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Tolstoy on Shakespeare – ouch!

Posted on 29 September 2011, 2:19

The famous Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank have announced details of a festival that will see all 37 of William Shakespeare’s plays performed in 37 languages, from Urdu to Swahili, over six weeks in 2012.

Many will be pleased but arch Shakespeare-basher Leo Tolstoy would have been furious. Have you heard him on the subject? If not, then sit back and enjoy this extract from my Conversations with Leo Tolstoy published by White Crow. (The conversation is imagined but Tolstoy’s words are all his.)

Warning: Tolstoy doesn’t like Shakespeare.

S.P. And so onto Shakespeare, sir - towards whom you show both hatred and contempt. Everyone else loves him; but you beg to differ.

LT: My disagreement with the established opinion about Shakespeare is not the result of an accidental frame of mind or of a light-minded attitude toward the matter. On the contrary, it is the outcome of many years’ repeated and insistent endeavours to harmonize my own views of Shakespeare, with those established amongst all civilized men of the Christian world.

SP: But you haven’t managed that?

LT: I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic 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 I had to wonder: was I the one who 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, was the significance which the civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare, itself senseless?

SP: You are not averse to disagreeing with the world.

LT: My consternation was increased by the fact that I have always felt keenly the beauties of poetry in every form. So why then 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?

SP: Did you find the answer?

LT: For a long time, I could not believe in myself, and so 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.  At the present time, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the ‘Henrys,’ ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ the ‘Tempest,’ ‘Cymbeline’ - and do you know what?

SP: I think I can guess.

LT: I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings! This time, however, feelings not of bewilderment, but a firm and indubitable conviction that the glory and genius attributed to Shakespeare unquestioningly - and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits, thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding - is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Tolstoy then dismantles ‘King Lear’, piece by piece. Being unacquainted with it myself, I do not pass comment. Like a dog putting down a gnawed bone, Tolstoy finally ceases talk of the play, having made the whole thing appear entirely absurd.
LT: Such is this celebrated drama! However absurd it may appear in my rendering - which I have endeavoured to make as impartial as possible –

SP: - of course –

LT: - I may confidently say that in the original, it is yet more absurd. For any man of our time - if he were not under the hypnotic suggestion that this drama is the height of perfection - it would be enough to read it to its end, if he had sufficient patience. He would then be convinced that far from being the height of perfection, it is a very bad, carelessly composed production, which can not now evoke among us anything but aversion and weariness. And what is more –

SP: - can there be more? -

LT: - Every reader of our time, who is free from the influence of suggestion, will also receive exactly the same impression from all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless, dramatized tales like ‘Pericles,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Cymbeline’ and ‘Troilus and Cressida.’ But sadly, such free-minded individuals, not inoculated with Shakespeare-worship, are no longer to be found in our Christian society. Every man of our society and time, from the first period of his conscious life, has been inoculated with the idea that Shakespeare is a genius, a poet and a dramatist, and that all his writings are the height of perfection.

SP: Doesn’t he do character well?

LT: In reading Shakespeare’s dramas, I was, from the very first, instantly convinced that he was lacking in the most important, if not the only, means of portraying characters which is individuality of language; the style of speech of every person being natural to his character. This is absent from Shakespeare.

SP: But Falstaff’s good fun, surely?

LT: Falstaff is, indeed, quite a natural and typical character; but then it is perhaps the only natural and typical character depicted by Shakespeare. And this character is natural and typical because, of all Shakespeare’s characters, it alone speaks a language proper to itself. And it speaks thus because it speaks in that same Shakespearian language, full of mirthless jokes and unamusing puns which, being unnatural to all Shakespeare’s other characters, is quite in harmony with the boastful, distorted and depraved character of the drunken Falstaff. For this reason alone does this figure truly represent a definite character. Unfortunately, the artistic effect of this character is spoilt by the fact that it is so repulsive by its gluttony, drunkenness, debauchery, rascality, deceit and cowardice, that it is difficult to share the feeling of gay humour with which the author treats it. Thus it is with Falstaff.

SP: But I know many of our leading actors love to do his plays. Some say it is the height of their profession.

LT: Shakespeare, himself an actor and an intelligent man, knew how to express by the means not only of speech, but of exclamation, gesture and the repetition of words, states of mind and developments; or changes of feeling taking place in the persons represented. This gives good actors the possibility of demonstrating their powers; which is often mistaken by critics for the expression of character. But however strongly the play of feeling may be expressed in one scene, a single scene can not give the character of a figure, when this figure - after a correct exclamation or gesture - begins in a language not its own, at the author’s arbitrary will, to volubly utter words which are neither necessary nor in harmony with its character.

SP: But like many people, I own a book of Shakespeare’s greatest lines and sayings. They’re wonderful!

LT: Thoughts and sayings may be appreciated in a prose work, or in an essay, or in a collection of aphorisms - but not in an artistic dramatic production, the object of which is to elicit sympathy with that which is represented. Therefore the monologues and sayings of Shakespeare, even did they contain very many deep and new thoughts, which they do not, do not constitute the merits of an artistic, poetic production. On the contrary, these speeches, expressed in unnatural conditions, can only spoil artistic works.

SP: So what is the first requirement of an artistic work?

LT: An artistic, poetic work - particularly a drama - must first of all excite in the reader or spectator the illusion that whatever the person represented is living through, or experiencing, is lived through or experienced by himself. Shakespeare is devoid of this feeling. His characters continually do and say what is not only unnatural to them but utterly unnecessary.

SP: And unless I’m mistaken, it’s not just literary style. Isn’t it also that you find Shakespeare the man immoral?

LT: The subject of Shakespeare’s pieces is the lowest, most vulgar view of life. It is a view which regards the external elevation of the lords of the world as a genuine distinction; and which despises the crowd - that is, the working classes. It repudiates not only all religious, but also all humanitarian, strivings directed to the betterment of the existing order. And the most important condition, sincerity, is completely absent in all Shakespeare’s works. In all of them, one sees intentional artifice; one sees that he is not in earnest, but that he is merely playing with words. What then signifies the great fame these works have enjoyed for more than a hundred years?

SP: I appreciate your time on this subject. I know it is a discussion you have had many times before.

LT: Yes, many times during my life I have had occasion to argue about Shakespeare with his admirers. And every time, I encountered one and the same attitude toward my objection to the praises of Shakespeare. I was not refuted when I pointed out Shakespeare’s defects; not at all! They said only that they were sorry at my lack of comprehension and urged upon me the necessity of recognizing the extraordinary supernatural grandeur of Shakespeare. They did not explain to me in what the beauties of Shakespeare consisted; instead, they were just vaguely and exaggeratedly enraptured with the whole of Shakespeare, extolling some favourite passages: the unbuttoning of Lear’s button; Falstaff’s lying - or Lady Macbeth’s ineffaceable spots!

So – do you agree with Tolstoy’s take on the Bard?

Conversations with Leo Tolstoy is published by Whitecrow.

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Conversations with Leo Tolstoy - Leo Tolstoy & Simon Parke


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