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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 79

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 2 February 1768[79.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 And now to come back to our Richard.[79.2] – Richard awakens just as little terror as he does compassion: neither terror in the misused sense of the term to mean the sudden surprise of compassion, nor in Aristotle’s actual sense, as the salutary fear that we might meet with a similar misfortune.[79.3] For if he aroused this fear, he would also arouse compassion, just as surely as, conversely, he would arouse fear if we found him even the least bit deserving of our compassion. But he is such a despicable scoundrel, such a devil in the flesh, in whom we find not even one single streak of similarity to ourselves, that I think we could see him delivered to the tortures of hell before our very eyes without feeling in the least for him and without the least fear that such punishments await us, too, if they are consequences of such crimes only. And what, in the end, is the misfortune, the punishment that befalls him? After we are forced to witness so many misdeeds, we hear that he has died with sword in hand. When the Queen is told this, the writer has her say:

This is something! –

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I have never been able to keep myself from muttering under my breath: no, that is absolutely nothing! How many a good king has died thus, defending his crown against a powerful rebel? Richard dies like a man, on the field of battle. Should such a death make up for the displeasure I have felt throughout the play at the triumph of his wicked deeds? (I believe the Greek language is the only one that has a special word to express this displeasure at the happiness of a villain: νέμεσις, νεμεσᾶν.[*])[79.4] His death itself, which ought at least to satisfy my love of justice, further provokes my indignation. “You got off cheaply!” I think. But it is good that there is a justice other than the poetic type!

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 You will probably say: well then! Let us leave off Richard; the play is titled after him but he is not therefore its hero; he is not the character through which the aim of tragedy is achieved; he has only to be the means of arousing our compassion for others. The Queen, Elizabeth, and the princes: do they not arouse compassion? –

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 To sidestep all debate: yes. But what is this strange, bitter feeling that mixes itself in with my compassion for these persons? That makes me wish I could spare myself this compassion? I do not otherwise wish this when I feel tragic compassion: I usually linger with it willingly and am grateful to the writer for such sweet anguish.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Aristotle said it well, and he nails it on the head! He speaks of a μιαρόν, of something abominable that is present at the misfortune of completely good and innocent people.[79.5] And are not the Queen, Elisabeth, and the Princes just such people? What have they done? How have they brought it upon themselves to be in the claws of this beast? Is it their fault that they have a better right to the throne than he? Especially the little mewling victims, who can hardly tell left from right! Who will deny that they deserve our unmitigated sorrow? But is this sorrow that makes me shiver at the thought of the fate of these people, to which is joined a muttering against Providence, and which is haunted by despair, is this sorrow – I will not ask if it is compassion? – Call it what you may – But is this what an imitative art ought to awaken?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Do not say: the history awakens it, it is based on something that really happened. – That really happened? If so: then it will have its good reason in the eternal, infinite connectedness of all things. In that connectedness, everything that appears as blind fate and cruelty in the few parts selected by the poet is wise and good. The poet ought to make a totality from these few parts, one that fully completes itself, in which each thing is fully explained by another and in which no difficulty suddenly arises for which a solution cannot be found within his plan, but rather must be sought outside of it, in the general plan of things. The totality made by this mortal creator should be a silhouette of the totality made by the immortal creator; it should accustom us to the thought that just as everything is resolved for the best in the latter, so will it be in the former. And then he forgets this most noble purpose so greatly that he weaves the incomprehensible ways of Providence into his little circle and deliberately awakens our shudder of fear over them? – Oh, spare us this, you who have our hearts in your power! What is the purpose of these sad feelings? To teach us submission? Only cold reason can teach us that, and if the lesson of reason is to take root in us, if we are to maintain confidence and cheerfulness of spirit in our submission, then it is absolutely necessary that we be reminded as little as possible of confounding examples of such undeserved and terrible fates. Away with them from the stage! Away with them, if only it were possible, from all books! –

