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  • A Diasporic Reading of Nathan the Wise
  • Ned Curthoys (bio)

In this essay I analyze the continuing controversy surrounding Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's famous 1779 drama Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), an emblematic Enlightenment-era play whose evaluation has been drastically affected by the appalling history of the twentieth century. I argue that the Nazizeit and the Holocaust have produced a caesura in Nathan criticism, a dramatic reversal of the play's critical fortunes. A play that was once celebrated as a harbinger of German-Jewish emancipation, promising the creative participation of Jews in German society, is now harshly criticized and repudiated for the failure of that promise. Recent interpreters of Nathan the Wise, both scholars and playwrights, have been lugubriously mindful of the Nazi assault on the German-Jewish community that was launched in the early 1930s and of the subsequent European Jewish genocide.1 They read the play through the prism of the anachronistic stigma that attaches to German intellectual history, a stigma that has long encouraged post-Holocaust criticism to discuss German literature and culture in teleological ways, mining eighteenth and nineteenth century texts and discourses for attitudes and mentalities that prefigure the disaster of Nazi Germany.

As I argue, this reversal in the critical fortunes of Nathan the Wise is by no means a salutary development, inasmuch as it has diminished our ability to appreciate the play's aesthetic merits, the cross-cultural friendship and creative collaboration that helped to produce it, the fertile intellectual milieu that informed it, and the significance of its historical setting in late twelfth-century Jerusalem, a Jerusalem under the benign Muslim sovereignty of the famed Egyptian sultan Saladin. In order to interpret Nathan the Wise, I suggest, a cosmopolitan sensitivity to world-historical time is required, a genealogical sensibility that reads the play as an enthusiastic commentary on the pluralistic and polyglot societies of the Levant and [End Page 70] Moorish Spain, in which a convivencia, a sometimes fragile but productive coexistence of Muslim, Jew, and Christian, was capable of provoking and edifying Christian Europe.

Nathan the Wise

Lessing's Nathan the Wise is set in approximately the year 1192 CE in Jerusalem during an uneasy peace in the Third Crusade, a peace engineered by the wise sultan Saladin, a much-lauded historical figure who regained Jerusalem from Christian crusaders in 1187 CE. Saladin invited Jews to resettle in Jerusalem under his protection and guaranteed freedom of pilgrimage and worship to Christians. The play's chief protagonists are the wise, generous, and humane Jewish merchant Nathan; the initially anti-Jewish but brave and honorable Christian Knight Templar who, just before the play's action begins, has saved Nathan's adopted daughter Recha from an inferno; and Saladin, the noble-minded ruler of Jerusalem who fears crusading Christians and is tempted to financially exploit Nathan's wealth and credit. The play has an episodic narrative structure and is difficult to classify; it is a "problem play" that is neither comedy, drama, or tragedy. What the play does enact is a sometimes meandering journey toward the reconciliation of three characters, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian, whose real human virtues threaten to be overwhelmed by the historical and institutional realities of religious hatred.

Nathan the Wise is most famous for the parable of the rings in act 3. The profligately generous Saladin, after successfully waging war to recapture Jerusalem, is heavily in debt and needs credit from the famously wise, humane, and financially astute Jewish merchant Nathan. The parable is Nathan's artful response to Saladin's attempt to put pressure on him by asking him the most fraught question of all, which is the one true religion, and why has a wise and independent man capable of choosing what is best chosen to remain a Jew?

Nathan's initial panic articulates the profound dilemma of how to defend one's position in the world in an age that inhibits individual and secular conceptions of identity:

I must be on my guard. But how?I can't insist that I'm a Jew; but to [End Page 71] Deny that I'm a Jew would be still worse.Then he...