The Parable of The Three Kings, Lessing 1779

GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING 1729-1781

The Parable of “The Three Kings,” from “Nathan the Wise.”

In the oldest times, and in an eastern land,
There lived a man who had a precious ring.
This gem—an opal of a hundred tints—
Had such a virtue as would make the wearer
Who trusted it, beloved by God and man.
What wonder, if the man who had this ring
Preserved it well, and, by his will, declared
It should forever in his house remain?
At last when death came near, he called the son
Whom he loved best, and gave to him the ring,
With one strict charge:—“My son, when you must die,
Let this be given to your own darling child—
The son whom you love best, without regard
To any rights of birth.”—’Twas thus the ring
Was always passed on to the best-beloved.
Sultaùn! you understand me?
Saladin.Yea. Go on!—
Nathan. A father, who, at last possessed this ring
Had three dear sons—all dutiful and true—
All three alike beloved.—But, at one time,
This son, and then another, seemed most dear—
Most worthy of the ring; and it was given,
By promise, first to this son, then to that,
Until it might be claimed by all the three.
At last, when death drew nigh, the father felt
His heart distracted by the doubt to whom
The ring was due. He could not favor one
And leave two sons in grief! How did he act?
He called a goldsmith in, gave him the gem,
And bade him make exactly of that form,
Two other rings, and spare nor cost nor pains
To make all three alike. And this was done
So well, the owner of the first, true ring,
Could find no shade of difference in the three.
And now he called his sons—one at a time—
He gave to each a blessing and a ring—
One of the three—and died—
Saladin.Well, well. Go on.
Nathan. My tale is ended. You may guess the sequel:—
The father dies; immediately each son
Comes forward with his ring, and asks to be
Proclaimed as head and ruler of the house;
All three assert one claim, and show their rings—
All made alike. To find the first—the true—
It was as great a puzzle as for us—
To find the one true faith.
Saladin. Is that, then, all the answer I must have?
Nathan. ’Tis my apology, if I decline
To act as judge, or to select the ring—
The one, true gem, of three all made alike;
All given by one—
Saladin.There! talk no more of “rings.”
The three religions, that, at first, were named,
Are all distinct—aye, down to dress—food—drink—
Nathan. Just so! and yet their claims are all alike,
As founded upon history, on facts
Believed, and handed down from sire to son,
Uniting them in faith. Can we—the Jews—
Distrust the testimony of our race?
Distrust the men who gave us birth, whose love
Did ne’er deceive us; but when we were babes,
Taught us, by means of fables, for our good?
Must you distrust your own true ancestors,
To flatter mine?—or must a Christian doubt
His father’s words, and so agree with ours?—
Saladin. Allah!—the Israelite is speaking truth,
And I am silenced—
Nathan.Let me name the rings
Once more!—The sons at last, in bitter strife,
Appeared before a judge, and each declared
He had the one true gem, given by his father;
All said the same, and all three spoke the truth;
Each, rather than suspect his father’s word,
Accused his brethren of a fraud—.
Saladin.What then?
What sentence could the judge pronounce? Go on.
Nathan. Thus said the judge:—“Go, bring your father here;
Let him come forth! or I dismiss the case.
Must I sit guessing riddles? Must I wait
Till the true ring shall speak out for itself?—
But stay!—’twas said that the authentic gem
Had virtue that could make its wearer loved
By God and man. That shall decide the case.
Tell me who of the three is best beloved
By his two brethren. Silent?—Then the ring
Hath lost its charm!—Each claimant loves himself,
But wins no love. The rings are forgeries;
’Tis plain, the first, authentic gem was lost;
To keep his word with you, and hide his loss,
Your father had these three rings made—these three,
Instead of one—”
Saladin.Well spoken, judge, at last!
Nathan. “But stay,” the judge continued; “hear one word—
The best advice I have to give; then go.—
Let each still trust the ring given by his father!—
It might be, he would show no partial love;
He loved all three, and, therefore, would not give
The ring to one and grieve the other two.
Go, emulate your father’s equal love.
Let each first test his ring and show its power;
But aid it, while you test; be merciful,
Forbearing, kind to all men, and submit
Your will to God. Such virtues shall increase
Whatever powers the rings themselves may have;
When these, among your late posterity,
Have shown their virtue—in some future time,
A thousand thousand years away from now—
Then hither come again!—A wiser man
Than one now sitting here will hear you then,
And will pronounce the sentence.”
Saladin.Allah! Allah!
Nathan. Now, Saladin, art thou that “wiser man?”
Art thou the judge who will, at last, pronounce
The sentence?
[Saladin grasps Nathan’s hand, and holds
to the end of the conversation.
Saladin.I the judge?—I’m dust! I’m nothing!
’Tis Allah!—Nathan, now I understand;
The thousand thousand years have not yet passed;
The judge is not yet come; I must not place
Myself upon his throne! I understand—
Farewell, dear Nathan! Go.—Be still my friend.

The Parable of “The Three Kings,” from “Nathan the Wise.”

Nathan the Wise


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