Nietzsche On The Morality Of Shakespearian Drama

In his fourth book, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Nietzsche seeks to unmask the fictions and delusions of European values and of European morality in particular. The book was written up from a series of notebooks that he worked on when out walking. It is divided into 575 sections arranged into five books.

Shakespeare is mentioned in three of the sections, and most fully in section 240, “On the Morality of the Stage,” in which Nietzsche homes in on the growth in stature of Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. Nietzsche attacks the idea that Shakespeare is “preaching against” the murderous pursuit of ambition in his representation of Macbeth as a tragic hero:

Whoever thinks that Shakespeare‘s theater has a moral effect, and that the sight of Macbeth irresistibly repels one from the evil of ambition, is in error: and he is again in error if he thinks Shakespeare himself felt as he feels. He who is really possessed by raging ambition beholds this its image with joy; and if the hero perishes by his passion this precisely is the sharpest spice in the hot draught of this joy. Can the poet have felt otherwise? How royally, and not at all like a rogue, does his ambitious man pursue his course from the moment of his great crime! Only from then on does he exercise “demonic” attraction and excite similar natures to emulation—demonic means here: in defiance against life and advantage for the sake of a drive and idea. Do you suppose that Tristan and Isolde are preaching against adultery when they both perish by it? This would be to stand the poets on their head: they, and especially Shakespeare, are enamored of the passions as such and not least of their death-welcoming moods—those moods in which the heart adheres to life no more firmly than does a drop of water to a glass. It is not the guilt and its evil outcome they have at heart, Shakespeare as little as Sophocles (in Ajax, Philoctetes, Oedipus): as easy as it would have been in these instances to make guilt the lever of the drama, just as surely has this been avoided. The tragic poet has just as little desire to take sides against life with his image of life! He cries rather: “it is the stimulant of stimulants, this exciting, changing, dangerous, gloomy and often sun-drenched existence! It is an adventure to live—espouse what party in it you will, it will always retain this character!”— He speaks thus out of a restless, vigorous age which is half-drunk and stupefied by its excess of blood and energy—out of a wickeder age than ours is: which is why we need first to adjust and justify the goal of a Shakespearean drama, that is to say, not to understand it.