Nathan the Wise is a dramatic poem in five acts by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. It was written in 1779 in German. It was translated a short while later into English and it is worth your while.
The story plays in Jerusalem, shortly after the third crusades. Nathan, a jewish salesman and his adopted daughter Recha live under the rule of the muslim Sultan Saladin. Nathan’s house gets on fire while Nathan is on a journey. A young Templar knight, who had been pardoned by the Sultan comes at the last minute to save Recha from the burning house.
After his return, Nathan tries to thank the knight, but gets first rebuffed because of his religion. But the Templar comes to realize that Nathan is first and foremost a human being, a Mensch and also only judges others by their actions, not their religion or race. Nathan and the Templar, Curt become friends.
The Sultan meanwhile needs money and asks Nathan to an audience. Not only is Nathan willing to give money, instead of only lending it; he also debates the equality of all religions with Saladin. He uses the parable of the ring for this. This parable is the central piece of the text. It is reenforced through the latter part of the poem in several ways. I don’t want to give away the ending, it is worth finding out.
The main tenets of the poem are the deep appreciation of humanism and equality. Lessing managed to create characters with several religious backgrounds who are all complex, in some ways generous and kind, and in other ways controlled by prejudices that are not easy to shake. There is heroism in several of the main characters, as well as the capacity for forgiveness. No one is inherently evil and the characters have the luxury to be able to change their mind.
Apart from this uplifting story, it is just fun to read this poem for the language used. Lessing is witty and deft, observant and at times a master of little ironies. The text can go from laugh out loud funny to deeply profound within two lines. The verses have a lovely flow to them, while still seeming natural enough that someone might have spoken that way. The translator, William Taylor of Norwich, did an excellent job in keeping most of this intact. So, if you’re looking for a classic piece of literature that excellently deals with religious diversity, humanism, and equality, Nathan the Wise is your best bet.
You can read it for free on the Project Gutenberg site, which is linked here.