Shakespeare Contra Nietzsche by Andrew Lanham

In the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, one of his most influential afterlives has been in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought he was a reincarnation of the Bard.

William Shakespeare via WikimediaCommons
William Shakespeare via Wikimedia Commons

In 1864, in his last year of high school at Pforta, a boarding school in a converted twelfth-century monastery in Saxony, a nineteen-year-old Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche played the part of Hotspur in a class reading of Henry IV Part 1 to celebrate William Shakespeare’s 300th birthday. Prone to rage, rebellion, and hyperbolic rhetoric, Hotspur was the perfect character for a future polemicist like Nietzsche. Nietzsche seems to have embraced his dramatic role. “In the afternoon we read Henry IV in front of a large audience,” he wrote to a friend. “I read Henry Percy with a great deal of excitement and anger.”

Perhaps too much anger. Nietzsche’s classmate Paul Deussen drolly reported that Nietzsche played Hotspur “not without false pathos.” There’s a reason Nietzsche became a writer, not an actor.

Or did he? Nietzsche’s writing, as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has argued, might best be seen as a kind of stage on which he performs a series of versions of himself. In his iconoclastic texts, filled with sound and fury, Nietzsche constructs a multitude of philosophical personae for himself, characters whose pathos is often excessive, frequently violent, but never false in the fashion his classmate criticized him for when he hammed it up as Hotspur.

Friedrich Nietzsche (circa 1875) via Wikimedia Commons
Friedrich Nietzsche (circa 1875) via Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche feared, though, sometimes, that he was merely hamming it up in his writing. In his autobiography Ecce Homo, composed in the period just before he went insane, Nietzsche wonders if he has been a “buffoon” for his whole career, just a frivolous, drunken “satyr.” But Nietzsche also saw satyrs as the most serious creatures of all, since they are, after all, the companions of Dionysus, the Greek god of tragedy. Nietzsche likewise calls Shakespeare the most “heart-rending reading” there is, because Shakespeare must “have suffered” incomparably “to have such a need of being a buffoon!” Nietzsche’s buffoonery—at least according to the buffoonish Nietzsche himself—stems from a deep insight into human suffering, a tragic worldview he believed he shared with the Olympian figures of Shakespeare and Dionysus.

The iconoclast and the clown are thus equally characters Nietzsche enacts in order to create himself as a philosopher. Playing a hyperbolic Hotspur in high school may have foreshadowed Nietzsche’s excessively polemical personae, but Nietzsche’s literary performances of himself are filled with “false pathos” only if we expect some one, true Nietzsche to lie behind them. And the whole project of Nietzsche’s philosophy was to argue that no such authentic self can exist. Our personalities are only ever impersonations.

Nietzsche saw such theatricality as a way to hide in plain sight, a strategy to conceal himself, paradoxically, by parading loudly onstage. “Every profound spirit needs a mask,” Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil. “A mask is constantly growing up around every profound spirit, thanks to the consistently false […] interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he displays.” The deep thinker creates masks for himself in his writing (for Nietzsche it is always and essentially a he), and his readers multiply those masks when they misread who he is and what he believes. Nietzsche might as well be describing Hamlet’s feigned madness.

This presents a problem for Nietzsche’s readers. Nietzsche changes masks frequently, both within individual books and over the course of his philosophical career. He repeatedly contradicts his own arguments, the most famous example of which is his simultaneous attacks on anti-Semitism and on Jewish culture alike. These shifting points of view make it almost impossible to give a coherent account of Nietzsche’s philosophy. What connects his seemingly contradictory statements? When is he truly overturning his own previous beliefs? What is just a goad to annoy his enemies? What does he really think is true?

