A New and Complete Translation

Essay 97

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 5 April 1768[97.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Strictly speaking, this solution may not be satisfying in all plays.[97.2] Granted that foreign customs do not meet the aims of comedy as well as native customs, the question remains whether native customs do not also have a better relation to the aims of tragedy than foreign ones. This question cannot be answered merely by pointing to the difficulty of making a native incident suitable for the stage without noticeable and offensive changes. Certainly native customs require native incidents; if, however, tragedy achieves its aim most easily and surely by use of the former, then it surely must be better to overcome all the difficulties posed by the treatment of the latter than to fall short with regard to the most essential element, which is, unquestionably, its aim. Moreover, not all native incidents require such noticeable and offensive changes, and there is no obligation to work with those that do require them. Aristotle has already observed that there could be, and are, episodes that have come to pass exactly as the poet requires.[97.3] As those are very rare, however, he also concluded that the poet should be less worried about the minority of his audience that might have knowledge of the true circumstances than about falling short in the fulfillment of his duty.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The advantage that native customs have in comedy rests on our intimate acquaintance with them. The writer does not need to first make them known to us; he is relieved of all the necessary descriptions and hints pertaining to them; he can have his characters behave according to their customs right away, without first having to give a tiresome description of the customs themselves. Native customs thus lighten his work and promote the illusion for his audience.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Now why should the tragic poet forgo this important double advantage? He too has reason to lighten his work as much as possible, and not to waste his energy on secondary aims but to spare it wholly for the primary aim. For him, too, everything depends on the audience’s illusion. – It could be answered here that tragedy does not have great need of customs, that it could be completely freed of them. But by this reasoning, it needs no foreign customs either; and it will always be better if the few customs it wishes to have and show are taken from native rather than foreign ones.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The Greeks, at any rate, never took anything but their own customs as a basis, not only in comedies but also in tragedies. In fact they preferred to lend foreign peoples, from whose history they borrowed the material for their tragedies from time to time, their own Greek customs, rather than weakening the effects of the stage through incomprehensible barbaric customs. They gave little or no importance to the illusion of historical fidelity, which is so anxiously recommended to our tragic writers. The most notable proof of this could be Aeschylus’s Persians, and the reason why they felt themselves so little bound by historical fidelity is easy to infer from the aim of tragedy.[97.4]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But I am sinking too far into the very aspect of the problem that least concerns me here. Indeed, in claiming that native customs would also be more advantageous than foreign ones in tragedy, I am already taking for granted that they are so in comedy. And if they are, as at least I believe they are, then in general I cannot but approve of the changes that Herr Romanus made to Terence’s play with respect to them.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 He was right to rework a plot so tightly interwoven with customs that were peculiarly Greek and Roman. An example draws its power only from its internal probability, which each person judges according to his own sense of the familiar. All application disappears if we first must struggle to imagine ourselves in foreign circumstances. But such a reworking is no easy matter. The more perfect the plot, the less even the smallest part can be changed without destroying the whole. And fatal! – if one settles for mere patchwork instead of recreating in the real sense of the word.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [†] The play is called The Brothers, and in Terence this was for two reasons.[97.5] Not only are the two old men, Micio and Demea, brothers; the two young ones, Aeschinus and Ctesipho, are as well. Demea is the father of these two; Micio has adopted one of them, Aeschinus, as his own son. Now I do not understand why our author did not like this adoption. I do know that adoption still remains customary among us today, and fully on the same terms as it was among the Romans. Nevertheless, he departed from it: in his play there are only the two older brothers, and each has a son by birth that he raises according to his own methods. “But so much better!” you will probably say. For now the two old men are both also real fathers, and the play is really a “school for fathers,” that is, for such fathers on whom nature has imposed paternal duties, and not for those who have voluntarily undertaken those duties but fail to submit themselves further than serves their own comfort.[97.6]

Pater esse disce ab illis, qui vere sciunt![97.7]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Very well! Only it is too bad that, as a result of the dissolution of this single knot – which in Terence binds Aeschinus and Ctesipho to each other, and both to Demea, their father –the entire machine falls apart; and instead of a single, general interest we have two completely different ones that are held together merely by virtue of the writer’s dexterity, and in no way by their own nature!

