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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 7

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 26 May 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 The Prologue presents the theater in its most noble aspect, insofar as drama may be regarded as a supplement to the law.[7.1] There are matters in the moral comportment of men that, with regard to their direct impact upon the wellbeing of society, are too insignificant and in themselves too changeable to be worthy or capable of standing under the official purview of the law. There are others, on the other hand, against which all of the power of legislation is too limited, that are so incomprehensible in their driving forces, so monstrous in and of themselves, so immeasurable in their consequences, that they either are able to escape the penalty of the law or cannot possibly be punished as they deserve. I will not attempt to reduce these matters by assigning the former to comedy, the genre of the ridiculous, and the latter—as extreme acts in the realm of behavior that shock reason and set the heart in tumult—to tragedy. Genius laughs at all of the categorizations of the critic. But this much is indisputable: drama takes a stand on either one side of the law or the other, and handles the particulars of that subject matter only insofar as they get lost in the ridiculous or expand into the terrifying.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The Epilogue lingers over one of the primary lessons that is a partial focus of the plot and characters of this tragedy. It was, admittedly, a bit ill-considered for Herr Cronegk to preach tolerance in a play whose subject was taken from that unhappy period of the Crusades, and to try to convey the horrific spirit of persecution through the followers of the Muslim religion.[7.2] These Crusades themselves, which in their conception were a political invention of the Popes, were in their execution the most inhumane persecutions that Christian superstition has ever perpetrated. At that time, most Ismenors, those most bloodthirsty, were of the true faith—and to see individual persons who robbed a mosque punished, can that really stand against the unholy madness that depopulated faithful Europe in order to decimate unbelieving Asia? But what the tragedian presented quite awkwardly in his work is nonetheless well grasped by the poet of the Epilogue.[7.3] Compassion and gentleness deserve to be commended whenever possible, and no cause for such emotions can ever be so remote but that at least our heart would find it natural and compelling.[7.4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 [†]By the way, I am happy to concur with the touching praise that the poet bestowed upon the blessed Cronegk. But I am hardly be convinced that we agree equally about the poetic value of the criticized play. I was quite startled when someone assured me that I might have alienated my readers unwittingly through my candid judgment. If modest freedom, which has no accompanying agenda, displeases, then I run the risk of alienating them often. I never intended to spoil the reading of a playwright who is recommended for his unpretentious wit, many refined perceptions, and clearest morality. These qualities will always make him admirable, even if one faults other things for which he either had no facility or that required significant years for maturity—far more than the age at which he died. His Codrus was given a prize by the editors of the Library of the Literary Arts not because it was a good play, but rather because it was the best among those that competed for the prize at the time.[7.5] My judgment does not therefore deny him any honor that the critics bestowed upon him at the time. When cripples run a race, the one who makes it first across the finish line is still a cripple.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One statement in the Epilogue has been the subject of a misconception from which it deserves to be rescued. The poet writes:

Remember that this art, which has a thousand Quins for just one Garrick,

Has just begun among us;

