Friedrich Nietzsche, On Hamlet 1871.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a German philosopher who remains famous and influential even today for his critiques of religion, morality, contemporary culture, and science. His works include The Birth of Tragedy (1871), The Gay Science (1882), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

We must now summon to our aid all the principles of art discussed so far in order to find our way through what we are bound to describe as the labyrinth of theorigin of Greek tragedy. I believe I am not talking nonsense when I assert that this problem of origin has not yet even been posed seriously, far less solved, despite the many attempts to sew together and pull apart again the tattered shreds of ancient historical evidence in various combinations. This evidence tells us most decisively that tragedy arose from the tragic chorus and was originally chorus and nothing but chorus. From this we derive the obligation to look into the heart of this tragic chorus as into the true, original drama, rather than simply contenting ourselves with the usual artistic clichés, such as the claim that the chorus is the ideal (idealisch) spectator, or that it represents the people in contrast to the princely region of the stage. This last interpretation sounds so lofty to the ears of some politicians, as if the immutable moral law of the democratic Athenians were represented in the popular chorus which was always proved right, beyond all the passionate excesses and indulgences of the kings. But no matter how strongly a remark by Aristotle seems to suggest this,59 this idea had no influence on the original formation of tragedy, since its purely religious origins preclude the entire opposition between prince and people, and indeed any kind of political-social sphere. Even with regard to the classical form of the chorus familiar to us from the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, we regard it as blasphemous to speak of the premonition of a 'constitutional popular assembly', although others have been less reluctant to commit this blasphemy. In practice the ancient constitutions know of no constitutional popular assembly, and it is to be hoped that they did not even have a 'premonition' of one in their tragedy.

Much more famous than this political explanation of the chorus is one of A. W. Schlegel's60 thoughts which recommends us to think of the chorus as, in a certain sense, the quintessence and distillation of the crowd of spectators, as the 'ideal spectator'. When set next to the historical evidence that tragedy was originally only a chorus, this suggestion is revealed for what it really is: a crude, unscientific, but brilliant assertion, but one which derives its brilliance from the concentrated manner of its expression alone, from the characteristic Germanic prejudice in favour of anything that is called 'ideal', and from our momentary astonishment. For when we compare the public in the theatre, which we know well, with that chorus, we are simply astonished and we ask ourselves if it would ever be possible to distil from this public something ideal that would be analogous to the tragic chorus. In the privacy of our own thoughts we deny this possibility and we are as much surprised by the boldness of Schlegel's assertion as we are by the utterly different nature of the Greek public. This is because we had always believed that a proper spectator, whoever he might be, always had to remain conscious of the fact that what he saw before him was a work of art and not empirical reality, whereas the tragic chorus of the Greeks is required to see in the figures on stage real, physically present, living beings. The chorus of the Oceanides61 really believes that it sees before it the Titan Prometheus, and takes itself to be as real as the god on the stage. Are we then supposed to believe that the highest and purest kind of spectator is one who, like the Oceanides, believes Prometheus to be physically present and real? And that it would be the mark of the ideal spectator to run on to the stage and free the god from his tortures? We had believed in an aesthetic public and had gauged the individual spectator's competence by the degree of his ability to take the work of art as art, i.e. aesthetically; but now Schlegel's phrase gave us to understand that the perfect, ideal spectator lets himself be affected by the world on stage physically and empirically rather than aesthetically. Oh, curse these Greeks, we sigh; they turn our aesthetics upside down! As we are accustomed to this, however, we simply repeated Schlegel's dictum whenever the chorus was under discussion.

But the historical evidence explicitly speaks against Schlegel here: the chorus as such, without a stage, which is to say the primitive form of tragedy, is not compatible with that chorus of ideal spectators. What kind of artistic genre would be one derived from the concept of the spectator, one where the true form of the genre would have to be regarded as the 'spectator as such'? The spectator without a spectacle is a nonsense. We fear that the explanation for the birth of tragedy can be derived neither from respect for the moral intelligence of the masses, nor from the concept of the spectator without a play, and we regard the problem as too profound for it even to be touched by such shallow ways of thinking about it.

