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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 56

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 13 November 1767[56.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 But let’s return to that slap. – First of all, a slap received by a man of honor from his equal or from someone of higher rank is considered such an insulting injury that the law cannot provide sufficient reparation.[56.2] It cannot be punished by a third party; it needs to be revenged by the injured person himself, and in the same particular manner in which it was committed. Whether this is required by true or false honor is not under discussion here. As I said, this is simply the way things are.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 And if this is the way things are in the world, why not in the theater as well? If slaps happen in the real world, why not here, too?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 “The actors,” M. de Voltaire says, “do not know how to go about such a thing.”[56.3] They probably should; but no one likes to be slapped, even if it’s under an assumed name. The blow sets them on fire. The character is the recipient, but the actor feels it, and the emotion undoes the dissimulation. The actor loses his composure, his face involuntarily expresses shame and confusion, he should look angry but instead looks silly, and when an actor’s own feelings collide with his role, it makes us laugh.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This is not the only situation in which we might regret the abolishment of masks. An actor can undoubtedly keep more composure under a mask; his own person has less opportunity to break out, and if it does, we are much less aware of this outbreak.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But the actor can react to a slap on the face however he wants: the playwright may well work for the actor, but he does not therefore have to avoid everything that the actor finds uncomfortable or difficult. No actor can blush at will, but the playwright may still tell him to do so, and may have one actor say that he sees the other blush. The actor does not want to be slapped in the face, he believes it derides him, it confuses him, it causes him pain: very good! If he has not yet developed his art to the degree that such a thing does not confuse him, if he does not love his art enough to put up with a little bit of humiliation for its benefit, then he should deal with the situation as best he can, either by dodging the blow or holding up his hand. In any case, he should not demand that the playwright have more concern for the actor than for the person whom the actor represents. If the real Diego and the real Essex must receive a box on the ear, what argument can their representatives make against it?[56.4]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But perhaps the spectator does not want to see a blow delivered? Or at the most only to a servant, for whom it is not particularly insulting, for whom it is a chastisement fitting to his station? A hero, however, a box on the ear to a hero! How petty, how indecent! – And if it should be so? If this very impropriety should be, and becomes, the source of the most violent resolutions and the bloodiest revenge? Where no other, more trivial, insult could have had these terrible effects? Should something that can be so tragic in its consequences, that must necessarily be tragic among certain persons, be excluded from tragedy because it also has a place in comedy and farce? Why should that which makes us laugh in one instance not also horrify us in another?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 If I wanted to see such slaps banned from a genre of drama, it would be from the comedy. For what kind of consequences can they have there? Sad ones? They are beyond its sphere. Ridiculous ones? They are beneath it, and belong to the farce. None at all? Then it is not worth the effort to have them given at all. Anyone who gives them will convey nothing but common thuggery, and anyone who receives them nothing but servile timidity. The slap thus belongs only in the domain of the two extremes, tragedy and farce; these have in common many suchlike things at which we either scoff or shiver.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 And I ask everyone who has seen The Cid performed, or has only read it carefully, if he was not overtaken by a shudder when the boastful Gormas dared to hit the dignified old Diego?[56.5] If he did not feel the most sensitive compassion for the latter, and the most bitter indignation towards the former? If all the tragic, bloody consequences that this insulting encounter would necessarily bring in its wake did not immediately spring to mind and fill him with expectation and fear? Given this, should an incident that has all these effects on him not be tragic?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If anyone ever laughed at this blow, it was surely someone in the gallery who was all too familiar with such slaps and deserved one from his neighbor at that very moment. But if the clumsy manner in which the actor comported himself made a spectator smile against his will, that person would quickly bite his lip and immediately try to transport himself back into the illusion which nearly every violent action tends, more or less, to disrupt.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I also wonder what other insult could possibly take the place of a slap? In the case of any other insult, it would be in the king’s power to provide satisfaction to the injured party; for any other, the son could refuse to sacrifice the father of his beloved to his own father.[56.6] For this one offense alone the Pundonor accepts neither excuse nor apology, and all conciliatory means are in vain, even those the monarch himself initiates.[56.7] Corneille has Gormas answer very much in accord with this way of thinking when he responds to the king’s suggestion that he placate Diego:

Ces satisfactions n’apaisent point une âme:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0             Qui les reçoit n’a rien, qui les fait se diffame.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0             Et de tous ces accords l’effet le plus commun,

