Nathan the Wise, play on religious (in)tolerance


Gotthold LessingFrom the Google cache of Dear Kitty ModBlog.

From The Guardian in Britain:

Nathan the Wise

Hampstead, London

Michael Billington

Tuesday September 20, 2005

This is a play whose time has come again. First, GE Lessing’s classic of German Enlightenment drama was picked up by Chichester in 2003.

Now we have the same brilliantly lucid translation by Edward Kemp, but a slightly less dynamic production.

But no matter: this is a play eminently worth seeing.

Set in Jerusalem in 1192, it seems a straightforward plea for mutual toleration between Jew, Muslim and Christian.

The eponymous protagonist is a shrewd Jewish merchant who finds himself caught between the worlds of Saladin and the Crusaders.

In a key scene he is forced by the sultan to arbitrate between the claims of the rival faiths.

He answers with a riddling fable, derived from Boccaccio, which suggests that no one religion has a monopoly of wisdom.

Instead, we should strive for “gentleness, tolerance, charity and a deep humility before the love of God”.

The message could hardly be more timely.

But Lessing’s action is at odds with his theme.

Nathan is wise and virtuous, but Christianity is represented by an intemperate Knight Templar who is all young, hotheaded and full of antisemitic arrogance.

As Eric Bentley pointed out, the play is really addressed to Christians, telling them to mend their ways.

It moves beyond preachiness to show the need for reconciliation and harmony. It cannot fail to move.

Voltaire and Islam: here.

Spinoza: here.

4 thoughts on “Nathan the Wise, play on religious (in)tolerance

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