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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 69

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [†] 29 December 1767[69.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Although Lope de Vega is considered the creator of Spanish theater, he was not the one who introduced this hybrid tone.[69.2] The people were already so accustomed to it that he had to conform against his will. In his didactic poem, The New Art of Writing Plays, which I already mentioned above, he complains about it at length.[69.3] Because he saw that it was not possible to please his contemporaries by working within the rules and models of the ancients, he tried at least to set some limits to the irregularity; this was the aim of his poem. Despite the wild and barbaric taste of his nation, he thought it ought still to have its principles, and it would be better to act according to these with a consistent uniformity than to none at all. Plays that do not observe the classical rules can still observe rules, and must observe these if they want to please. He wanted to establish rules that were derived from the national taste, and the combination of the serious and the ridiculous was the first.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “You may even let kings” he says, “appear in your plays.[69.4] I am aware that our wise king (Philip the Second) did not approve of this, either because he perceived that it went against the rules or because he believed it contradicted the majesty of a king to be mixed with the vulgar mob. I freely admit that this is a turning back to Old Comedy, which even brought gods on stage, as we see in Plautus’s Amphitryon among others.[69.5] I also know well enough that Plutarch, speaking of Menander, does not praise the Old Comedy very highly.[69.6] Thus it is rather difficult for me to defend our fashion. But since we in Spain diverge so far from art, the scholars will have to be silent on this. It is true that comedy mixed with tragedy, Seneca melted together with Terence, produces a monstrosity comparable to Pasiphae’s minotaur.[69.7] But this back and forth actually delights; people simply do not want to see plays other than those that are half serious and half funny. Nature itself teaches us this variety, from which it derives a part of its beauty.”[*][69.8]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The final words are the reason I quote this passage. Is it true that nature itself serves as a model for this mixture of the common and the elevated, the farcical and the serious, the funny and the sad? It seems so. But if this is true, then Lope has accomplished more than he intended: he did not merely justify the errors of his stage, but he actually proved that this particular error is not one, since an imitation of nature cannot be an error.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One of our more modern writers says:[69.9] “It is said of Shakespeare – who of all the poets since Homer understood men, from kings to beggars and from Julius Caesar to Jack Falstaff, better than any and saw through them with a kind of unfathomable intuition – that his plays have no plot, or rather that they have only very faulty, irregular, and badly concocted plots; that the comic and tragic are promiscuously mixed together in them in the most peculiar manner; and that often the same character who has brought us to tears through natural, stirring expression will just a few moments later, by some odd conceit or baroque expression of emotion, either bring us to the point of laughter or at least cool us down such that it becomes challenging for him to return us to our former state. – People criticize him for this, and do not pause to consider that his plays are natural representations of human life for this very reason.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “The life of most people and (if I do say so) the course of life of the great bodies politic themselves (insofar as we consider them to be moral agents) resembles the Haupt- und Staatsaktionen of the old gothic taste in so many respects that one might imagine the authors of those plays were far more intelligent than we commonly think, and, while they had no hidden purpose of making a mockery of human life, they at least might have wanted to imitate nature as faithfully as the Greeks set themselves to refining it.[69.10] Not to mention here the coincidental similarity, that in these plays, as in life, the most important roles are very often played by the worst actors – what can be more similar to each other than both types of Haupt- und Staatsaktionen tend to be, not only in their design but also in the division and disposition of their scenes, and in their complications and developments? How rarely do the authors of either ask themselves why they have made this or that one way, and not another? How often do they surprise us with incidents for which we are not in the least prepared? How often do we see people coming and going without being able to compass why they came or why they disappeared again? How much is left to chance in both? How often do we see the greatest effects produced by the most petty causes? How often are serious and important matters handled in a careless manner, and the most meaningless matters treated with ridiculous gravity? And in both cases, when everything is finally so deplorably muddled and jumbled together that we begin to despair of the possibility of a resolution: how happy are we to see the knot – not so much unraveled, to be sure – but sliced through, either by some god jumping down out of paper clouds amidst thunder and lightning, or through some brazen stroke of a dagger.[69.11] It all boils down to the same thing, that one way or another the play comes to an end, and the spectators can applaud or hiss as they want or – dare. Besides, everyone knows what an important person the noble Hanswurst represents in the comic tragedies we are talking about, who seems determined to keep his place on stage in the capital of the German Empire, presumably as an eternal memorial of our ancestors’ taste.[69.12] Would to God this figure only showed up in the theater! But, throughout history, how many great scenes have we not seen conducted on the stage of the world with – or, what is even worse, by – a Hanswurst? How often have the greatest men, men born to be the protective spirits of a throne and the benefactors of whole nations and eras, been forced to see all their wisdom and valor thwarted by some whimsical prank by a Hanswurst or by those people who, even if they do not wear his jacket and yellow hose, still embody his character? How often does the complication in both types of tragicomedy arise merely from some stupid, mischievous piece of work on Hanswurst’s part that spoils the plans of sensible people before they can suspect anything?” –

