Here is a summary of the plot:
Nathan is a rich merchant in Jerusalem. An infant girl (Recha) is placed into his custody by a monk. The secret of the child's identity is known only by Nathan, the monk, and Nathan's Christian servant (Daya). Nathan raises her to respect God, but without teaching her the trappings of any religion. While Nathan is away on a business trip, Recha is rescued from death by a German knight who had come to Jerusalem as part of the Crusades. She falls in love with him. Nathan returns and when he tries to thank the knight, he is spurned because the knight disdains friendship with a Jew. But the knight yields to Nathan's pleas and visits Recha, with whom he falls in love.
The servant informs the knight that Recha was born a Christian. Obsessed by a sense of sacred duty he turns to the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem for advice. He is repelled by the latter's self-righteousness and inhumanity (the character is drawn quite negatively). The knight then visits the Sultan, Saladin. When he denounces Nathan, he is rebuked by the Sultan who tells him not to be a Christian at the expense or injury of Jews or Moslems. Nevertheless, the Sultan pledges to bring the lovers together. But the play ends with the revelations that Recha and the knight are really sister and brother and that their father was tire Sultan's brother.
Recha's transformation from "Jew" to "Christian" to "Moslem" within minutes as each secret unfolds is only one of Lessing's messages on religious tolerance. A stronger lesson unfolds in the play when the Sultan summons Nathan and asks him, What human faith, what theologic law Hath struck you as the truest and best? Nathan, suspecting a snare (if he says Judaism he offends Moslem ruler and if he says Mohammedanism he risks being forced to convert or being accused of lying), invents the parable of The Three Rings.
In days of yore, a man lived in the East,
Who owned a ring of marvelous worth,
Given to him by a hand beloved,
The stone was opal and shed a hundrd lovely rays,
But chiefly it possessed the secret power
To make the owner loved by God and man,
If he but wore it in this faith and confidence...
The owner of the ring had three wonderful, obedient sons he loved with all his heart. Because he could not decide among them, he had identical rings made for all of them before he died. When the sons realize they each have a ring from their father they become angry and take their case to a judge to determine who has the real ring. The judge considers and finally makes his decision:
But stop! I've just been told that the right ring,
Contains the wondrous gift to make its wearer loved,
Agreeable alike to God and Man.
That must decide, for the false rings will not have this power....
Let each one strive to gain thee prize of proving by results
The virtue of his ring and aid its power
With gentleness and heartiest friendliness....
The virtue of the ring will then
Have proved itself among your children's children.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam--the three rings-- all possess a wonderful and a terrible power over the hearts of men and women who believe. They have the power to inspire wondrous deeds in the world; beautiful art; heavenly song; and soaring monuments- reflecting the best within humankind. But, as we have seen throughout history, they can also motivate horrendous and monstrous behavior in the name of God.
Christianity and Judaism have both had their periods of prolonged insanity, where followers were enslaved by the evil that is within men's souls. Neither religion should be proud of those times and should remember that they --far from always preaching peace and brotherhood--have also expoused hatred and death to the infidel. Even today we can find instances of the same Christian and Jewish fundamentalism and intolerance that led, in earlier epochs to much human suffering and death.
Fortunately the world survived and at least two of the rings matured. As humanity pursued liberty and freedom of thought; new ideas and concepts replaced the old, rigid thinking. Bible verses were freshly interpreted and understood in new ways. Religious tolerance replaced religious fanaticism.
Islam, for all its medieval glory and early contributions to enrich humanity has succumbed to the evil lurking within its believers' souls. As a religion, it has remained immature and relatively unchanged for centuries. The Middle East, where Islam originated, has clung to tribal traditions and resisted progress, centralization, and internal critique, thus spurring the growth of islamofacism and Terror in the name of Allah. By isolating itself from the rest of the world, maintaining decentralization, and promoting and limiting interpretations and analyses of its own holy book; it has managed to bypass the wave of freedom and democracy that has taken hold on the rest of the world.
Islam in the Middle East currently exists within a Culture of Victimhood; a culture where hatred is passed on through generations; and one where misogynistic behavior is encouraged and considered holy. There are few real Middle Eastern Islamic "scholars" today who do anything other than parrot phrases from the Koran, using it only to further this Culture; or to advance their own pathetic personal agendas of power.
Any reasonable person of any faith should express horror at Islam's increasingly virulent attitudes toward women and sexuality (see here, here, and here); at the vicious and joyous celebrations of death and destruction (see here and here) of the open and unchecked anti-semitism (see here, here, here); at the cult of suicide murderers (here, here); of mothers and fathers praising children who kill others while killing themselves (see here, here); and the continued dumbing down of its own people, preventing them from expanding their minds beyond the boundaries imposed by the pages of the Koran and forbidding the use of a critical thinking capacity.(here)
As has been said in many other places and times over the last decade, this is a Culture of DEATH and, if Islam as a religion wants to survive, it must extricate itself from this Culture. It must loudly denounce believers who use the religion to justify barbaric and psychopathic behavior ; it must search for ways to open the minds and encourage reason and learning in all its people, men and women, and permit them to join the 21st century and leave the Middle Ages behind.
In short, Islam has to demonstratae--like the beloved sons with their three beautiful rings--the virtue that their loving father once believed they possessed. The True Ring will bring its bearer the love of Man and God; and Islam - especially those who consider themselves moderate - need to prove their ring is true by their behavior: "the virtue of his ring and aid its power with gentleness and heartiest friendliness."
This must be done for the sake of all our children; and for our children's children.