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0             C’est de déshonorer deux hommes au lieu d’un.[56.8]

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In France at the time, it had not been long since the edict against dueling was enacted, which these same maxims directly contradicted.[56.9] Corneille thus received orders to strike all these lines and they were banned from the actor’s lips.[56.10] But every spectator added them from memory and from personal emotion.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In Essex the slap becomes even more critical because it is given by a person who is not bound by the laws of honor. She is a woman and a queen: what can the injured party do with her? He would scoff at a woman ready and able to fight, for a woman can neither offend him nor best him. But this woman is also the sovereign, whose insults cannot be dismissed because they are imbued with her dignity and thus acquire a kind of legitimacy. What, then, can seem more natural, than that Essex rebels against this very dignity and rages against the heights that remove the offender beyond the reach of his revenge? [†]I cannot imagine what could otherwise have made his final misbehavior probable. Mere disgrace, mere removal from his posts of honor could not and would not drive him to such an extreme. But beside himself at such slavish treatment, we see everything that despair drives him to undertake – while not with approval, then at least with pardon. From this perspective the queen herself must recognize him as worthy of her forgiveness, and thus we have far more compassion for him than he seems to deserve in history, where what he does here in his initial anger over offended honor happens instead out of self-interest and other base intentions.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 History says that the dispute in which Essex received the box on the ear was over the choice of a King of Ireland.[56.11] When he saw that the Queen was adamant in her opinion, he turned his back on her in a contemptuous manner. In that moment he felt her hand, and his hand reached for his sword. He swore that he neither could nor would suffer such an insult, that he would not tolerate it from her father Henry himself, and he withdrew from court. The letter that he wrote to Chancellor Egerton about this incident was composed with the most noble pride, and he appeared firmly resolved never to come near the Queen again. Nevertheless, we soon find him fully back in her grace, and back in action as an ambitious favorite. This reconciliation, if serious, gives us a very bad impression of him, and we don’t have a much better one if it was feigned. In that case he really was a traitor who put up with everything until he believed the right moment had come. In the end a measly patent on sweet wine that the queen took from him infuriated him far more than the slap, and he was so blinded by his anger over this reduction of his income that he burst out without thinking.[56.12] This is how we find him in history, and we despise him. But not in Banks, who makes his rebellion the immediate consequence of the box on the ear and does not attribute to him any traitorous intentions against his queen. His error is the error of a noble passion that he regrets, that he is pardoned for, and that he would not have been punished for were it not for the malevolence of his enemies.

  • 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [56.1] Actually published winter of 1768.
  • [56.2] In [54], Lessing begins his analysis of The Unhappy Favourite: or, The Earl of Essex (1682) by John Banks; here he continues, from [55], to address criticism of Banks’s choice to include a moment in which the Queen Elizabeth slaps the titular character.
  • [56.3] “Les acteurs mêmes sont très embarrassés à donner ce soufflet, ils font le semblant.” (The actors themselves are too embarrassed to give the blow; they pretend to do so.) Voltaire, “Le Cid” in Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 60.
  • [56.4] Diego: Don Diègue, the father of Don Rodrigue (Rodrigo), later called “The Cid”.
  • [56.5] Don Diègue is struck by the younger Don Gomès (Gomez), the Count of Gormas.
  • [56.6] To avenge the insult done to his father, Rodrigue duels with – and kills – Don Gomès, the father of the woman he loves (Chimène).
  • [56.7] Pundonor: “punto de honor” (point of honor).
  • [56.8] These reparations appease no soul. / Whoever receives them has nothing, whoever makes them, slanders himself / And the most common effect of all these agreements, / Is to dishonor two men instead of one.
  • [56.9] Louis XIII’s 1626 edict against dueling was one of many attempts by French monarchs to control dueling, beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing into the eighteenth.
  • [56.10] These lines, suppressed by Corneille, do not appear in modern editions of the play. The first mention of these lines, in 1637, is slightly different from Lessing’s. Voltaire, in his edited collection of Corneille’s works, gives them as, “Reparations appease no soul; / Whoever receives them wrongly, defames himself. / And the most common effect from such agreements, / Is to dishonor two men instead of one;” see Voltaire “Le Cid” in Commentaires sur Corneille (II) 63–4.
  • [56.11] This information and that which follows is drawn from Hume, The History of England 4: 483–4.
  • [56.12] Queen Elizabeth withdrew from Essex his monopoly on the import of sweet wines; see Hume 505–6.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-56/