Slings and arrows
IT sometimes seems as though Shakespeare is treated with almost universal reverence and scholarly adulation, but that is not entirely true. There are dissenters, and it may come as a surprise to learn that Tolstoy is among them. In 1906, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium.”
A lover of poetry, Tolstoy wondered why he had disliked Shakespeare, who is generally praised for his verse. To be sure that he had not misread the plays and poetry, over the course of 50 years Tolstoy read Shakespeare’s work in different translations and languages, including Russian, German, and English. At the age of seventy-five, Tolstoy again reread “the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays.” At this time, he felt convinced that his first impressions had been accurate and that Shakespeare was overrated. Tolstoy’s contemporaries tried to talk him out of his conviction, but the grand old man of Russian literature would not be swayed.
At the time, King Lear was widely believed to be Shakespeare’s finest play. In an essay, Tolstoy deconstructed this play, scene by scene. In the play’s first scene, King Lear, about to distribute his assets, asks his daughters how much they love him. While the two oldest give exaggerated accounts of their love and are suitably rewarded, Cordelia says that when she marries, her love will belong not only to her father, but also to her husband. Lear famously has a fit of rage: He curses Cordelia and tells her that from that moment on, he will love her as little as the man who devours his children. Tolstoy wrote: “Not to mention the pompous, characterless language of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare’s Kings speak, the reader, or spectator, can not conceive that a King, however old and stupid he may be, could believe the words of the vicious daughters, with whom he had passed his whole life, and not believe his favorite daughter, but curse and banish her; and therefore the spectator, or reader, can not share the feelings of the persons participating in this unnatural scene.”
But if Shakespeare is unconvincing, how to explain his matchless fame? Tolstoy suspected that Goethe’s remarks about Shakespeare being a good poet, which came at an opportune moment when there was no worthy German drama and French literature was declining, led scholars to fawn over him. The public was taken in, and this vicious cycle fed itself. Essentially, Tolstoy thought that Shakespeare had undeservingly gone viral.
Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw was also vocal in shaping the case against Shakespeare. Shaw hadn’t read Tolstoy’s essay but knew of his views. The recipient of a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award, Shaw complained that Shakespeare was deficient as a thinker. He wrote: “I place Shakespeare with Dickens, Scott, Dumas père, etc., in the second order, because, tho they are enormously entertaining, their morality is readymade; and I point out that the one play, Hamlet, in which Shakespeare made an attempt to give as a hero one who was dissatisfied with the ready-made morality, is the one which has given the highest impression of his genius, altho Hamlet’s revolt is unskillfully and inconclusively suggested and not worked out with any philosophic competence.”
Perhaps aware of his reputation as one who was not afraid to take a contrary position, Shaw used the assessment of others to bolster his case. “Among nineteenthcentury poets Byron and William Morris saw clearly that Shakespeare was enormously overrated intellectually,” he writes. “Finally, I, for one, shall value Tolstoy’s criticism all the more because it is criticism of a foreigner who can not possibly be enchanted by the mere word-music which makes Shakespeare so irresistible in England.”
Interestingly, Shaw foresaw that Tolstoy’s criticism would be seen as his attempt to discredit Shakespeare and to assert that Tolstoy’s own work was superior. This is the tack that George Orwell eventually took when he accused Tolstoy of “malice” in criticizing Shakespeare. In a 1947 essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” Orwell conducted his own point-by-point analysis of Tolstoy’s arguments and concluded that the quarrel between the two writers is “the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitude towards life.” Orwell agreed that Lear could have been a better play; he also pointed out the irony that Tolstoy’s flight from his home as an old man had some phantom of Lear in it.
Poetry and narrative are subjective arts: What is sweet to one ear can grate on another’s. What’s fair to assess is whether human psychology is expressed truthfully, and sometimes dialogue can be helpful in assessing this. Tolstoy does bring his views as a moralist into play when he, for instance, criticizes Gloucester for speaking “coarsely” in the beginning of King Lear. Tolstoy, the master dramatist, is harder to dismiss, however, when he says that Lear’s dialogue is simply not believable. For those who have had their doubts about Shakespeare, Tolstoy’s words may be sweet relief. For those who will steadfastly revere Shakespeare, the same words may be cause to further understand and defend his work. At the least, Tolstoy’s questioning is an invitation to cut through the hype and judge for ourselves how Shakespeare resonates with us, if he speaks to the truths of our lives, and if his artistry trumps his supposed weaknesses as a thinker.
George Bernard Shaw