The play, Nathan the Wise, (first performed in 1779) is almost as old as the United States itself but far too few Americans either have seen about or hear of this play. Lessing situates this drama in a period of truce with the Great Saladin in the seat of power. As backdrop of the tale, Saladin is apparently seeking to negotiate a marriage between his family and that of Richard the Lionhearted. This was intended to create conditions for a more permanent peace in the region. However, it needs to be stated that Richard does not otherwise play any visible role in the drama at all. However, this idea of marriage among peoples of different faiths is not only a backdrop to the whole work of Lessing’s.
NATHAN RETURNS HOME
The play begins with the return home of Nathan , a Jew, to Jerusalem from a lengthy business journey to Baghdad. Upon his arrival, Nathan discovers that there had almost been a fatal fire in his home. The girl, whom Nathan has been raising in his house as if she is his own daughter, is almost killed in the blaze, but a Knights Templer saved her from the flames in the last moment.
Nathan seeks to meet with and reward the young Templer knight, but the young man refuses to even shake Nathan’s hand indicating he, a fanatical fundamentalist Christian, dislikes Jews, and the Templer had not even known (nor cared) that he was rescuing a Jewess. The brash young knight was simply carrying out a command (or oath) from his order of knights to rescue those who are in trouble.
However, both Nathan’s tolerance and good nature wear down the young knight’s hardened surface and resistance. The Templer finally agrees to visit the home of Nathan and receive thanks from Nathan’s “daughter”, Daga. Fascinatingly, this same Templer had himself been the benefactor of great tolerance and had been rescued from execution by the Muslim leader, Saladin, only a few days earlier.
Saladin had observed this young Templer in prison. He had been arrested with other rebellious Templers for treason, but Saladin had decided that any young man--who looked as much like his very own long-lost brothe, Assad, as this particular Templer did--need not be executed. Not only was the rebellious young Templer not executed by the Muslim commander who controlled the city of Jerusalem, but the Great Saladin also pardoned the Templer of all his crimes as well. Days after being set free from the gallows to walk the streets of the city, this same lucky Templer had come upon the burning home Nathan and rescued the wealthy Jew’s “daughter”.
In short, God seemed to be working special and mysterious things in this young Templer’s life. This is why the Christian patriarchs were, in the meantime, keeping an eye on this young Templer and his activities in Jerusalem.
To make a long story short, later when the Templer met Nathan’s “daughter”, Daja, he falls in love with the beauty. His heart burns with love, but he feels ashamed because he had been raised in a prejudiced Catholic Europe to believe that Jews—like Muslims—were the enemy of his God and faith.
Confused by his own feelings for the young women, the Templer begs leave of Nathan’s household and runs out.
DARK MEMORIES AND SECRETS
Later, however, in the streets outside the Templer is first followed and then approached by Daga’s nanny, a Christian born in Switzerland but hired by Nathan to help raise the “daughter”. The nanny reveals that the so-called “daughter”, Daga, is not really Nathan’s daughter but was baptized Christian long ago. Nathan is simply raising the girl as his daughter.
This report from Daga’s nanny horrifies the earnest Templer. He is angered that a Jew would take a Christian orphan and raise her as if she was his very own.
With this hateful feeling grwoing in his heart, the young Templer goes to meet officials from the church and receives advice as to what to do about this act of blasphemy carried out on Daga, i.e. against a Christian child of God. The Church patriarch indicates that if what he claims as fact is indeed true, then the Jew (Nathan) must be cruelly executed for his sin and crime against the Lord.
Meanwhile, it is revealed that nearly a generation earlier, poor Nathan had returned home to Jerusalem from another lengthy business journey to find that a horrible pogrom against Jews had just taken place in that Holy City. Nathan’s own wife and his seven children had been murdered.
It was in this very period of mourning that a friend and Christian soldier, calling himself Wolf von Filnek, had asked Nathan to take care of his child as he was preparing to go off to battles to the north and east. Subsequently, Nathan had sought to raise the child, Daja, as best he could. Meanwhile, Wolf von Filnek had died in battle far away.
