Nathan the Wise

Nathan the Wise

Recha Welcoming Her Father, 1877 illustration by Maurycy Gottlieb
Written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Characters Nathan, Saladin, Young Templar, Patriarch, Monk, Recha, Sittah, Al-Hafi
Date premiered 14 April 1783
Place premiered Döbbelinsches Theater, Berlin
Original language German
Setting Jerusalem ca. 1192

Nathan the Wise (original German title: Nathan der Weise) is a play published by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1779. It is a fervent plea for religious tolerance. Its performance was forbidden by the church during Lessing's lifetime; it was first performed in 1783 at the Döbbelinsches Theater in Berlin.

Set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, it describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and the (initially anonymous) Templar bridge their gaps between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Its major themes are friendship, tolerance, relativism of God, a rejection of miracles and a need for communication.

Ring Parable

The centerpiece of the work is the "Ring Parable", narrated by Nathan when asked by Saladin which religion is true: An heirloom ring with the magical ability to render its owner pleasing in the eyes of God and mankind had been passed from father to the son he loved most. When it came to a father of three sons whom he loved equally, he promised it (in "pious weakness") to each of them. Looking for a way to keep his promise, he had two replicas made, which were indistinguishable from the original, and gave on his deathbed a ring to each of them.[1]

The brothers quarreled over who owned the real ring. A wise judge admonished them that it was impossible to tell at that time – that it even could not be discounted that all three rings were replicas, the original one having been lost at some point in the past; that to find out whether one of them had the real ring it was up to them to live in such a way that their ring's powers could prove true, to live a life that is pleasant in the eyes of God and mankind rather than expecting the ring's miraculous powers to do so. Nathan compares this to religion, saying that each of us lives by the religion we have learned from those we respect.


The character of Nathan is to a large part modeled after Lessing's lifelong friend, the eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Similar to Nathan the Wise and Saladin, whom Lessing makes meet over the chess-board; they both shared a love for the game.[2]

The motif of the Ring Parable is derived from a complex of medieval tales which first appeared in the German language in the story of Saladin's table in the Weltchronik of Jans der Enikel. Lessing probably had the story in the first instance from Boccaccio's Decameron.[3]

English language translations and stage adaptations


In 1922 it was adapted into a silent film of the same title.

In 1933, the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Culture Association of German Jews) was created in Germany, enabling Jewish artists who had recently lost their jobs to perform to exclusively Jewish audiences. On October 1, Nathan the Wise became the first performance of this new federation. It was the only time the play was performed in Nazi Germany.[9]

This was the first play to be performed in Germany after the end of World War II.[10]

In the early 21st century, the Ring Parable of Nathan the Wise was taken up again in Peter Sloterdijk's Gottes Eifer: Vom Kampf der drei Monotheismen.[11]

Edward Kemp's 2003 version of the play, first produced by the Minerva Theatre, Chichester,[12] was used in 2016 in New York by the Classic Stage Company with F. Murray Abraham in the lead.[13]


  1. Shagrir, Iris (1997). "The Parable of the Three Rings: A Revision of Its History". Journal of Medieval History. 23: 163–177. doi:10.1016/S0304-4181(97)00004-3.
  2. Daniel Dahlstrom, Moses Mendelssohn, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 3 December 2002. Accessed online 26 October 2006.
  3. The Decameron consists of ten tales told on each of ten days. The "Ring Parable" is found in the third tale of the first day, although the characters here are Saladin and Melchisedech (as the wise Jew).
  4. Nathan the Wise at Project Gutenberg
  5. Billington, Michael (May 3, 2003). "Nathan the Wise: Minerva Theatre, Chichester". The Guardian. Eric Bentley once said that this becomes a bad, "preachy" play in English translation: not so in Edward Kemp's excellent version.
  6. Spencer, Charles (September 21, 2005). "Enlightened values speak to today". The Telegraph. Edward Kemp's fine translation, which combines Germanic seriousness with a winning English wit, and cuts the sprawling four-and-a -half hour original down to a manageable playing time of less than three hours, was first presented at Chichester in 2003.
  7. D'Andrea is Robinson Professor of Theater and English at George Mason University; see D'Andrea's webpage.
  8. Rich, Colleen Kearney (January 9, 2006). "Lending a Stage Hand: Theater of the First Amendment Nurtures Playwrights and Composers". The Mason Gazette. George Mason University.
  9. The Inextinguishable Symphony by Martin Goldsmith, published by John Wiley & Sons, New York, New York. 2000. p. 61
  10. Warum war "Nathan der Weise" das erste Stück, das nach 1945 aufgeführt wurde?
  11. English translation God's Zeal – The Battle of the Three Monotheisms, Polity Pr. (2009). ISBN 978-0-7456-4507-0
  12. Billington, Michael (May 3, 2003). "Nathan the Wise: Minerva Theatre, Chichester". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  13. Kirsch, Adam (Summer 2016). "Saladin, a Knight, and a Jew Walk Onto a Stage". Jewish Review of Books. Retrieved 6 September 2016.

External links

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