Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents a contrary protagonist of the same name: Hamlet must avenge the murder of his father and retake the crown for his family to restore honor, yet he accomplishes none of these. At the end of the play, the main action that has occurred is the killing of his lover’s father, Polonius, his own death, and perhaps even most lamentable is the death of his lover herself, Ophelia. Ostensibly, this central conflict is the basis of the play. This assessment, however, is a mischaracterization if that is all that one draws from the work: a more dominant and appropriate theme, as Nietzsche argues, is Hamlet’s realization of the ultimate impossibility of his goal, and the ultimate pointlessness of life. Mentioned by Nietzsche, a strong indication of this account is Ophelia’s experience: shorn between incompatible loyalties, driven to insanity, and upon her death, branded as “unChristian,” she initially demonstrates the ultimately nihilistic understanding of Hamlet. Hamlet’s graveside conversation with Horatio can lead the reader to no other conclusion: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?” (5.1). In these few lines, Shakespeare portrays a timeless, complete, and eloquent clash of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Hamlet, as a reasonable being (or, rather, a being of reason) accurately produces the Socratic assessment that he never again will experience Yorick’s jest and gibes; instead, he must rely only upon his memory. This synthesis of disconsolate realization and the clinging impulse of emotion is a microcosm of the play’s “tragedy.” Hamlet is utterly and accurately convinced of the impossibility of his task – that his action will change nothing. As Nietzsche stated, “In this
sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right again a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion—that is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about Johna Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, because of an excess of possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No!—the true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man” (39). Thus this is the relevance of Hamlet to The Birth of Tragedy. To Nietzsche, this work demonstrates the necessity of Dionysian reprieve from the terrible reality of Apollonian reason.