tragic. Beautiful sentences and morals are, in general, precisely what we hear the least from a philosopher like Socrates: his way of life is the only moral he preaches. But to know humankind and ourselves, to be attentive to our feelings, to determine and love the smoothest and shortest paths of nature in everything, and to judge everything according to its purpose – this is what we learn in his company, this is what Euripides learned from Socrates, and what made him first in his art. Happy the poet who has such a friend, – and can consult him any time, day or night! –
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Voltaire, too, apparently sensed that it would be good if he made Merope’s son known to us right at the beginning, if he could clarify immediately that the appealing, unfortunate youth, whom Merope initially takes under her protection and shortly thereafter wants to execute as the murderer of her Aegisthus is this very same Aegisthus. But the youth does not know his own identity; moreover, there is nobody else there who knows him better, and through whom we could learn who he is. What does the poet do, then? How does he ensure that we know with certainty that Merope is raising a dagger against her own son even before old Narbas cries out?[49.6] Oh, he does it very cleverly! Only a Voltaire could have come up with such a device! – As soon as the unknown youth enters, he puts the full name Aegisthus in big, beautiful, distinct letters above his first speech and above each of his subsequent speeches.[49.7] Now we know it; Merope has already called her son by this name more than once in the previous scene, and even if she had not, we would only need to look at the list of characters printed in front – there it stands, in great detail! Of course it is a bit ridiculous when the character, above whose speeches we have now read the name Aegisthus over ten times, when asked:
. . . Narbas vous est connu?
Le nom d’Egiste au moins jusqu’à vous es venu?
Quel était votre état, votre rang, votre père?[49.8]
Mon père est un vieillard accablé de misère;
Policlète est son nom; mais Egiste, Narbas,
Ceux dont vous me parlez, je ne les connais pas.[49.9]
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Certainly it is very odd that we also do not hear any other name for this Aegisthus whose name is not Aegisthus; that, when he tells the queen his father’s name is Polycletes, he does not also add that his name is so and so. For he must have a name, and M. de Voltaire surely could have invented one for him, he who has invented so much! Readers who do not know all of the ins and outs of tragedy could easily get confounded by this. They read that a young man has been brought here who has committed a murder on the highway; this young man, they see, is named Aegisthus, but he says that this is not his name, but also does not say what his name is. Oh, they conclude, there is something wrong with that lad, he is a shrewd bandit, young as he is, and innocent as he claims to be. Inexperienced readers are in danger of thinking thus, I say, and yet I believe in all seriousness that it is better for the experienced reader to learn, even in this manner, who the unknown youth is right at the beginning, than not to learn at all. But do not tell me that this manner of instructing them is in the least bit more artistic and refined than a prologue in the style of Euripides! –
- ¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
- [49.1] Actually published 5 January 1768.
- [49.2] 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. In  and , Lessing faults both Maffei and Voltaire for deviating from their classical source material by hiding Aegisthus’s true identity; here Lessing continues, from , a defense of Euripides’ prologues, which had been criticized by modern critics for revealing the plot in advance.
- [49.3] Ion, Hecuba: tragedies by Euripides.
- [49.4] Creusa, Queen of Athens (1754): an adaptation by English playwright and poet laureate William Whitehead (1715–85).
- [49.5] Miserable catastrophe: unhappy ending (not all Greek tragedies ended unhappily). See Aristotle, Poetics (Part XIII). Stagirite: Aristotle was born in Stagira, Macedonia.
- [49.6] Narbas: in Voltaire’s Mérope, the old servant who takes Aegisthus from Messene.
- [49.7] Lessing refers to the play’s printed form, in which characters’ names precede their lines. This criticism, of course, is not strictly fair. Lessing has been analyzing audience reception, but here (and for the remainder of this essay), he shifts to a discussion of the reader’s experience.
- [49.8] Francklin’s translation: “Knowst thou ought of Narbas, / Or of Aegisthus? Never hath that name / Yet reach’d thine ear? What rank, condition, friends, / Who was thy father?” (28). For the full exchange between mother and son, see Voltaire, Mérope 271.
- [49.9] Francklin’s translation: “Polycletes, madam, / A poor old man: to Narbas, or Aegisthus, / Of whom thou speak’st, I am a stranger” (28).