In his famous preface to the Bride of Messina62 Schiller betrayed an infinitely more valuable insight into the significance of the chorus when he considered it to be a living wall which tragedy draws about itself in order to shut itself off in purity from the real world and to preserve its ideal ground and its poetic freedom.

This is Schiller's main weapon in his fight against the common concept of the natural, against the illusion commonly demanded of dramatic poetry. He argued that, although in the theatre the day itself was only artificial, the architecture symbolic, and metrical speech had an ideal character, on the whole error still prevailed; it was not enough merely to tolerate as poetic freedom something which was, after all, the essence of all poetry. The introduction of the chorus was the decisive step by which war was declared openly and honestly on all naturalism in art. It seems to me that this way of looking at things is precisely what our (in its own opinion) superior age dismisses with the slogan 'pseudo-idealism'. I fear that, with our current veneration for the natural and the real, we have arrived at the opposite pole to all idealism, and have landed in the region of the waxworks. They too contain a kind of art, as do certain of today's popular novels; but let nobody torment us with the claim that, thanks to this art, the 'pseudo-idealism' of Schiller and Goethe has been overcome.

It is admittedly an 'ideal' ground on which, as Schiller rightly saw, the Greek chorus of satyrs, the chorus of the original tragedy, is wont to walk, a ground raised high above the real path along which mortals wander. For this chorus the Greeks built the hovering platform of a fictitious state of nature on to which they placed fictitious creatures of nature. Tragedy grew up on this foundation, and for this very reason, of course, was relieved from the very outset of any need to copy reality with painful exactness. Yet it is not a world which mere caprice and fantasy have conjured up between heaven and earth; rather it is a world which was just as real and credible to the believing Greek as Olympus and its inhabitants. As a member of the Dionysiac chorus, the satyr lives in a religiously acknowledged reality sanctioned by myth and cult. The fact that tragedy begins with the satyr, and that the Dionysiac wisdom of tragedy speaks out of him, is something which now surprises us just as much as the fact that tragedy originated in the chorus. Perhaps it will serve as a starting-point for thinking about this if I now assert that the satyr, the fictitious creature of nature, bears the same relation to the cultured human being as Dionysiac music bears to civilization. Of the latter Richard Wagner has said that it is absorbed, elevated, and extinguished (aufgehoben) by music, just as lamplight is superseded by the light of day.63 I believe that, when faced with the chorus of satyrs, cultured Greeks felt themselves absorbed, elevated, and extinguished in exactly the same way. This is the first effect of Dionysiac tragedy: state and society, indeed all divisions between one human being and another, give way to an overwhelming feeling of unity which leads men back to the heart of nature. The metaphysical solace which, I wish to suggest, we derive from every true tragedy, the solace that in the ground of things, and despite all changing appearances, life is indestructibly mighty and pleasurable, this solace appears with palpable clarity in the chorus of satyrs, a chorus of natural beings whose life goes on ineradicably behind and beyond all civilization, as it were, and who remain eternally the same despite all the changes of generations and in the history of nations.

The Hellene, by nature profound and uniquely capable of the most exquisite and most severe suffering, comforts himself with this chorus, for he has gazed with keen eye into the midst of the fearful, destructive havoc of so-called world history, and has seen the cruelty of nature, and is in danger of longing to deny the will as the Buddhist does. Art saves him, and through art life saves him—for itself.