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Quin, I have heard in response to this, was not a bad actor.[7.6]  – No, certainly not; he was Thomson’s best friend, and the friendship that connected an actor with a playwright like Thomson will always awaken in posterity a positive prejudice towards his artistic talents.[7.7] And Quin had much more than just this prejudice in his favor: we know that he played in tragedies with great dignity, that he knew how to handle Milton’s lofty language particularly well, and that in the comic realm he played the role of Falstaff to its greatest perfection.[7.8] But all this makes him no Garrick; and the misunderstanding rests simply in the fact that people assume the poet wanted to contrast this popular and extraordinary actor with one who was bad and generally recognized as such. But Quin is meant to represent here one of the ordinary types we see everyday; a man who always does his job so well that we are happy with him; who also plays certain characters truly superbly as long as his physique, voice, and temperament are suited to the task. Such a man is very useful, and can be called a good actor with complete justification; but he still lacks too much to be considered the kind of Proteus in his art that Garrick has long been universally acclaimed to be.[7.9] Such a Quin no doubt played the King in Hamlet, when Tom Jones and Partridge went to the theater; and there are many Partridges who would not hesitate for a moment to prefer him to a Garrick.[7.10] “What?” they say, “Garrick the best player?  He didn’t seem frightened by the Ghost, he actually was. What kind of art is that, to be frightened by a ghost? For certain and true, if we had seen a ghost, we would have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did. Now the other one, the king, also seemed somewhat moved, but as a good actor he took every possible care to hide it. In addition, he spoke all his words distinctly, and spoke twice as loud as that small, unattractive man that you all make such a fuss about!”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Among the English every new play has a prologue and epilogue that are written by either the playwright himself or one of his friends. They do not use the prologue for the same purpose that the ancients did, that is, to instruct the spectator in various things that will help them to understand more quickly the underlying story of the play.[7.11] Nevertheless this is not without purpose. They have a hundred and one ways of saying things in prologues that can predispose the auditorium to the playwright or to his work, and can preempt unfair criticism not only against him but also the actors.  Still less do they use the epilogue in the way that writers like Plautus sometimes used it, that is, to narrate a complete resolution of a play for which the fifth act did not have room. Rather, they give it a practical application, full of good lessons and fine observations about the morals depicted and about the art used to depict them, and all of it in the most droll and humorous of tones. This tone does not change even in the case of tragedies; and it is not at all uncommon that, after the most bloody and moving of them, the satire provokes such loud laughter, and the wit becomes so boisterous, that it seems the express purpose was to drive away all impressions of good through mockery. It is well known how fervently Thomson railed against this fool’s cap jingling after Melpomene.[7.12] Therefore, if I wish that we would not bring original plays before our public without introduction and recommendation, it is with the understanding that, in the case of tragedies, the tone of the epilogue ought to be more suited to our German seriousness. After comedies it can be as burlesque as it wants to be. Dryden has written masterpieces of this sort in England which are still read with great pleasure, even after the plays for which he composed them have—for the most part—long been forgotten.[7.13] Hamburg may well have a Dryden nearby; and I need not identify yet again that man among our playwrights who can season morality and criticism with Attic salt as well as the English do.[7.14]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0  


  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • [7.1] In this essay Lessing refers to the prologue and epilogue of the Hamburg National Theater’s inaugural play. Cf. [6]. The idea of drama as “a supplement to the law” connects this passage to eighteenth-century debates concerning the relationship of theater and morality to the law; prominent participants include the Abbé Hédelin d’Aubignac, La Practique du théâtre [The Whole Art of the Stage] (1657); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles [Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre] (1758); and, later, Friedrich Schiller, Die Schaubühne als eine moralische Anstalt betrachtet [The Stage Considered as a Moral Institution] (1784), among many others. Cf. also [2.2].
  • [7.2] See [1] and [2].
  • [7.3] Cf. [6.1].
  • [7.4] Cf. [2.2].
  • [7.5] Tr. note: “Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften. In 1756, the journal’s editor, C. F. Nicolai (1733-1811), held a contest for the best unpublished tragedy by a German author; Cronegk was posthumously awarded the prize for Codrus. Cf. [1.3]. Nicolai, a writer and bookseller, was a close friend of Lessing and of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86). All three were leading figures of the German Enlightenment and co-editors of the periodical Briefe, die neueste Litteratur betreffend.
  • [7.6] Cf. [6.9].
  • [7.7] James Thomson (1700-48), Scottish poet and playwright whose work informed Lessing’s understanding of English drama. Lessing translated Theophilus Cibber’s biography of Thomson (Werke und Briefe 3: 282-99) and provided a preface to the 1756 German translation of his plays (Werke und Briefe 3: 755-61).
  • [7.8] John Milton (1608-74), renowned English poet, theologian, and historian.
  • [7.9] Proteus, a shape-changer from Greek mythology. From the Renaissance onward, this appellation was applied to actors who exhibited an uncanny ability to transform themselves and who appeared to lose themselves within a role. Cf. Roach 23-57. The term was applied to Garrick almost immediately upon his debut on the English stage.
  • [7.10] Characters from Henry Fielding’s novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). The passage that follows is loosely paraphrased from Book XVI, Chap. 5 (p. 794).
  • [7.11] Although their specific function was contested by critics during the long eighteenth century, prologues and epilogues became an integral part of theatrical evenings, addressing debates over aesthetic concerns, recontexualizing older plays for new audiences, and often engaging social or political issues of the day. Cf. Ennis and Bailey-Slagle 13-32. See also [48] and [49].
  • [7.12] Melpomene, the muse of tragedy in Greek mythology.
  • [7.13] John Dryden (1631-1700), preeminent English Restoration playwright, poet, literary critic, and dramatic theorist.
  • [7.14] Lessing may be referring to the author of the prologue and epilogue of Olint and Sophronia, although this is by no means certain [6.1].
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages that were cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-7/