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 If, however, there is not a single character in Richard possessing the requisite qualities necessary in order for the play really to be what it is called: how has it nevertheless become the interesting play our public considers it to be? If it does not arouse compassion and fear, what then is its effect? For it must, and does, have some effect, and if it does have an effect, does it matter what kind of effect it has? If it engages the spectators, if they enjoy it, what more do we want? Must they of necessity only be engaged and amused according to Aristotle’s rules?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 That does not sound so wrong, but it can be answered thusly. In general, if Richard is no tragedy, it still remains a dramatic poem; and if it lacks the beauties of tragedy, it could still have other beauties. Poetry of expression, images, tirades, bold attitudes, fiery and captivating dialogue, auspicious occasions for the actor to exercise the greatest range and variation in his voice and show all his strengths in pantomime, etc.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Richard has many of these beauties, and still others that come nearer to the real beauties of tragedy.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Richard is a loathsome villain, but even the engagement of our loathing is not completely without its pleasures, especially in imitation.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The enormity of the crimes also has a share in the emotions that greatness and boldness awaken in us.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Everything Richard does is an abomination, but all of these abominations serve some purpose. Richard has a plan, and whenever we perceive a plan, our curiosity is piqued; we willingly wait to see whether and how it will be executed. We love anything with a purpose so much that it affords us pleasure regardless of the morality of that purpose.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 We want Richard to achieve his purpose, and we also want him not to achieve it. Its achievement spares us displeasure over means employed completely in vain; if he does not achieve it, then too much blood has been shed for naught, and once it has been shed, we do not like finding it spilled just to pass the time. On the other hand, an achievement of his aims would be a celebration of evil, and that is the worst thing we could hear. The purpose interests us as something to be achieved; but if it were to succeed, we would see nothing but its horror, and we would wish that it had not succeeded. We anticipate this wish, and shudder at the achievement of his aim.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 We love the good characters in the play – such a tender, ardent mother, siblings who live for each other so fully – such beings always please us, they always arouse the sweetest and most sympathetic feelings wherever we find them. To see them suffer in complete innocence is bitter, indeed; to be sure, it is not very beneficial for our peace of mind or for our betterment; but it is a feeling, nonetheless.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 And thus the play engages us throughout, and pleases us through this engagement of our mental faculties. That is true, but the conclusion drawn from this is not true, namely: that we can also be satisfied with it.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 A writer can have done much, and yet not have achieved anything thereby. It is not enough for his work to have effects on us; it must also have those that belong to it, by virtue of its genre.[79.6] It must have these, above all, and no others could in any way make up for their lack, especially when the genre is of such importance and difficulty and value that all trouble and effort were pointless if it aimed to produce no effects other than those that could just as readily be attained via a genre that had fewer, less demanding standards. One does not need to set a machine in motion to lift a bundle of straw; I need not blow up with a mine what I can knock over with my foot; I do not have to build a bonfire to incinerate a mosquito.


19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [*] Aristotle, Rhetoric Bk. II. Ch. 9.

  • 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  • [79.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [79.2] In [74], Lessing digresses from a discussion of C. F. Weisse’s tragedy Richard the Third in order to explore Aristotle’s statement in Poetics that tragedy should evoke eleos (compassion) and phobos (terror/fear).
  • [79.3] Tr. note: Lessing uses the word Schrecken (“terror”) in the first part of this sentence, and then reverts back to Furcht (“fear”). See [74.7].
  • [79.4] νέμεσις, νεμεσᾶν: “némesis, nemesán”; here “nemesis” translates to “indignation,” following Aristotle’s usage in Rhetoric 2.9.1.
  • [79.5] μιαρόν: “miarón”; morally repulsive, filthy, distasteful, disgusting. English translators of Aristotle often render “miarón” with a variation on “shock.” See Aristotle Poetics (Part XIII).
  • [79.6] In an earlier letter to Mendelssohn, Lessing argued that admiration is not a sufficient goal for tragedy, writing that the pleasure evoked by tragedy should be specific to its genre, rather than evoking “all kinds of pleasure” without distinction. See “Brief an Mendelssohn” [“Letter to Mendelssohn”] dated 18 December 1756, Werke und Briefe 11/1: 694.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-79/