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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 74

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 15 January 1768[74.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 To the matter. – I would primarily wish for the writer’s explanation of Richard’s character.[74.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Aristotle would have rejected him out of hand; I could readily get past Aristotle’s authority if I could only just as readily get past his argument.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 He assumes that tragedy should arouse compassion and terror,[74.3] and from that he deduces that its hero should not be either totally virtuous or completely villainous, for the goal will not be reached by the misfortune of either the one or the other.[74.4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 If I grant this, then Richard the Third is a tragedy that misses its aim. If I do not grant this, then I no longer know what a tragedy is.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 For as Herr Weisse has depicted him, Richard III is undoubtedly the greatest, most abominable monster the stage has ever borne. I say, the stage; I doubt the earth has ever really borne such a monster.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 What kind of compassion can the downfall of this monster awaken? And yet, that is not what he is intended to do; that was not the writer’s aim; instead there are other characters in his work whom he has crafted to be the object of our compassion.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 But terror? – Should this villain, who fills the void between himself and the throne with corpses, indeed the corpses of those who should have been dearest in the world to him, should this bloodthirsty devil, who boasts of his thirst for blood and is tickled by his crimes, not awaken the most extreme terror?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Certainly he awakens terror, if by terror is meant astonishment at inconceivable crimes, horror over acts of evil that exceed our comprehension, and the shudder that overcomes us at seeing deliberate atrocities committed with pleasure. Of this kind of terror, Richard the Third gave me my fair share.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But this kind of terror is so far from being an aim of tragedy that the ancient poets rather tried to diminish it when their characters had to commit some great crime. They often preferred to put the blame on fate, make the crime preordained by a vengeful god, and to transform a person of free will into a machine, rather than allow us to dwell on the awful idea that people might naturally be capable of such depravity.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The French give Crébillon the nickname “the Terrible.”[74.5] I very much fear this is more on account of this sort of terror, which should not be in tragedy, than for the true type that the philosopher counts as essential to tragedy.[74.6]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 And this should not even have been called terror. The word Aristotle uses means fear; tragedy should arouse compassion and fear, he says, not compassion and terror.[74.7] It is true, terror is a type of fear; it is a sudden, surprising fear. But this very suddenness, this surprise, which is included in the idea of terror, shows clearly that those who substituted the word terror for the word fear did not at all comprehend what kind of fear Aristotle meant. – I may not cross this path again soon; allow me, therefore, a brief digression.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “Compassion,” Aristotle says, “requires someone who suffers undeservedly, and fear requires someone like ourselves. The villain is neither the former nor the latter; consequently, his misfortune cannot awaken either the one or the other.” [*]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This fear, I say, is called terror by modern interpreters and translators, and with this change of words they succeed in making the world’s strangest bargain with the philosopher.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 One of this crowd says,[†] [74.8]“People have not been able to come to agreement over the explanation of terror, and in every respect it contains one aspect too many, which both keeps it from being universal and limits it. If, with his inclusion of ‘like ourselves,’ Aristotle understood merely the similarity of humanity, namely that the spectator and the personage on stage are both people, even supposing that their character, worth, and rank were vastly different, then this addition would be superfluous, for it is self-evident. If, however, he thought that only virtuous people, or those who had some inherent but forgivable fault could arouse terror, then he was wrong, for reason and experience are against him. Terror indisputably originates from a feeling of humanity: every person is subject to it, and every person shudders at the adverse misfortune of others because of it. It is indeed possible that it might occur to someone to deny this feeling; but this would be a wholesale denial of his natural sentiments, and thus a blatant affectation based on corrupted principles rather than a real refutation. – Now then, even if an adverse accident unexpectedly befalls an immoral person to whom we have just turned our attention, we lose sight of the immorality and only see the human being. The sight of human misery in general makes us sad, and the sudden sad feeling that we then experience is terror.”

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Completely correct, only not in the right place! For what does this say against Aristotle? Nothing. Aristotle is not thinking of this terror when he speaks of the fear into which only the misfortune of those like ourselves could set us. This terror that seizes us at the sudden sight of the suffering in store for another is a compassionate terror, and thus understood under the concept of compassion. Aristotle would not say compassion and fear if by fear he meant nothing more than a mere modification of compassion.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 “Compassion,” says the author of the Letters on Sentiments,[‡] [74.9] “is a mixed sentiment composed of the love for an object and displeasure over its misfortune. The movements by which compassion reveals itself can be distinguished from the simple symptoms of both love and displeasure, for compassion is a phenomenon. But how varied this phenomenon can become! Change only the specificity of time in the commiserated misfortune, and compassion will reveal itself through completely different signs. For Electra, crying over the urn of her brother, we feel a compassionate sorrow, because she regards the misfortune as over and bewails what she has lost.[74.10] What we feel over Philoctetes’ pain is likewise compassion, but of a somewhat different nature, for the torment that this virtuous man must endure is present and overcomes him before our eyes.[74.11] When Oedipus, however, is horrified at the sudden revelation of the great secret; when Monime is alarmed at seeing the jealous Mithridates grow pale; when the virtuous Desdemona becomes afraid at hearing the otherwise so tender Othello speak so threateningly to her: what do we feel then?[74.12] Compassion, every time! But compassionate horror, compassionate fear, compassionate terror. The movements are different, but the essence of the feeling is the same in all these cases. For just as every love is bound up with the readiness to put ourselves in the place of the beloved, so must we share every form of suffering with the beloved person, which we very deliberately call compassion. Why, then, should it not be possible for fear, terror, anger, jealousy, the desire for revenge, and in general all sorts of unpleasant feelings, even envy, to originate in compassion? – One sees from this how very unsuitably the majority of critics divide the tragic passions into terror and compassion. Terror and compassion! Is theatrical terror then not compassion? For whom does the spectator start in fear, when Merope draws the dagger against her own son?[74.13] Certainly not for himself, but for Aegisthus, whose preservation we very much desire, and for the misguided queen, who believes him to be her son’s murderer. But if we only want to call compassion our displeasure over the present misery of another, then we will have to distinguish from compassion proper not just terror, but also all of the other passions communicated to us by someone else.”