Nietzsche learned this evasiveness at least in part from Shakespeare. In Henry IV Part 1, Hotspur’s rival, Prince Hal, plays the role of a wayward, drunken youth in order to lull his enemies into complacency. He cavorts in an Eastcheap tavern with fat Jack Falstaff, a Greek satyr or Silenus if ever there was one. When Hal’s father, King Henry IV, takes him to task for his time slumming it in the tavern, though, Hal promises to “be more myself,” a fierce warrior and a Machiavellian politician. But Hal is so convincing as a bawdy brawler in the tavern—indeed, it took Shakespeare an entire sequel, Henry IV Part 2, to complete Hal’s journey of redemption from drunkard to the magisterial King Henry V—that neither role seems truer than the other. So too with Nietzsche’s many roles in his writing.

One role, however, remains remarkably consistent across Nietzsche’s career. Six years after he played Hotspur to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, Nietzsche began writing his first book, and he set out to shape it on Shakespearean lines. He conceived of his writing as a Shakespearean performance for the rest of his life.

Until the very day of his mental breakdown in Turin in 1889, in fact, Nietzsche saw himself as playing not only Shakespeare’s characters, but Shakespeare himself. Central Nietzschean concepts like perspectivism and the genealogy of morals emerged from this attempt to be Shakespeare. In turn, a major vein of moral relativism in modern literature and philosophy—a relativism that continues to shape contemporary secular culture—stems from Nietzsche’s reading of Shakespeare and the literary techniques he developed to mask himself as the Bard.


Shakespeare intrigued Nietzsche from an early age. In 1860, when he was sixteen, Nietzsche asked for a collected works of Shakespeare for Christmas. “I simply must now have an edition of Shakespeare,” he wrote home to his mother from school at Pforta, arguing that it was critical for his education in a German schooling system which at that time heavily emphasized Shakespeare in its curriculum. Nietzsche’s mother must not have believed him: he didn’t get his collected Shakespeare until Christmas of 1861.

The edition of Shakespeare Nietzsche received for Christmas would have been the translations by the German Romantic poet and critic August Wilhelm Schlegel. Schlegel’s goal in his translations was to co-opt Shakespeare into German culture. He once described Shakespeare as “ganz unser,” entirely ours.

Schlegel was not alone in this nationalist perspective. The Sturm und Drang movement, led by Goethe, and the Jena Romantics, including Schlegel, his brother Friedrich, and the philosophers Friedrich Schelling and Gottlieb Fichte took Shakespeare, oddly, as their national poet. Fichte, in particular, advocated German nationalism in response to Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. “Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself,” Fichte wrote on behalf of pan-Germanism. Schlegel’s translations enfolded Shakespeare within this “inseparable whole.”

Schlegel canonized Shakespeare as a German writer, but Nietzsche also later bought a thirteen-volume English-language edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, as well as John Thompson’s Illustrations of Shakespeare. He collected a number of volumes of Shakespeare criticism, too, by Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nietzsche railed against English writers like Darwin and Dickens, but he assimilated Shakespeare, in both German and English, almost wholesale.

In school, Nietzsche paired his amateur Shakespearean acting with play-going, literary criticism, and poetry. He attended German performances of Shakespeare, and he wrote papers on Julius Caesar, notes on Macbeth, and eight pages of excerpts from the plays. In 1864, in conjunction with his class’s performance of Henry IV Part 1, Nietzsche wrote a poem in ten ottava rima stanzas that heretically prophesied the resurrection of Shakespeare, Christ-like, to redeem the modern world.

Nietzsche left Pforta for university in the fall of 1864, and during his university years, first at Bonn and then at Leipzig, his interest in Shakespeare seems to have relaxed. Nietzsche’s father had been a Lutheran minister, and Nietzsche initially went to university to study theology. But he discovered an increasingly anti-Christian set of writers and was caught up in the excitement of their transgressions. Richard Strauss’s Life of Jesus, in particular, a scandalous biography of Christ that claimed Jesus should be studied by historians, not theologians, spurred Nietzsche’s budding atheism. And in 1868, in a watershed moment, Nietzsche met Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima. The former would become, for a time, Nietzsche’s idol. The latter would remain a correspondent and a love interest until Nietzsche was institutionalized in the 1890s. More on that romance later.

