Nathan the Wise: An 18th-century German counterpoint to Shakespeare’s Shylock

Nathan the Wise
Eric Hissom as Nathan in Folger Theatre and Theater J’s production of Nathan the Wise. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Despite its roots in theological controversy and German Enlightenment, Nathan the Wise has unmistakable Shakespearean notes with its zany plot devices, larger-than-life characters, and alliances that turn on a dime. The similarities are not surprising when we learn about playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s unabashed enthusiasm for Shakespeare– no small thing in late eighteenth-century Germany, where French Neo-classicism was all the theatrical rage. Lessing’s championing of Shakespeare led to the first complete German translation of his works, and no doubt influenced his choice to compose Nathan entirely in blank verse.

Audiences new to Nathan may be surprised to learn that this remarkable play, called “the harbinger of … Jewish emancipation” (Curthoys) and “the German-Jewish Magna Carta” (Mosse), was written by a Christian. Lessing was a philosopher of the German Enlightenment; values of religious and ethnic tolerance, humanism and rationality were his particular interest. Taking a cue from Spinoza, he advocated an inclusive conception of God and the dissolution of ultimate religious truth. Lessing pushed for recognition of the shared history and principles among Abrahamic faiths. This progressive approach to religious thought is at the heart of Nathan the Wise.

Nathan the Wise
Opening pages from the first English printing of Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, translated by R.E. Raspe, 1781. Folger Shakespeare Library. PR3541.L28 N3 Cage

The play was Lessing’s last, written in response to a fierce, public debate following his publication of a manuscript (not his own) that challenged Church authority and disputed the Bible’s historicity. The backlash was severe. Lessing was accused of blasphemy, lost publication privileges, and described being ostracized socially and professionally. His shift from theological manuscript to theatrical playscript featured the character of a wise and generous Jew (based on Lessing’s friend, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn). Once printed, the play was criticized broadly; common among anti-Semitic responses was the insistence that no Jew could be as generous and good as Nathan. The choice of a Jewish protagonist was regarded by many as an insult to Christianity. Lessing doubted the work would ever be produced, but he could not have been more wrong. The play premiered in 1783, two years after Lessing’s death, and remained among the most popular and successful German plays until well into the twentieth century. Thomas Mann described Nathan the Wise as the “high point of German literature and culture.”

Lessing’s Nathan joined Shakespeare’s Shylock as “the best known Jewish males on the German stage” (Bonnell). Often these roles were performed by the same actors, which perhaps contributed to the increasingly sympathetic presentations of Shylock in the nineteenth century. Understanding one character through the other makes a kind of sense. Given Lessing’s admiration of Shakespeare, it is fair to think that Shakespeare’s uneasy play featuring a merchant, Christians, Jews, and others set in early modern Venice informed Lessing’s play featuring a merchant, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, set in 12th-century Jerusalem.

Nathan the Wise and The Merchant of Venice are very different works, though religious tension is a subject in each, as is the potential for love and loss, wealth and poverty, bloodshed and peace. But it is the character of the Jew featured in each text that most causes scholars to focus on the plays’ differences. Nathan is regarded as the “brilliant antithesis of Shakespeare’s Shylock” (Dubnow). The inclination to contrast Nathan and Shylock– and to celebrate that contrast– is easy to understand. Shylock has been identified by critic Harold Bloom as the literary character who has done the most harm to Jews. Even those sympathetic to Shylock must acknowledge the depravity of his behavior though we value the social critique it makes possible. Nathan’s actions, on the other hand, show him blameless and upright. His name in Hebrew literally means “he gave”, and Lessing’s Nathan lives up to the name. He gifts money rather than lends it; Nathan’s refusal to engage in usury invites audiences to weigh Lessing’s noble Jew against Shakespeare’s notorious one.

But we should not be too quick to consign Nathan and Shylock to their respective corners. Looking beyond difference, we can see ways these figures function similarly in each play. Both possess the insight afforded to outsiders, alienated and vulnerable. Each playwright invests his Jewish character with the strength to tell the truth. Their difficult confrontations make possible revelations on identity, humanity, morality and power; this is true for those who inhabit the plays and for those who view them.

