A New and Complete Translation

Essay 50

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 20 October 1767[50.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In Maffei’s play the young man has his two names, as he should: he is called Aegisthus, as the son of Polydorus, and Cresphontes, as the son of Merope.[50.2] In the list of characters he is only introduced under the latter name, and Becelli claims for himself no small credit that in his edition of the play the list of Dramatis personae does not reveal Aegisthus’s true identity in advance.[*][50.3] That is to say, the Italians are even greater lovers of surprise than the French. –

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But back to Merope! – Truly, I pity my readers, who expected from these pages a theatrical newspaper that would be as varied and colorful and as entertaining and droll as only a theatrical newspaper can be.[50.4] But instead of getting the contents of plays produced here, distilled into little funny or moving stories, instead of light biographies of amusing, eccentric, hairbrained creatures (as those who give themselves over to the writing of comedies surely must be), instead of entertaining and slightly scandalous anecdotes about actors, and particularly actresses – instead of all these agreeable little tidbits they anticipated, they get long, serious, dry critiques of old familiar plays, labored investigations of what should and should not be in a tragedy, and now and again even explanations of Aristotle. This is what they are supposed to read? As I said, I pity them; they have been terribly misled! – But speaking confidentially: better them than me. And I would be very much misled, if I had to make their expectations my laws. Not that their expectations would be difficult to fulfill; in fact, not at all. Rather, I would find them very easy if they would only better comport with my purposes.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Meanwhile I must really try to get away from the subject of Merope. – I really only wanted to prove that Voltaire’s Merope was basically nothing but Maffei’s Merope, and I think I have proved this. Aristotle says that it is not sharing the same subject that makes two plays the same, but sharing the same complication and resolution.[50.5] Thus it is not because Voltaire took up the same story as Maffei, but because he treated it in the same way, that he is revealed here to be nothing more than Maffei’s translator and imitator. Maffei did not merely reproduce Euripides’ Merope; he made his own Merope, for he completely departed from Euripides’ plot, and in his resolve to write a play free of romance, in which the entire interest derives from maternal tenderness, he transformed the whole story.[50.6] Whether it was done well or badly is not the issue here; it suffices that he transformed it. Voltaire, however, borrowed the whole transformed story from Maffei – he borrowed the fact that Merope is not married to Polyphontes; he borrowed the political circumstances that lead the tyrant to believe that he must press for this marriage now, after fifteen years; he borrowed the fact that Merope’s son does not know who he is; he borrowed how and why this son leaves his supposed father; he borrowed the incident that brings Aegisthus to Messene as a murderer; he borrowed the misinterpretation that leads to him being taken for his own murderer; he borrowed the vague stirrings of maternal love when Merope first sees Aegisthus; he borrowed both the pretext for why Aegisthus should die in front of Merope by her own hand and the discovery of his accomplices – in short, Voltaire borrowed the entire entanglement from Maffei. And did he not also take the whole resolution from him as well, insofar as he learned from him how to connect the sacrifice at which Polyphontes was to be killed to the main action? Maffei made it into a marriage celebration, and perhaps this is why he had his tyrant insist just then on the union with Merope, to make this sacrifice seem more natural. What Maffei invented, Voltaire imitated.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is true, Voltaire gave a different turn to some of the circumstances he borrowed from Maffei. For example, instead of Polyphontes having already ruled for fifteen years, as he does in Maffei, Voltaire has the unrest in Messene last for the whole fifteen years, with the most improbable anarchy persisting in the state the whole time. Instead of having Aegisthus attacked by a robber on the road, as Maffei does, Voltaire has him assaulted in the temple of Hercules by two unknown men who take offense that he is supplicating Hercules, the God of the temple, to aid the Heraclids, the descendants of that God. Instead of having Aegisthus fall under suspicion because of a ring, Voltaire has this suspicion arise because of a suit of armor, etc. But all these changes concern the most negligible trivialities, nearly all of which are peripheral to the play and have no influence on the economy of the play itself. And yet I would gladly credit these changes to Voltaire as expressions of his creative genius if only I found that he had understood how to follow through on all of the implications of the changes he thought he had to make. I will explain myself using the second of the examples cited above. Maffei has his Aegisthus attacked by a robber who seizes the moment in which he sees him alone on the road, not far from a bridge over the Pamise; Aegisthus slays the robber and throws the body in the river, out of fear that if the body were to be found on the street, the murderer will be sought and someone will be able to identify Aegisthus as such.[50.7] Voltaire thought: a robber who wants to pull off a prince’s cloak and take his purse is far too common a scene for my refined and noble parterre, better to turn this robber into a malcontent who assaults Aegisthus thinking he is a supporter of the Heraclids. And why just one? Better two: that makes Aegisthus’s heroic deed even greater, and the one of these two that escapes, if he is made to be the older, can be taken for Narbas later on.[50.8] Very good, my dear Johann Ballhorn; but let us keep going.[50.9] When Aegisthus has killed one of these malcontents, what does he do next? He also drags the dead body into the water. Also? But how? And why? From the empty highway to the nearby river is fully understandable, but from the temple to the river? Was there no one but them in this temple? Let it be so, that is still not even the grossest absurdity. The “how” could be imagined somehow, but the “why” – absolutely not. Maffei’s Aegisthus carries the body to the river because he fears being pursued and recognized otherwise, because he believes that once he has got rid of the body, nothing could reveal his deed, that then his deed would be buried in the river together with the body. But can Voltaire’s Aegisthus believe this too? Never, or the second man could not have been allowed to escape. Will he be satisfied to have escaped with his life? Will he not observe Aegisthus from a distance, no matter how frightened he may be? Will he not pursue him with his shouts, until others arrest him? Will he not accuse him, and bear witness against him? So how does it help the murderer to have carried away the Corpus delicti?[50.10] Here is a witness who can prove it. He should have spared himself this vain effort and instead hurried over the border, the sooner the better. Of course, for the sake of what follows the body had to be thrown in the water; it was just as necessary for Voltaire as it was for Maffei that Merope should not be torn from her misapprehension through viewing it. However, what Aegisthus does for his own best interests in the latter, he does to please the poet in the former. For Voltaire changes the cause without considering that he needs the effect of this cause, which now derives from nothing other than the poet’s requirement.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Only one change that Voltaire made to Maffei’s plot deserves to be called an improvement: namely, that he eliminates Merope’s repeated attempts to revenge herself on the presumed murderer of her son, and instead has Aegisthus’s recognition occur in Polyphontes’s presence. I recognize the poet in this, and in particular the second scene of the fourth act is superb. I only wish that the general recognition, which appears about to ensue on both sides in the fourth scene of the third act, could have been handled with more art. For to have Aegisthus led away all of a sudden by Euricles, and to have the scenery close behind him, is very heavyhanded.[50.11] It is not at all better than the hasty escape with which Aegisthus rescues himself in Maffei, and which Voltaire has his Lindelle mock so much.[50.12] Or rather, this escape is more natural by far, if only the poet had brought mother and son together again afterward and had not completely withheld from us the first emotional outburst of their mutual feelings for each other. Perhaps Voltaire would not have divided the recognition at all if he had not needed to extend his material in order to fill up five acts. He complains more than once about “cette longue carriére de cinq actes qui est prodigieusement difficile à remplir sans episodes.” [50.13] – And for now, enough of Merope!