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 If, in this comparison of the great and small, the original and imitated heroic farce –[69.13] (which I copied with pleasure from a work that undoubtedly belongs among the best of our century, but which seems to have been written way too soon for the German public. In France and England it would have caused the greatest sensation and the name of its author would be on every tongue. But here? We have it, and that is enough. Our greats learn first of all to chew on the ***, and admittedly the juice from a French novel is much sweeter and easier to digest.[69.14] When their teeth have become sharper and their stomachs stronger, when they have, in the meantime, learned German, then they will finally discover – Agathon. This is the work of which I speak, which I admire so much that I would rather say so here, though it may not be the most suitable place, than not say anything at all, because I am stunned by the total silence of our critics with respect to it, or the cold and indifferent tone they use if they do speak of it. It is the first and only novel for the thinking man, the first novel of classical taste. Novel? We only give it this label in the hope that it will thereby gain a few more readers. Those few it might lose on this account are not important anyway.)


8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [*] Elíjasse el sujeto, y no se mire
(perdonen los preceptos) si es de reyes,
aunque por esto entiendo que el prudente
Filipo, rey de España y señor nuestro,
en viendo un rey en ellos se enfadava:
o fuesse el ver que al arte contradize,
o que la autoridad real no deve
andar fingida entre la humilde plebe.
Esto es bolver a la comedia antigua,
donde vemos que Plauto puso dioses,
como en su Anfitrïón lo muestra Júpiter.
Sabe Dios que me pesa de aprovarlo,
porque Plutarco, hablando de Menandro,
no siente bien de la comedia antigua.
Mas pues del arte vamos tan remotos,
y en España le hazemos mil agravios,
cierren los doctos esta vez los labios.
Lo trágico y lo cómico mezclado,
y Terencio con Séneca, aunque sea
como otro Minotauro de Pasife,
harán grave una parte, otra ridícula;
que aquesta variedad deleita mucho.
Buen exemplo nos da naturaleza,
que por tal variedad tiene belleza.

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [69.1] Actually published in early 1768.
  • [69.2] Lessing continues his discussion, begun in [68], of the mixture of comedy and tragedy in Spanish Golden Age drama.
  • [69.3] See [62].
  • [69.4] Lessing appears to have translated this passage not from the Spanish, but from a French translation of Lope’s poem entitled Nouvelle Pratique de Théatre, accommodée à l’usage présent d’Espagne, adressée à l’Académie de Madrid e traduite de l’espangol de Lopez de Vega [The New Practice of Theater, accommodated to the current usage in Spain, addressed to the Academy of Madrid and translated from the Spanish of Lope de Vega]. See Robertson 299–300.
  • [69.5] Old Comedy: Lope appears to refer to the classical comedy of both Greece and Rome; in contemporary usage, the term refers to ancient Greek comedy (c. 5th century BCE), considered synonymous with the work of Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 BCE). Lessing discusses Plautus’s Amphitryon at the end of [55].
  • [69.6] Menander (c. 342–c. 292 BCE): Hellenistic playwright, chief representative of Athenian New Comedy. Plutarch criticizes Old Comedy through Aristophanes, its only extant representative, in “A Comparison Between Aristophanes and Menander” (extant only in fragments), for combining “tragic, comic, pompous, and prosaic elements, obscurity, vagueness, dignity, and elevation, loquacity and sickening nonsense” (465).
  • [69.7] Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) (c. 4 BCE–65 CE): Roman orator, statesman, Stoic philosopher, and tragic playwright. Pasiphae’s minotaur: in Greek mythology, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull; the offspring of Pasiphae, wife of the Cretan king Minos, and a bull.
  • [69.8] For the Spanish quoted in Lessing’s footnote, see Vega, Arte Nuevo de Hazer [sic] Comedias in Rimas 371–3. For an English translation see Vega, The New Art of Writing Plays 29–30.
  • [69.9] Lessing refers to Christoph Martin Wieland, see [15.7]. For the following passages, see Wieland’s novel, Geschichte des Agathon (1766–7) 2: 192–5; The history of Agathon 4: 1–5.
  • [69.10] Gothic taste: refers to the baroque style of the seventeenth century; although generally derided by eighteenth-century critics, its value would be readdressed at the end of the century by authors such as Wieland and Goethe. Haupt- und Staatsaktionen: see [62.10].
  • [69.11] Aristotle describes a plot as having two parts, the complication and the resolution; his term for the latter is lusis (λύσις), usually translated as “unraveling.” See Poetics (Part XVIII). Sliced through: reference to the deus ex machina of Greek theater.
  • [69.12] The Hanswurst character, popularized by the Viennese actor and manager Joseph Anton Stranitzky (1676–1726), remained an important figure in the theater of Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, long after its popularity declined elsewhere.
  • [69.13] Tr. note: Lessing cuts off midsentence for his parenthetical digression; he picks up his thought again at the beginning of [70].
  • [69.14] chew on the ***: part of the attraction of “trivial” novels of the time was their anonymity, which allowed the public the added entertainment of speculating about their authorship.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-69/