37 pages 1 hour read

Gotthold Lessing

Nathan the Wise

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1779

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Summary and Study Guide


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s morality play Nathan the Wise (originally published in German as Nathan der Weise, 1779) is set in Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades. The work tells a complex story of identities, involving characters across three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ultimately, the play offers strong support for religious tolerance.

This guide references the translation by Stephanie Clennell and Robert Philip (The Open University, 1992).

Plot Summary

Act I of the play opens with the Jewish merchant Nathan’s return home from a business trip. While he was away, his home caught fire, and his daughter Recha was almost lost. However, a mysterious Christian Templar knight pulled her from the flames before disappearing. Recha has been in a feverish swoon ever since and wants to see the Templar again.

Prior to the action of the play, The Templar had been captured by the forces of the Muslim sultan, Saladin. As an enemy knight, the Templar could have been killed, but Saladin spared his life because he looks like his deceased brother Assad. The Templar now learns that the Patriarch (the head of the Christian church in the area) wants to recruit him as an agent, possibly to assassinate Saladin. Nathan’s servant Daja finds the Templar and tells him he will be invited to Nathan’s home.

In Act II, Saladin and his sister Sittah are playing a game of chess, when Saladin’s treasurer (and Nathan’s friend) Al-Hafi arrives. It is revealed that Saladin has mismanaged the sultanate’s finances. Sittah convinces him to seek a loan from Nathan, who is known to be very wealthy.

Nathan and the Templar meet. They discuss religions and the differences between Christians and Jews and decide to become friends. Daja tells the Templar that Saladin sent for him. Before the knight leaves, he mentions that his last name is von Stauffen, which Nathan recognizes. Al-Hafi arrives and mentions that Saladin will likely want to borrow money from Nathan.

In Act III, the Templar visits Nathan’s home, where he becomes infatuated with Recha. Sittah convinces Saladin to trick Nathan into loaning him money by asking him a question about religion, putting him on the spot and making him feel indebted to the sultan. Saladin asks Nathan which religion is best. Instead of answering directly, Nathan tells a parable about a magical ring: When a group of sons fights over who gets to inherit the ring, their father gives each son a fake ring. The moral of the story, Nathan explains, is that it is impossible to tell how one religion is superior to another. Saladin finds Nathan’s story moving.

The Templar asks for Nathan’s blessing to marry Recha, but Nathan avoids giving it without explaining why. The Templar is distraught. He talks to Daja, who reveals that Recha is not Nathan’s biological daughter but rather was born a Christian, adopted, and raised as a Jew. Shocked, the Templar meets with the Patriarch in Act IV and asks him what would happen if a Jew raised an adopted Christian child as a Jew. The Patriarch cruelly insists that the Jew would be burned at the stake. The Templar meets with Saladin, and they talk about Recha’s true background. While acknowledging that Nathan may be punished, Saladin defends his friend’s actions as noble.

Nathan meets with the Lay Brother, who brought the infant Recha to him years ago. The Lay Brother also defends Nathan’s actions and intentions. Nathan asks the Lay Brother to retrieve an old notebook that was given to him along with Recha, hoping to find confirmation about her past.

In Act V, the Templar and Nathan discuss the truth about Recha’s background, and they reconcile. Nathan gets confirmation from the old notebook that Recha and the Templar are siblings. He tells the Templar that Recha’s brother has been discovered, and thus he cannot give his blessing to the Templar, but he does not tell the Templar that he is Recha’s brother.

All of the major characters meet in the final scene. Nathan explains that Recha and the Templar are siblings, children of a man named Wolf von Filnek and a German woman whose surname was von Stauffen. Saladin and Sittah ask about Wolf, and Nathan reveals that Wolf was actually Assad, who had fallen in love with von Stauffen and took the German name von Filnek as a tribute. Thus, Recha and the Templar are the niece and nephew of Saladin and Sittah. With the truth about their interrelationships fully revealed, the entire group embraces each other.