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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 93

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 22 March 1768[93.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “All which again is easily illustrated in the instance of painting.[93.2] In portraits of character, as we may call those that give a picture of manners, the artist, if he be of real ability, will not go to work on the possibility of an abstract idea. All he intends, is to shew that some one quality predominates: and this he images strongly, and by such signatures as are most conspicuous in the operation of the leading passion. And when he hath done this, we may, in common speech or in compliment, if we please, to his art, say of such a portrait that it images to us not the man but the passion; just as the ancients observed of the famous statue of Apollodorus by Silarion, that it expressed not the angry Apollodorus, but his passion of anger.[*] [93.3] But by this must be understood only that he has well expressed the leading parts of the designed character. For the rest he treats his subjects as he would any other; that is, he represents the concomitant affections, or considers merely that general symmetry and proportion which are expected in a human figure. And this is to copy nature, which affords no specimen of a man turned all into a single passion. No metamorphosis could be more strange or incredible. Yet portraits of this vicious taste are the admiration of common starers, who, if they find a picture of a miser for instance (as there is no commoner subject of moral portraits) in a collection, where every muscle is strained, and feature hardened into the expression of this idea, never fail to profess their wonder and approbation of it. – On this idea of excellence, Le Brun’s book of the PASSIONS must be said to contain a set of the justest moral portraits:[93.4] And the CHARACTERS of Theophrastus might be recommended, in a dramatic view, as preferable to those of Terence.[93.5]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The virtuosi in the fine arts would certainly laugh at the former of these judgments. But the latter, I suspect, will not be thought so extraordinary. At least if one may guess from the practice of some of our best comic writers, and the success which such plays have commonly met with. It were easy to instance in almost all plays of character. But if the reader would see the extravagance of building manners on abstract ideas in its full light, he needs only turn to B. Jonson’s Every man out of his humour;[†][93.6] which under the name of a play of character is in fact, an unnatural, and as the painters call it, hard delineation of a group of simply existing passions, wholly chimerical, and unlike to any thing we observe in the commerce of real life. Yet this comedy has always had its admirers. And Randolph, in particular, was so taken with the design, that he seems to have formed his muse’s looking-glass in express imitation of it.[93.7]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Shakespeare, we may observe, is in this as in all the other more essential beauties of the drama, a perfect model. If the discerning reader peruse attentively his comedies with this view, he will find his best-marked characters discoursing through a great deal of their parts, just like any other, and only expressing their essential and leading qualities occasionally, and as circumstances concur to give an easy exposition to them. This singular excellence of his comedy, was the effect of his copying faithfully after nature, and of the force and vivacity of his genius, which made him attentive to what the progress of the scene successively presented to him: whilst imitation and inferior talents occasion little writers to wind themselves up into the habit of attending perpetually to their main view, and a solicitude to keep their favourite characters in constant play and agitation. Though in this illiberal exercise of their wit, they may be said to use the persons of their drama as a certain facetious sort do their acquaintance, whom they urge and tease with their civilities, not to give them a reasonable share in the conversation, but to force them to play tricks for the diversion of the company.”


5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 [*] “Non hominem ex aere fecit, sed iracundiam.” Plinius libr. 34.8.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [†] B. Jonson has two comedies that have “humour” in the title: one is Every Man in his Humour,” and the other “Every Man out of his Humour.” The word “humour” gained popularity in his time and was misused in the most absurd ways. He noted both this misuse and the actual meaning of the word in the following passage:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 As when some one peculiar quality

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In their constructions, all to run one way,

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This may be truly said to be a humour

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 But that a rook, by wearing a py’d feather,

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The cable hatband, or the three-piled ruff,

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 A yard of shoe-tye, or the Switzer’s knot

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 On his French garters, should affect a humour!

