A New and Complete Translation

Essay 92

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 18 March 1768[92.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 And why could this last not be true?[92.2] In fact I find another critic, no less admirable, who expresses himself nearly the same as Diderot, seems to contradict Aristotle just as unequivocally, and yet nevertheless fundamentally contradicts him so little that I have to recognize him, among all critics, as the one who has shed the most light on this subject.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 [†] This would be the English commentator on Horace’s Art of Poetry, Hurd, who belongs to the class of writers who remain unknown to us until they are translated.[92.3] I do not wish to praise him here in order to precipitate a hasty introduction. If the German who is up to the task has not yet been found, then perhaps there are not many readers among us for whom it is of great concern. The diligent man, full of good intentions, should not be overhasty with it, and what I say here about a still untranslated good book is not meant to be taken as a hint for the pen he always has at the ready.[92.4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Hurd appended a Dissertation on the Provinces of Drama to his commentary.[92.5] He believed he had observed that previously only the general laws of this form of poetry had been taken into consideration, without establishing the boundaries of its various genres.[92.6] Nevertheless this would be required in order to reach a fair verdict on the merits of each particular type. Consequently, after he established the purpose of drama in general, and of its three genres in particular – tragedy, comedy, and farce – he gathered from these general and particular purposes both those qualities they have in common and those which differentiate them from each other.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Among the latter, he counts this difference with regard to tragedy and comedy: that real incidents are more suitable to tragedy, whereas fictitious incidents are more suitable to comedy. He continues thusly:[92.7] “The same genius in the two dramas is observable, in their draught of characters. Comedy makes all its characters general; Tragedy, particular. The Avare of Molière is not so properly the picture of a covetous man, as of covetousness itself.[92.8] Racine’s Nero, on the other hand, is not a picture of cruelty, but of a cruel man.”[92.9]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Hurd seems to conclude that if tragedy requires a real incident, then its characters must also be real, that is, constructed as they really exist in the individual. If, on the other hand, comedy can be satisfied with fictitious incidents, if it prefers probable incidents that allow its characters to be displayed in their full range, rather than true ones that do not allow them such a broad scope, then its characters also can and must be even more general than they exist in nature. This is all the more so, given that generality itself acquires a type of existence in our imagination that relates exactly the same way to the real existence of the individual as the probable does to the true.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I will not examine here whether this manner of deducing is not simply circular; I will simply assume the conclusion, just as it is, just as it seems to contradict Aristotle’s theory completely. Yet, as I said, it merely seems to, which becomes clear from Hurd’s further explanation.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 “Yet here,” he continues, “it will be proper to guard against two mistakes, which the principles now delivered may be thought to countenance.[92.10]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The first is with regard to tragic characters, which I say are particular. My meaning is, they are more particular than those of comedy. That is, the end of tragedy does not require or permit the poet to draw together so many of those characteristic circumstances which shew the manners, as Comedy. For, in the former of these dramas, no more of character is shewn, than what the course of the action necessarily calls forth. Whereas, all or most of the features, by which is it usually distinguished, are sought out and industriously displayed in the latter.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The case is much the same as in portrait painting; where, if a great master be required to draw a particular face, he gives the very lineaments he finds in it; yet so far resembling to what he observes of the same turn in other faces, as not to affect any minute circumstance of peculiarity. But if the same artist were to design a head in general, he would assemble together all the customary traits and features, any where observable through the species, which should best express the idea, whatever it was, he had conceived in his own mind and wanted to exhibit in the picture.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 There is much the same difference between the two sorts of dramatic portraits. Whence it appears that in calling the tragic character particular, I suppose it only less representative of the kind than the comic; not that the draught of so much character as it is concerned to represent should not be general: the contrary of which I have asserted and explained at large elsewhere.[*]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Next, I have said, the characters of just comedy are general. And this I explain by the instance of the Avare of Molière, which conforms more to the idea of avarice, than to that of the real avaricious man. But here again, the reader will not understand me, as saying this in the strict sense of the words. I even think Molière faulty in the instance given; though, with some necessary explanation, it may well enough serve to express my meaning.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The view of the comic scene being to delineate characters, this end, I suppose, will be attained most perfectly, by making those characters as universal as possible. For thus the person shewn in the drama being the representative of all characters of the same kind, furnishes in the highest degree the entertainment of humor. But then this universality must be such as agrees not to our idea of the possible effects of the character as conceived in the abstract, but to the actual exertion of its powers; which experience justifies, and common life allows. Molière, and before him Plautus, had offended in this; that for a picture of the avaricious man, they presented us with a fantastic unpleasing draught of the passion of avarice.[92.11] I call this a fantastic draught, because it hath no archetype in nature. And it is, farther, an unpleasing one, for, being the delineation of a simple passion umixed, it wanted all those

– lights and shades, whose well accorded strife

gives all the strength and colour of our life.[92.12]

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 These lights and shades (as the poet finely calls the intermixture of many passions, which, with the leading or principal one, form the human character) must be blended together in every picture of dramatic manners; because the avowed business of the drama is to image real life. Yet the draught of the leading passion must be as general as this strife in nature permits, in order to express the intended character more perfectly.”[92.13]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [*] In his notes on these verses of Horace’s Art of Poetry: “Respicere exemplar vitae morumque jubebo Doctum imitatorem, & veras hinc ducere voces,” where Hurd demonstrates that the truth demanded by Horace here “means such an expression, as conforms to the general nature of things; falsehood, that, which, however suitable to the particular instance in view, doth not yet correspond to such general nature.” [Hurd, “Notes on the Art of Poetry” 252 – Ed.]

  • 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  • [92.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [92.2] Lessing continues, from [89], his discussion of Aristotle’s views on dramatic character, which was triggered by Diderot’s statement, in [83], that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types. At the end of [91], Lessing asserts that Diderot must comprehend something completely different under the idea of universality of a character than Aristotle did.”
  • [92.3] Richard Hurd, see [90.17].
  • [92.4] Johann Joachim Eschenburg (1743–1820), a German scholar and translator (and friend of Lessing’s); his Horazens Episteln an die Pisonen und an den Augustus [Horace’s Epistles to Pisones and Augustus] (1722), incorporates passages already translated by Lessing here. Eschenburg is best known for producing the first German translation of the complete plays of Shakespeare (a continuation and revision of Wieland’s earlier translation), which appeared in thirteen volumes as William Shakespeare’s Schauspiele [William Shakespeare’s Plays] (1775–82).
  • [92.5] See Horace and Richard Hurd, 163–243.
  • [92.6] Tr. note: Hurd uses the term “species” to denote different types of literature; Lessing translates “species” into Gattung, which we render with the more common modern English term “genre.”
  • [92.7] Our English here and in the next citation is taken directly from Hurd, “Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama” 183.
  • [92.8] L’Avare [The Miser] (1668): five-act prose comedy.
  • [92.9] Nero: character in Racine’s Britannicus (1669).
  • [92.10] Tr. note: the rest of this essay is a quotation from Hurd, which we have taken directly from the original source.
  • [92.11] One of Molière’s inspirations for The Miser was Plautus’s Aulularia [The Little Pot, or The Pot of Gold].
  • [92.12] These lines are from “Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Himself As an Individual,” the second of four epistles in the philosophical poem “The Essay on Man” (1733–34), by English poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688–1744); see Pope, The Works of Alexander Pope 3: 63.
  • [92.13] Hurd, “Dissertation” 183–6.
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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