Nathan, a jewish merchant returning to Jerusalem after a business journey, learns that his adopted daughter, Recha, has been rescued from a fire at his home by a young German Templar of the Third Crusade, a captive whom the Saracen, Sultan Saladin, spared because he resembles Saladin's brother.
Nathan, to whom it was said God had given "the greatest gift, wisdom, and the most worthless, riches," goes to thank the Templar who wanders daily about the Saviour's tomb. The youth first scorns the thanks and the offered reward of a Jew: "...If you insist upon a reward, this mantle was slightly scorched in the flames when I rescued your daughter ... When it is all in rags ... I will come to borrow the money from you to buy another."
Nathan takes in his hand the scorched cloth and the Templar sees a tear fall upon it. He asks in surprise: "Are there good jews in this world?" Nathan replies: "There are good men in every land. The tree of life has many branches and roots. Let not the topmost twig presume to think that it alone has sprung from mother earth.... We did not choose our races for ourselves. Jews, Moslems, Christians--all alike are men. Let me hope I have found in you--a man."
The Templar apologizes and takes Nathan's hand in friendship. Names are exchanged, and Nathan appears surprised to learn that the youth's name is Curd von Stauffen. He says no more, for he is summoned by the Sultan who seeks a loan. Saladin is impressed by the gentleness and wisdom of Nathan, and impulsively asks what religion seems to him the truest and best. In answer, Nathan relates a story:
"Once upon a time there was a man who possessed a precious ring. Whoever wore the ring was endowed with the magic power to win the love of God and man. When the owner of the ring died, he left it to his favorite son; and when the son died, he left it in turn to his favorite son." Finally the ring descended to the father of the three sons, all equally dear, and he was troubled to decide which should have it. He decided to have made two more rings, so exactly like the first that he was unable to distinguish among them, and gave one to each son. But the sons fought among themselves, each claiming to have the original--exactly, Nathan points out, as the Jews, the Mohammedans and the Christians are wrangling about their three faiths.
Asked for his own advice, Nathan quotes Saladin the words of the judge to whom the sons came: "If each of you received this ring straight from his father's hand, let each believe his own to be the true and genuine ring. Of this you may be sure: your father loved you all, and it was his ardent wish that all of you should love one another."
The Sultan is deeply impressed. He bids Nathan go in peace, but the merchant offers the loan of his gold, stipulating that he must withhold a part of his fortune to pay his debt to the young Templar. The Sultan recalls the youth who resembles his brother, and bids Nathan bring him to his court.
Meanwhile, Daya, the Christian companion of Recha, has told the Templar that Recha is a Christian who Nathan had stolen as an infant and reared as a Jewess, a crime punishable by death at the stake. The Templar, who has come to love Recha, resolves to rescue her from Jewish heresies. He repeats Daya's charge to the Christian Patriarch who sends a lay brother to spy upon Nathan.
But the lay brother, arriving at Nathan's home, recognizes him as a benefactor, saying: "Do you remember how, about eighteen years ago, a certain squire confided into your hands a little Christian girl?... I was that squire. The babe ... was the daughter of Wolf Von Filneck. Her mother had just died and her father was compelled to flee to Gaza. Shortly after that he was killed at Ascalon."
Nathan completes the story, revealing that just after the child was entrusted to him, the Christians massacred all the Jews in Gath, including Nathan's wife and seven sons whom he had sent to his brother's home for safety. Nathan had sworn undying hatred of Christendom, but he took the Christian child, kissed its cheek and accepted it as a gift from God to replace his own loved ones.
He asks now if the name of the child's mother was Von Stauffen. The lay brother says he believes that it was, but he will bring to Nathan a little prayer book, found in her dead father's pocket, which lists his relatives and those of his wife.
Later, Saladin, who has taken Nathan under his protection, summons him, with Recha and the Templar, to his palace. He favors a marriage of the young couple and asks Nathan's consent.
NATHAN: Don't ask me. Ask her brother.
SALADIN: And who is her brother?
NATHAN: This young Templar.
Then Nathan explains that the writing in the dead father's prayer book has disclosed that the Templar's true name is Leo Von Filneck, that Von Stauffen was the mother's name, and that Leo and Recha are brother and sister, the children of Wolf Von Filneck. And Wolf Von Filneck, he discloses, is the brother of Saladin. The Mohammedan knight, in love with the Christian girl, had taken the German name of Von Filneck.
Thus the story of the three golden rings finds another parallel amid the general reconciliation at the Sultan's court: Christian, Jew and Moslem have a common bond in this reunion of the children of Christian and Mohammedan who have a Jewish guardian and a Moslem uncle.
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