A New and Complete Translation

Essay 68

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [†] 25 December 1767[68.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 A few more words exchanged in parting, a few more proclamations in the silence, and then both Earl and Queen exit, each in a different direction.[68.2] One must imagine that in leaving Essex gave Cosme the letter he wrote to Blanca. For a moment later, Cosme comes in with it and says that his master is being led to his death; once that is over, he will deliver the letter as promised. As he looks at it, however, his curiosity is piqued. “What could this letter contain? A proposal of marriage? That would be coming a bit too late. The transcript of his judgment? He will not have sent that to the person it has widowed. His will? This, too, is unlikely. Well, then: what?” He becomes more and more curious; at the same time he recalls how ignorance of what was in a letter from his master nearly cost him his life once before. “Didn’t I just barely escape becoming a confidant because of it? The devil take this complicity! No, that must not happen to me again!” In short, Cosme decides to break open the letter. Of course, its content shocks him. He believes he can not be rid quickly enough of a note that contains such important and dangerous things; he trembles at the mere thought that someone could find it in his hands before he has turned it over voluntarily, so he rushes to bring it to the Queen straightaway.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Just then, the Queen comes out with the Chancellor. Cosme wants to let her finish with the Chancellor first and so he steps aside. The Queen issues the last orders for the Earl’s execution to the Chancellor: it should take place immediately and in total secrecy; the people should learn nothing of it until the beheaded corpse hails them to loyalty and obedience with its silent tongue.[*][68.3] The Chancellor is to bring the head into the hall and lay it under a rug with the bloody axe; afterwards he is to gather the nobles of the realm in order to show them at once both crime and punishment; this would serve both to remind them of their duty and impress upon them that their Queen is prepared to be as severe as she might wish to be merciful; and this all, as the playwright has her say, is according to the customs and conventions of the land.[†][68.4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The Chancellor leaves with this order, and Cosme approaches the Queen. “My master,” he says, “gave me this letter to deliver after his death to Blanca. I opened it, I myself do not know why, and because I find things in it that your Majesty must know and that could perhaps assist the Earl, I bring it to your Majesty and not to Blanca.” The Queen takes the letter and reads: “Blanca, I approach my final moments; they will not allow me to speak with you; therefore receive my embrace in writing. But first, come to know me: I was never the traitor I might perhaps have seemed to you. I promised to help you with the matter in question only in order the more emphatically to serve the Queen and lure Roberto and his accomplices to London. Judge how great my love is, that nevertheless I will rather die myself than put your life in danger. And now the warning: abandon the plans to which Roberto incites you; you no longer have me, and you will not readily find one again who loves you so much that he will die the death of a traitor for you.”[‡][68.5]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 “Man, what have you brought me here?” the distraught Queen calls out. “Well?” says Cosme, “am I still a confidant?” – “Hurry, fly to save your master! Tell the Chancellor to stop! – You there, guards! Bring him to me this instant – the Earl – hurry!” – And at that moment he is brought in: that is, his corpse. As great as the joy was that suddenly overcame the Queen upon knowing her Earl innocent, just as great are her pain and anger upon seeing him executed. She curses the hastiness with which her orders were executed; and may Blanca tremble! –

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Thus concludes this play, with which perhaps I have held up my readers too long. And perhaps not. We are so little acquainted with the dramatic works of the Spanish; I know of not a single one that has been translated or even excerpted for us. For though Augustino de Montiano y Luyando’s Virginia is written in Spanish, it is no Spanish play.[68.6] It is merely an attempt in the correct French manner, proper but cool. I gladly confess that I no longer think nearly as favorably of it as I must have previously.[§][68.7] Since the same author’s second play did not turn out better, since the more recent playwrights of that nation who wanted to tread this same path have not been more successful, then they should not hold it against me if I still prefer to turn to their old Lope and Calderon instead of them.[68.8]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The authentic Spanish plays are wholly consistent with this Essex – of course, with more or less all the same strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are obvious; one might, however, question me about the strengths. – A completely singular story, a very clever complication, many unusual and new theatrical tricks, the most economical situations, for the most part very well designed characters that are maintained to the end, and, not infrequently, much dignity and power of expression. –

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 These are certainly strengths; I do not say that they are the greatest. I do not deny that in part they can very easily slip into the romantic, quixotic, and unnatural, and that among the Spanish they are rarely free of such exaggeration. But take the mechanical regularity from most French plays, and tell me if there is much left over in them other than strengths of this sort? What else do they still have in them that is good other than complication, and theatrical tricks, and situations?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Decorum, one will say.[68.9] – Well yes: decorum. All of their complications are more decorous, and more monotonous; all of their theatrical tricks are more decorous, and more hackneyed; all of their situations are more decorous, and more forced. That is what comes of decorum!

