Though William Shakespeare is beloved by many, appreciation for his work is not universal, and there are several equally famous writers who have resisted his reign as the greatest dramatist of all time. After spending three short years as a theater critic, George Bernard Shaw felt compelled to open our eyes to the “emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy.” As a scholar of English literature, J.R.R. Tolkien was known and feared for his disdain of the bard, and Voltaire couldn’t talk about him without his blood starting to boil. However, no giant of literature despised Shakespeare quite as much as Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy vs. Shakespeare
Born in an aristocratic family, the author of War and Peace was exposed to Hamlet and Macbeth from an early age, and he grew annoyed when he turned out to be the only one among his friends and family members who did not see them as true masterpieces. Shakespeare’s jokes struck him as “mirthless.” His puns, “unamusing.” The only character that actually owned their pompous dialogue was the drunken Falstaff.
When Tolstoy asked Ivan Turgenev and Afanasy Fet — two writers whom he admired and respected — to tell him just what made the bard so great, he found that they were only able to respond in vague terms, without the precision of language or the profound level of analysis they had frequently demonstrated in their fictions. Tolstoy figured he might come to appreciate Shakespeare in old age, but when — upon his nth re-read at age 75 — he still found himself untouched, he decided to work his criticisms out on paper.
Though not without its flaws and biases, the 1906 essay that resulted from this endeavor is an emphatic attack on Shakespeare’s legacy and the institutions that helped build it. Firstly, Tolstoy questioned the bard’s ability as a playwright. His characters were placed in unbelievable circumstances like biblical killing sprees and sitcom-esque identity swaps, making it difficult for audiences to relate to them. They also often acted out of character, following not the mandates of their personality but the schedule of the plot.
Common for Russian writers of the time, Tolstoy tried to give every character in his fiction a distinct voice, one that varied depending on their age, gender, or class. Princesses spoke delicately and had rich vocabularies, while drunken peasants slurred and mumbled. With Shakespeare, who always wrote in the same poetic style, “the words of one of the personages might be placed in the mouth of another, and by the character of the speech it would be impossible to distinguish who is talking.”
The world’s faith in Shakespeare
Tolstoy became interested in Shakespeare not because he wanted to understand his own dislike of the man, but because he was surprised by and suspicious of the readiness with which other people rushed to his aid. “When I endeavored to get from Shakespeare’s worshippers an explanation of his greatness,” Tolstoy wrote, “I met in them exactly the same attitude which I have met, and which is usually met, in the defenders of any dogmas accepted not through reason but through faith.”
In the second half of the essay, Tolstoy speculates about how this religion around Shakespeare may have come about. Tracing the history of scholarly writing on his plays back to the late 16th century, he concluded that the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had played a key role in elevating the work of Shakespeare from the bawdy kind of lower-class entertainment it was seen as during the bard’s own time, to the work of sensitive and inexhaustive literary genius we know today.
Disillusioned by the French dramas that had once inspired them, German intellectuals settled on Shakespeare, whose emphasis on emotions over thoughts and ideas made him a suitable bedrock upon which to build their new school of romantic storytelling. It was a school that Tolstoy, who believed art should not just be aesthetically pleasing but serve a social purpose, did not think highly of. In fact, he accuses them of having “invented aesthetic theories” in an attempt to turn their opinions into facts.
While Tolstoy’s thinking was evidently shaped by his own biases and occasionally borders on the conspiratorial, it is true that the academic world has tended to hop from one trend onto another and that these transitions were not always made in the pursuit of knowledge and knowledge alone. Today, for example, one might argue Shakespeare’s legacy endures not because of the inherent quality of his work but because the careers of so many academics, actors, and theater companies have come to depend on it.
George Orwell’s response to Tolstoy
Shakespeare, having died a few centuries before Tolstoy’s birth, was unable to respond to the latter’s accusations. Fortunately, his compatriot — the British writer George Orwell — wrote Tolstoy a reply in the bard’s defense, one that offers an equally compelling argument for why we should read Shakespeare. Before he does so, though, Orwell exposes the holes in Tolstoy’s reasoning, starting with the notion that deciding whether an artist was good or bad is simply impossible.
It is an argument that we have heard many times over, but one worth hearing again if only for its especially relevant conclusion. Just as Tolstoy’s own ideas about art were different if not outright opposed to those of the German romantics he denounced, so too were the ideas of the writers that followed in his footsteps. “Ultimately,” Orwell wrote in his essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool“ (1947), “there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.”
Orwell did not think it fair of Tolstoy to chastise his compatriots for their inability to assess Shakespeare’s genius when his own conceptions of literature — that it had to be “sincere” and try to do something “important for mankind” — were just as ambiguous. Orwell also takes issue with the summaries that Tolstoy gives of Shakespeare’s plays, paraphrasing the heartfelt speech King Lear makes after Cordelia dies as: “Again begin Lear’s awful ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at unsuccessful jokes.”
Most egregiously, thought Orwell, was that Tolstoy judged Shakespeare by the principles of a prose writer instead of what he was: a poet. Considering that most people appreciate Shakespeare not for his story structures or characterizations but his sheer use of language — the powerful speeches from Julius Caesar, the clever wordplay in Gentlemen of Verona, and the striking metaphors exchanged between the lovers Romeo and Juliet – this is quite the oversight on Tolstoy’s part.
The grumpy grandpa and the happy child
At the end of the day, Orwell likes to imagine Shakespeare as a little kid happily playing about and Tolstoy as a grumpy old man sitting in the corner of the room yelling, “Why do you keep jumping up and down like that? Why can’t you sit still like I do?” This may sound silly, but those who studied Tolstoy’s life — and are familiar with his controlling impulse and serious nature — will find themselves thinking of other critics who have made similar statements.
While all of Shakespeare’s characters may talk in that familiar, flowery, Shakespearean manner, each of his plays still feels unique and completely distinct from the one that came before it. In his essay, The Fox and the Hedgehog, the German-born, British philosopher Isaiah Berlin favorably compared the childlike curiosity with which Shakespeare hopped from one genre to another with the single-minded and unchanging way in which Tolstoy’s fiction explored the world.
In a similar vein, the Bolshevik playwright Anatoly Lunacharsky once called Shakespeare “polyphonic to the extreme,” referencing a term invented by his contemporary Mikhail Bakhtin. Put simply, Lunacharsky was amazed by Shakespeare’s ability to create characters that seemed to take on lives of their own, existing independently from their creator. This was in stark contrast to Tolstoy, who treated every character as an extension or reflection of himself and used them as mouthpieces for his own beliefs.
The conflict between Leo Tolstoy and William Shakespeare was about more than taste; it was a clash between two different ways of looking at life and art. Orwell brought this discussion into focus. Perhaps his greatest contribution to it, though, was pointing out the similarities between Tolstoy and the Shakespearean creation he hated most: King Lear. Both old men renounced their titles, estates, and family members thinking it would make them happy. Instead, they ended up roaming the countryside like madmen.