The reason for this is that the ecstasy of the Dionysiac state, in which the usual barriers and limits of existence are destroyed, contains, for as long as it lasts, alethargic element in which all personal experiences from the past are submerged. This gulf of oblivion separates the worlds of everyday life and Dionysiac experience. But as soon as daily reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with a sense of revulsion; the fruit of those states is an ascetic, will-negating mood. In this sense Dionysiac man is similar to Hamlet: both have gazed into the true essence of things, they have acquired knowledge and they find action repulsive, for their actions can do nothing to change the eternal essence of things; they regard it as laughable or shameful that they should be expected to set to rights a world so out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires one to be shrouded in a veil of illusion—this is the lesson of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom about Jack the Dreamer who does not get around to acting because he reflects too much, out of an excess of possibilities, as it were. No, it is not reflection, it is true knowledge, insight into the terrible truth, which outweighs every motive for action, both in the case of Hamlet and in that of Dionysiac man. Now no solace has any effect, there is a longing for a world beyond death, beyond the gods themselves; existence is denied, along with its treacherous reflection in the gods or in some immortal Beyond. Once truth has been seen, the consciousness of it prompts man to see only what is terrible or absurd in existence wherever he looks; now he understands the symbolism of Ophelia's fate, now he grasps the wisdom of the wood-god Silenus: he feels revulsion.

Here, at this moment of supreme danger for the will, art approaches as a saving sorceress with the power to heal. Art alone can re-direct those repulsive thoughts about the terrible or absurd nature of existence into representations with which man can live; these representations are the sublime, whereby the terrible is tamed by artistic means, and the comical, whereby disgust at absurdity is discharged by artistic means. The dithyramb's chorus of satyrs is the saving act of Greek art; the attacks of revulsion described above spent themselves in contemplation of the intermediate world of these Dionysiac companions.


Dionysiac art, too, wants to convince us of the eternal lust and delight of existence; but we are to seek this delight, not in appearances but behind them. We are to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence—and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures. For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbounded greed and lust for being; the struggle, the agony, the destruction of appearances, all this now seems to us to be necessary, given the uncountable excess of forms of existence thrusting and pushing themselves into life, given the exuberant fertility of the world-Will; we are pierced by the furious sting of these pains at the very moment when, as it were, we become one with the immeasurable, primordial delight in existence and receive an intimation, in Dionysiac ecstasy, that this delight is indestructible and eternal. Despite fear and pity, we are happily alive, not as individuals, but as the one living being, with whose procreative lust we have become one.

The genesis of Greek tragedy now tells us with great clarity and definiteness how the tragic work of art of the Greeks was truly born from the spirit of music; we believe that, with this thought, we have done justice for the first time to the original and quite astonishing significance of the chorus. At the same time, we have to admit that the meaning of the tragic myth, as we have stated it, never became transparent and conceptually clear to the Greek poets, far less to the Greek philosophers; to a certain extent, their heroes speak more superficially than they act; myth is certainly not objectified adequately in the spoken word. The structure of the scenes and the vivid images reveal a deeper wisdom than the poet himself can put into words and concepts; the same thing can be seen in Shakespeare, whose Hamlet, for example, similarly speaks more superficially than he acts, so that the aforementioned lesson of Hamlet cannot be drawn from the words of the play, but from intense contemplation of, and reflection on, the whole. In the case of Greek tragedy, which we admittedly only find in the form of a word-drama, I have even indicated that the incongruity of myth and word could easily mislead us into thinking that it is shallower and more insignificant than it really is, and therefore into supposing that it had a more superficial effect than it must have had in reality, according to the testimony of the ancients, for it is so easy to forget that what the word-poet failed to achieve, namely the highest spiritualization and idealization of myth, he could accomplish successfully at any moment as a creative musician. Admittedly, we have to reconstruct the overpowering effect of the music almost by scholarly means, in order to receive something of that incomparable solace which must be inherent in true tragedy. But only if we were Greeks would we have felt the overpowering effect of music to be precisely this; whereas, when we listen to fully evolved Greek music and compare it to the much richer music with which we are now familiar, we believe that we are hearing only the youthful song of musical genius, struck up with a shy feeling of strength. As the Egyptian priests said, the Greeks are eternal children,130 and in the tragic art, too, they are mere children who do not know what sublime toy has been created—and smashed—by their hands.

