6 – Shakespeare's Taste

Compared to Greek tragedy, Shakespeare’s drama is, as Coleridge put it, “myriad-minded” 2, an imagistic mélange of merged opposites, its depths of terror of co-habiting with comic asides, its tragic poetry laced with high spirits and low jinks, the sublime or uncanny illumined by masks or double entendres. The crisis of Shakespeare’s drama transpires through the crisis of idiosyncratic characters caught-in-the-act, who seem to have already beenthere before walking on stage. who pursue their fates in a world of infinitely rich detail simultaneously created and destroyed. Hamlet’s or Brutus’ nauseating discovery of evil, fate and power and strobed by multi-colored insights, yet Shakespeare’s drama holds the key to the magnitude or power but also the problem of modern genius. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recognizes this startling power which clearly ranks Shakespeare with the Greeks:

… the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet, both once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: this is the doctrine of Hamlet not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much, and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no — true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet, and in the Dionysian man. 3

Here is the mantle granted no one else since Euripides death and tragedy’s “suicide”, dropping, of course, the Wagnerian “music” of The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche was now critiquing the way in which German Romantics enshrined Shakespeare (re: “Shakespeare worship”). He at first contrasts Hamlet, the indecisive dreamer of conventional romantic criticism, the noble but near incestuous knight lost in the regress of of self-consciousness, the hall of mirrors (of rational illusion), to what reveals that illusion, to a hero who peers into the very depths or ground of being — who intuits the contingency of all human consciousness, for whom layer upon layer of Apollinian reflection shreds, he sees the whole of human effort as a tragic, absurd, reality. Hamlet can win a noble ‘pessimism of strength’ after he loses his father, Ophelia, his mother, and his life, after every choice suggested by deliberative good and evil is dwarfed with all conventional revenge, indeed every “decisive action” which would correct existence. The eventual reconciliation between Hamlet’s Apollinian rationale and his Dionysiac vision into the depths of human irrationality arrives after his trip to England in the graveyard scene (“Alas, poor Yorick … “) when death and life are unearthed from the same ground of existential wisdom. Finally in the last scene when action and will merge with mature, this-worldly recognition, he achieves an excess of human nobility, he acts, beyond the pale of good and evil. This amazing and complex movement of dramatic and poetic recognition brings Shakespeare’s European plays to the same level as those by Aeschylus and Sophocles. Yet it is written for, and plays, to a different world.
Shakespeare’s presence gave Nietzsche’s concept of poetry its bridge to Europe, for he is the sole, modern tragedian to have equaled the Greeks. Nietzsche, however, traveled from early critical admiration to progressive bemusement with Romantic homilies to Shakespeare’s humble or “rustic” beginnings, to the uncritical worship of The Bard. This kept Nietzsche from re-affirming the signficance of Shakespeare’s existence as a tragedian without being conscious of a romantic chorus of praise. Part of his polemical effort was not only to refute the romantic-democratic aesthetic, recoiling from Shakespeare’s interest in every type of human character, but also to peer between the interstices of Shakespeare’s psychology, and to reveal howwe differ from the Greeks. For Nietzsche, romantic sympathy, along with rote or mediocre readings of the plays, produced formlessness in art, and seems to have provoked him to affirm the absurd theory that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays.
Even though Shakespeare tapped the same Dionysiac flood, we find Nietzsche maintaining in Ecce Homo, ” … my artist’s taste vindicates the names of Moliere, Corneille, and Racine, not without fury against a wild genius like Shakespeare … 4 And in The Will to Power, when he contrasts the equilibrium of a plurality of virtues in classicism with preponderance of one monstrously dominant virtue in Romanticism, he allows the former “loftiness” [in] … the case of Shakespeare (assuming it was really Lord Bacon)”. 5 And after again praising “Hamlet” he confesses: “I feel instinctively sure and certain that Lord Bacon was the originator, the self-tormentor of this uncanniest kind of literature.” 6 Nietzsche never provides proof for a theory which, like the Earl of Oxford theory, seeks to exist only to mollify those burdened by the riddle of Shakespeare’s genius.
Nietzsche writes:

It is no different with Shakespeare, that amazing Spanish-Moorish-Saxon synthesis of tastes that would have all but killed an ancient Athenian of Aeschylus’ circle with laughter or irritation. But we — accept precisely this wild abundance of colors, this medley of what is most delicate, coursest, and most artificial with a secret familiarity and cordiality; we enjoy him and the disturbing odors and the proximity of the English rabble in which Shakespeare’s art and taste live we do not allow to disturb us any more than on the Chiaja of Naples, where we go our way with all our sense, awake, enchanted and willing, though the sewer smells of the plebeian fill the air. 7.

Although the passage offers an ironic specificity by which Nietzsche implies he too has shuffled along some”colorful” streets in Italy, it inescapably betrays his neo-classic snobbery, whereupon, reflexively the genius of the author’s invention necessitates he must be secretely Lord Bacon behind a pseudonymous veil since the “proximity of the English rabble” proves that Shakespeare is really akin or from the rabble himself. There’s no hint why Nietzsche continues to name the English playwright Shakespeare, when he would have us believe that he really means Lord Bacon.
Nietzsche never, however, maintains that Shakespeare failed as a tragedian, due to his “plebeianism” taste or to his vast heterogeneity of imagery and motive. But his aristocratism led him to prefer Racine and Corneille, though Nietzsche nowhere seems to have been moved by them tragically, as forcefully, as he evidently was by Shakespeare. He uses these French classicists as counter-foils, in order to contrast their restraint and classic measure with Shakespeare’s “democratic” vitality and earthiness. Could it be that in Shakespeare, meeting the Dionysiac so graphically, even made Nietzsche, flinch?
Why would Nietzsche hold the fantastic theory that Lord Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays if not to avoid the conclusion that post-Hellenic Dionysiac tragedy ended up in the hands of a lower middle class actor? At any rate he never allows himself to admit this explicitly. Instead, Nietzsche reveals that he understands Shakespeare’s characters in a penetrating and original way. This is true particularly of “Julius Caesar”, which Nietzsche brilliantly analyzes in The Gay Science:

In praise of Shakespeare. — I could not say anything more beautiful in praise of Shakespeare as a human being than this: he believed in Brutus and did not cast one speck of suspicion upon this type of virtue. It was to him that he devoted his best tragedy — it is still called by the wrong name — to him and to the most awesome quintessence of a lofty morality. Independence of the soul! — that is at stake here. No sacrifice can be too great for that: one must be capable of sacrificing one’s greatest friend for it, even if he should also be the most glorious human being, an ornament of the world, a genius without peer — if one loves freedom as the freedom of great souls and he threatens this kind of freedom. This is what Shakespeare must have felt. The height at which he places Caesar is the finest honor that he could bestow of Brutus’ inner problem as well as the spiritual strength that was able to cut this knot.
Could it really have been political freedom that led this poet to sympathize with Brutus and turn him into Brutus’ accomplice? Or was political freedom only a symbol for something inexpressible? 8

Again, what is inexpressible is the Dionysiac understanding Shakespeare had of the will to power, that Brutus is motivated not by political or moral aspirations but by an unconscious personal urge to free himself from the personal domination of Caesar’s love. We can already see how his concept of the Dionysian changed by contrasting the two heroes Nietzsche chooses from Shakespeare. From the passive nausea and loss of self exemplified by Hamlet to the active independence of the self expressed by the tragic nobility of Brutus in “Julius Caesar”, we follow how the abysmal disclosure of the will subsumes some of the individuating Apollonian control earlier opposed to the Dionysian expression of nature. But just as important there is the revolutionary approach to “Julius Caesar” suggested in this brief passage. Nietzsche overturns the traditional interpretations of Brutus as either a traitor or a political-moral idealist. On a re-reading of the play it becomes evident that Brutus never actually responds to any political or moral reasons for his role in the conspiracy. In the play, no one seems to understand why Brutus kills Caesar. Portia gouges out a wound in her thigh so as to shock Brutus into explaining why. Finally the climax is dependant on Caesar himself dying, riddled, still pleading with Brutus to answer him why.
Further, if we examine the conspiracy, from Cassius’ first speech through the subsequent progress of the plot, Cassius offers no explicit moral or political reasons in order to incite Brutus either. Cassius, however, is envious:

Why, man he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
to find ourselves dishonorable graves. 9

But Brutus is vague and when “Caesar’s Angel” delivers his speech over Caesar’s body (before he allows Anthony to sway the mob against him) he merely explains:

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant I honor him; but as he was ambitious I slew him. 10

The other Romans in the play never consider him the betrayer or misguided idealist admired by European critics. Anthony and Octavius are awed when they find Brutus’ body at Phillipi, vowing to give him a hero’s burial in their own tents. It is clear that Nietzsche is right: Brutus squanders political power at every turn, preferring “independence of the soul”, even after he sacrifices his friend, his own life, and those of his fellow conspirators. But despite this interpretation, the counter theme of Nietzsche’s approach to Shakespeare resurfaces:

Could it be that we confront some unknown dark event and adventure in the poet’s own soul of which he wants to speak only in signs? What is all of Hamlet’s melancholy compared to that of Brutus? And perhaps he, too, had his gloomy hour and his evil angel, like Brutus.
But whatever similarities and secrete relationships there may have been: before the whole figure and virtue of Brutus, Shakespeare prostrated himself, feeling unworthy and remote. His witness of this is written into tragedy. Twice he brings in a poet, and twice he pours such an impatient and ultimate contempt over him that it sounds like a cry — the cry of self-contempt. Brutus, even Brutus, loses patience as the poet enters — conceited, pompous, obtrusive, as poets often are — apparently overflowing with possibilities of greatness, including moral greatness, although in the philosophy of his deeds and his life he rarely attains even ordinary integrity. “I’ll know his humor when he knows his time/What should the wars do with these jigging fools?/Companion, hence!” shouts Brutus. This should be translated back into the soul of the poet who wrote it. 9

Nietzsche’s observations are very shrewd here. Cinna the poet does follow Caesar’s funeral procession and the crowd mistakes him for Cinna the conspirator. When he identifies himself, the crowd nonetheless ferociously tears him apart for his “bad verse”! And when Brutus and Cassius are just about to reconcile a bitter dispute between themselves and their two camps, a “poet” bursts into their tent, just as Nietzsche describes. But why should Nietzsche assume it is Shakespeare’s self-contempt as a poet surfacing and not his contempt for his rivals? Perhaps the approach is valid, perhaps not, but Nietzsche seems to reiterate, positively, the assumption that dramatic characters derive directly from an author’s reality:

When I seek my ultimate formula for Shakespeare, I always find only this: he conceived of the type of Caesar. That sort of thing cannot be guessed; one either is it or is not. The great poet dips only from his own reality — up to the point where afterward he cannot endure his work any longer. 10

How is it possible for the man who conceived of Caesar, who must resemble Caesar in nobility, also to have been the poet who bursts into Brutus’ tent, and the “plebeian” and, finally, Lord Bacon? Why is Nietzsche’s relation to Shakespeare itself so ambiguous, given the literary commonplace as to Shakespeare’s universality? The answer can probably be found in Nietzsche’s understanding of Goethe. The real doubts Nietzsche seems to have about Shakespeare arise just as the tragic content of the Dionysian is being rethought, not as a contrast to Apollonian individuation but as Dionysius came to represent an active will in contrast to the reactive romantic, an overflow evincing the grand style, both grounded, realistic, and Olympian.

Of heroes who are also fools, of satyrs laughing with angels –