Both Nathan and Shylock confront and expose characters who claim to be something other than they are. Lessing alerts us to this theme with a character’s early observation that “People are not always what they seem” (Nathan, Bloom trans., scene 2). This idea best shows itself through the ‘casket test’ in Merchant, which draws attention to the distance between the visible and veiled nature of things. Our first lesson is that “all that glisters is not gold” (Merchant 2.7). Later, Bassanio reveals that “the world is still deceived in ornament” (3.2).

Woman with three caskets
The casket scene from The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 2. Early 20th-century watercolor by Henry J. Haley. Folger ART Box H168 no.3

In Nathan, the deceiving ‘ornament’ is the belief that one faith has greater claims to truth than another. The message of the famous ‘parable of the rings’, adapted cleverly from Boccaccio, speaks to this. Nathan tells of three sons (representing Christianity, Judaism and Islam) who equally share the love of one ‘father’; they must prove themselves worthy of their father’s trust by achieving and maintaining the respect of each brother. The capacity for friendship and doing good is the measure of humanity for Lessing; his play affirms the value of a human connection over a religious one:

TEMPLAR            “Good men” can be very different.

NATHAN             Different colors maybe, different dress, different beliefs, yes. But look….

Aren’t we just two common men?

[Nathan, Bloom trans., scene 4]

The play’s emphasis moves from abstract kinship to more concrete relations. In the frenzied comedy of the final scene, differences of faith give way to pleasures of discovery and reunion.

Shylock, too, proclaims shared humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? [….] If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (Merchant 3.1). It is a profoundly humanizing text, and a remarkable one coming from the mouth of the play’s villain. But this cry for human rights takes a dark turn when used to legitimize vengeance: “If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute….” (3.1). Here and elsewhere, Shylock exposes Christian hypocrisy and cruelty. The pound of flesh he seeks from Antonio is a reflection, in his view, of the barbaric behaviors Christians themselves have put into practice: “You have among you many a purchased slave/ which…/You use in abject and in slavish parts / Because you bought them. …/ So do I answer you: / The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought … and I will have it” (4.1).

Hypocrisy is similarly revealed and ridiculed in Nathan through the figure of the Church Patriarch who threatens the peace established in Jerusalem. The Patriarch rejects as “perverse” the exercise of reason in matters of faith, and symbolizes violence through his language and intention. An important difference between Lessing’s play and Shakespeare’s is that the Patriarch’s behavior is challenged and rejected by characters other than the Jew most threatened by it. No such rallying occurs behind Shylock; his grievances go unacknowledged, and the play’s injustices are given over to audiences to rectify.

Both Shylock and Nathan are characters who suffer for their faith, and their losses are severe. Nonetheless, Nathan chooses to see good and to do good; Shylock is unable to make that choice. His first attempt at kindness is rejected; Antonio insists that Shylock regard him, not as a friend, but as an enemy “Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face /Exact the penalty” (Merchant 1.3). Shylock holds that advice too dear. It does not make him a perfect villain, but it does make him a problematic Jew. In the words of another literary character, also a Jew, and also a merchant, being a Jew “means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people.” (Malamud, The Assistant). Juxtaposing Shylock and Nathan and the plays in which they appear offers the uneasy reminder that the goodness that effectively connects humankind needs constant tending. And this can be difficult; Portia admits, “I can easier teach / twenty what were good to be done than to be one of / the twenty to follow mine own teaching” (Merchant 1.2). Judging by the behaviors of the faithful in both plays, this challenge is interdenominational. Perhaps Nathan’s greatest show of wisdom is making goodness look so easy.


Folger Theatre on the road
Folger Theatre presents Nathan the Wise, onstage March 16 – April 10, produced in association with Theater J. Adapted by Michael Bloom and directed by Adam Immerwahr.