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 O, it is more than most ridiculous.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Both of Jonson’s plays are thus very important documents in the history of humours, the second even more than the first. Humour, which we now associate so predominantly with the British, was at that time mostly an affectation among them, and Jonson depicted humour primarily to ridicule this affectation. To be precise: only this affected humour should be the object of the comedy, never the real. For the desire to distinguish oneself from others and make oneself noticeable through some idiosyncracy is a universal human weakness that, depending on the quality of the means it chooses, can become absurd or even punishable. Those things, however, through which either nature itself or a persistent habit that has become natural differentiates an individual person from all others, are far too special to comport with the general philosophical purpose of drama. The glut of humour in many English plays may thus very well be what makes them unique, but not what makes them better. It is certain that there is no trace of humour to be found in the drama of antiquity. The ancient dramatic poets knew the trick of individualizing their characters even without humour; indeed the ancient poets in general did. To be sure the ancient historians and rhetoricians display humour now and then, namely when historical truth or the explanation of a certain fact requires this precise depiction καθ καστον. I have diligently collected sufficient examples of it that I would like to organize simply to rectify an error that has become somewhat common. Namely, currently we translate – almost universally – “humour” with “mood” [Laune – Tr.]; and I believe I am the first to have translated it thus. I was very wrong in so doing, and I wish I had not been followed in this. For I think I can prove incontrovertibly that “humour” and “mood” are completely different things, indeed things that from a certain understanding are directly opposite. Mood can become a humour, but humour is, with this one case excepted, never a mood. I should have better researched and more precisely considered the roots of our German word and its usual usage. I concluded too hastily that because “mood” expresses the French “humeur” it could also express the English “humour”; but the French themselves cannot translate “humour” with “humeur.” – Of the two plays by Jonson cited, the first, Every man in his humour, exhibits the mistake Hurd finds to blame here to a lesser degree. The humour demonstrated by the characters is neither so individual nor so exaggerated that it could not be compatible with nature; in addition, they are also more or less appropriately united in a common plot. In contrast, in the second, Every man out of his humour, there is hardly any plot. A bunch of the most marvelous fools appear one after the other, we know neither how nor why, and their dialogue is constantly interrupted by a couple of friends of the author who are called “Grex” and who make observations about the characters of the personages and about the skill of the writer in handling them. The “out of his humour” indicates that all of the personages get into circumstances in which they become tired and weary of their humour.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0  

  • [93.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [93.2] The entirety of this essay is a quotation from Richard Hurd’s “Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama,” continued from [92]. Tr. note – we provide Hurd’s original English; see “Dissertation” 186–9. Lessing has brought Hurd into his discussion of Aristotle’s views on dramatic character, begun in [89], which was triggered by Diderot’s statement, in [83], that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types. For Hurd, see [90.17].
  • [93.3] Hurd references (and Lessing cites in his footnote) the celebrated (if not always accurate) 37-volume Naturalis Historiae, known as Naturalis historia [The Natural History] (77 CE) by Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) (23-79 CE); in Book 34 (“Seilanion cast a portrait of [the sculptor] Apollodoros . . . a severe critic of his own work, who often broke up a finished statue, being unable to reach the ideal he aimed at. . . . This characteristic Seilanion rendered, and made his bronze not a portrait of an individual, but a figure of Vexation itself” (for the full quotation, in English and Latin, see Pliny 66–9).
  • [93.4] Charles Le Brun (1619–90): court painter and theorist who provided details representations and instructions for depicting “the passions of the soul”; author of the influential Conférence de M. Le Brun sur l’expression générale et particulière [Discourse by Monsieur Le Brun on General and Specific Expressions] (1698), translated into English (or, more accurately, adapted) by John Williams as A Method to Learn to Design the Passions (1734).
  • [93.5] The Characters [Charaktēres]: a series of character sketches of moral types based on Aristotle’s studies; a surviving work of the Peripatetic philosopher Theophrastes (c. 372– c. 287 BCE), who succeeded Aristotle as the head of the Lyceum in Athens.
  • [93.6] The following are references in Lessing’s footnote. The English playwright Ben Jonson is particularly known for his “comedies of humour,” a dramatic genre that takes it name from medieval and Renaissance medical theory in which a body’s health depended on the balance its “humours” (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). Jonson characters are usually “unbalanced” caricatures governed by a particular humour that determines their dispositions. Every Man in His Humour (1598) was popular in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The less successful Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), functioned as one of Jonson’s contributions to the “war of the theaters,” a literary conflict in which Jonson and his fellow playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker satirized each other in their comedies; although the conflict dealt in part with the nature and purpose of theater, another factor was the significant commercial rivalry between Jonson and Marston. The quotation (given in its original English) is from the prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour; see Jonson 118–19. Lessing’s translation of “humour” as “mood” (Laune), which he says he now regrets, first appears in his essay “Von Johann Dryden und dessen dramatischen Werken” (1759; Lessing gives date as 1758) in the Theatralische Bibliothek [Theatrical Library]; see Lessing, “Von Johann Dryden” in Werke und Briefe 4: 130–79. καθ καστον: “individually.” Grex: “flock” in Latin.
  • [93.7] Thomas Randolph (1605–34/5): English poet and playwright, “adopted” by Ben Jonson; Randolph’s comedy The Muse’s Looking Glass (1630) was a moral satire inspired by Jonson.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-93/