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  • Same/Sex: Incest and Friendship in Lessing’s Nathan der Weise1
  • Michael Thomas Taylor (bio)

It is only rarely noted that the word “Toleranz” appears nowhere in Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise, published in 1779, despite the ubiquity of the theme in the work’s reception. The Templar does call Nathan “der tolerante Schwätzer” (Lessing, Nathan IV/4, 587), though this is an accusation of hypocrisy; and while the German equivalent, “dulden,” also appears once, its sense further underscores a fundamental ambiguity regarding readings of the play as a plea for religious tolerance. The word is spoken by the judge in the fable of the rings, who has been asked to arbitrate between the brothers and who now offers a word of advice in lieu of the judgment that has proven impossible to render:

Möglich; daß der Vater nun Die Tyrannei des Einen Rings night länger In seinem Hause dulden wollen! – Und gewiß; Daß er euch alle drei geliebt, und gleich Geliebt: indem er zwei nicht drücken mögen, Um einen zu begünstigen. – Wohlan! Es eifre jeder seiner unbestochnen Von Vorurteilen freien Liebe nach!

(III/7, 559)

The sense of “dulden” here of suffering something noxious or harmful is a first indication of how little eighteenth-century ideals and practices of religious toleration have to do with the ethos of love expressed by the judge. And this speculative opinion about the father’s intentions stands in contrast to the judge’s certain conclusion that the three rings are proof of the father’s equal love for his sons. This love marks the crux of Lessing’s play, its reception, and its ethical implications. What does it mean that the father loved his sons “gleich”? The answer lies in the love for which the sons should now compete. Yet the judge immediately describes this love with a list of (religious) virtues – “Sanftmut,” “herzliche Verträglichkeit,” “Wohltun,” “innigste Ergebenheit in Gott” – that further complicate rather than answer the question.

By examining the complex meaning of “love” in Nathan der Weise, this article challenges readings of the play in terms of tolerance. It will follow Willi [End Page 333] Goetschel’s recent arguments that Lessing’s play challenges the epistemological framework of truth presupposed by notions of tolerance to expresses a deliberate “critique of tolerance as just another exclusionary mechanism” (Spinoza’s Modernity 232). Goetschel argues that the play develops, instead, a “pragmatic” critique of truth that makes it one of the first texts to “address the transformation of tradition into a modern concept” (232). Certainly this critique of truth can be extended to the concept of love expressed in the fable of the rings: Love is not a given, received truth but rather something to be redefined and rediscovered in the future as the evidence of ethical action. Yet among the play’s conceptions of love is one truth that is neither spoken aloud nor ever questioned in the course of dramatic events: the impossibility of tolerating an incestuous marriage between brother and sister.

In the play’s romantic plot, the problem of incest supplants questions of tolerance: A marriage between a Christian and a Jew that appears to be hindered by religious intolerance proves to be impossible for a more absolute reason, because of the prohibition of incest. Of course, it might be argued that this passionate love and its recognition in marriage have little to do with the other kinds of love – of human friendship, of brotherhood in the fable of the rings, and of familial affection – that one finds in the play. Hannah Arendt is representative of such a view when she writes that friendship in the play is:

obviously so much more important to Lessing than the passion of love that he can brusquely cut the love story off short (the lovers, the Templar and Nathan’s adopted daughter Recha, turn out to be brother and sister) and transform it into a relationship in which friendship is required and love ruled out.


This article will suggest, by contrast, that the play’s notions of love are all related and that the absolute prohibition of incest marks an absent point...


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pp. 333-347
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