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [*] Fin ne i nomi de’Personaggi si è levato quell’errore, comunissimo alle stampe d’ogni drama, di scoprire il secreto nel premettergli, e per conseguenza di levare il piacere a chi legge, overo ascolta, essendosi messo Egisto, dove era, Cresfonte sotto nome d’Egisto.

  • 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  • [50.1] Actually published 5 January 1768.
  • [50.2] 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. In [47] and [48], Lessing faults both Maffei and Voltaire for deviating from their classical source material by hiding Aegisthus’s true identity; in [49] Lessing points out that in Voltaire’s play Aegisthus’s name appears in the list of characters and above his lines, thus presumably spoiling the suspense for the reader.
  • [50.3] Giulio Cesare Becelli (1686–1750): Veronese scholar and critic; provided a preface to Maffei’s Merope. See “Al lettore” [“To the Reader”] in Teatro del Sig. marchese Sciopone Maffei xxvii.
  • [50.4] See “Preface to the Hamburg Dramaturgy” for Lessing’s original intentions. Lessing ceases to discuss acting and actors’ performances after [25], presumably due to pressure from the Hamburg National Theater company members. The focus of the Hamburg Dramaturgy would continue to shift as the theater company began to fail, publication difficulties ensued, and Lessing became more engrossed with his studies of antiquity.
  • [50.5] Aristotle, Poetics (Part XVIII).
  • [50.6] The title of Euripides’ lost play is not Merope, but Cresphontes; its plot may have been summarized in “Merope,” the 137th fable of Hyginus.
  • [50.7] Pamise: the Pamisos, a river in Messenia.
  • [50.8] Narbas: in Voltaire’s Mérope, the old servant who takes Aegisthus from Messene.
  • [50.9] Johann Ballhorn: printer in Lübeck so famous for introducing errors into his editions that “to ballhorn” became a term for making detrimental “improvements” to a text.
  • [50.10] Corpus delicti = “body of the offense,” evidence.
  • [50.11] Euricles: “favorite” of Merope, in Voltaire’s play.
  • [50.12] Lindelle: pseudonym of Voltaire. See “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” 239–40, “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire” 271–72.
  • [50.13] “this long stretch of five acts which is tremendously difficult to complete without episodes”: Voltaire uses this phrase to issue a backhanded compliment to Maffei. See the “Lettre à Monsieur la Marquis Scipion Maffei” 217, “A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei” 245.
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