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But Cosme, this Spanish Hanswurst; this monstrous union of the most vulgar buffoonery and the most portentous seriousness; this mixture of the comic and the tragic for which the Spanish theater is so notorious?[68.10] I am a long way from defending this combination. If indeed it merely conflicted with decorum – you understand, of course, which decorum I mean here – if this combination had no other faults, than that it insulted the reverence nobility demands, than that it went directly against the manners, the etiquette, the ceremonies, and all the other sleights of hand through which they want to convince the greater number of people that there is a smaller number who are made of far better stuff, then the silliest change from low to high, from absurdity to seriousness, and from black to white would be more welcome to me than the cold uniformity through which the good tone, the fine world, the courtly manners, and whatever else you might call similar miseries unfailingly lulls me to sleep. But whole other matters come into consideration here.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [*]     hasta que el tronco cadáver
le sirva de muda lengua.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [†]     Y así, al salon de Palacio
haréis que llamados vengan
los Grandes, y los Milordes,
y para que allí le vean,
debaxo de una cortina
haréis poner la cabeza
con el sangriento cuchillo,
que amenaza junto á ella,
por símbolo de justicia,
costumbre de Inglaterra;
y en estando todos juntos,
mostrándome justiciera,
exhortándolos primero
con amor á la obediencia,
les mostraré luego al Conde,
para que todos entiendan,
que en mí hay rigor que los rinda,
si hay piedad que los atreva.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [‡]     Blanca en el último trance,
porque hablarte no me dexan,
he de escribirte un consejo,
y tambien una advertencia.
La advertencia es, que yo nunca
fuí traidor, que la promesa
de ayudarte en lo que sabes,
fué por servir á la Reyna,
cogiendo á Roberto en Lóndres,
y á los que seguirle intentan:
para aquesto fué la carta,
esto he querido que sepas,
porque adviertas el prodigio
de mi amor, que así se dexa
morir por guardar tu vida.
Esta ha sido la advertencia;
(válgame Dios!) el consejo
es, que desistas la empresa
á que Roberto te incita,
mira que sin mí te quedas,
y no ha de haber cada dia
quien, por mucho que te quiera,
por conservarte la vida,
por traidor la suya pierda. –

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [§] Theatralische Bibliothek

  • 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [68.1] Actually published in early 1768.
  • [68.2] In [54], Lessing begins his analysis of The Unhappy Favourite: or, The Earl of Essex (1682) by John Banks; here Lessing continues, from [60], his extended synopsis and discussion of a “Spanish Essex” (Antonio Coello’s Dar la vida por su Dama, 1633). See [60.2].
  • [68.3] For the quotation in Lessing’s footnote, see Coello 31.
  • [68.4] Ibid.
  • [68.5] Ibid.
  • [68.6] Virginia (1750): tragedy by Spanish playwright and critic Agustín de Montiano y Luyando (1697–1764), proponent of the French neoclassical model and author of Discurso sobre las tragedia españolas [Discourse on Spanish Tragedies] (1750–53). In 1754, Lessing published a lengthy selection from Virginia in his Theatralische Bibliothek; the play is considered to have influenced Lessing’s tragedy Emilia Galotti (1772). See Nisbet 487.
  • [68.7] See Lessing, “Auszug aus dem Trauerspiele Virginia des Don Augustino de Montiano y Luyando” (“Excerpt from the Tragedy Virginia by Don Augustino de Montiano y Luyando”) in Part 1 of the Theatralische Bibliothek (pages 117–208).
  • [68.8] Moniano’s second tragedy was Ataúlfo (1753). Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81): Spanish playwright and poet, considered, with Lope, the greatest of Spanish Golden Age playwrights.
  • [68.9] Decorum: the French neoclassical rule of bienséance (propriety), which called for civility and an adherence to perceived social norms of behavior.
  • [68.10] Hanswurst: see [18.6]. Generally, Lessing supported neither the mixing of genres, nor the antics of the German clown Hanswurst; here his (qualified) support of the “Spanish Hanswurst” allows him to criticize, as he does in this paragraph, both the “cold uniformity” of French neoclassical theatre and the aristocratically-dominated social structure it upholds.
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