Tolstoy renounced wealth, fame and privilege; he abjured violence in all its forms and was ready to suffer for doing so; but it is not easy to believe that he abjured the principle of coercion, or at least the desire to coerce others. [back]. The claim that Shakespeare was a profound thinker, setting forth a coherent philosophy in plays that were technically perfect and full of subtle psychological observation, is ridiculous. As to the manner in which Shakespeare's fame started, Tolstoy explains it as having been ‘got up’ by German professors towards the end of the eighteenth century. Burning, scalding, stench, consumption, etc., etc. Shakespeare's plays have continued to be admired over a long period because ‘they corresponded to the irreligious and unmoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time and ours’. And though Tolstoy could not foresee it when he wrote his essay on Shakespeare, even the ending of his life — the sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village — seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of Lear. All of these tragedies start out with the humanist assumption that life, although full of sorrow, is worth living, and that Man is a noble animal — a belief which Tolstoy in his old age did not share. He is also noticeably cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering unpopular opinions. Tolstoy's native tongue was not English, and one cannot blame him for being unmoved by Shakespeare's verse, nor even, perhaps, for refusing to believe that Shakespeare's skill with words was something out of the ordinary. This is the bare skeleton of the play, and even here Tolstoy wants to cut out most of what is essential. That ebb and flow by th' moon. According to Gervinus (or at any, rate Tolstoy's reading of Gervinus) ‘Shakespeare taught... that one may be too good’, while according to Brandes: ‘Shakespeare's fundamental principle... is that the end justifies the means.’ Tolstoy adds on his own account that Shakespeare was a jingo patriot of the worst type, but apart from this he considers that Gervinus and Brandes have given a true and adequate description of Shakespeare's view of life. A troop of horse with felt; I'll put't in proof; Criticism becomes more and more openly partisan, and even the pretence of detachment becomes very difficult. The business of science, he says, is not to discover what happens but to teach men how they ought to live. If we are to believe what he says in his pamphlet, Tolstoy has never been able to see any merit in Shakespeare, and was always astonished to find that his fellow-writers, Turgenev, Fet and others thought differently. Certainly his dislike of Shakespeare is real enough, but the reasons for it may be different, or partly different, from what he avows; and therein lies the interest of his pamphlet. It follows that ‘the false glorification of Shakespeare’ is an important evil which Tolstoy feels it his duty to combat. Now and again, when he happens to have got hold of a foolproof plot — Macbcth, for instance — his characters are reasonably consistent, but in many cases they are forced into actions which are completely incredible by any ordinary standard. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’. The subject of Lear is renunciation, and it is only by being wilfully blind that one can fail to understand what Shakespeare is saying. What do you see? The first of them expresses the ordinary, belly-to-earth selfishness from which he was genuinely trying to escape. That is the story, and, allowing for some clumsiness in the telling, it is a very good story. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison’, but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Evidently a poet is more than a thinker and a teacher, though he has to be that as well. But finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all makes. : 2019-12-29 / 0.15 KiB] ‘I want to examine one of the greatest pieces of moral, non-aesthetic criticism — anti-aesthetic criticism, one might say — that have ever been written: Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare. In the sonnets he never even refers to the plays as part of his achievement, though he does make what seems to be a half-ashamed allusion to his career as an actor. Vice is punished, but virtue is not rewarded. The parables — this is where Tolstoy differs from the average vulgar puritan — must themselves be works of art, but pleasure and curiosity must be excluded from them. ____ Goethe pronounced Shakespeare a great poet, whereupon all the other critics flocked after him like a troop of parrots, and the general infatuation has lasted ever since. Science, also, must be divorced from curiosity. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Act III, Scene 2 (in which Lear, Kent and the Fool are together in the storm) is summarized thus: Lear walks about the heath and says word which are meant to express his despair: he desires that the winds should blow so hard that they (the winds) should crack their cheeks and that the rain should fiood everything, that lightning should singe his white bead, and the thunder flatten the world and destroy all germs ‘that make ungrateful man’! But is it not also curiously similar to the history of Tolstoy himself? He is doing that, but his quarrel with Shakespeare goes further. — GB, London. Lear is a play in which this tendency is particularly well marked. He himself is aware of this, and greatly puzzled by it. This is not solely because he is ‘weak’, ‘sinful’ and anxious for a ‘good time’. In a celebrated essay, published in 1947,' Orwell defended Shakespeare's King Lear against the Russian's intemperate attack and, moreover, Of course, one cannot assume that Tolstoy was aware of this resemblance, or would have admitted it if it had been pointed out to him. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. On the contrary, it is a prolonged exercise in misrepresentation. We do not know a great deal about Shakespeare's religious beliefs, and from the evidence of his writings it would be difficult to prove that he had any. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated. It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God: at any rate, it is not compatible with disbelief in human dignity and with the kind of ‘moral demand’ which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph. Clearly a lyric like ‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine's Day’ could not be satisfactorily translated, but in Shakespeare's major work there is something describable as poetry that can be separated from the words. Now, a good deal of this could be contradicted. One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. Last week I pointed out that art and propaganda are never quite separable, and that what are supposed to be purely aes-thetic judgements are always corrupted to some extent by moral or political or religious loyalties. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was not happy. ‘Shakespeare might have been whatever you like,’ Tolstoy concludes, ‘but he was not an artist.’ Moreover, his opinions are not original or interesting, and his tendency is ‘of the lowest and most immoral’. Lear can be imagined as a puppet show, a mime, a ballet, a series of pictures. Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well. But his attitude towards the play must have been influenced by its theme. Many of his plays have not even the sort of credibility that belongs to a fairy story. © 1999-2020 O. Dag – ¡C. A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.