That struggle of the spirit of music to be revealed in image and myth, a struggle which grows in intensity from the beginnings of the lyric up to Attic tragedy, suddenly breaks off, having just unfolded its riches, and disappears, as it were, from the face of Hellenic art, whereas the Dionysiac view of the world which was born out of this struggle lives on in the Mysteries and, while undergoing the strangest metamorphoses and degenerate mutations, never ceases to attract more serious natures. Will it perhaps, at some time in the future, re-emerge from its mystical depths as art?

What concerns us here is the question of whether the opposing power on which tragedy foundered will for ever remain strong enough to prevent the re-awakening of tragedy and the tragic view of the world. If ancient tragedy was thrown off course by the dialectical drive towards knowledge and the optimism of science, one should conclude from this fact that there is an eternal struggle between the theoretical and the tragic views of the world. Only when the spirit of science has been carried to its limits and its claim to universal validity negated by the demonstration of these limits might one hope for a rebirth of tragedy; the symbol which we would propose for this cultural form is that of the music-making Socrates in the sense discussed above. In making this contrast, what I understand by the spirit of science is the belief, which first came to light in the person of Socrates, that the depths of nature can be fathomed and that knowledge can heal all ills.

Anyone who recalls the immediate effects produced by this restlessly advancing spirit of science will recognize at once how myth was destroyed by it, and how this destruction drove poetry from its natural, ideal soil, so that it became homeless from that point onwards. If we are correct in ascribing to music the power to give birth to myth once more, we must also expect to see the spirit of science advancing on a hostile course towards the myth-creating force of music. This occurs during the evolution of the new Attic dithyramb, where the music no longer expressed the inner essence, the Will itself, but simply reproduced appearances inadequately, in an imitation mediated by concepts; truly musical natures then turned away from this inwardly degenerate music with the same feeling of revulsion as they felt for Socrates' tendency to murder art. Aristophanes' sure instinct certainly grasped things correctly when he expressed the same hatred for Socrates himself, the tragedy of Euripides, and the music of the new exponents of the dithyramb, for he scented the characteristics of a degenerate culture in all three phenomena. Thanks to the new dithyramb, a sacrilege was committed which turned music into a mere counterfeit of some phenomenon, e.g. of a battle or a storm at sea, and thus robbed it entirely of its myth-making power. For if music seeks to excite our pleasure merely by compelling us to seek out external analogies between events in life or nature and certain rhythmical figures or characteristic musical sounds, if our understanding is to be satisfied by recognizing these analogies, then we are dragged down into a mood in which it is impossible to be receptive to the mythical; for myth needs to be felt keenly as a unique example of something universal and true which gazes out into infinity. In true Dionysiac music we find just such a general mirror of the world-Will; a vivid event refracted in this mirror expands immediately, we feel, into a copy of an eternal truth. Conversely, a vivid event of this kind is immediately stripped of any mythical character by the tone-painting of the new dithyramb; now music has become a miserable copy of a phenomenon, and is thus infinitely poorer than the phenomenon; as far as our feelings are concerned, this poverty even reduces the phenomenon itself, so that, for example, a battle imitated by such music amounts to no more than the noise of marching, the sounds of signals etc., and our fantasy is arrested precisely by these superficial details. Tone-painting is thus the antithesis of the myth-creating energy of true music, for it makes the phenomenal world even poorer than it is, whereas Dionysiac music enriches and expands the individual phenomenon, making it into an image of the world. It was a great victory for the un-Dionysiac spirit when, during the evolution of the new dithyramb, it alienated music from itself and reduced it to the status of a slave of appearances. Euripides, who must be described as a thoroughly un-musical nature in a higher sense, is passionately attached to the new dithyrambic music for precisely this reason, and he makes free with all its showy effects and manners with all the liberality of a robber.