After college, Nietzsche joined the Prussian artillery, but he severely injured himself vaulting into his horse’s saddle. (It’s tempting to imagine Nietzsche imagining himself as a dashing young Hotspur high on his stallion.) He returned to his studies, focusing on philology, and was quite remarkably made a professor at Basel in 1869, without having completed his doctorate, when he was not yet twenty-five years old. Under the pressure of this precocious appointment, Nietzsche began writing his first book, which he would publish in 1872 as The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. It was during this period that his thinking returned to its Shakespearean wellsprings.


The Birth of Tragedy claims that Western culture reached a high point in Ancient Athens, in the tragic drama of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Their plays, Nietzsche argues, perfectly blend the revelry of Dionysus, god of the vine, with the rationality of Apollo, god of the sun and clear sight. In Athenian tragedy, Nietzsche believed, the pan-cosmic energy of Dionysian intoxication mixes with the sublime beauty of Apollonian imagery to allow spectators to stare safely into the tragic abyss of human suffering. It’s all rather sturm und drang.

Nietzsche argues, however, that the pure rationalism of Socrates’ philosophy and the subsequent thinkers whom it inspired suppressed the Greeks’ Dionysian insight into suffering. Socratic philosophy, with its emphasis on the transcendent oneness of the Good, ultimately destroyed tragic drama and paved the way for Christian morality.

But Nietzsche also prophesies tragedy’s triumphant return.

Nietzsche hails Wagner’s operas as the rebirth of tragic insight. He argues that Wagner’s operatic style once more perfectly blends the Dionysian intoxication of music with the Apollonian imagery of the drama onstage. Like his poem from 1864 that envisioned Shakespeare’s Christ-like resurrection, Nietzsche sees Wagner’s triumph as a return not only to the Ancient Greek Sophocles but to the Renaissance English Shakespeare.

Shakespeare thus lurks behind the scenes throughout The Birth of Tragedy, an Englishman dressed up as a Greek. In the notebooks in which he planned The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes Shakespeare as “the poet of tragic knowledge” and “the fulfillment of Sophocles.” “The task of our time,” Nietzsche writes, “is to find the culture for our music,” and he claims that so far only Shakespeare has truly performed that task.

Nietzsche’s own goal as a writer was to blend the rationality of Socratic philosophy with the Dionysian music of Sophocles and Wagner. He wanted thereby to create a new tragic form of philosophy. Shakespeare showed him the way. Shakespeare, Nietzsche says, is “the Socrates who makes music,” the tragic philosopher Nietzsche himself wanted someday to be. In Nietzsche’s view of Western cultural history, Shakespeare, already somehow weirdly Germanized himself, forms the bridge between the Greeks and Wagner’s Germany, and he stands as a signpost to the Nietzschean philosophy to come.

But Nietzsche wasn’t able to make this idea work. For one thing, Shakespeare wrote comparatively little music. And the formal properties of Shakespearean tragedy do not in any obvious way anticipate the operatic synthesis of drama and music that Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork that merges all forms of art. Despite the emphasis on Shakespeare in Nietzsche’s notebooks in 1870 and 1871, then, Shakespeare disappears almost entirely from the published form of The Birth of Tragedy in 1872.

Except for one key passage: the moment when Nietzsche tries to explain what Dionysian insight really means. There, Shakespeare becomes the avatar of Dionysian tragedy, the guardian and bearer of an ancient knowledge of suffering. In that role, Shakespeare sits at the center of the rest of Nietzsche’s work, the minotaur in the heart of the labyrinth.


Philosophers and literary critics alike, from Walter Kaufmann to Jacques Derrida to Harold Bloom, routinely treat Shakespeare and Nietzsche as ciphers for one another, as if they were a strange form of conjoined twins, their tragic worldviews divided only by the vicissitudes of time. The Nietzsche expert Duncan Large has assembled a provocative archive of Nietzsche’s meditations on the Bard, arguing that Nietzsche consistently uses Shakespeare as a mask for himself. But Kaufmann and Bloom fail to probe Nietzsche’s careful investigations of Shakespeare, and for Large, Shakespeare is more or less interchangeable with Nietzsche’s other masks: Socrates, Wagner, or Christ.

