“I Felt an Irresistible Repulsion and Tedium” — Tolstoy Disses Shakespeare

Books, Literature, Writers

From the beginning of Leo Tolsoy’s attack on William  ShakespeareA Critical Essay on Shakespeare:

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, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me?

For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Tolstoy spends most of the rest of the (long) essay showing why he believes King Lear a terrible piece of literature. His rubric is of course terribly subjective, aesthetic, and perhaps ultimately rooted in his own literary mission of realism and social reform—but what I find most remarkable is that, despite all his claims to have read and reread Shakespeare (in English, Russian and German!) he never mentions actually watching a performance of the play.

I read Tolstoy’s gripes last night and felt the need (why?!) to reply, but found this morning that George Orwell already did so. From  Orwell’s rebuttal to Tolstoy, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool“:

Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy’s attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of them are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice. . . .

There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty”. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA.

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4 thoughts on ““I Felt an Irresistible Repulsion and Tedium” — Tolstoy Disses Shakespeare

  1. Tolstoy’s argument stems from his point of view in life and maybe that is why he could not connect to Shakespeare’s work. But I think what you pointed out, that perhaps he never seen a play perform, is essential to experiencing Shakespeare. His works were not written to be read but performed and Tolstoy missed out on an experience that probably would have changed his opinion about Shakespeare.

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  2. have great reverence for shakepeare but what Tolstoy says has some point in it and it should not be rubbished well shakespeare is a giant and so is Tolstoy language in shakespeare is pure magic but what about the the suspension of disbelief it does not come and if it comes it comes in patches i recently finished King lear and started it again am bewildred by the beauty of language and shakespeare’s grasp on the many shades of life but the story as a whole ……….think about Tolstoy’s claim

    king
    l

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  3. This is always the problem with critiques which stem from either moral judgment or the attempt to prove something “good” or “bad”. Seldom should this be the intention of criticism.

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