Elsewhere we can see the force of this un-Dionysiac spirit directed actively against myth if we look at the excessive growth in the presentation of characterand of psychological refinement in tragedy from Sophocles onwards. Character is no longer meant to be capable of being expanded into an eternal type; on the contrary, artificial subsidiary features, shading and the fine definition of every line, are all meant to give such an impression of individuality that the spectator no longer senses the myth at all, but only the great fidelity to nature and the imitative skills of the artist. Here too we may observe the victory of the phenomenal over the universal, and pleasure being taken in the individual anatomical specimen, as it were; already we are breathing the air of a theoretical world where scientific understanding is more highly prized than the artistic reflection of a universal rule. The trend towards the characteristic advances rapidly; whereas Sophocles still paints whole characters, harnessing myth to expound them subtly, Euripides is already at the stage of painting only individual characteristics which can be expressed in powerful passions; in the New Attic Comedy there are only masks with a single expression: frivolous old people, cheated pimps, cunning slaves, all tirelessly repeated. Where has the myth-shaping spirit of music gone now? All that remains of music is either music to excite the emotions or to prompt memory, i.e. either a stimulant for blunt and jaded nerves or tone-painting. The former hardly cares about the text to which it is set; even in Euripides verbal expression is already beginning to become quite slovenly when the heroes or choruses start to sing; how far are things likely to have gone amongst his shameless successors?

But the clearest sign of the new, un-Dionysiac spirit can be seen in the endingsof the new dramas. In the old tragedy the audience experienced metaphysical solace, without which it is quite impossible to explain man's pleasure in tragedy; the sounds of reconciliation from another world can perhaps be heard at their purest in Oedipus at Colonus. Now that the spirit of music had flown from tragedy, it is, in the strictest sense, dead, for from what other source was that metaphysical solace to come? Thus people looked for an earthly resolution of the tragic dissonance: after he had been sufficiently tortured by fate, the hero gained a well-earned reward in the form of a handsome marriage, or in being honoured by the gods. The hero had become a gladiator who was occasionally granted his freedom after he had been thoroughly flailed and was covered in wounds. The deus ex machina has taken the place of metaphysical solace. I do not say that the tragic view of the world was destroyed everywhere and utterly by the advancing spirit of the un-Dionysiac; we only know that it had to flee from art and into the underworld, as it were, where it degenerated into a secret cult. But almost everywhere in Hellenic life havoc was wreaked by the withering breath of that spirit which manifests itself in the kind of 'Greek cheerfulness' discussed above, as senile, unproductive pleasure in existence; this cheerfulness is the very opposite of the glorious 'naïveté' of the older Greeks as this should be understood, according to the characterization above, namely as the flower of Apolline culture growing from the depths of a gloomy abyss, as a victory which the Hellenic will gains over suffering and the wisdom of suffering through the image of beauty shown in its mirror. The noblest form of that other, Alexandrian type of 'Greek cheerfulness' is the cheerfulness of theoretical man which exhibits the same characteristics as I have just derived from the spirit of the un-Dionysiac: it fights against Dionysiac wisdom and art; it strives to dissolve myth; it puts in the place of metaphysical solace a form of earthly harmony, indeed its very own deus ex machina, namely the god of machines and smelting furnaces, i.e. the energies of the spirits of nature, understood and applied in the service of higher egotism; it believes in correcting the world through knowledge, in life led by science; and it is truly capable of confining the individual within the smallest circle of solvable tasks, in the midst of which he cheerfully says to life: 'I will you: you are worth understanding.'


59. Problemata 19.48.922b18ff.

60. In his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (3 vols., 1809–11), Fifth Lecture, Schlegel emphasizes the 'republican spirit' of ancient tragedy and its political content.

61. The daughters of Oceanus form the chorus of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. The title page of the original edition of Birth of Tragedy had a design depicting the moment when Prometheus is about to be freed from his bondage. (This design is reproduced on the front cover of Nietzsche on Tragedy by M. Silk and J. P. Stern (Cambridge University Press, 1981).)

62. What Nietzsche claims here as a property of ancient tragedy is described by Schiller as a specific feature of the use of the chorus in modern (as opposed to ancient) times.

63. In his essay 'Beethoven'.

130. Plato, Timaeus 22b4.