In fact, though, Nietzsche sees Shakespeare not just as one more mask among many others he wears, but as the master mask that defines the very activity of wearing masks. Shakespeare, on Nietzsche’s reading, is the exemplary wearer of masks. So as Nietzsche plays multifarious roles in his relativist philosophy, he conceives of himself as Shakespeare—and also as Hamlet, Brutus, Caesar, and maybe Ophelia—in order to explain, justify, navigate, and survive relativism itself.

Shakespearean theatricality underlies two of Nietzsche’s most important concepts, perspectivism and the genealogy of morals. Perspectivism is the idea that all truth is only one particular perspective on events, a limited, accidental way of seeing the world. The genealogy of morals follows from this idea. If each truth is only a particular perspective, then all moral beliefs are only limited points of view. They are tied to specific places and times, making them culturally relative. Consequently, morality has a history. By tracing what Nietzsche calls the genealogy of our moral beliefs, the family tree by which we inherit our ideas, we can uncover how they evolved. We can write the history of why we believe the things we do, as Strauss wrote the heretical history of Christ.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the genealogy of morals have been tremendously influential for writers from James Joyce and Richard Wright to Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. As Nietzsche’s avatar of Dionysian tragedy, Shakespeare stands at the root of this intellectual family tree. Both the modernist ideal of the heroically self-fashioning artist and the postmodernist belief that the world is a text we write and interpret derive their force to a substantial extent from Nietzsche’s reading of Shakespeare. The now-commonplace assumption that our moral beliefs and social norms are culturally contingent flows, in many ways, from Nietzsche’s imagined collaboration with Shakespeare across the centuries.


Nietzsche’s reading of Shakespeare hinges on what it means to believe. Nietzsche accepts the truth of perspectivism, that there is no universal truth. As Hamlet puts it, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The problem then emerges: how does one act without being paralyzed by skepticism? Shakespeare points the way.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s analysis of Greek drama steadily crescendos to a climactic revelation of what the Dionysian insight into reality really is. It’s the high point of the book. At that moment, though, Nietzsche turns from a close reading of Sophocles to Hamlet. “Dionysian man is similar to Hamlet,” Nietzsche writes. “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 […] 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 Dionysian man.”

The “terrible truth” is that there is no truth, no divine knowledge or redemption to make the world right again. This threatens to paralyze both Hamlet the prince and Nietzsche the philosopher. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche asks, “Is Hamlet understood? It is not doubt, but certainty that drives one insane”—the maddening certainty that there is no certainty. Nietzsche’s philosophical problem, from the beginning to the end of his career, is how an entire culture can avoid suicidal nihilism if it accepts moral relativism; if it embraces secularism; if it is genealogically aware of the radical contingency of its own most sacred beliefs; if God, in short, is dead.

But Hamlet, importantly, acts at the end of his eponymous play. And Nietzsche manages to write. Elsewhere in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche describes his essays as “warlike,” and he claims that “they prove that I was no Jack the Dreamer, that I take pleasure in fencing.” Nietzsche sees himself as the Hamlet of Act V, when the Prince takes up his sword to seek violent revenge. In particular, Nietzsche sees his attack on Richard Wagner in 1876 as a willingness to make literary war.

This form of action is doubly theatrical. First, Nietzsche playacts himself by pretending to be Hamlet. Second, he sees Hamlet himself as playacting in order to act at all (think of Hamlet watching the play-within-a-play in Hamlet). Action requires a “veil of illusion,” a willing suspension of skeptical disbelief. We have to act as if we know. Nietzsche attributes such a theatrical ability to act to Hamlet, but also to Shakespeare’s Richard III, and above all to Caesar and Brutus—figures who seem sometimes, for Nietzsche, to be the real historical persons and sometimes their Shakespearean incarnations.

