Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

Notes to Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
(1872, 1886)

Chapter 11 

Glossary to Birth of Tragedy

Euripides, third & last of great Greek tragedians
whom Nietzsche associates with "the death of tragedy"

54 Greek tragedy met her death . . . tragically by her own hand

the others [? . . . comedy?] . . . other arts > fairer offspring

> great void

*Greek sailors hear, “the god Pan is dead” [Acc to Gk historian Plutarch (c. 46-120AD), during the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD), a sailor named Thamus passing the island of Paxi heard a divine voice say, "Thamus, are you there? When you reach [your port], take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead."


55 Euripides fought tragedy's death-struggle

It was in comedy that the degenerate figure of tragedy lived on, a monument to its miserable and violent death.

new, later genre: New Attic Comedy

New Attic Comedy:

In Athens (“Attic”), “Old Comedy” was political and social satire featuring low physical humor (sexual pranks and scatology), as in The Clouds (423 BC) and Lysistrata (411 BC) by Aristophanes (ca. 446–ca. 386 BC). Aristophanes, Lysistrata

Contemporary analogs of "Old Greek Comedy": Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live.

The New Comedy (lasting from death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC till 260 BC) is more like situation comedies (a.k.a. sitcoms; e.g., Two and a Half Men, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother)

New Comedy more realistic and domestic, less controversial. Nietzsche compares this change to the change in tragedy from the heroic and mythical Aeschylus and Sophocles to the realistic and rational Euripides.

Passionate affection for Euripides by poets of New Comedy

Hippolytos 3.2 Nurse: Well, worry and work are life,

there’s nothing we can do.

We weren’t put in this world to be at peace.    [Nurse as lower-type character w/ comic potential]

3.4 Show me life, and I'll show you things that hurt.

3.12a Affections should be easy / to rouse and to dissolve

3.74a nothing strange or inexplicable

in what you feel: it’s Aphrodite’s anger.

So you’re in love. So what? So many are.                [lower-class common sense?]

And because you’ve lost your heart you’ll lose your life?


55 Philemon (ca. 362-262 BC), Athenian poet and playwright of New Comedy.

55 Menander (342–291 BC), popular Athenian poet and playwright of New Comedy

Euripides brought the spectator on stage [contrast Birth of Tragedy pp. 36-38: ideal spectator, chorus as wall, x-precise reality but instead mythic reality of primitive ritual]

Pre-Euripidean Promethean dramatists: how little concerned with accurate mask of reality

55 pre-Euripidean Promethean dramatists: effectively, Aeschylus and Sophocles, following Nietzsche’s description of tragedy before Euripides as heroic, titanic, or mythical, until Euripides replaces myth & ritual with humanistic realism or rational naturalism.

Through Euripides, everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage.

Mirror [mimesis]: great & bold features > painful fidelity, blemished lines of nature

Odysseus [noble, epic hero] > Graeculus [cunning slave]

55 Graeculus . . . good-natured, cunning slave: Graeculus = “little Greek” as a stock character in New Comedy; a comparable modern figure in a sitcom might be an apparently insignificant character (a servant, child, or underling) who repeatedly turns events in his or her own favor, showing cleverness that surprises more prestigious characters. Compare trickster archetype.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) (based partly on farces by ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC); revived on Broadway in 1990s with part of Pseudolus (the cunning slave) played by Nathan Lane, then Whoopi Goldberg; and in another version by Jason Alexander of Seinfeld.

55 the Frogs of Aristophanes: a comedy (405BCE) by Aristophanes (446-386BCE) in which Dionysus, complaining of the decline of tragedy in Athens, goes to Hades to retrieve Euripides. Dionysus’s slave Xanthias, who goes along on the journey to the underworld, is an example of “the good-natured, cunning slave” cited above. In Hades, Euripides and Aeschylus have a debate over who was the greater tragedian, which Aeschylus eventually wins. The Frogs won first place in the Dionysian festival of Lenaia in 405 BCE.

[Aristotle's tragic hero as great, noble, elevated > common people, everyday life, therefore comedy]

Spectator now saw and heard his double on Euripidean stage and was overjoyed by his eloquence  [contrast absorption into chorus, participation in myth]

Euripides taught the people to speak for themselves . . .  to observe, to act and to think logically


56 transformation of everyday language (artfulness, sophistics) paved way for New Comedy

 bourgeois mediocrity [bourgeois = middle-class; conformist, conservative, and materialistic] . . . chance to speak

Aristophanes’s Euripides prided self on portraying mundane, commonplace, everyday life, which anyone was in a position to judge

primed audience for cleverness, shrewdness of new comedy

New Comedy like a game of chess, with perpetual triumphs of cunning and guile

Greek cheerfulness . . . of slave, no serious responsibilities, nothing great to strive for [i.e. lowness of comedy acc. to Aristotle; contrast nobility of tragic heroes]

Fifth estate, slaves, came into its own


57 [Greek “cheerfulness”] opposite of Christian attitude

Cheerfulness x 6c BC: tragedy, mysteries, Pythagoras & Heraclitus

x-senescent, slavish cheerfulness and pleasure in life

a completely different vision of the world:

  • art, Pythagoras, Heraclitus (6c BC)

  • slavish cheerfulness, pleasure in everyday life (later)

57 Pythagoras . . . Heraclitus

  • Pythagoras (ca. 570-495 BC), Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of religion called Pythagoreanism

  • Heraclitus (c. 535–475 BC), pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who described the universe as a process of constant change.

audience does not make a constant immutable standard

Audience a force whose strength lies merely in numbers, not necessary to accommodate

Euripides despised audiences

Look further for a deeper understanding of Euripides’s intentions

(Nietzsche develops his critique of "slave morality" in The Genealogy of Morals, 1887)


58 How did an excessive respect for his audience lead Euripides to treat his audience with disrespect? [compare modern-day market-testing of films for audience pleasure, reduces risk but also increases predictability]

Those two spectators as sole judges and masters competent to judge

One = Euripides himself as thinker: richness of critical talent cf. Lessing

Euripides had sat in the theatre

Found [in predecessors] something incommensurable, a certain deceptive precision [Apolline] and at the same time an enigmatic depth, an infinite background [Dionysiac]

Clearest character had a comet’s tail, unilluminated

58 Lessing: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), prominent German writer, dramatist, and critic during the Enlightenment


59 he did not understand his great predecessors

< belief that reason was true source of enjoyment and creativity [reason = Apollo? light?]

No one could tell him why the great masters were right


> 2nd spectator who did not understand tragedy and therefore chose to ignore it [i.e. "bourgeois mediocrity": everyday, rational, x-profound, x-mystery]

> battle with Aeschylus and Sophocles


Statue of Pan (left)
teaching Daphnis to play the Pan flute
(Roman copy of Greek original,
found at Pompeii)