Slings and ar­rows

Shake­speare’s de­trac­tors

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Priyanka Ku­mar

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

Ge­orge Or­well

Leo Tol­stoy

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