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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 95

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 29 March 1768[95.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “The story of his Electra is well known.[95.2] The poet had to paint, in the character of this princess, a virtuous, but fierce, resentful woman; stung by a sense of personal ill treatment; and instigated to the revenge of a father’s death, by still stronger motives.[95.3] A disposition of this warm temperament, it might be concluded by the philosopher in his closet, would be prompt to shew itself. Electra would, on any proper occasion, be ready to avow her resentment, as well as to forward the execution of her purpose. But to what lengths would this resentment go? i.e. what degree of fierceness might Electra express, without affording occasion to a person widely skilled in mankind, and the operation of the passions, to say, “this is improbable?” Here abstract theories will be of little service. Even a moderate acquaintance with real life will be unable to direct us. Many individuals may have fallen under observation, that will justify the poet in carrying the expression of such a resentment to any extreme. History would, perhaps, furnish examples, in which a virtuous resentment hath been carried even farther than is here represented by the poet. What way then of determining the precise bounds and limits of it? Only by observing in numerous instances, i.e. from a large extensive knowledge of practical life, how far it usually, in such characters, and under such circumstances, prevails. Hence a difference of representation will arise in proportion to the extent of that knowledge. Let us now see, how the character before us, hath, in fact, been managed by Euripides.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In that fine scene, which passes between Electra and Orestes, whom as yet she suspects not to be her brother, the conversation very naturally turns upon Electra’s distresses, and the author of them, Clytaemnestra, as well as on her hopes of deliverance from them by the means of Orestes.[95.4] The dialogue upon this proceeds:

Or. What then of Orestes, were he to return to this Argos?

El. Ah! wherefore that question, when there is no prospect of his return at all?

Or. But supposing he should return, how would he go about to revenge the death of his father?

El. In the same way, in which that father suffered from the daring attempts of his enemies.

Or. And could you then dare to undertake with him the murder of your mother?

El. Yes, with that very steel, with which she murdered my father.

Or. And am I at liberty to relate this to your brother, as your fixed resolution?

El. I desire only to live, till I have murdered my mother.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The Greek is still stronger:

Θανοιμι, μητρος άιμ᾽ἐπισφαζασ᾽ἐμης.

May I die, as soon as I have murdered my mother!

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Now that this last sentence is absolutely unnatural, will not be pretended. There have been doubtless many examples, under the like circumstances, of an expression of revenge carried thus far. Yet, I think, we can hardly help being a little shocked at the fierceness of this expression. At least Sophocles has not thought fit to carry it to that extreme. In him, Electra contents herself with saying to Orestes, on a similar occasion: ‘The conduct of this affair now rests upon you. Only let me observe this to you, that, had I been left alone, I would not have failed in one of these two purposes, either to deliver myself gloriously, or to perish gloriously.’

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Whether this representation of Sophocles be not more agreeable to truth, as collected from wide observation, i.e. from human nature at large, than that of Euripides, the capable reader will judge. If it be, the reason I suppose to have been, that Sophocles painted his characters, such, as, from attending to numerous instances of the same kind, he would conclude they ought to be; Euripides, such, as a narrower sphere of observation had persuaded him they were.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Excellent! Regardless of my purpose in citing these long passages from Hurd, they contain so many fine observations that the reader will forgive me their insertion. I only worry that because of it, he may have lost sight of my purpose. It was this: to show that Hurd, like Diderot, assigns particular characters to tragedy and universal ones only to comedy, and nevertheless did not want to contradict Aristotle, who required universality of all poetic characters, and consequently also of the tragic ones.[95.5] Hurd explains himself thusly: the tragic character would indeed have to be particular, or less general, than the comic character; that is, it would have to make the kind to which it belongs less representative. Nevertheless, that small part of the character that is worth showing must be drawn according to the generality that Aristotle requires.[*]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 And now we might pose the question of whether Diderot also wanted to be understood in the same way. – Why not, if it were important to him never to find himself in contradiction with Aristotle? It is of concern to me that two intelligent minds do not say yes and no about the same matter, so I might be allowed to foist this interpretation on him, to lend him this evasion.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 But rather let me speak briefly of this evasion itself! – It seems to me it both is, and is not, a way out. For the word general is taken to have two very different meanings. The one which Hurd and Diderot deny to the tragic character is not the same as the one affirmed for it by Hurd. Certainly the evasion is based on this; but how, if the one absolutely excludes the other?

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In the first meaning, a general character is one in which what has been observed in several or all individuals is pulled together; it is called, in a word, a composite character, more the personified idea of a character than a characterized person. In the second meaning, however, a general character is one in which a certain average or a certain mean proportion has been taken from what has been observed in several or all individuals; it is called, in a word, a common character, of course not insofar as the character itself is common, but only insofar as it is common to a certain degree and measure.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Hurd is completely correct in explaining Aristotle’s καθολον as generality in the second sense.[95.6] But then when Aristotle demands this generality both of the comic character as well as the tragic, how is it possible that the same character can also have the first generality at the same time? How is it possible for it to be simultaneously composite and common? And even granted such a character were not a composite nearly to the degree of the characters in the Jonson play that Hurd criticizes, granted that it would still bring to mind an individual, and that there were examples of its expression just as strongly and consistently in other human beings: would it nevertheless not still be far more uncommon than Aristotle’s generality permits?[95.7]

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 That is the difficulty! – I remind my readers here that these pages are intended to contain nothing less than a dramatic system. I am under no obligation to resolve all the difficulties I pose. My thoughts might seem to become more and more disconnected, they may even seem to contradict: they need only be thoughts that provide my readers material to think for themselves. Here I want nothing more than to provide Fermenta cognitionis.[95.8]


23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [*] 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. [Hurd, “Dissertation on the Provinces of Drama” 184 – Ed.]

  • 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0
  • [95.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [95.2] In the previous three essays, Lessing has been quoting Richard Hurd, as a means of illuminating Aristotle’s views on dramatic character, which Lessing begins discussing in [89]. Here Hurd introduces Euripides’ Electra in order to continue an examination of whether characters should be drawn from real life or idealized; for Hurd, see [90.17].The long quotation here is drawn from Hurd’s “Notes on the Art of Poetry.” Tr. note: we provide Hurd’s original English; see “Notes” 257–60.
  • [95.3] In Greek mythology, Electra unites with her brother Orestes to murder their mother (Clytemnestra) and her lover (Aegisthus), who killed their father (Agamemnon). In Euripides’ version of the story, after the murder of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus marry Electra off to a peasant.
  • [95.4] Both Euripides and Sophocles include a scene in which Electra at first fails to recognize Orestes, who was exiled by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
  • [95.5] Lessing’s analysis of Hurd’s views on Aristotle was triggered by Diderot’s statement, in [83], that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types.
  • [95.6] Καθολον: kathólon (whole).
  • [95.7] See [93] for Hurd’s criticism of Ben Jonson’s “comedies of humor.”
  • [95.8] Fermenta cognitionis: food for thought. Tr. note: literally “ferment of knowledge”; that is, a leavening that will allow future knowledge to rise.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-95/