To know, for Nietzsche, means to believe theatrically, to embrace like a method actor  what can only ever be partial, contingent, perspectival truths. As the Chorus has it at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Henry V, “let us, ciphers to this great account, / On your imaginary forces work […] For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” Or as Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “We princes are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world.” The only way to survive in a perspectivist world is to turn history, truth, action, and identity itself into theater.


Nietzsche’s intellectual life was a labyrinth, not a line, twisting, turning, and doubling back on itself, especially in his repeated re-evaluations of Socrates and Christ. Consistent with these reversals, in the middle of his career he became bored with Shakespeare.

Like Schlegel, Nietzsche had identified Shakespeare as fundamentally Germanic, and he further linked Shakespeare with Wagner. So when Nietzsche fell out with Wagner in the late 1870s and became disillusioned with German nationalism in the wake of the Prussian-dominated German unification in 1871, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with Shakespeare. He gave up his German citizenship, remaining officially stateless for the rest of his life, and he snobbishly called Shakespeare barbaric and a plebeian, implicitly mocking the German masses with whom he now identified the Bard. But Nietzsche later revalued this very populism as a positive attribute: Shakespeare was great enough to succeed despite the rabble in his crowds.

These reversals about Shakespeare are superficial, though.

Nietzsche did seriously revise himself over the course of his career. In his 1886 preface to The Birth of Tragedy, entitled “An Attempt at Self-Criticism,” he claims to have completely inverted his own point of view in the fourteen years since he first published the book. But Nietzsche’s essential claim about the contingency of truth and the theatricality of action remains the same from The Birth of Tragedy through the middle of his career to his final book Ecce Homo and the posthumously published The Will to Power. And Shakespeare remains the figurative icon of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, from Hamlet’s too-knowing inaction in The Birth of Tragedy to Shakespeare’s barbaric over-theatricality in the middle of Nietzsche’s career and back to Hamlet’s too-knowing inaction in Ecce Homo.

Shakespeare is both the minotaur and the Ariadne of Nietzsche’s labyrinthine thought, both the center that holds it all together and the tool for navigating its twists and turns.

If Nietzsche thought of himself as playing Shakespeare in order to be able to play other characters, his theatricality reached its apotheosis in Nietzsche’s madness. On January 3, 1889, the day of his mental collapse in Turin, Nietzsche wrote a note to Cosima Wagner declaring, “It is a prejudice that I am a man. But I have often lived among men already and I know everything they can experience, from the lowest to the highest. Among Indians I was Buddha, in Greece I was Dionysus,–Alexander and Caesar are my incarnations, as is the Shakespeare poet, Lord Bacon.” Nietzsche had come to believe that only an aristocrat like Bacon could be an übermensch like Shakespeare, capable of taming his many drives and channeling them into dramatic characters. This fits neatly into Nietzsche’s theory anyway: Bacon plays Shakespeare plays Hamlet, and Nietzsche plays them all in order to play himself.

Nietzsche’s playacting continued once he was institutionalized. Placed in an asylum shortly after his breakdown, he told the doctors that Cosima Wagner was his wife. Bacon-Shakespeare-Nietzsche took his place, fantastically, in the marital bed of the deposed Richard Wagner. If only Sigmund Freud had been there to watch.

The Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber has importantly read Richard III through Nietzsche’s essay The Use and Abuse of History for Life, in which Nietzsche argues that history is a process of dramatization and that such literariness endangers action. We can only use history for life—and liveliness, over and against nihilism, is Nietzsche’s central cause—if we write it in a way that benefits us. But when we become aware of our own theatricality, as we have already seen, when we become attuned to the contingency of historical interpretation, we come in danger of paralysis. For Garber, this is the lesson of Richard III’s simultaneous, ambiguous seduction and repulsion for play-goers.

To overcome such paralysis, ambiguity, and repulsion, though, is already, for Nietzsche, to have embraced an even deeper degree of theatricality, the “veil of illusion” that enables action, especially the illusion of being Shakespeare himself. When we act in time, as agents or analysts of the accidents of history, for Nietzsche, we are already Shakespeareans—maybe even Shakespeare’s ghosts.

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