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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 55

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 10 November 1767[55.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†] “As she expected, he was found guilty by the Law, and condemned to lose his Head; as was also his Friend Southampton.[55.2] Her majesty knew that by her Prerogative she had a Right to pardon him; but then she thought such a Grace would too much betray a Weakness unworthy of a Queen, and waited till he should send the Ring, and beg his Life. Impatient till she knows him secure she sends Nottingham to him, who pretending the greatest Compassion for him, is intrusted by him with this precious Pledge of Safety, and with it a Petition to the Queen for Mercy. She [Nottingham] now had all she wish’d in her Possession, and a full Opportunity to revenge the Contempt he had shewn her Charms. [Instead of carrying out his charge, she defames him in the most malicious way and portrays him as proud, spiteful, and firmly resolved not to beg for mercy (instead allowing things to reach an extreme), to such a degree that the Queen can hardly believe her report. But after repeated assurances, and full of anger and despair, she] gives Orders that the Sentence past [sic] on Essex shall be immediately executed.[55.3] The malicious Nottingham, who now engrosses her Ear, persuades her to pardon the Earl of Southampton, not out of any real Pity for that Nobleman, but because she imagines Essex will feel the Severity of his own Doom more deeply, in seeing that Mercy which is denied to himself bestowed on his Friend. To imbitter Death the more, she also intreats his unhappy Wife may be permitted to see him as he is conducted to the Block; to both these the Queen consents, but unhappily for the cruel Adviser, the Earl then gives a Letter to his Wife to be delivered to the Queen, who being at that Time in the Tower, receives it, soon after the Earl is carried off; and finding by it that the Earl had sent the Ring, and beg’d his Life by Nottingham, sends to forbid the Execution; but Burleigh and Raleigh, who were intrusted with the fatal Orders, took so much Care they should not be delayed, that the Earl was dead before the Arrival of this second Message. The Queen is grieved beyond Measure, banishes the treacherous Nottingham for ever from her Presence, and is much displeased with all who had shewn themselves Enemies to the unfortunate Earl.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 There is enough in this plot summary to deduce that Banks’s Essex was a play with far more nature, truth, and consistency than can be found in the Essex of Corneille.[55.4] Banks adhered very closely to history, other than shifting several events closer together and giving them a more immediate influence on his hero’s final fate. Neither the episode with the slap nor the one with the ring is invented; both are found, as I noted earlier, in the history, only the former occurs much earlier and on a completely different occasion, as can also be presumed about the latter.[55.5] It is far more conceivable that the Queen would have given the Earl the ring at a time when she was completely satisfied with him, than that she should give him this pledge of her favor only at the moment when he had made himself least worthy of it and at the same time needed it most. This ring should remind her how dear the Earl once was to her when he received it from her, and this memory should then restore all the merit he unhappily stood to lose in her eyes. But what use is this sign, this memory, from one moment to the next? Does she fear herself so unable to control her tender inclinations for a few hours that she must deliberately bind them in such a manner? If she has seriously forgiven him, if his life is really important to her: why all the smoke and mirrors? Why could she not let the matter rest with verbal assurances? If she gave the Earl the ring just to pacify him, then it commits her to keep her word to him whether he returns the ring or not. If, however, she gave it in order to be assured, through its return, of the Earl’s enduring regret and submission: how can she trust his most deadly enemy with such an important matter? And had not Nottingham proven herself to be so just recently?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Thus the way Banks used the ring does not have an optimal effect. It seems to me that it would be better if the Queen had completely forgotten it, and it had been handed over to her suddenly, but too late, just as she was being persuaded of the Earl’s innocence, or at least of his lesser guilt, on other grounds. The gift of the ring should have occurred long before the action of the play, and only the Earl should have known its value; but he would not have wanted to make use of it until he saw that no heed was paid to his explanations, and that the Queen was far too set against him for him to hope to convince her, so that he thus had to try to stir her emotionally. And in the moment she were moved, she would be convinced: the recognition of his innocence and the reminder of her promise to believe him innocent even if he seems guilty should take her suddenly by surprise, but only after it is too late for her to acknowledge the truth and be just.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Banks was much more successful in weaving the slap into his play. – But a box on the ear in a tragedy! How English, how undignified! – Before my fine readers scoff at this too much, I beg them to remember the slap in The Cid.[55.6] The observation M. de Voltaire made about it is remarkable in many respects. “Nowadays,” he says, “one would not dare give a hero a smack upside the head.[55.7] The actors themselves do not know how to go about such a thing; they only pretend to do it. Such a thing is not even allowed in comedies anymore, and this is the only example we have of it on the tragic stage. It is possible that this is one among other reasons that The Cid is called a tragicomedy; in the past, nearly all of the plays of Scudéry and Boisrobert were tragicomedies.[55.8] In France it was long thought that people could not endure uninterrupted tragedy without out some interjection of the ordinary. The word tragicomedy itself is very old: Plautus uses it to characterize his Amphitryon because while Sosia’s adventures are comic, Amphitryon himself is quite seriously aggrieved.” – What won’t that M. de Voltaire write! How he loves to show a little learning, and how he usually goes wrong in the process!