Over the decades of his life, Nathan has not only become extremely wise but wealthy as well. (So, there are people in Jerusalem who certainly would like to have a hand in his fortune if there were another pogrom.) Therefore, Saladin, who is low on wealth but looking for a way to offer a dowry to the family of Richard the Lionhearted to set up a marriage involving Saladin’s own sister, decides to invite Nathan to his house in order to borrow capital from the famed “Nathan the Wise”.
Along the way to Saladin, Nathan gets a hunch as to why the leader wishes to see him, i.e. to borrow some money, but when Nathan arrives, he is surprised at the first question which Saladin asks. Saladin asks him a question of faith and belief in order to test this famed Jew’s wisdom.
Saladin asks the man, nicknamed “Nathan the Wise”, which religion is the true religion: Christian, Jewish or Islam? He adds that it is too illogical or too relativist to think that they all could be correct, isn’t it?
Nathan responds carefully by telling the classic “ring parable”, which begins as follows:
There was a certain family who ruled a great kingdom. The family had a tradition of giving a certain priceless ring to the most virtuous son of each generation to wear. In other words, the chosen son had to demonstrate as he grew up that he was living and practicing a, honest, loving, just, and noble life.
Of all the sons of any family patriarch, only that son would become the next head of the family if he was able to live such a virtuous life. In this way each generation prospered more than the other and the kingdom and virtue of its leadership became renowned. There was rarely any squabble over succession to such leadership. At the end of his life, the patriarch would pass the ring on to the son of his choosing who he observed to be living an honest, loving, just, and noble life.
This tradition had gone on several centuries, when finally one patriarch bearing the precious ring of leadership reached a stalemate of sorts. That is, this particular father had great difficulty in determining which of his three sons was the most noble, fairly, loving, and just. They all seemed be living faithful and fair lives.
On any one day the old patriarch would think, “Ah, this is the son who shall receive the ring and take over the leadership of the household for our great family!”
However, the next day, this same father would think, “No, that is the son who should take over and get the ring!”
Within a few days, the old man would change his mind again and voice his opinion favoring the third son.
This stalemate in the old man’s heart went on for over a year. Finally, the old man decided to secretly have two more identical rings made.
The second and third rings could not be told apart from the original one--even by the patriarch himself who had worn it.
Subsequently, the old man smiled and called in each of those three sons individually. The, the patriarch quietly presented each son with a ring and asked each not to reveal to anyone else his decision to give the ring to him until the old man had passed away and had been buried.
Naturally, after the old patriarch was buried, chaos broke out in the household as each son claimed to be heir to leadership of the home and property. Each showed hisidentical ring to all the others.
There was fighting and yelling.
Finally, all three took the matter to a judge—who at first wanted to throw the whole matter out. The judge said, “Only the father could tell which son lived the most faithful and virtuous life and who had the right to take over the kingdom.”
Finally, after continued dispute, the judge announced a decision of sorts, “Whoever follows the traditions of their law, faith, and father—including the trait of brotherly-love—to the fullest should inherent the leadership in the kingdom.”Saladin clapped at the parable and bowed to Nathan’s wise reply to is difficult question as to the one-true faith.
IN THE END
At the end of the play, Nathan the Wise, it is revealed by the main character, Nathan, that not only had the daughter been adopted at a young age, but the young Knights Templer who had been adopted as well. The Templer had been raised in Europe by different relatives before returning to Jerusalem with the most recent crusade.
Therefore both, Daja and the young Templer were the adopted children from the same father, a Palestinian, who went by two names. This particular Palestinian had been born in the Muslim world as Saladin’s very own brother, named Assad.
Assad had also taken on the name of Wolf von Filnek. It was this von Filnek who had originally given up his baby child to be raised by a monk in the Sinai desert before going off to war. That monk had, in turn, passed Daja on to Nathan after the murder of all his other family members.
Meanwhile, it was through an unnamed female member of the von Stauffen family from Germany into which the young Templer was brought into the world. His uncle, Conrad von Stauffen, had later taken the boy to be raised on the European continent.
In short, it turns out that before God, we are one mixed-up family of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Let’s learn to live out our living faiths before God and community! “Whoever follows the traditions of their law, faith, and father—including the trait of brotherly-love—to the fullest should inherent the leadership in the kingdom.”