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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 11 & 12

Chapters 9 & 10

Chapters 13–15

Summary

Tragedy did not pass away in its natural time as arts before it had, but rather died a sudden and violent death by means of suicide. Euripides is said to have pulled the trigger. The art that followed was 'New Attic comedy' a degenerate form of tragedy. The poets of the New Comedy worshiped Euripides, responsible as he was for the birth of their genre.

Euripides was the first to bring the 'spectator' upon the stage. The 'spectator' represented the common man of the 'real' world, not the Apollonian dream-state that existed in Aeschylus and Sophocles. Furthermore, Euripides's actors are very well spoken, and he boasted that he taught the common man to speak. The language of tragedy was no longer that of the drunken satyr, but of the common man. A new 'Greek Cheerfulness' came into play, but this time it was not an Apollonian appearance coming to the rescue of the man overwhelmed by Dionysian suffering. This was the fickle cheerfulness of the slave. The later conception of Greek 'cheerfulness' was based entirely upon this new phenomenon, wiping out the memory of tragedy's earlier, more serious undertones.

Although Euripides put the common man upon the stage, he did not do it for love of the public. In fact, whereas Aeschylus and Sophocles had always maintained the people's favor, Euripides drew a good deal of criticism in his day. Euripides was not concerned with the reaction of the public because he considered himself superior to the masses. He yielded to only two of his spectators. One of these spectators was himself as 'thinker,' as the man who was so puzzled by his predecessors that he decided to oppose his conception of tragedy to the traditional one.

It was the work of the second spectator, Socrates, which motivated Euripides in his battle to drive Dionysus out of tragedy. This new, un-Dionysian art was to be based on morality alone. For, Dionysus was a foreign influence and one not to be trusted. As demonstrated by the character of Pentheus in Euripides's ##Bacchae,## even the most intelligent adversary of Dionysus is unwittingly enchanted by him. Late in his life, Euripides attempted to recant, but it was too late. The spirit of Socrates had triumphed.

Once Dionysus had been struck from the tragic stage, only the 'dramatized epos,' a purely Apollonian form, remained. The actor in this new tragedy is unable to blend with his form, stuck forever in a calm state of contemplation. Because he plans his action before he takes it, the Euripidean actor can never be a pure artist. But, in his attempt to imitate passions, the Euripidean actor also alienates himself from the Apollonian dream-state. Thought replaces intuition, and passions replace ecstasies, so that both Apollo and Dionysus are shunned and art is denied.

These new tendencies embodied "esthetic Socratism," which stated that "To be beautiful everything must be intelligible," as the counterpart to the Socratic maxim: "Knowledge is virtue." In order to facilitate the intelligibility of the drama, Euripides introduced the prologue. The purpose of this element was to explain the history leading up to the drama, so that the audience would not be distracted from the "pathos" of the play by its efforts to figure out the relationships between characters. Both Aeschylus and Sophocles had designed their opening scenes such that all relevant information would be divulged, but Euripides went further. He rebelled against the old idea that the poet must be unconscious and bereft of reason in order to compose. Euripides, as the mask of Socrates, championed the cause of the rational poet.

Analysis

In this section, we finally understand why Nietzsche has placed so much emphasis on the idea that the 'cheerfulness' of Greek Tragedy was really just an appearance necessitated by the agony of Dionysian suffering. For, Nietzsche now describes how this cheerfulness was later condemned by the thinkers of the early Christian era as flippant and positively anti-Christian. As he maintains a deep respect for the seriousness of Greek Tragedy, Nietzsche pins the blame for this misunderstanding on the new language of drama that Euripides created. The new 'cheerfulness' evident in Euripidean dialogue is easily confused with the joyous appearances of Aeschelean and Sophoclean drama, so that they are all lumped together and disregarded by later thinkers. Nietzsche takes pains to distinguish between these two similar sounding discourses, giving credit to the older forms and lashing out at the newer ones.

Nietzsche then shows Euripides to be a kind of hypocrite, for he seems to champion the common man whereas in reality he despises him. Euripides, according to Nietzsche, is faithful only to himself and Socrates, and does his best to destroy those aspects of tragedy that made it a redeeming and beautiful art. Whereas he later tried to undo this terrible deed, the damage was done, and tragedy was destroyed forever. Or rather, it was destroyed until someone could successfully resurrect the spirit of Dionysus, as Nietzsche will attempt to do later in his essay.

Having spent the first half of his essay explaining that true art is created only through the union of Apollo and Dionysus, Nietzsche is fully equipped to condemn Euripides for the murder of tragedy. Whereas we might have considered Dionysus to be merely an element of tragedy, Nietzsche has shown this god to be crucial to its development and effectiveness. Thus, Euripides's campaign to strike Dionysus from tragedy altogether is necessarily a seditious and destructive move. However, before we are swept away by Nietzsche's impassioned argument, we must examine his claim that Euripides was, in fact, intent on doing away with Dionysus.

Nietzsche bases this argument on his interpretation of Euripides's Bacchae, whose purpose, he argues, is to convince us to reject Dionysus as an untrustworthy foreign god. A short plot summary is necessary to understand his argument.

The play tells the story of the coming of Dionysus to Thebes from the east. Dionysus, who arrives with bands of dancing woman playing music after him, claims to be a god born of Semele, a mortal woman, and Zeus. Semele was a princess of Thebes who was killed by a lightning strike years ago. Some claim that she died because she asked her lover Zeus to show her one of his lightning bolts. Others say that she fabricated her love affair with Zeus and was killed for her insolence. Dionysus demands that he is honored as a god, but young king Pentheus refuses to recognize his divinity and scorns him. Dionysus drives the women of Thebes mad so that they run to the mountains and commune with nature. Pentheus is furious and orders the women to be captured and brought back to Thebes. Dionysus decides to teach Pentheus a lesson and tricks him into dressing up in women's clothing so that he can observe the revels in the mountains. Pentheus's mothers and aunts, who are in the mountains as followers of Dionysus, catch Pentheus spying on them. Pentheus is at this point delusional, as are his relatives, who think that he is a lion and who tear him apart. His mother carries back his severed head to Thebes, and only on her arrival does she realize what she has done. Old king Cadmus and the soothsayer Tiresias conclude that the best wisdom is to bow to divinity.

From this short summary, one can see that Euripides wishes to convey to us the awesome power of Dionysus. However, whether this power should be considered more negatively than that of other gods (who are just as wrathful in Greek myth) is debatable. Moreover, Nietzsche makes a leap of logic when he claims that because Euripides portrays Dionysus as dangerous, he must intend to drive him out of tragedy all together. It is clear that Euripides represents a new style in Attic drama, and perhaps after him tragedy is changed forever. However, we must be cautious as to where we attribute causality in this progression of the forms of tragedy. As stated previously, Nietzsche has an agenda, which will become clearer in his later chapters.

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