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It is not true that the box on the ear in The Cid is the only one on the tragic stage. Either Voltaire did not know Banks’s Essex, or he assumed that only the tragic theater of his nation merited this name. Both bespeak ignorance; only the latter conveys more vanity than ignorance. What he adds with regard to the label tragicomedy is just as incorrect. Tragicomedy is the representation of an important action by noble people that has a happy outcome.[55.9] That describes The Cid, and the box on the ear did not come into consideration whatsoever. Notwithstanding this slap, Corneille later called his play a tragedy, once he had laid aside the prejudice that a tragedy had to have an unhappy end. It is true that Plautus used the word “Tragicocomoedia,” but he used it merely in jest and not to designate a special genre.[55.10] Moreover, nobody borrowed it from him in this sense until it occurred to sixteenth-century Spanish and Italian poets to give this name to certain of their dramatic miscarriages.[*][55.11]  But even if Plautus had labeled his Amphitryon thusly in earnest, it would not have been for the reasons that Voltaire imputed to him. Plautus would not have wanted to call his play a tragicomedy because the part that Sosia plays in the action is comic and the part Amphitryon plays is tragic.[55.12] His play is completely comic, and we laugh just as much at Amphitryon’s quandary as we do at Sosia’s. Rather it is because this comic action mainly occurs among nobler characters than we usually see in comedy. Plautus himself explains this clearly enough:

Faciam ut commixta sit Tragico-comoedia:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0             Nam me perpetuo facere ut sit Comoedia

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0             Reges quo veniant & di, non par arbitror.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0             Quid igitur? quoniam hic servus quoque partes habet,

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0             Faciam hanc, proinde ut dixi, Tragico-comoediam.[55.13]


12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [*] I do not know who actually used this name first, but I do know this for certain: it was not Garnier. Hedelin said: “Je ne sçai si Garnier fut le premier qui s’en servit, mais il a fait porter ce titre à sa Bradamante, ce que depuis plusieurs ont imité.” (Prat. du Th. liv. II. ch. 10). And the historians of French theater should have let it rest at that. But they turned Hedelin’s light supposition into a certainty and congratulated their countryman for such a fine invention. “Voici la premiére Tragi-Comédie, ou pour mieux dire le premier Poëme du Théatre, qui a porté ce titre – Garnier ne connoissoit pas assez les finesses de l’art qu’il professoit; tenons-lui cependent compte d’avoir le premier, & sans le secours des anciens, ni de ses contemporains, fait entrevoir une idée, qui n’a pas été inutile à beaucoup d’Auteurs du dernier siécle.” Garnier’s Bradamante is from 1582, and I know plenty of much earlier Spanish and Italian plays that bear this title.

  • 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [55.1] Actually published winter of 1768.
  • [55.2] In [54], Lessing begins his analysis of The Unhappy Favourite: or, The Earl of Essex (1682) by John Banks. Here he continues the play’s synopsis, drawn from A Companion to the Theatre II: 99–105, so that his reader might compare it to Thomas Corneille’s Le Comte d’Essex (1678) (passage cited in this essay begins on II: 103). We have restored the original English except where Lessing deviates significantly from his source, in which case a retranslation of Lessing’s changes back into English is interpolated in square brackets.
  • [55.3] Tr. note: in the original, the following is in place of the text in brackets: “Instead of bearing his Message to the Queen, she represents him as insolent, disdaining to receive any Favour from her; and daring all that her Power and Indignation can inflict: To heighten her Displeasure against him, an unlucky Accident contributes: His Wife hearing he was condemn’d to die, quite desperate with Grief, flies to the Queen, reveals the Secret of their Marriage, and begs her Husband’s Life. Never did publick Indignation, or secret Despair rise to a greater Height than in the Behaviour, and Breast of this Princess; she spurns the Countess from her, and” (A Companion to the Theatre II: 103–4).
  • [55.4] For the relationship between the Essex of Banks and that of Corneille, see [54.7].
  • [55.5] See [22] and [23].
  • [55.6] In Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (1636), the play’s hero fights a duel to avenge his father’s honor after the latter receives a slap to the face.
  • [55.7] See Voltaire, “Le Cid” in Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 60.
  • [55.8] Georges de Scudéry (1601–67): French playwright, poet, novelist, and rival of Pierre Corneille. François Le Métel de Boisrobert (1592–1662): French abbé, playwright, and poet. Both were participants in a famous literary controversy sparked by the success of Le Cid known as “Le Querelle du Cid” (“The Quarrel of The Cid”).
  • [55.9] This is D’Aubignac’s definition; see Aubignac, François Hédelin, La Pratique du théâtre 133; The Whole Art of the Stage Bk 4 Ch. 5 p. 145–6.
  • [55.10] See note 13 below.
  • [55.11] Lessing’s footnote refers to Robert Garnier (c.1545–90), lawyer, playwright, and poet, whose Bradamante (1582; originally misdated by Lessing as 1682) is considered the first important French tragicomedy; for Lessing’s first quotation see Aubignac, François Hédelin, La Pratique du théâtre 133; The Whole Art of the Stage Bk 4 Ch. 5 p. 144–5. Lessing’s comment about “historians of French theater” refers to the brothers Parfaict; his second quotation draws selectively from their Histoire du théâtre français 3: 454–6.
  • [55.12] In Plautus’s play, Jupiter sleeps with Alcmena, by impersonating her husband (the titular Amphitryon) who is away at war; Jupiter’s efforts are supported by Mercury, who disguises himself as Amphitryon’s slave Sosia. For a further plot synopsis, see Plautus, “Introduction to Amphitryon, or Jupiter in Disguise.
  • [55.13] From Plautus’s prologue to Amphitryon: “I’ll make this to be a mixture – a Tragi-comedy. For me to make it entirely to be a Comedy, where Kings and Gods appear, I do not deem right. What then? Since here the servant has a part as well, just as I said, I’ll make it to be a Tragi-comedy” (Trans. Henry Thomas Riley, The Comedies of Plautus II: 5).
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