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 For if Aeschinus is not Micio’s adopted son, but his son by birth, then why should Demea care so much about him? My brother’s son does not concern me nearly as much as my own. If I discover that someone spoils my own son, even with the best intentions in the world, I would be right to confront this well-meaning corrupter with the same vehemence that Demea shows in confronting Micio in Terence’s play. But if it is not my son, if it is the corruptor’s own son, what more can I do, what more may I do, than warn this corruptor? And, if he is my brother, do so often and earnestly? Our author removes Demea from the relationship he has in Terence but leaves him the same storminess that only that relationship could justify. In fact, in his play Demea curses and rages with even more vexation than in Terence’s. He flies off the handle because “he must suffer dishonor and disgrace because of his brother’s son.”[97.8] But if his brother were to answer: “You are not very smart, my dear brother, if you think you could be exposed to dishonor and disgrace by my child. If my son is and remains a scoundrel, the misfortune as well as the disgrace remain mine alone. You may mean well with your zeal, but it goes too far, it offends me. If you are going to keep irritating me in this manner, then stay away from my house! etc.” If, as I say, Micio were to give this answer, would the comedy not suddenly be over? Is it possible that Micio would not answer in this way? In fact, would he not actually have to answer this way?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 How much more suitable is Demea’s zealousness in Terence’s play. This Aeschinus, whom he believes is leading such a debauched life, is still his son, even though his brother has adopted him as his own child. And nevertheless the Roman Micio asserts his rights far more than the German Micio. He says, you have given your son over to me, take care of the one remaining to you:

[…] nam ambos curare; propemodum

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0             reposcere illum est, quem dedisti […][97.9]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 This veiled threat, to give the son back, is also what silences him, and yet Micio cannot wish that it should stifle all his paternal feelings. It must certainly irritate Micio that, in what follows, Demea does not stop constantly rebuking him; but he also cannot blame the father for not wanting to let his son be ruined completely. In short, Terence’s Demea is a man who is concerned for the well-being of the person nature charged him to care for; he doubtless goes about it in the wrong manner, but this manner does not diminish the reason. Our author’s Demea, on the other hand, is a troublesome quarreler who believes kinship justifies all manner of incivilities that Micio would in no way have to tolerate from a mere brother.

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • [97.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [97.2] At the end of [96], Lessing proposes to address Karl Franz Romanus’s comedy Die Brüder [The Brothers] and the ways in which it differs from Terence’s Adelphi [The Brothers]. He then begins to question the need for a comedy to reflect contemporary customs, and those who adapt classical plays accordingly.
  • [97.3] See Poetics (Part IX).
  • [97.4] Aeschylus’s Persians (472 BCE), the only extant ancient Greek tragedy drawn from current events (rather than myth), dramatizes the aftermath of the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks in 480 BCE. Although it is true that The Persians does not exhibit strict historical fidelity, Aeschylus nonetheless employs specifics of Persian culture, history, and customs.
  • [97.5] See [70.7] for the plot of Terence’s play.
  • [97.6] Tr. note: a later edition of Romanus’s play bears the subtitle Die Schule der Väter [The School for Fathers].
  • [97.7] “Learn how to be a father from those who really know!” (Act 1, Sc. 1). Tr. John Barsby, from Terence Adelphi/The Brothers 2: 265.
  • [97.8] Romanus, Die Brüder 41.
  • [97.9] “If you’re going to concern yourself with both, you might as well demand the return of the one you gave me” (Act 1, Sc. 1). Tr. John Barsby, from Terence Adelphi/The Brothers 2: 265.
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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