18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [*] In the 13th chapter of The Poetics.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [†] Herr S. in the prologue to his Comic Theater, p. 35.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [‡] Philosophical Writings by Herr Moses Mendelssohn, part 2, p. 4.

  • 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  • [74.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [74.2] Lessing continues his discussion, from [73], of C. F. Weisse’s Richard the Third. In this essay and in the six that follow, however, Lessing is less concerned with Weisse’s tragedy than he is with parsing Aristotle’s tragic theory. Lessing does not provide a systemic interpretation of Aristotle, either in the Hamburg Dramaturgy or elsewhere, and scholars disagree about the extent to which Lessing’s knowledge of Aristotle was authoritative.
  • [74.3] Tr. note: The terms Lessing uses here for Aristotle’s eleos and phobos are Mitleid and Schrecken, which we translate here as “compassion” and “terror.” Because Lessing’s argument in this essay depends on his understanding of how one person can feel what another is feeling, the latinate term “compassion” seems a more suitable translation of Mitleid than either “pity,” the most common English translation, or “sympathy,” which in modern English usually connotes a feeling toward another person rather than a sharing of feelings. For more on the challenges of translating the term Mitleid, see [32.6] and Thomas Martinec’s essay “The Boundaries of ‘Mitleidsdramaturgie’: Some Clarifications.” Lessing discusses the term phobos (terror/fear) later in this essay.
  • [74.4] See Aristotle’s Poetics (Part XIII).
  • [74.5] Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (Crébillon père) (1674–1762): French playwright whose tragedies, modeled after Seneca, specialized in extreme violence and horror. In his preface to Atrée et Thyeste [Atreus and Thyestes] (1707), Crébillon specifically states that tragedy evokes pity through terror.
  • [74.6] The philosopher: Aristotle.
  • [74.7] Here Lessing translates Aristotle’s phobos as Furcht (fear), and not as Schrecken (terror). Lessing also makes this choice and defends it in the Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel [Correspondence on Tragedy] (1755–57), taking issue with both Dacier’s French translation and the German translation of Curtius; see “Brief an Nicolai” [“Letter to Nicolai”] dated 2 Apr. 1757, Werke und Briefe 3: 715–16. “Terror” was the standard translation of phobos in eighteenth-century France and Germany. Given Lessing’s emphasis on Furcht, both here and in his earlier writing, it is curious that Lessing uses Schrecken (terror) in earlier essays of the Hamburg Dramaturgy (see, for example, [32]); this choice may be explained in part by the existence of the paired terms “pity and terror” as an established phrase in dramatic theory.
  • [74.8] In his footnote, Lessing refers to Christian Ernst Schenk (1733–1807), who published his Komisches Theater [Comic Theater] (1759) anonymously. For the passage quoted by Lessing, see Schenk 35–6.
  • [74.9] Letters on Sentiments: “Briefe über die Empfindungen,” first published by Moses Mendelssohn in 1755. This work, together with C. F. Nicolai’s Abhandlung vom Trauerspiel [Discourse on Tragedy] (1756), influenced Lessing’s thinking on theatrical affect in the Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel [Correspondence on Tragedy] (1755–57). Mendelsohn revised his thoughts on the subject in the “Rhapsodie oder Zusätze zu den Briefen über die Empfindung” [“Rhapsody or Additions to the Letters on Sentiments”] in his Philosophische Schriften [Philosophical Writings] (1761), from which Lessing draws this quotation. See Mendelssohn, “Rhapsodie; oder, Zusätze zu den Briefen über die Empfindungen” in Philosophische Schriften 2: 4–6; for an alternate English translation of the passage, see Mendelssohn, “Rhapsody or Additions to the Letters on Sentiments” in Philosophical Writings 141–2.
  • [74.10] Electra: titular Sophoclean tragic character.
  • [74.11] Philoctetes: titular Sophoclean tragic character.
  • [74.12] Oedipus: titular Sophocean tragic character. Monime, Mithridates: tragic characters from Racine’s Mithridate. Desdemona, Othello: from Shakespeare’s Othello.
  • [74.13] Merope, Aegisthus: from Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope, which Lessing discusses over the course of fifteen essays, beginning with [36].
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-74/